Collector Crackdown

Artifact robbers put archaeology on the offensive

They called the operation Cerberus Action, after a mythical, hydra-headed canine that fiercely guards the underworld.

The underworld was brought to light on June 10, when federal agents busted 23 people who allegedly looted archaeological sites in the Four Corners region of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. Ranking among the largest crackdowns ever against the black market in Native American antiquities, the sting drew praise from archaeologists—and outrage from rural Four Corners communities where artifact collecting is a traditional pastime, and sentiment against the federal government runs high.

Still, the message broadcast by this high profile investigation—complete with an undercover snitch—is that artifact looting on federal lands remains a widespread, serious crime. "Antiquities theft is an incredible problem," says Beth Grindell, director of the Arizona State Museum on the UA campus. "And it's virtually impossible to control. There's a lot of public land out there and very few police patrolling it."

Museum researchers do their best to help by actively reporting thefts or suspicious activities they see in the field. "We work collaboratively (with law enforcement) as much as we can," says Grindell. "When we are aware of things that have happened—when we are on lands ourselves and see that there are problems—we always contact the police and let them know about it. But we understand that they're under enormous personnel constraints."

In a given year, volunteers with the Arizona Site Stewards Program also report more than 200 vandalism incidents and nearly 30 lootings at archaeological sites across the state. So far this year, there have been at least 16 serious vandalism incidents in the Tucson region alone.

Unfortunately, budget cuts have put a strain on the Arizona State Parks department, which runs the monitoring effort. "But we have received some funding from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service," says volunteer coordinator Nicole Armstrong-Best. "And we're working on a new Web-based database system, so that we can track these numbers much more efficiently and effectively." In the meantime, she says, volunteer monitors are still maintaining plenty of eyes and ears in the outback.

Unfortunately, the difficulty of protecting ancient sites is only exacerbated along the border, where illicit traffic can damage artifacts in remote areas that are difficult and sometimes dangerous to safeguard. Perennial funding shortfalls only worsen the problem, according to a recent report by the Good Neighbor Environmental Board, which advises the president and Congress on border issues. "Protecting cultural and natural resources in remote areas in the border region is extremely difficult," says the report. "Public land managers have far too few patrol officers to oversee the lands under their jurisdiction.

"For example, much of the border area of the Coronado National Forest in Southern Arizona is remote and unroaded," it continues. "This 1.7 million acre National Forest has approximately six full-time law enforcement personnel. Other employees occasionally are placed in the field, but seldom on the border. ... The financial incentives, coupled with the low probability of getting caught, keep looters active."

Anemic funding also means that the vast majority of Pima County's nearly 4,000 archaeological sites have yet to be analyzed, making it difficult to know what should be protected.

But the bottom line, concludes the report, is that people need to learn that these precious remains must remain untouched—except by trained scientists. "Public education is the key to cultural resource preservation in the border region," it says. "If more of the public understood and respected cultural resources, greater self-restraint would be exercised; land-holding agencies would find it easier to justify the expenditures for preservation activities; and law-enforcement and judicial agencies would be more willing to use existing antiquities laws."

Meanwhile, as the Four Corners raids revealed, these artifacts are at risk not only from sophisticated looters, but also from a culture that often tolerates and even encourages tampering with sites. As executive director of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance in Ogden, Utah, Jerry Spangler witnesses this problem firsthand.

He says visiting archaeological sites and removing artifacts is a longstanding family activity. That mindset has contributed to local outrage over the federal arrests, in an area already well-known for its strong sentiments against the federal government.

Nonetheless, Spangler believes the arrests have set a new benchmark. "Ultimately, I think it will have a positive effect," he says, "because it sends the message that this is a crime, and just because your ancestors did it, it doesn't mean that it's right if the law says it's wrong."

Of course, professionals will likely just recalculate the odds and costs of getting caught. But at least they'll have to think twice; in this case, Bureau of Land Management and FBI agents tapped an informant purportedly connected in collecting circles. Through him, agents were able to purchase everything from Pueblo pottery and Hopi kachina masks to precious Navajo pendants. In total, the informant was given $335,000 over three years to buy more than 200 objects, and recorded the transactions with video and audio equipment.

The Arizona State Museum played a role in evaluating some of the seized items, says Dr. Grindell. "We've seen them, and we've consulted on it. But they haven't been turned over to us. They're property in an ongoing criminal investigation."

Still, many other objects seen by the museum are not obtained quite so dramatically. For instance, she holds up a prehistoric Babicora polychrome pot, which dates from around 1200 and 1450 A.D.

"This came to us recently," Grindell says, "and we can't tell for sure whether the people who gave us this pot were legally entitled to own it or not. We really don't know where it came from. It had been in this family's collection for a while, and they turned it over to the museum."

In such cases, it's often tough to ascertain whether the materials were collected prior to laws prohibiting their removal, including the Antiquities Act of 1906 or the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979. That can make tracing their origins even more difficult.

It also means that most scientific knowledge surrounding the piece is lost forever. "Typically, families have collected for many years, and they've forgotten," Grindell says. "Or they've collected from a parent or a grandparent. The stuff gets passed along, but the information doesn't."