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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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.

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