The study of mysterious and archaeological artifacts is unfortunately often plagued by disputes of ownership of the items themselves. Who ‘owns’ or has rights to something found deep in the ground or washed up from the ocean floor? While the individuals lucky enough to find these items often try to claim ownership and any profit related to their subsequent sale, government institutions often step in to seize relics and artifacts in the name of public ownership. Sometimes this leads to serious scientific study, other times it likely leads to warehouses full of mysteries which never see the light of public disclosure, like that scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
A recent case in Beaufort, South Carolina highlights this debate over just who gets to claim ownership of historical or archaeological artifacts. A diver who who sells fossils and shark teeth on the internet claims to have discovered an intact mammoth skeleton in the muddy waters of a Lowcountry river and refuses to tell authorities where he found it. That is, he won’t tell until the state of South Carolina issues him a legally binding document which grants him the rights to half the value of the mammoth bones, estimated at $500,000. Good luck, pal.
The man at the center of the dispute is John Taylor, a former Navy diver based in Charleston, South Carolina who now goes by the name the “Shark Tooth Fairy” due to his self-proclaimed ability to discover these fairly common ocean relics. While diving for shark teeth, so the story goes, Taylor found two teeth which appeared to belong to a mammoth. Subsequent further excavations led to the discovery of a jaw bone, leg bones, and a tusk. “It could only be a mammoth,” Taylor says, “The teeth are a dead giveaway. I’ve been doing this for 25 years. I’ve found teeth before.”
Still, some South Carolina scientists aren’t convinced. Sean Taylor, an archaeologist with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources remains skeptical that the skeleton even exists at all:
To my knowledge, we don’t typically get whole skeletons. I’ve heard of this fellow and what he’s claiming. Nobody can confirm what he’s got. It’s just his claim.
John “Shark Tooth Fairy” Taylor has hired a legal team in an attempt to win the rights to these bones, claiming the state is trying to blackmail him into revealing its location. Who should have the legal rights to archaeological artifacts?