Meth linked to western Colorado artifact raids
Western Colorado is far from immune to the looting such as that alleged by federal agents after the arrests last week of 24 people in southeastern Utah and southwestern Colorado.
There’s a modern twist, however, to the looting that western Colorado and other officials have noted of late: methamphetamine.
Law enforcement officials declined to elaborate on incidents in which they have noted the connection between looted sites and meth use, but archaeologists and law enforcement officials said they are aware of the connections.
Looting and methamphetamine use have more in common than might seem, said an archaeologist who conducts similar investigations on looting in the Southwest.
“There is definitely a relationship. When people are on meth, they don’t sleep, so they can find a site and dig it up at night,” said Chuck Wheeler, vice president of Western Cultural Resource Management, which is based in Boulder and has offices in Farmington, N.M., where Wheeler is based. “If you ask the cops, every one of them knows that when you’re going in on a search warrant, you’re going to find firearms, drugs and looted artifacts.”
Although drugs such as meth have not been cited in the most recent arrests, the connection is growing more common and for an easy reason, Wheeler said.
“It’s easy money” for anyone with the right connections to what is an international market for artifacts such as those that can be found in the camps, rock structures and other sites.
Witness the $385,000 paid for 200 artifacts in the Four Corners investigation, he said.
Collecting artifacts from federal lands has been illegal since 1906, but there is plenty of land across the Southwest and western Colorado that could be targeted for looting.
Of the 2 million acres administered by the Grand Junction Office of the Bureau of Land Management, only 10 to 15 percent has been surveyed for evidence of previous human presence, archaeologist Aline LaForge said.
Large percentages of the known sites have been marked by vandalism, from looting to graffiti to scratching over ancient rock art, LaForge said.
Looting not only disturbs “a cultural heritage that belongs to everybody,” LaForge said, it hampers efforts to determine how long artifacts have lain at the sites and to deduce what cultures left them behind.
“When people walk off with artifacts, they not only destroy the science, but they destroy the experience of discovery for the next person,” she said.
The Museum of the West in downtown Grand Junction has the world’s 12th-largest collection of pots from the Mimbres people, which it received as the result of a looting investigation in Arizona.
The collection, including the “Grandmother Pot,” which illustrates a portion of Mimbres legend, came into the museum’s possession as the result of a settlement with the Internal Revenue Service, which could only turn the collection over to an accredited museum, said Dave Bailey, Museum of the West curator of history.
Museum officials have noted the designs on the pieces in the museum collection can be seen on other pieces marketed legally as reproductions.
Once sold, though, “they can be sold to people that aren’t savvy” as originals, and no one is the wiser, Bailey said.