Pot-hunting crackdown

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Indictments of Four Corners residents prompt cheers, anger

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Arrests create uproar in Utah’s San Juan County

‘Leave them alone’

Pot-hunting frequently involves grave-digging

Sandy Bielenberg remembers the day in early 2007 when she came across a looted Ancestral Puebloan site.

She had been to that place on Canyons of the Ancients National Monument a little more than a year earlier while on one of her rambles with a friend in the backcountry.


A BLM law-enforcement ranger examines a hole dug by illegal pot-hunters on Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. Photo by Ann Bond/San Juan Public Lands Center

“We could tell there was a site ahead because of all the potsherds,” recalled the Cortez resident.

“It was a pristine, beautiful place. There were not a lot of recent footprints. The site was quite large. There were no cliff dwellings, but it looked like there was a ceremonial site. It was just an incredible place.”

When she came back with a friend in 2007, she noticed as they approached that the large potsherds that had been scattered all over were mostly gone.

“Then we came to this one part that had had a little structure and it was completely dug up. I was stunned. I had a camera, but I was paralyzed. I didn’t even think of taking photos.

“I was so upset and devasted, I just wanted to get out of there right away.”

She went home and called BLM law enforcement personnel. Officers and an archaeologist accompanied her back to the site, looking for any evidence left by the pot-hunters, but there was none.

An area about 15 feet long by 5 feet wide had been dug up under a small rock shelter, and three or four smaller areas, maybe 2 by 4 feet, had also been dug, Bielenberg said.

It soon became clear that this had been more than a storage or ceremonial site, it was a burial site.

“There were a lot of bones uncovered. After the law-enforcement guys did their assessment, one of them took us to one rock. There was a crack in the rock, less than a foot wide at the top but maybe 18 inches at the bottom. These grave-robbers had lain on their stomach and pulled everything out of there. The law officer shone his flashlight in, and there was a skull.”

Bielenberg said if she were to return to that site, “It would never have the same feeling for me. You like to feel that sense of discovery and of being with the ancient ones. That was completely gone.

“It was such a violation. It was an affront.”

‘Manifest Destiny’

The kind of looting of Ancestral Puebloan sites that Bielenberg stumbled across is a fairly common occurrence in the Four Corners area, by all indications.

On June 10, after a 2 1/2-year investigation, federal authorities swooped down on two dozen suspects alleged to have been part of a ring trafficking in ancient American Indian artifacts throughout the Four Corners. Twenty-four people were charged with a total of 115 felony counts and a few misdemeanors, including violations of the 1979 Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) and the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), theft of Indian tribal property, theft of government property, and transportation of stolen property.

The arrests came after an undercover investigation involving a dealer listed only as “the Source” in search-warrant affidavits. Working with the FBI and BLM, the source bought, sold and swapped artifacts while wearing a recording device.

The transactions involved 256 items for which the source paid $333,685 – items including a blanket made of yucca fibers and turkey feathers, a copper bracelet, sandals, pendants, knives, bone gaming pieces, a shell necklace, mugs, axes, pots, ollas (large jugs), baskets, sacred ceremonial prayer sticks, and more.

The source was paid $225,000 for his services, according to one affidavit. (The source is referred to as masculine although this does not necessarily indicate the source’s gender, the affidavits say.)

The investigation resulted in indictments against the defendants by a Utah grand jury. The charges were announced with great fanfare by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Assistant Interior Secretary for Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk, and other officials with the U.S. Department of Justice and FBI.

The charges created a furor in the Four Corners, particularly in San Juan County, Utah, home to all but six of the defendants.

But others, including archaeologists, public-lands officials, and aficionados of the ancient dwellings and relics of the Four Corners were quietly ecstatic.

“People are cheering,” said Fred Blackburn of Cortez, an author, historian, and amateur archaeologist, shortly after the raids were announced.

Blackburn, who worked for the BLM three decades ago, said he believes the investigation was well-handled compared to some previous efforts, including a major raid in the 1980s that proved unsuccessful in getting any convictions.

One important factor was obtaining audio recordings of the suspects saying the artifacts had come from public or tribal lands, Blackburn said. According to the affidavits, the suspects allegedly can be heard saying where the artifacts actually came from. Illegal pot-hunters typically sign false “letters of provenience” for buyers stating that their treasures came from private land.

Collecting historic and cultural relics from private lands is not illegal (however, disturbing human remains is forbidden). It is illegal, however, to collect artifacts from public and tribal lands.

Blackburn said looting of ancient sites is widespread. He sees it as a form of racism.

“It’s the mentality of Manifest Destiny,” he said. “You know, ‘It’s our God-given right to find stuff, to go treasure-hunting. These people and their graves don’t really count.’ It’s really prejudice.”

If prosecutors obtain convictions against some of the defendants, it will serve as a deterrent, Blackburn believes, but the effort will be long and difficult.

“There’s an enormous amount of money and stress involved in prosecuting these cases,” he said.

Potsherds disappearing

Canyons of the Ancients Manager LouAnn Jacobson says looting occurs regularly on the monument.

Less than a year ago, an illegal excavation was found at a site that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. She declined to name it.

“It involved major excavation in a room,” Jacobson said. A hole several feet deep was dug and a standing masonry wall was damaged. It was impossible to tell what, if anything, was taken, she said, and there were no clues as to the perpetrator.

Archaeologist Linda Farnsworth said there have been a half-dozen serious incidents of pot-hunting since she began working for the monument in August 2005. “These were the sort where there was really severe, extensive damage,” she said. “There are also probably a dozen smaller incidents every year. It keeps us pretty busy.”

Digging up ancient American Indian artifacts on public lands is clearly a breach of federal laws. But there is a lesser type of looting that goes on continually – the casual pilfering of small surface artifacts such as shards of broken pottery, called potsherds.

A section of ARPA exempts “arrowheads located on the surface” from protection, but that doesn’t include pieces of pottery. However, all sorts of recreational users of public lands find themselves pocketing the occasional distinctively marked potsherd.

Between the serious pot-hunting and the minor scavenging, it may seem as though protection of artifacts is an impossible goal. In the past decade or so since the monument’s Sand Canyon trail became widely publicized, the potsherds that lay scattered around every ruin have disappeared.

“Black-on-white pottery is almost an endangered species,” agreed Bielenberg.

Jacobson and Farnsworth believe that education is making a difference, though it’s difficult to be sure.

“We’ve worked really hard to get the message out that people should come to the Anasazi Heritage Center first” before hiking the monument, Jacobson said. “They receive Leave No Trace messages on how to travel in the backcountry without impacting it.” The Heritage Center also has a short film called “Visit With Respect” that shows the connection between Ancestral and modern Puebloans and emphasizes respect for cultural sites.

“I think it’s really encouraging that most of the vandalism reports come from the people,” Farnsworth said. About 50 sites are being monitored by volunteer “site stewards” provided by the non-profit San Juan Mountains Association, “but I don’t think we can ever stop our efforts.”

Landscape littered

It must be noted that not everyone views cultural resources with awe or even respect. For many locals, the constant proximity to ancient artifacts and dwellings breeds, if not contempt, at least a great deal of familiarity.

People who live outside the Four Corners do not always understand that the entire landscape was once inhabited by the Ancestral Puebloans as well as other ancient tribes and that there are remnants of their presence all over. Bits of pottery, tiny shriveled corncobs, metates (grinding tools), even the occasional sandal are not difficult to spot while walking in the backcountry. Farmers plow around ruins on their own lands. Old-timers often have huge collections of artifacts – generally taken from private land, but not always.

“The landscape is littered with pieces of arrowheads and broken pottery exposed by time and the elements,” wrote Craig and Dorothy Leavitt of Utah in the June 24 issue of the San Juan Record. “Next time you go on a family outing, heaven forbid that you step on a piece of broken pottery, you just might find yourself rounded up and herded into a concentration camp.”

The concept that “every potsherd is precious” can indeed be a tough sell to locals when there are literally millions of artifacts sitting in the basement of the BLM’s Anasazi Heritage Center – most excavated prior to the construction of McPhee Reservoir. “They tell us not to even pick up a potsherd, but the federal government flooded thousands of sites when they built the dam,” one local environmentalist, now deceased, was known to remark.

“I think there’s probably a sense that some of it, like arrowheads and pottery shards and stuff like that – what does it hurt to pick it up?” said Bruce Adams, chair of the San Juan County, Utah, commission. “What about these people offshore that find this sunken treasure that you always see on Discover TV? You see them with their cameras finding things and they’ll say, ‘That looks like a human bone’ and there’s not a big hoopla made about that. I’m not saying things shouldn’t be protected, but it seems like there are different standards.”

Adams is not alone. The Las Vegas Review-Journal in a recent editorial even called for “a cooperative, rather than an adversarial, approach” under which the most archaeologically promising sites would be set aside, with residents told, “Harvest the rest if you can.”

While many people enjoy the insights gained from studying past cultures, some locals scoff at the idea that there are any major lessons left to be learned about the Ancestral Puebloan culture, and regard archaeologists as dabblers in increasingly arcane esoterica. They are quick to seize on any evidence of hypocrisy on the part of federal agencies, such as reports of BLM officials discarding or destroying artifacts — for instance, stolen pottery that is sometimes returned to the agency by guilt-ridden individuals – because there is no place to store them. Such tales abound.

Farnsworth admitted, “I know that [curation] is an issue” but said it’s not something she deals with directly. She did say that artifacts that had been removed from their original site and then returned would have “limited information potential.”

Curation costs from $400 to $500 a square foot, according to archaeologist Lesie Sesler of La Plata Archaeological Consultants, so not every artifact is going to wind up in a museum.

There is also a perception that archaeologists merely do legally what pot-hunters do illegally – which may have had some truth in the past, when archaeologists removed what they found (though it was taken to museums rather than private collections).

However, that type of archaeology has largely been abandoned except in rare instances when a project such as a highway is going to damage a cultural site. Archaeology now involves taking samples instead of relics. Sites where digging occurs are carefully refilled with their contents left intact.

“There’s no need to collect every potsherd or lithic [stone] tool,” Blackburn said. “That creates a tremendous amount of artifacts to store. People don’t need to dig much any more unless there’s a huge specific reason. Just studying the artifacts already in museums would create a lot of graduate- student degrees for years to come.”

The Crow Canyon Archaeological Center near Cortez, one of the few institutions doing pure archaeological research, studied the Goodman Point ruins extensively for the past several years. “They excavated less than 1 percent of the whole site,” Sesler said.

Techniques are “very surgical” and involve small test pits and samples. “They’ll try to hit, say, a hearth, and they can find out the last meal somebody ate, the construction date of the hearth, what things were on the floor so you can see how the room was abandoned, things like that.”

“The current philosophy in terms of excavating is to do the absolute minimum, because cultural resources are non-renewable,” said Jacobson. “The standard procedure now is to involve Native Americans prior to any excavation to hear their concerns, and that influences whether the excavation even takes place at all.”

There are no excavations taking place on the monument currently, she said, though there are some large-scale inventories to record information about what is visible on the surface.

Only about a fifth of the monument has been surveyed systematically, according to Farnsworth.

‘Joy of discovery’

Blackburn said he does not believe past archaeologists are completely blameless in fostering the attitude that artifacts are to be plundered (an attitude celebrated in popular films like the “Indiana Jones” and “Tomb Raider” series, which make modern archaeologists cringe).

Still, the fact remains that pot-hunting generally involves digging up burial sites, an act of enormous disrespect. “I’ve heard comments that excavating sites and damaging cultural resources doesn’t hurt people, but the modern Pueblo people are connected to the Ancestral Puebloans,” Jacobson said. “Excavating burials and pot-hunting does hurt them.”

Both serious pot-hunting and casual scavenging ruin the chance of researchers learning anything from a site – and there are still things to be learned, according to Sesler. Archaeologists would like to know more about the influence of the Chaco Canyon settlement on people in the Mesa Verde area, how much influence people in meso-American and northern Mexico had on local tribes; and how ancient settlements in this area are related to the modern Pueblo tribes further south, for example.

Nabbing relics is also against the law, a fact hammered home by the recent arrests. “It is against the law to excavate a site on federal land and to pick up artifacts on federal land, and I think that needs to be acknowledged,” Jacobson said. “I personally don’t get to pick and choose the laws I follow. I don’t think any of us have that choice.”

But more than anything else, removal of artifacts wipes out the pleasure that future visitors could have had. Artifacts on public lands don’t belong to individual pot-hunters or even archaeologists; tbut to the tax-paying general public, the people that might be thrilled by the sight of potsherds or a hand axe. While it may seem there are relics everywhere, they are disappearing every day.

“If everybody picks up an artifact it doesn’t take long till they’re gone,” Jacobson said. “When the evidence on the surface is gone it not only impacts the archaeologists’ ability to interpret what happened in the past but impacts other visitors’ experience. They can’t see the artifacts and have that sense of discovery.”

Blackburn is an advocate of the “outdoor museum” concept – where people see artifacts in their natural setting. But he admits the idea is “pure utopia.” The compulsion to collect and hoard runs deep.

“It’s never been stopped in human history,” Blackburn said. “The Romans used to sell Egyptian artifacts. It’s like picking up shells off a beach. It’s part of our nature.”

Once, he and a friend who also believes in the “outdoor museum” made a replica of an artifact, labeled it as such and placed it in southeastern Utah’s famed Grand Gulch area. Almost immediately, it disappeared.

People will have to fight the impulse to grab and collect, however, if the Four Corners area is going to retain the tangible remnants of the history that lends it much of its magic.

“What is the drive behind collecting things?” mused Bielenberg. “Why do we feel the need to collect a potsherd? Is it displayed prominently in your house or is it like a souvenir you throw away 10 years later? Does it become junk?

“Isn’t the joy of discovery enough, or does it have to be the joy of ownership? Why don’t we want to give the joy of discovery to everyone? That’s a mystery to me.”

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From July 2009.