Better laws needed to halt looting of ancient Indian artifacts

Two hours after wearing a surveillance wire in a pot-hunting investigation, I placed a loaded .38 Colt revolver in my pickup. Just in case. I told my wife to lock the doors and windows, shut the blinds, and keep our small sons inside. The young pothunter I had just helped the feds bust knew I had fingered him. He had to know.

That day, in New Mexico years ago, federal agents taped a live microphone to my chest. I pulled my shirt on and together we waited for the pothunter to arrive at the museum. I was the museum’s director, and the pothunter was coming to see me.

The young man had heard rumors of valuable Mimbres-culture pots and where to find them. Tempted by a fast fortune, he grabbed a shovel and went exploring on federal land. Having some luck, he called the museum to discuss getting an appraisal of his find. I answered the phone and, as luck would have it, sitting next to me in my office was an armed Bureau of Land Management agent drinking coffee.

The sting was set for two weeks later. With plain-clothes agents in the museum, one watching the building from the outside and another posing as a prospective buyer, we waited for the pothunter. He was on time.

We went down to the windowless vault where collections were stored. Chatting excitedly about his find, with everything he said being recorded, the man even marked on a U.S. Forest Service map exactly where he had dug up his prehistoric artifacts, a few small corrugated plainware bowls and a couple of large painted sherds, or pieces of broken pots, in the classic Mimbres style.

After collecting what we needed for the investigation, I told the unsuspecting pothunter that I would get back to him with an appraisal. An agent stayed with me as I assessed the value of the pots and pieces. Based on the condition of one of the pots, I determined the value of the collection exceeded $500, the magic number for a felony conviction.

The feds stopped the pothunter as he drove away and confiscated the pots, a shovel and other evidence. But I realized I’d made myself and my family vulnerable. It was a long six months until the digger pleaded guilty and received his sentence.

Across the Southwest, the illegal excavation of artifacts on public and tribal lands has been hobby, occupation, guilty pleasure and even family tradition. At the turn of the 20th century, metropolitan museums around the world competed to establish collections. Some museums paid locals to dig pots, primarily from ancient Indian burials. Southwest Colorado, southeast Utah and New Mexico — home to the Ancestral Puebloan and Mogollon/Mimbres cultures — are epicenters for pothunting in the Southwest.

In the old days, it was family fun on Sunday afternoons to have “skeleton picnics.” At ancient sites, everyone got a shovel and dug in, seeing what turned up. When human remains were uncovered, the bones were tossed aside with the exception of skulls. They, as well as intact pots, were coveted finds.

By 1906, with the passage of the federal Antiquities Act, Congress legislated that digging in prehistoric Indian sites on public land without a permit was illegal. Professional archaeologists advocated for tougher laws and President Jimmy Carter signed the Archaeological Resources Protection Act in 1979, which mandated much stiffer penalties on looters. But by then, a black market for such goods had footing. Illegally gotten goods sold alongside legal goods in Santa Fe, Denver and Manhattan, where Sotheby’s yearly “Indian Arts’ catalog caused prices to skyrocket.

By the late 1980s, as federal enforcement increased, so did the digging frenzy, which had spilled onto private land. In disgust, state legislators began to pass burial bills or laws to protect unmarked graves, both prehistoric and historic, on private property. For their efforts, state legislators were cursed. Or worse.

Former state Sen. Tilman Bishop of Grand Junction, author of the Colorado burial bill, received an unmarked package at his legislative office containing a box of bones, a fairly complete 1,000 year-old Anasazi skeleton wrapped in a newspaper. A note attached to it stated, “This is none of your business.”

So it didn’t surprise me when this summer a bust went down in Blanding, Utah. The BLM arrested 24 suspects who, in a sting, had been paid more than $335,000 by an informant. I was saddened but not surprised when, indicted for the second time, Blanding physician James Redd committed suicide.

For the past decade, commercial pot hunting and pothunters have been linked routinely to the illegal drug trade as a way to launder cash.

However, rather than continuing to concentrate on local pothunters, dealers and regional raids, it’s time for authorities to focus on the high-end buyers and their lust for Southwestern antiquities. We need a national cultural-export law prohibiting the sale of Native American antiquities outside of the United States.

The United States is one of the few nations that does not have such a law. Try to leave Mexico City with pre-Columbian statues in your luggage. Try to get on a plane in London with early Anglo-Saxon or Celtic jewelry. Try smuggling religious icons out of Russia. You won’t get very far. But get on a plane in Denver or Albuquerque with rare Anasazi bowls, headed out of the country, and no one will stop you.

To slow the theft of American antiquities, we need not only more rangers on the ground but also more support for the federal officers who enforce laws meant to protect American treasures. And, to prevent pothunting in the Four Corners, the distribution and sale of ancient artifacts must be halted wherever it takes place, from Santa Fe to Manhattan and from Berlin to Tokyo.


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