There are holes.

A foot or so deep and squared, a dozen of them pockmark a small section of the Myakkahatchee Creek in North Port.

That they're squared and at a certain depth below ground surface suggests illegal looting of human artifacts, according to experts in the trade or those hunting crooked ones. But who did the digging and what exactly was going on remains a mystery.

And since the Myakkahatchee Creek is under Florida's jurisdiction, it may be some time, if ever, that authorities unravel exactly who dug those holes.

The issue surfaced Tuesday at a city commission meeting. North Porter Bill Goetz informed commissioners of his concerns, reporting that police that day had investigated possible artifact looters.

Officers did find a North Port man sifting the creek for fossils, which under state law is allowable. That man, Don Rivette, was questioned and produced a state permit to collect fossils, police said. Rivette is active in North Port historical committees and owns Earth Treasures in Venice, which sells fossils, shells, minerals and “wonderous gifts our planet has created,” according to the firm's website.

Rivette is upset at getting drawn into the circle of circumstances.

“We are very careful and ethically sourced,” he said of items marketed at Earth Treasures, noting that he regularly fossil hunts along the Myakkahatchee Creek and was doing so with his brother on Tuesday. Investigating officers confirmed this in a summary of what was observed.

But the city has moved on the matter, forwarding a report about the holes and concerns about looters to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, which has sovereignty over waterways.

“Our staff,” said Josh Taylor, North Port's communications manager, “is currently sending all photos and info to those with the state who have oversight of this waterway and those who have issued any sort of permit associated with this activity.”

Who hunts fossils?

Like stamps or shells or sports cards, fossil collecting will begin sometimes as a hobby, sometimes in childhood.

Those in it are deeply passionate.

In Florida, fossil-collecting tours to such places as Peace River in central counties bring amateurs from around the world. They come in batches in khaki and rubber boots with their scoopers.

Shark's teeth along stretches of Peace River are like pennies in a wishing well, for instance, nearly everywhere you look. That's because the state was once covered in sea water; it is blanketed in fossilized bones, plants, trees and animal parts.

A few are very valuable. A good shark's tooth or dinosaur bone will get the lucky hunter yelping for joy, said John Hammond, an Orlando fossil collector.

"Like finding gold," he said. "Exactly the same thing."

But it's what our ancestors left behind that draws a different crowd, however. Tomb raiders and grave robbers and other illicit looters date back centuries. In America, they loot Native American lands, some of the haul ending up in museums. The take from a 2009 police raid in Utah, for instance, included more than 5,000 artifacts from one home.

Investigators cataloged some 40,000 objects — a collection filling a Salt Lake City warehouse and parts of the Natural History Museum of Utah. Legal limitations on removing artifacts from public and tribal (but not private) lands date to the Antiquities Act of 1906.

Collecting human artifacts more than 50 years old has been illegal in Florida since 2005. An authentic and vetted early Florida arrowhead will bring more than $1,000, for example. 

Looting of mostly Native American artifacts is so lucrative that Florida Fish & Wildlife agents in 2014 conducted a sting to nail alleged perpetrators.

Agents in Operation Timucua raided homes in Florida and Georgia and charged 14 people with more than 400 felonies. The idea was to stop the buying and selling of human artifacts, which is what may have been happening in North Port this week.

Artifact trading

The squared holes are like a calling card, experts insist. Looters dig at precise depths to match dates of inhabitants in certain regions, said Hammond, the Orlando fossil collector with 50 years into his hobby. He owns Paleo Enterprises, a web-based business selling and trading fossils and some man-made artifacts. Those items he lists predate or "grandfather" Florida laws prohibiting such sales, he insisted.

Selling and trading of legal artifacts is a huge enterprise, he said. It's the looters that give honest collectors night sweats.

“And that's illegal as hell,” he said of such scouring of Florida waterways and Native American gravesites. “There's no real money in fossils; they're looking for arrowheads or tools.”

While the scope of Operation Timucua may have exceeded $2 million in recoverable artifacts, whether looters got anything in North Port, or what it could have been remains a mystery.

They left just the holes along Myakkahatchee Creek that identify possible looters, said Goetz, who reported the circumstances to city commissioners, as well as posting on social media what he observed and photographed on Tuesday.

“I'm concerned (looters) will come back,” said Goetz, a historian and member with the city's Historical and Cultural Advisory Board, along with other roles in Sarasota County. “There is irreparable damage. Honestly, it makes you want to cry.”

Email: craig.garrett@yoursun.com

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