July 2009

Pot-hunting frequently involves grave-digging

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A dirty little fact about pot-hunting for Ancestral Pueblo artifacts is that it frequently involves digging up burials – grave-robbing, in other words.

The days when settlers could find pots and other relics on the ground are long gone. These days, the most valuable artifacts are generally either in sheltered caves, or underground in middens (disposal areas) accompanied by human remains.

“Typically the most likely place to find a whole pot would be with a burial,” said Leslie Sesler, a staff archaeologist with La Plata Archaeological Consultants. “In the pot might be a whole stack of bone gaming pieces or turquoise. Sometimes there are offerings like whole birds that were stuck in there and covered up. Jet pendants – a lot of the small things could be coming out of burials.”

The types of burials likely to yield pots and other artifacts would be from the Basketmaker III period through Pueblo III, or from about 500 A.D. through 1300 A.D., Lesler said. Search-warrant affidavits for the suspects in the pot-hunting investigation show that burials are often mentioned.

The affidavit for Vern and Marie Crites of Durango describes the couple as dealing in objects associated with graves and in one instance says Vern Crites uncovered a skeleton on a dig.

During a meeting Feb. 19, 2008, at the Crites home, Vern Crites handed the source “about nine six-inch long sticks,” the affidavit states, adding that he called them “prayer sticks” and that he had bought them from a waitress.

According to the affidavit, the source and Vern Crites discussed the legality and sensitivity of possessing the prayer sticks and agreed they were trouble. Later, archaeologists determined that the prayer sticks were at least 100 years old and were “funerary objects” used in sacred ceremonies and covered by NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

Later in the Crites affidavit, an incident is described when Vern Crites, Steve Shrader of Durango (also charged in the case; he killed himself on June 19) and the source allegedly met on Aug. 26, 2008, and went searching for artifacts on public lands in Colorado. At one point, the trio stopped driving, and “Crites pointed to an area and informed the Source that there were burials that had not yet been dug,” the affidavit states. “Crites told the Source that he wanted to return with the Source and excavate the site.”

On another trip on Sept. 14, 2008, Vern Crites, the source and Richard Bourrett, 59, of Durango (also charged in the investigation) allegedly ventured into San Juan County, Utah, for more artifact-hunting. They began digging with shovels into a midden area.

Burials are often in houses or in middens, Sesler said. “If they’re in the midden they’ll be in a pit with some stuff. Sometimes somebody fairly important or relatively rich will have a lot of stuff buried with them, but the average burial will have a pot or two.”

According to the audio recording and surveillance by BLM officers, the three uncovered human remains, including a skull. Soon they decided the area might have already been dug and covered it back up.

“Wished that fella had still been intact, the skeleton I mean,” Crites allegedly commented.

The affidavit for Aubry Patterson, 55, of Blanding, recounts that Patterson had an ambivalent attitude toward human remains.

“Patterson told the Source that he has not dug up a burial in a long time,” the affidavit states. “Patterson stated he had a boy die on him, and since then he no longer likes to dig up burials.

Patterson told the Source that he accidentally dug up a few burials, and indicated once he hits them that he can’t help but dig them up.”

Patterson allegedly “dug up two guys accidentally,” the affidavit states, but “neither one of them had anything on them.”

David Lacy, 55, of Blanding, allegedly dug up two sandals from a burial site in a cave in Cottonwood Wash, according to the affidavit in his case. He allegedly sold them to the source, along with a blanket of yucca fibers and turkey feathers, a knife, a menstrual- pad loincloth and an atlatl weight.

But not every suspect is alleged to have plundered burial sites.

According to his affidavit, Brunt Bullock, 61, of Moab, allegedly told the undercover operative “he does not dig up burials, if he sees bones, he is out of there.”