How much is the past worth?
In many ways, that’s the core question behind the whole issue of pothunting, looting, and the antiquities trade (as well as, in a somewhat different guise, the related issue of the status and nature of archaeology as a discipline). It’s recently been brought to the fore by the indictments against a large network of pothunters centered on Blanding, Utah, but it’s always been there in the background. The recent apparent suicide of James Redd, one of the accused and a prominent citizen of Blanding, puts the question in stark perspective. Preventing, punishing, and discouraging the looting of archaeological sites is valuable, I think most people would agree, but is it worth the loss of a human life?
It’s not an easy question to answer. Certainly looters think the artifacts they find are very valuable, and as I mentioned before they are usually armed, so it stands to reason that at least some of them think the thousands of dollars in possible profit from a single find are worth enough to justify taking the risk of either being killed by a cop or killing one. Craig Childs is likely exaggerating a bit when he quotes one talking about how the way to deal with cops is to “drop ‘em…and never come back,” but the mindset is certainly out there, and it fits uncomfortably well with the widespread pro-gun, anti-government conservatism found throughout the west.
Which is not to say that everyone who’s ever pocketed a potsherd or done a little illegal digging is a hardened criminal willing to kill to get their way. A lot of the people quoted in articles about these indictments, especially but not exclusively people in Blanding, seem to take the view that this is not that big a deal, and that the intense focus on it by law enforcement is an example of misplaced priorities (at best) by the government. While in Blanding, especially, there’s probably quite a bit of disingenuousness to this sort of talk, it is a point of view that is genuinely common in a lot of parts of the southwest. Collecting arrowheads and potsherds has been a widespread hobby for a long time in the places like Blanding and Cortez, Colorado, where they are extremely widespread, and for a lot of people in those areas it’s very hard to see it as a crime worthy of massive sting operations and huge fines and jail time. From this perspective, it’s very difficult to justify destroying people’s lives (sometimes, as in Redd’s case, literally) for the sake of inanimate objects, no matter how old they are.
Archaeologists tend to take the view that this perspective is just totally mistaken, and that the archaeological record is incredibly valuable and must be preserved by any means necessary. As endless signs at public archaeological sites admonish, this extends even to the lowliest potsherd, which is incredibly valuable in the information it can give from its context if left in place but becomes totally worthless if it’s removed from that context. Archaeologists, therefore, tend to argue that the way to combat looting is to educate the public and let them know just how valuable these things are.
I don’t think that’s really right, though. Some people may pick up potsherds as souvenirs because they haven’t really thought about the implications, but most people in the southwest who collect (either directly or by buying from pothunters) are fully aware of how archaeologists and the government see these issues. They aren’t ignorant, they just disagree, and their disagreement is often part and parcel of a whole worldview in which the government and the intellectuals are out to get the “little guy,” who needs to defend his rights by any means necessary. If that means guns, so be it.
So what’s the solution? I’m not sure there is one. Redd’s suicide troubles me, a lot. It seems to emphasize to the utmost degree that these really are just not reconcilable perspectives. At the moment one side has the upper hand and is able to do things like arrest people, while the other side feels oppressed and in need of self-defense. This has not always been the case, and it may not always be the case in the future.
It’s really just a total mess, I think. What I will say, however, is that while James Redd’s death is the first to apparently result from these indictments I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it weren’t the last.