Pillaging the Past

Approximately 90 percent of archaeological sites in the Southwest have been vandalized.

  • 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


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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.

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