In the first prosecution under a law that protects Maryland's sunken historic heritage, criminal charges have been filed against three treasure hunters state officials say were caught last fall using metal detectors in the South River, just off the historic London Town House & Gardens.
Objects confiscated in the case, which has raised concern among hobbyists who apparently were not aware of the law, include coins and metal objects dating from the mid-1700s. "Excavating on historical property is like stealing silverware from Mount Vernon or digging up parts of the Gettysburg battlefield," said William D. Roessler, deputy Anne Arundel County state's attorney.
The state acted in this case, he said, because it was "so blatant; they chose to dig directly in front of an historical property, clearly TC on historical land, and ignored the authorities who told them not to do it."
The Maryland Submerged Archaeological Historical Property Act, passed in 1988, makes it illegal to dig historic objects from beneath state waters except under certain narrowly prescribed conditions. It protects anything below the mean high-water mark.
John J. Reichenberg Jr., 49, of Edgewater, and Paul G. Mueller, 42, and Robert I. Boyer, 39, both of Riva were charged Thursday in Anne Arundel District Court with criminal excavation of submerged historical property. If convicted of the misdemeanor charges, each of the men could be sentenced to a maximum of 30 days in jail and fined $1,000.
Among 24 excavated objects confiscated by the state were two George II half-pennies from the mid-18th century; an 18th-century knee buckle; a pre-1860 musket ball; a late 19th-century brass penknife; and an artilleryman's uniform button dated to the War of 1812.
The London Town House & Gardens, formerly the London Town Publik House, is a National Historic Landmark. Its 1760 Georgian mansion was built at what was then a tobacco port and ferry landing. Restored in the early 1970s, it is now a county-owned museum with 27 acres of gardens.
Susan M. Langley, the state's underwater archaeologist, said London Town docent Kim Fox spotted three men Oct. 22 working offshore from a small boat. She asked them to leave. When they refused, she called county police. When the men refused to come ashore, county officers called the Natural Resources Police, who arrived in 45 minutes by boat.
While the boat was en route, Ms. Langley said, the men continued to search with a metal detector and dig objects from the bottom. One man insisted to police that he knew his rights and was well within them.
Eventually, she said, the men offered to donate their finds to a museum. Instead, police sent them to the state conservation laboratory.
Mr. Mueller said yesterday that the charges against him "surprised the hell out of me. . . . We were under the impression the people of Maryland have the right of way up to the high-water mark. We offered to metal detect there and give them anything we found. But they won't have any of it. So the stuff is just sitting in the ground, rotting away."
Charles Fonner, president of the Chesapeake Society of Treasure Hunters, said word of the legal action concerns hobbyists. Many were unaware of the law or the regulations written in 1993 to implement it.
Ms. Langley said even police officers at the scene were unfamiliar with the law and uncertain how to respond. She has pressed for prosecution, in part, to publicize the law and the state's intent to enforce it.
"We want this [prosecution] to be a success story because it does send a message to the perpetrators that a new regime is in town and we're not going to put up with it" said Ms. Langley, who was named to her post last August.
Mr. Reichenberg's prosecution was important, Ms. Langley said, because he is a metal-detector dealer.
"He is someone who has a potential to be disseminating misinformation, so he is actually more of a hazard to our archaeological heritage than if he were just mistaken," Ms. Langley said.
Mr. Fonner said hobbyists don't defend treasure hunting on historic property. But several dozen of them left a recent meeting with Ms. Langley angered that the state law has effectively banned all use of metal detectors below the high-water mark, even off public beaches.
"You can't dig anything up," Mr. Fonner said. "It's like you can hunt deer, but you can't shoot. If someone goes into a historical site, they should be prosecuted, but that has nothing to do with a beach that's not historical. We are pursuing legal or political means to get the thing clarified."
Sandra Anderson of Annapolis has been water hunting with her husband, William, for 10 years. Defending Mr. Reichenberg as "upstanding and well-known throughout the industry," she complained that the state never has spelled out which sites it considers historic.
"To prosecute on an issue that has not been resolved or clarified yet is unfair," she said.
The law protects all sites. Ms. Langley said she would seek to identify waters that are popular with hobbyists but that have no historical significance, and "clear" those for metal detecting.
Archaeologists frequently blame treasure hunters for stripping sites of meaning. Digging just to possess artifacts destroys information scientists might have gleaned from their "provenience," or relative positions.
Enthusiasts defend their hobby. Grady Cox, past president of the Eastern Shore Treasure Club, said as many as 1,000 #F Marylanders belong to treasure clubs.
Mr. Cox said club members "put forth a unified effort [to oppose] restricting our basic right to go out and hunt -- with permission. We abhor anyone who doesn't ask permission."
Explaining the hobby's appeal, Mr. Cox said, "Every signal you get [from the detector] is a lot like opening packages on Christmas morning. It might be a coin dropped 100 years ago, and you look around and wonder who would have dropped it, and what all went on here at that time."
Ms. Langley said that thrill is "the same rush we [archaeologists] get when we find something. We ask the same questions. But we want a little bit more scientific answers."
Treasure hunting is restricted in Maryland waters below the mean high-water mark. Collectors:
* May not collect from sites designated or eligible as National Historic Landmarks or on National Register of Historic Places.
* May not dig for artifacts more than 100 years old.
* May not use tools other than screwdrivers, pliers or wrenches with a maximum 2-inch jaw and 12-inch length.
* May collect up to five exposed artifacts from a site (one time only), not to exceed 25 pounds total.
* May apply to the state Office of Archaeology for permit to exceed limits.
Reporting: Anything taken from state waters must be reported to the state archaeology office within 14 days.
No metal detectors: At underwater sites designated or eligible as historic sites or landmarks and at beaches at Point Lookout and Calvert Cliffs state parks.
Questions: Call (410) 514-7661.