Via Derek Fincham, I see that the FBI has indicted 24 people, mostly residents of Blanding, Utah, for looting archaeological sites on public lands. I’ll have much more to say about this and related issues later, but I just want to note it now and mention a couple of things.
First, this looks like some serious stuff. Some of the people quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune article talk about how there are potsherds that come up all over Blanding whenever it rains and don’t the authorities have better things to do? This is probably disingenuous in any case, but it’s also very misleading. It’s quite true that places like Blanding are just covered in sites and artifacts, and the potsherds certainly do come up everywhere when it rains, but what that really means is that things like potsherds are so common as to be worthless monetarily. Nobody’s fencing potsherds for thousands of dollars. The real money is in the well-preserved and rare stuff found in places like cliff dwellings, almost all of which are on public land, which makes taking anything from them a felony. Places like Grand Gulch have tons of perishable stuff like sandals and robes that fetch very high prices on the illegal antiquities market, which tempts people to take them, and that’s what these people are being accused of.
Second, this is very difficult to deal with from a policy perspective. There’s a long tradition in the southwest of collecting antiquities, so for a lot of people in places like Blanding this is a way of life and it’s not at all surprising to see upstanding and prominent citizens in town affairs involved in looting like this. Indeed, the history of southwestern archaeology is closely intertwined with this sort of shady business, and much as archaeologists now try to distance themselves from it that history has not quite gone away. For a non-archaeologist’s perspective on this issue, see this Craig Childs essay (via Paul Barford), which I mostly agree with. Childs has a tendency to exaggerate and sensationalize, but he gets this one pretty much dead-on. As he says, serious looters are almost always armed. If we at the park suspect that there’s something like that going on, we’re told to refer it to law enforcement immediately and not get involved ourselves. This stuff can get ugly fast. The Tribune article mentions possible connections to meth dealing as well, which I hadn’t heard about before but which seems pretty plausible.
This is a really thorny issue, and as Childs notes archaeologists are not necessarily much better than pothunters about this stuff. (Though I’m a little skeptical that any archaeologists ever actually threatened his life.) The distinction between pothunting and “scientific” excavation is both relatively recent and pretty subtle, especially from the outside. On balance, though, it’s the pothunters who are out there with the guns, so it’s good to hear about these arrests. I’ll have much more on this later, including connections to Chaco and its role in the history of southwestern archaeology.