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."