The haul included everything from arrowheads to pots and pendants. There were woven sandals and ceramic figures. There was even a rare turkey-feather blanket and a female loin cloth.
All told, undercover investigators purchased 256 artifacts worth more than $335,000.
All were illegal.
Using an undercover source, agents from the FBI and the US Bureau of Land Management had spent since November 2006 infiltrating a tight-knit community of looters in the Four Corners area who dig up graves and pillage archaeological sites on public lands, then sell the items they find to dealers and collectors.
But it wasn’t until early June of this year that agents announced their take: Thus far, a total of 24 people have been indicted, 23 arrested and 12 homes searched—including four in Santa Fe.
On June 12, federal agents searched the homes of collectors Forrest Fenn, Thomas Cavaliere, Bill Schenck and Christopher Selser, seeking artifacts their undercover source had learned about during the course of the investigation. Although agents seized certain items—as well as computers, business records and photographs—they have yet to file charges against the four Santa Fe residents (most of the arrestees live in Blanding, Utah).
While recent daily newspaper coverage has focused on those particular raids, Santa Fe figures heavily into the story of archaeological looting for reasons that go beyond the handful of local dealers whose homes were searched.
According to Phil Young, an archaeologist and retired National Park Service special agent, Santa Fe is the “hub of the wheel of the black-market trade” when it comes to illegal artifacts.
Young should know: He has been tracking looters since the early 1990s and has seen their methods and networks evolve and expand.
Of late, looters have become increasingly sophisticated, Young says, using GPS units and Google Earth to locate archaeological sites, and employing front-end loaders and backhoes to unearth remains. Such focused efforts in some ways reflect another important factor when it comes to archaeological looting.
“Historically, the trend has usually been that the amount of looting and vandalism goes up at times when the economy has gone down and, in good economic times, the amount of vandalism and theft goes down,” Young says.
That trend seems to be holding true right now.
“Even here in the Galisteo Basin, within the last year and a half, we’ve had an unauthorized hole put in a place that hadn’t had any holes in 15 years,” he says. “We’ve got that occurring at a historic and prehistoric turquoise mine in the Cerrillos Hills—when times get tough, people get very creative and, a lot of times, the ethical considerations get ignored.”
The issue of ethics can sometimes be a tricky one, especially considering the different views scientists, Native Americans and collectors take when it comes to the value of what lies beneath the soil. But the laws themselves are clear. Federal and New Mexico state laws protect sites, dictate who may excavate them and how, and ensure that no one can turn a profit on the bones—or sacred items—of someone else’s ancestors. That said, the black market in illegal Native American artifacts is an increasingly complex network, one that sometimes overlaps with the drug trade and other crimes—and it’s one that federal investigators are trying to wrestle under control.
Doing so, many say, is crucial to protecting New Mexico’s history.