One of the things that makes cracking down on pothunting so difficult in the west is the fact that, while it is strictly illegal to take any artifacts from archaeological sites on public land, and the vast majority of the land in the west is public, it is perfectly legal to take them from private land with the permission of the landowner. Since the west is so huge, and the government agencies responsible for guarding most of the land can’t possibly patrol it regularly, the only practical way to establish the origin of an artifact is to rely on the word of the person who claims to have found it. There are forms on which people who are selling artifacts openly certify that they found the items on private land, but there is generally no way for the authorities to confirm this. Unlike fossils, artifacts bear no physical traces of the places where they were dug up.
As we’ve seen in the Blanding cases, then, pothunters can quite easily conceal the findspots of their looted artifacts by lying on the forms. The undercover operative who secretly taped his interactions with looters who sold him stolen antiquities recorded the process of filling out the forms and concealing the actual findspots. This shows just how big a loophole this policy of leaving decisions about artifacts on private land up to the landowner is. If a landowner in the area is in cahoots with looters and will vouch for them, as apparently some in the Blanding area were, there’s nothing the authorities can do short of an elaborate sting operation to determine which artifacts are legitimately from private property and which are looted from public land. Indeed, some have even proposed dealing with the problem of looted antiquities by abolishing private ownership of artifacts altogether, making them public property regardless of where they were found. Not that anything like that is likely to happen anytime soon, of course, given the strength of private property rights in America and the popular sentiment in the west especially.
There are, however, some advantages to the almost unlimited discretion of private property owners over archaeological sites and artifacts on their land. While some allow their land to be pillaged by looters, others take advantage of their authority to keep sites on their land protected. This has resulted in the remarkable preservation of many sites in the southwest that would likely have been torn apart if they were on poorly overseen public land or private land with less scrupulous owners. Perhaps the best example of this directly related to the Chacoan system is Salmon Ruin near Bloomfield, New Mexico, a Chacoan outlier that was well-protected by the Salmon family, which homesteaded the land, and by subsequent owners until it was acquired by San Juan County and excavated in the 1970s. Another more recent example is Range Creek in Utah, where the hostile reputation of the landowners allowed them to keep the many sites of the Fremont culture (roughly contemporaneous with Chaco) on their land in nearly pristine condition. When they donated the land to the State of Utah, archaeologists were amazed at the number and state of preservation of the sites, which no one outside the family had even known about before.
Unfortunately, such situations are the exception rather than the rule, and most private property in the west with significant archaeological resources ends up either being torn apart by looters or developed for modern use with no concern at all for the sites or artifacts. I was interested, then, to read a piece in the Salt Lake Tribune by Beth Kampschror (via Southwestern Archaeology Today) in which she discusses a recent effort by a developer in the southern Utah town of Kanab to excavate and preserve a substantial proportion of the sites that would otherwise be destroyed by construction. The development seems to be called “Chaco Canyon,” which is interesting and somewhat ironic, since this part of Utah, while part of the Anasazi cultural sphere, seems to have had little or no direct contact with Chaco. In addition to excavation and preservation of sites, the project involves the creation of a museum that will, as Kampschror put it, “create jobs and educate children about the need to respect these ancient sites, much as they’re taught to respect pioneer Mormon settlements.” She puts this in the context of the long tradition of pothunting among local people and the uproar over the Blanding arrests, and points to the museum, and the project in general, as a way to smooth over difficulties between locals and archaeologists. She notes that the organizers of the project hope to convince some of the local pothunters to bring their collections to the museum through an amnesty program.
This project is interesting for a lot of reasons. While certainly less preservation is involved than would result from just leaving the land alone, what the project is doing seems to involve much more preservation than a typical residential development would. Since the developer owns the land, it can do this without going through the enormous hurdles to excavation on public land. (It’s no coincidence that many archaeological field schools these days take place on private land.)
Clearly this is primarily a marketing gimmick on the part of the developer, but it seems likely to result in considerable information nonetheless, provided the project results are published in a reasonably timely and accessible matter (which is not a trivial consideration). Indeed, while salvage archaeology has become a standard part of infrastructure projects on public land throughout the west and elsewhere, the explicit decision to preserve many of the sites by the Kanab project will result in a compromise more in keeping with the spirit of the National Historic Preservation Act than most salvage, which still adheres to the priority on harvesting information from sites that are to be destroyed anyway expressed in the Archaeological and Historic Preservation Act. These conflicting priorities have been in tension for some time, and have led to certain odd results in the theoretical orientations of some regional specialties within American archaeology. Here, however, the research design clearly states that, while excavation of some sites to be directly impacted by construction is necessary, and one site is to be excavated and stabilized as a field school project of Southern Utah University, many other sites are to be not only avoided, as is typical when significant sites are found in the course of salvage projects, but developed for public use and interpretation, which is the sort of thing generally more associated with historic preservation than with salvage archaeology.
In general, the topic of preservation is a thorny one when it comes to archaeology. The general orientation of preservationists is toward preserving historic structures in place, while archaeologists tend to have the rather different mindset that excavation, with the resulting preservation of information, is preferable in many situations. (This is one of the ways that archaeologists are not as different from pothunters as they like to think.) Salvage archaeology offers one situation where the archaeologists’ interests win out over the preservationists’. In other situations, such as with major unexcavated sites within national parks, the preservationists win out over the archaeologists. In this Kanab project, however, precisely because of the flexibility offered by its context on private land with an interested and indulgent owner, both approaches are getting something. Private land is often something of a thorn in the side of public land management agencies, and therefore for the archaeologists who work for them, but from the perspective of many of the archaeologists it’s not always such a bad thing. It’s important to be dealing with a sympathetic owner, however.