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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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.

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