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


Page 3

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."

High Country News Classifieds