Pillaging the Past

  • The skull of a child was left behind after pothunters dug it from a cliff-dwelling grave in the Sierra Madre. REGAN CHOI

  • A ransacked cliff dwelling in the Sierra Madre where an elevated granary had been cut down, spilling its contents to the floor. CRAIG CHILDS

  • Artifacts traced to renegade pothunter Earl Shumway and later seized by the government include this hourglass-shaped basket from Horse Rock Ruin in Utah's Manti-La Sal National Forest and various pots. COURTESY EDGE OF THE CEDARS STATE PARK MUSEUM, UTAH STATE PARKS

  • (clockwise from left) From Mesa Verde in Colorado black-on-white mug and pitcher, McElmo black-on-white bowl and Mancos black-on-white ladle. COURTESY EDGE OF THE CEDARS STATE PARK MUSEUM, UTAH STATE PARKS

  • The Albuquerque couple's collection includes Mictlantecuhtli, above right, swimming through the waters of the underworld. KATHARINE KIMBALL

  • Quetzacoatl as the sun. KATHARINE KIMBALL

  • Pieces from one of the largest collections of Southwest artifacts in the world, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York: Turquoise earrings (Hopi, from the Hopi Indian Reservation, Arizona); turquoise necklace (Navajo, from Maricopa County, Arizona); charm in the shape of a horse (Zuni, from McKinley County, New Mexico). NORTH AMERICAN ETHNOGRAPHIC COLLECTION, AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY

  • Navajo archaeologist Will Tsosie, inside a ceremonial kiva at the Salmon Ruin, uses a measuring tool on a core-veneer wall. PAUL PENNINGTON

  • More items from the Albuquerque couple’s collection. KATHARINE KIMBALL

  • Craig Childs (here lifting a 1,500-year-old coil-weave basket from under an overhanging rock in southeast Utah) lives outside of Crawford, Colorado, where he works as an author and a commentator for NPR's Morning Edition. He has written several books including House of Rain, a tome on Southwest archaeology voted by the LA Times as one of the best books of 2007, and most recently The Animal Dialogues. REGAN CHOI


SONORA, MEXICO - Human bones lie bleached and scattered, a ribcage stove in here, shoulder and arm bones over there. It looks as if a war was waged between armies of skeletons in this remote canyon south of the Arizona border. All these bones were once in the ground, but then artifact-hungry diggers came and upended the graves.

I came to northern Mexico thinking that archaeological sites down here would be less ravaged than those in my home territory around Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico. I was partly right. The wilderness of Chihuahua and Sonora looks the way the rest of the Southwest did 40 years ago, a time when pothunting was in full swing but before the majority of sites were looted beyond recognition. North of the border, even these bones would have been taken, put on shelves or sold in curio shops.

The bones stuck out of spoil piles at all angles. I leaned down and brushed dirt back over a piece of a 700-year-old smashed skull. A slight gesture, sure, but I had to do something.

For days, I walked from one cliff dwelling to the next along the length of a rich, south-facing canyon. The ancient structures all looked like someone had gone through them with a sledgehammer. Holes were busted into chambers and adobe walls. The floors were churned into a mulch of dry corn cobs, broken pottery, and fragments of bone. I took to re-burying the human remains. The skull of a dead child was light and hollow in my hand, dry like a gourd. I carried the leg bones of a tall man like broomsticks in my arms, looking for the hole they came from.

It has been estimated that 90 percent of the archaeological sites in the Southwest, including Mexico, have been vandalized. That means that out of every 10 graves, only one has not been disturbed. Out of every 10 pots, only one is left in the ground. A land once rich with ancestry has been scraped almost entirely clean.

I came to a looter's spoil pile and dug out a pot that had been split in two with a shovel. I could imagine the pothunter leveraging his bootsole against the blade, a sloppy mistake marked by the pop of a vessel underground, followed by a curse in Spanish.

"Fuck you," I said, tired of all this desecration. I dropped the two pieces of the pot to the ground.

Mexico is plundered. The caves of Arizona have been emptied down to bedrock. Parts of New Mexico look carpet-bombed. In Utah, I frequently find graves freshly looted, the soft packing of juniper bark ripped out like gift wrapping. Southwest Colorado feels ravaged and beaten. Even Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde and the hundreds of sites excavated because they lay in the path of pipelines and drill rigs and subdivisions have been pillaged, if in a more systematic, meticulous way. It is hard not to be angry, witnessing this wholesale removal of human antiquity from the land. I decided then to follow these artifacts, see where they've gone, and discover who is to blame. I thought I would find something black-and-white, clearly divided between good guys and bad guys. Instead, I found something in between the two, a gray world populated by armed renegades, careful collectors and serious scholars.

Over the past 20 years I've traveled the Southwest, trying to find the pothunters and understand what drives them to do what they do. I've seen the graves that were looted and I've met the people who dug them up - both professionally and illegally. And I've wandered through the depositories of these relics, from the cavernous halls of East Coast museums to the shelves of Albuquerque collectors. But perhaps the most revealing was my visit last month to Blanding, Utah, the hometown of Earl K. Shumway, who may be the most notorious gravedigger of all.

A federal ranger once told me that if Shumway ever got within 15 feet of her, she would shoot him. She was serious. She refused to give her name for fear of reprisal, but she told me Shumway is a heavily armed and irreverent badass. Because of people like him, she wears a bulletproof life vest when working the river, carries a SIG Sauer 9mm sidearm with 40 rounds on her person, keeps a 12 gauge shotgun with an extended chamber and extra rounds nearby, and an M-16 rifle with extra loaded magazines for when she really needs it. I reminded her that Shumway had officially died of cancer.

"He's been dead before," she said.

During the height of his southeast Utah pothunting career in the 1980s and '90s, Shumway claimed to have looted 10,000 archaeological sites. And he was not neat about it. He left the sites looking as if a bomb had gone off. The bones of children were rudely scattered to get to their burial goods.

Shumway belonged to a Dukes of Hazzard mentality rooted in the Sagebrush Rebellion and a general anti-federal atmosphere in the West. Besides, he was from Blanding, where pothunting has been a pastime for generations.

For a thousand years, southeastern Utah was a bastion of the Pueblo people. They covered the land with corn, beans, and masonry architecture. Just before the turn of the 14th century, social upheaval and a killing drought sent most of them south. They never returned, but they left innumerable artifacts behind.

Today, many of those artifacts can be found in Huck's Trading Post and Anasazi Museum, which sits along the highway on the edge of Blanding.

Old Huck himself - a short gray man in his late 80s - shuffles around his collection waiting for the next visitor to knock on his peeling doorframe. For a couple dollars he'll take you through cluttered galleries of potsherds and arrowheads glued into frames. He even spelled out the words SAN JUAN COUNTY UTAH by cutting potsherds into letters with a bandsaw. Flicking the lights on room by room, he'll show you display cases filled with dusty antiquarian wealth from the surrounding area. His shop is unbelievable, a kind of archaeological porn palace.

"Oh, I traded for a lot of it," Huck says, his voice reduced to a gravelly, almost inaudible whisper. "People were always selling or looking for a trade. Are you from the government? No? You sure? Some people come in here and say they want to get me in trouble. But I'll show anybody my things. I'm not hiding anything."

Brad Gore
Brad Gore
Apr 24, 2011 06:00 PM
Thanks for this article. I too have often wondered about the academic pothunters, how their careers parallel those of the illegal pothunters. Sadly, ours is a materialistic society with little respect for those who preceded us. The prospect of archeologists, collectors and pothunters vacuuming up the landscape for traces of the past, only to have them disintegrate in museum basements is very disheartening. Let it go, don't cling to it, its not yours anyway!
Ryan Harrod
Ryan Harrod
May 03, 2011 12:20 PM
Interesting article! As a bioarchaeologist that works with archaeological material and human remains, I would like to make a few comments.

First, I agree with the idea of not simply cramming everything we can into repositories given that they are already full of material that we should analyze. That being said however, I think that archaeological excavations have to continue because development is going to persist. In terms of putting artifacts back, I used to work with an archaeologist that felt this way. She designed a method of field excavation that essentially removed everything but noted its exact location. Once lab analysis was done, the object was reburied where it came from. Did not really work and it still violated the idea that it should never be removed.

Second, I can sympathize with the feelings of the Navajo man Tsosie but then again I feel strongly that through understanding the past we gain insight into humanity and inform the future. It is definitely a hard choice to make when deciding if we should dig up remains that were never meant to be found but I cannot help but think that some things need to be found. Image the sites like Animas-La Plata, New Mexico (i.e., Sacred Ridge) a massacre site where one culture was completely wiped from existence. If archaeologists did not study these sites we would not be able to give back the voice to these people. The same is true with the women at La Plata in New Mexico where there is evidence of a subclass that worked harder and was exposed to greater rates of violence. If we do not research these sites who tells their story?

Third, the comparison between archaeology and looting is probably pretty valid in the past (e.g., Hrdlicka and Wetherhill), but modern archaeology strives to reduce the impact on a site by not excavating everything and focusing only on those areas that will be effected. For example, I worked at a site right before moving here where we found an impressive village site (for that region) and instead of excavating the entire site we excavated only enough to know that there was a significant site there and then suggested the development project be moved (which it was).

Fourth, it is true that sometimes if there are white burials and native burials found the white people are often reburied while the native individuals are studied. I think this a racist! My response to this however, is that we should not study any of them but instead that all of the remains should be analyzed and then reburied. I think that sometimes our research questions drive this sort of behavior. We are interested in Native Americans because they lack the written records and so there history is more of a mystery. I would caution however, that what we think we know about the white burials is likely wrong, as written history is often incomplete and it accents only certain information. For example, incidents of structural violence in the past such as domestic abuse, poor nutrition for lower status individuals, and so on are not typically reported in most historical accounts.

Finally, I get the notion that collectors may care for artifacts better than some museums because they have money but the reality is that the artifacts are likely only protected for a generation or two. Who is to say that the future Cooper family members are going to care about the artifacts. What happens then? At least if a museum deaccessions its material the objects could be transferred to a different facility or repatriated to the indigenous group over being haphazardly discarded. I have seen museums throw things away though, but I think this is a reflection of a poor curator and not of the museum system.
Misty Fields
Misty Fields
Jun 02, 2014 11:10 AM
Thank you for a thought provoking article. I have worked on an archaeological site in Sonora Mexico where the landholder, a rancher with a working cattle ranch, allows access to the land so the human remains that are exposed by weather and cattle aren’t trampled to pieces. The Mexican government provides storage for the excavated remains, which are part of ongoing studies into the past across the Desert Southwest.

We have been able to learn about their way of life and their health, not only as individuals, but also as a group working and living off the subsistence of early farming. The relevance of what we learn can be applied to understanding the risks that many subsistence farmers face today whether we apply findings to understand individual health or for issues related to drought and climate instability.

The artifacts and the skeletal remains are treated with the utmost of care and consideration (to the author - thank you for pointing out the rigor of research done through institutions such as University of Arizona). I myself am very mindful that these were once living people and treat them with due respect. And I have never personally witnessed disrespect among my colleagues in handling remains of the past, but have seen great care in their handling. Moreover, remains that fall under federal laws are repatriated to the appropriate tribes – something many, if not most, archaeologists believe strongly in.

That is why I think it is vital to make clear the difference between professional archaeological goals versus the crime of looting. The act of looting involves grave desecration and theft of artifacts, a crime that will continue as long as people put a price on buying and selling of antiquities.

The debate of whom the past belongs to is not readily solved and is an emotionally charged topic. However only through professional or academically managed digs will these finite objects from the past be recovered for future research that can continue to inform us of humankind's common journey.

Misty Fields

Personal note: Hey Ryan, I was reading this article when I saw your name in the blog – right on.

Charles Roberts
Charles Roberts
Dec 18, 2015 02:55 PM
The article overlooks the parallel looting by Native Americans.

Not so pervasive as the examples cited, but still it occurs.

Nearly two decades ago several sealed pots were found in a lava tube in northwestern NM by hikers. Their reporting the find to the controlling land agency led to an onsite visit including members of the nearest pueblo.

During the inspection of the site, two of the pueblo observers were overheard talking to each other, commenting in the native language, by a third pueblo member who was employed by the agency.

The comment? "Do you know how much we could get for those?"

None of the others present were conversant in the native language, so the opportunists were free to speak without fear of being discovered and apparently were oblivious to the fact the third person did not share their interest.

As it turned out, the pot plotters were not able to act upon their interests as the items were curated that day by the agency. This caused an official uproar at the pueblo and a protest the pots were crucial to pueblo interests. After some time of bureaucratic intransigence, the pots eventually were relinquished to the pueblo governor.