Pillaging the Past
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."
Relic hunting has long been a hobby around Blanding. Sunday picnics included shovels. Kids rifled through spoil piles for beads or pretty potsherds, while the older ones dug craters into the red soil. For some it was a competition to see who could find the most beautiful or the most curious object. A painted 11th century olla in perfect condition was worth monumental bragging rights in town. Some sold the artifacts, and some kept them, treasuring them as mementos.
The tradition was handed down from generation to generation, and mantelpieces and "museums" like Huck's were littered with the loot. Then, something went sour. And that something was Earl Shumway.
It seemed that no one could catch him. He would vanish for weeks, a snake down a hole. For a while he was rumored to have died. Then he was spotted digging around Labyrinth Canyon near Green River, apparently very much alive. Whenever he returned home to Blanding, he was full of swashbuckling bravado. Shumway romanced reporters on the phone, boasting that he was armed and dangerous, bragging about the handsome and very illegal living he made selling artifacts on the black market. He dared the law to find him.
And the law tried. Federal agents defending various antiquities laws came by helicopter and truck and on foot in hot pursuit. Most of the vandals they were after were relatively harmless, engaging in what they saw as a righteous act of rebellion against an increasingly oppressive federal government. It was an exciting game. Shumway, however, took the game to the next level. He announced that he would kill any federal agent he encountered in the backcountry.
Agents busted him in 1986 for archaeological crimes, but he was a slippery character. To get out of a conviction he gave the names of people who kept illicit artifacts in their homes, most of them people he held a grudge against. Some were pothunters, some were traders, and some just had artifacts handed down to them as heirlooms.
One of the most notorious archaeological criminals of our time walked free while federal agents raided the people he'd ratted on. It all happened one morning in June of 1986. Doors were kicked in all over local towns, mostly in Blanding. With the armored ruthlessness of a drug bust, more than 300 pre-Columbian vessels were seized in a single stroke. The wife of a longtime Blanding pothunter said the experience was terrifying. Her two little kids were crying, and she covered them with her arms as agents with guns stormed through her house, aiming their spotting scopes into every room. "It felt like something out of Nazi Germany," she told me 20 years later, her voice still honestly fearful. "I didn't think something like that could happen in this country."
The community is still dealing with the fallout. Friends and neighbors were estranged by what happened on that day. Even though Shumway was finally caught in 1995 and sent to prison for six and a half years with what was at the time the biggest conviction ever handed down for antiquities crimes in the U.S., and even though he eventually died after his release, his shadow still lies across this part of the state.
Maybe there is a curse that comes from digging up graves. If so, Earl Shumway seems like the embodiment of that curse. He left the Blanding pothunting community in shambles.
Winston Hurst is the local archaeologist in Blanding. Of good Mormon family, he traces his mother's lineage in the area back to 1880, and his father's to 1910. Speaking about archaeology in the community, he looked tired.
"I'm never sure whether to laugh, cry or puke when I think about this stuff," Hurst said.
He took me into the Edge of the Cedars Museum on the west side of town. There he stood among artifacts confiscated in the 1986 raid, antiquities that once belonged to his neighbors. The museum was deemed a federal repository, and that is where the loot went. Many in town still consider this a betrayal, their hard-earned antiquities turned into public property. They say the museum is in cahoots with the government to take away people's collections in order to fill its shelves.
Hurst, a somber-voiced middle-aged man, grew up pothunting. His parents expressed a quiet dislike for unruly digging, saddened whenever old familiar sites were cratered, but like many of his peers Hurst was fascinated by what lay in the ground. Once, he dug up a couple of graves and stashed entire human skeletons in the pantry next to the canned peaches. (His mother thought this was vulgar.) But Hurst and his brother saw themselves as budding scientists. He even employed a microscope, though he now admits he had not the slightest clue what to do with it.
Hurst went on to study archaeology at Brigham Young University. He became a professional archaeologist, channeling his interest into what he saw as a constructive format, a way to expand knowledge without having to personally possess artifacts.
"When things are done right and an artifact is collected with its context documented in some detail, that documentation travels with the artifact," Hurst says. "The information is curated and the museum maintains it in perpetuity. The connection between the object and the ground is saved. That's a whole different thing than when you take it and stick it on some shelf, or you sell it to a stockbroker in New York. That just pops that connection between object and ground. It sterilizes the ground and strips the artifact of its information."
But he holds no grudge against his pothunting neighbors. Few of them are like Earl Shumway, he says; most are thoughtful, private people. And even the Shumway family should not be stereotyped; it's a large and diverse clan that spans a wide range of attitudes and sensitivities. In fact, Hurst took archaeology classes with a Blanding pothunter who was equally curious about the past; that friend was a Shumway. The two of them shared the same interests, but in the end chose different paths. His friend returned to pothunting - and eventually, in the summer of '86, the feds crashed through his door.
Hurst points to a black-on-red jar on a shelf just above eye-level, and said it came from the raid on his friend's house. It is a beautiful jar, the red paint like blush. Its ceramic handle is shaped into an animal, perhaps a coyote, with two turquoise beads for eyes. It must have been extraordinary to find a treasure like that, to bring it up out of the dust in clasped fingers, holding it to the light like a sacred chalice. Hurst says that there is still local animosity about many of these objects, that one in particular. Those who had the money fought in court and got some of their treasures back. Those who did not have the money lost everything.
"It's painful to me every time I see an artifact leave the ground and go anywhere," Hurst admits. "Whether it's into somebody's private collection or even into a museum. At this point, I'd rather see it in the ground."
Diggers come in many varieties. Some do it legally. They are called archaeologists. I traveled with a truckload of them down a dirt road in the dry hill country of northern Arizona. We arrived at a barren prominence, and five workers hopped out of the back. The truck then turned around, dust rising behind it for miles as it vanished into the desert to the north. It would return for them at the end of the day.
Up the flank of the hill the five carried shovels, trowels and boxes of equipment. At the top were the grids and circles of a ruined 12th century settlement. They got right to work on hands and knees with their trowels and little picks. The crew was from the University of Arizona in Tucson, part of a summer field school studying the prehistoric margins of the desert.
They were not digging up graves. The bureaucracy today discourages such behavior. Passed in 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) requires layers of tribal permission and paperwork every time a human bone is uncovered. The policy now is to dig away from graves rather than toward them. But they still dig up peoples' homes, and collect and dissect the things that once made up a family's everday life. They disturb things that may have been left here, in this place and in this manner, for a reason.
What is the difference between archaeologists and pothunters? I once asked Mark Varien this question. He's a venerable and levelheaded archaeologist in the Four Corners area. Varien admitted that like pothunters, archaeologists are collectors. But archaeological sites are a "non-renewable resource," he said, and once artifacts are out of the ground, their original context is destroyed.
"But we document what we find," Varien said. "Through this documentation what has been destroyed is preserved, hopefully in perpetuity."
In other words, archaeologists leave a paper trail. But why are they digging in the first place?
Varien said they are preserving the record of human occupation on the earth. Otherwise, increasing population, ongoing development and the forces of nature will destroy that record. "Think about the world 100 years from now, 1,000 years from now, and tens of thousands of years from now," he said.
Archaeologists are simply thinking ahead and behind at the same time, trying to keep the future from destroying the record of the past.
To this end, the five diggers scratched their way down through the Arizona hillside, uncovering a buried Pueblo village to get whatever information and artifacts they could. I crouched at the edge of one of the trenches. A young woman troweling around the circle had found the mouth of a corrugated jar, shattered but all there.
I stayed at the edge of the trench and watched for an hour as the woman exposed the jar's gray curves. With every hard-packed horizon of soil she removed, she took measurements, wrote it all down. She was re-creating context, building a new ruin on paper that could be studied thousands of years from now if somehow her papers survive that long. Just in case, everything had to be perfect.
The University of Arizona is a stickler for details. Other researchers, however, have been accused of not adhering to scientific standards, digging without providing paperwork. This puts some of them back into the category of pothunters. A study in Great Britain showed that in a five-year period only 25 percent of excavations were properly documented.
That was not a problem here. Every specimen was accounted for.
"Here's a piece," the woman said.
A gray curve of jar peeled easily into her hand. It was half the size of her palm. She passed it up to me and asked if I would start a bag for it. I snapped open a brown paper lunch sack and slid the sherd inside.
She passed more pieces to me, and I fit them into others like a broken dish to be thrown away. The vessels coming out of this dig were simple prehistoric cookware, the outside of this one blackened from cooking over a fire. It was the kind of artifact you can buy on the Internet, armloads of them for sale at a hundred bucks each. But to archaeologists, money has nothing to do with it. Anything you find is precious, holding an unknown wealth of data.
The last piece came out, and I slid it neatly into the sack. The woman continued to scritch at the soil with her trowel, mechanically working the next layer down. Like everyone else on this dig, she yearned to piece time back together. I reached into a nearby supply box, tore an inch of masking tape off and closed the sack, adding this jar to a greater body of knowledge.
The sack containing the broken jar, like most of the artifacts uncovered at the dig, went back to the university, bound for the Arizona State Museum. But there is a problem: The museum is almost full. In the next five to 10 years, every public repository in Arizona will have topped out. Institutions across the nation face the same difficulty. Yet archaeologists keep digging. In some cases, the digging is a matter of protecting cultural resources, salvaging artifacts before they are crushed by new developments or pipelines. In other cases, such as academic excavations, it is mostly a matter of scholarship. Either way, museums are choking on all that has been gathered.
Glade Hadden, a Bureau of Land Management archaeologist working in western Colorado, calls it an "act of silliness" when archaeologists keep what they excavate. Walking with Hadden at an archaeological site on the Uncompahgre Plateau, I asked what he does with artifacts he finds.
"I don't take things anymore unless I have to," Hadden responded. "The argument 'if we don't take it, somebody else will' doesn't work for me. If you're really a scientist, why would you need to possess the object itself? It's just an object. It's just stuff. For what archaeologists purport themselves to be, all they really need is context. After that, you're just a collector."
To prove his point, Hadden bent down and picked up a sliver of shiny stone, left over from prehistoric tool manufacture. "Like this," Hadden said. "If I had done a surface collection here, this would be in a storage bag. You'd have no idea anything ever happened here."
Museums and repositories that hold onto such bags are not only running out of space, they're running out of money. Most can hardly afford to curate what they have, much less what continues to pour in from fresh excavations. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has 50,000 cubic feet of artifacts that came from the field. Three-quarters of this collection is improperly stored, and most of it is steadily deteriorating. It would take $20 million to put the collection in order, yet nothing has been offered but further budget cuts.
I have visited federal repositories around the country and seen the cardboard boxes and artifacts crowded shoulder-to-shoulder. At one, ceiling tiles were piss-stained from a leaky toilet upstairs. Many public collections are falling apart, and there is little hope for repair. Curators around the country complain of bags splitting open, boxes decaying and collapsing. Sacks of soil samples are spilling into each other, and some are being "deaccessioned" - thrown in the trash to make room for more. A recent study of artifacts held in public trust in the United States found that 40 percent are in unknown condition, many untouched since the day they first arrived. The future of many such collections is not hopeful.
But there are places where relics are revered, carefully arranged and proudly displayed. One small repository, though far from public, is the home of Art and Betty Cooper. The house, in an Albuquerque suburb, looks like a museum - every wall, shelf and corner is dressed with antiquities - except for the magazines on the end table and the dishes and spice rack in the kitchen.
Art and Betty Cooper are not their real names. They have asked for anonymity for fear they will be looted. The Coopers own nearly 300 pre-Columbian vessels from the Southwest. The highest-valued piece in their house is worth $50,000. Most originated in ruins and graves in the Southwest, including Mexico. The law is fuzzy about these sorts of things. If an artifact came from private land in the United States or has been in circulation long enough - before various laws, including the 1906 Antiquities Act, were enacted - it is legal to own. If it came from outside the U.S., other laws apply. But proof of origin is nearly impossible to come by. If federal agents appeared with a warrant and confiscated their collection, the Coopers would have to wage lengthy and expensive court battles to get most of it back.
Some of their collection was bought from an antiquities dealer in Chicago, some from a less-reputable dealer in southern New Mexico, and even a handful off the Internet.
Art, a gray-haired man of letters, proudly showed me a 14th century vessel he bought on the Internet a few days earlier. He gently handed it to me, a bold effigy jar the size of a large coffee mug. The effigy is of a woman, anatomically correct and richly painted. You would drink from the woman's head.
"We paid $2,000 online," he said. "It's actually worth more around $10,000."
Southwestern antiquities are surprisingly easy to buy online. Check eBay. Keyword Anasazi; hordes of listings pop up. Keyword Indian Artifacts: You will see cultural histories in digital pics - arrowheads, soapstone pipes, feathered ceremonial objects and painted masks.
There is no lack of buyers and sellers. A December 2007 issue of Time magazine put the antiquities trade at the top of its list for good investments. The article was spurred by the $57.2 million sale of a 5,000-year-old Mesopotamian figurine the size of an iPod. Time lauded this as a promising sign for even small-time investors.
In the world market, Southwest artifacts hold their own. A finely decorated Mimbres bowl from southwestern New Mexico or a Sikyatki yellow ware from Hopi country can fetch $100,000 on the open market.
It's a thriving business. But is it ethical? Many scholars argue that it is not. They say that private collectors - who are generally unconcerned with regimented, scientific processes - are part of the destruction of human antiquity. Still, one thing was clear at the Coopers' house: they at least adored their artifacts. Each was carefully dusted and positioned just so. The artifacts filled room after room, lined up on shelves and arranged inside showcases big as wardrobes. Even the refrigerator was topped by a row of painted vessels.
"They are so beautiful, aren't they?" Betty said, as she showed me their collection. Even though the Chicago dealer has been offering good prices for a few of their artifacts, they do not want to break the collection. They are in love with it.
"I have visited many of the great archaeological sites in the world," Art said with a traveled, scholarly tone to his voice. "To own something of a past civilization is to better understand it and put the present in perspective. To live with something from that civilization is to have a spiritual connection with it."
Art believes that common people are being left out of antiquities circles. "Few are allowed to touch or even cherish these ancient objects," he said. "There have been collectors from time immemorial. Archaeologists are but Johnny-come-latelies, with an attitude that only they have a right to collect and interpret the past. I consider myself a temporary custodian and will endeavor to have my collection remain in private ownership. One Indian woman told me that by protecting such material I will, in turn, be protected by the benevolent spirits of the people who made them."
Betty added that when they first began collecting in the 1990s, they had no idea there was an ethical issue. They were simply enchanted with antiquities, and they had the money to buy them. Now they find themselves wary of prosecution and persecution. Many scholars are on a rampage against private collectors, and federal investigators are tightening their grip. Last January, a five-year undercover operation reached a climax when agents showed up with a 150-page warrant at the Silk Roads Gallery in Los Angeles. The owners, a pair of distinguished art historians, were accused of smuggling artifacts from around the world, including New Mexico. Along with the gallery, four Southern California museums were raided, all holding artifacts allegedly smuggled by Silk Roads.
Art and Betty know fellow collectors who have had their collections raided and who have lost beloved pieces. The confiscated material goes into storage at federal repositories, which are often overloaded to begin with. Though the Coopers occasionally lend vessels to museums for temporary display, they try to keep quiet about what they have.
The basic argument against them is clear. For every illicit artifact, there is a hole in the ground somewhere, an empty tomb, a ravaged grave. The objects are left with no recorded context. Well-meaning collectors like the Coopers are just a few steps removed from scattering human bones across the ground. The more they buy, and the more they pay, the deeper pothunters will dig to meet the demand. Judging by the quality of their collection, I would guess that nearly every piece came from a grave. Art assured me they only buy objects that have been on the market for so long that it hardly matters any more. The pits left by the looters have healed over.
"I've often been approached to buy from pothunters, and I have always declined," he said.
What that means is that they do not buy directly from pothunters. But somewhere along the way there was a shovel and a bootsole and someone digging up a grave.
Anibal Rodriguez is another keeper of artifacts, but of a completely different caliber. He works in the bowels of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, overseeing one of the largest and most impressive Southwest collections in the world. There are no leaky pipes, no disintegrating boxes here. And no kitchen sinks or magazines.
"We are the model of how museum collections should be kept," Rodriguez said.
For more than 40 years, he has been caring for this collection. He is a smartly observant man, born in the Bronx, speaking with a strong Puerto Rican accent from his home neighborhood. His dark hair is distinguished with streaks of gray.
As we moved down corridors in the museum, Rodriguez told me how disorganized the collection was when he first came to it. He has since brought it back to life. He walked around the collections with a casual sense of ownership. There was not a sound but the humming of air ducts and our footsteps padding one behind the other.
"I am the keeper of the ancients, a steward," Rodriguez said as he waved an electronic key, releasing a series of locks on a metal door. We walked into another corridor as long and quiet as the last. "I would guard these artifacts with my life."
I asked him about where the artifacts he oversees will be in a thousand years, in ten thousand, long after he has died. Rodriguez said that if museums are still around in a thousand years, they will hold different artifacts. "Maybe the remains and collections of you and me," he said. "By then, the collections you and I are now looking at will have gone home."
We came to a cabinet door, and Rodriguez lifted a key from his overburdened chain. He unlocked the door and opened it, revealing a wall of polished wooden drawers.
"Chaco," he said, like a magician throwing back a curtain.
He pulled open one of the drawers and I nearly fell into it, leaning over a glut of turquoise jewelry and intricate animal effigies carved from smooth black stone, all dating back a thousand years. The artifacts were all from Chaco Canyon in northern New Mexico. They came from turn-of-the-century excavations, most from the late 1800s, when archaeology was less a science than a free-for-all. Archaeologists were filling boxcars bound to the East Coast, feathering the nests of private collectors and prominent museums. They are not on public display because no museum can possibly show all of its holdings. It would be a garish nightmare of antiquities.
In this storage room everything was neatly contained and controlled. We went drawer to drawer; wooden banners with colorful displays, then a collection of painted flutes. There were huge bowls dizzy with geometric designs, bold black paint on shimmering white clay. I was filled with a sense of time in a way I had never been before. History had been brought to a fine point here, centuries leading to this moment.
I asked Rodriguez if he had any sense of how Native Americans feel about these vaults of their artifacts. He told me that a Pueblo elder had to come to see the collection. Rodriguez showed him through drawers and shelves, explaining how he had counted all the beads and made foam beds for the more fragile artifacts to rest within. The elder turned to Rodriguez and said, simply, "They are pleased with your work."
"They?" I asked. "Who are they?"
"They," Rodriguez said, as if I should have known. "The ancestors."
Native Americans, to whom these artifacts arguably belong, had little control over their own antiquities until 1976, when a road crew in Iowa unearthed 26 skeletons of Caucasians and one of an Indian woman. The Caucasian remains were re-buried in a nearby cemetery while the Indian remains were sent to the Office of the State Archaeologist for further study. The message was clear: Whites are humans; Indians are specimens. A Lakota-Bannock woman took the case to court and eventually won the right for these remains to be returned to the ground. Since then, repatriation trials have been commonplace.
The tide has begun to turn. Bones and artifacts are going back to the ground. Looking for a Native perspective on this, I spoke to Will Tsosie, a Navajo archaeologist living in Shiprock, N.M. Tsosie told me that everything has a life, whether grass, rock or handmade vessel. And everything that has a life must also die. All that we have collected from the ground must eventually go back to it, just as Anibal Rodriguez had said.
"My upbringing and my culture says we only let go once, only put people away once, and hope no one will disturb them," Tsosie said. "We hope they will slowly return to the earth. The objects we study are also in the process of returning."
As we talked about the strangeness of grave-digging, and how curious it is we amass every antiquity we can find, Tsosie told me a story.
"A long time ago, when I was young, I made a journey to New York and went to the Museum of the American Indian," Tsosie said. "They had some masks from our Nightway ceremony that were on display, and it was just like when my father was young, when he was part of a relocation program to get jobs in cities. He got shipped off to Chicago where he went to the Field Museum, and there he saw the same thing. He spoke to the masks, asking them why are you here, saying, you don't belong here. I didn't know it then, about him speaking to the masks, but I did the same thing. I said to the masks, what are you doing here? You probably miss the voices, you miss the songs, you miss the landscape. You should go home. It made me very sad. People don't realize that certain things have power. They have spirit. They need to go back."
I went back to the wilderness. I walked for 27 days across the sandstone origami of Utah. It took that long to decipher routes in the cliffs and find places not yet pillaged. There I found the depressions of graves that had not been dug. Everything was still in place, corn cobs in caves, stone tools on the ground.
I came to a crack in a cliff-base, took off my hat, and stuck my head inside. Peering into the dimness, I saw a shape through dangling black widow webs. I reached in and with the tips of my fingers picked up a light woven object the size of a small mixing bowl. I brought it to the light. It was a basket, a 1,500-year-old coil-weave style. I was astonished, mouth open, almost laughing. Finally, here it was. Nobody had gotten to it.
The artifact was perfect, a tawny weave of dry yucca fibers curated by the desert. People had put it here long ago, knowing it would survive if it were kept out of light and wind. They thought they would come back for it, or if not them, their children or grandchildren. But something happened. The line of memory was broken, and no one ever returned.
I stayed with the basket for two days, drawing it, photographing it, living with it. I turned it around and around like some small planet, studying its fine and ancient coils. So much has been destroyed or taken from the land that I was heartened to see something still in its place.
Maybe this will be the last of the last. When all the graves are dug and all the artifacts taken, this might be the final piece of antiquity still in the earth. Upon finding such a basket, some people would tell authorities who perhaps would send a federal archaeologist or a ranger to retrieve it, "saving" the artifact from inevitable destruction. Others might take it for themselves. When I was done with it, I did the only thing I could. I slid it back into its nest of spider webs and dust. I left the basket to the future, letting the line of memory fade as I took my hand off it and walked away, out of the wilderness.
Craig Childs lives outside 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.