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Home / Articles / News / Features /  Stealing the Past

Stealing the Past

Recent artifact raids shed light on today’s looting syndicate and the damage it does to New Mexico’s history

August 19, 2009, 12:00 am

Young has seen a wide span of looting—and looters.

Beginning in the early ’90s, he participated in a task force convened to clamp down on the theft of sacred objects, artifacts looted from public or tribal lands and human burials.

Over coffee and a hash breakfast approximately a month after the Four Corners arrests, Young recalls the variety of criminals apprehended during earlier investigations: In 1994, federal agents confiscated 11 objects considered sacred by the Mescalero Apache Tribe from Santa Fe’s East-West Trading Company. In another instance, an energy worker would scout northwestern New Mexico’s oil and gas fields for archaeological sites, then return to loot them. After he was charged, he even admitted to using a concrete saw to slice Navajo pictographs from the sandstone bluffs on which they were painted. “Fifteen minutes per panel, he told us,” Young says, “to steal those.”

Then, in the late ’90s, an operation in the Farmington area yielded indictments of a dozen looters. That particular ring was also involved in the drug trade: “The guy who was the methamphetamine dealer was trading with meth heads for artifacts,” Young says. “They would get high, work off their buzz—their high—doing destructive things to the scientific record, trying to recover these artifacts so they could go get high again.”

The US is just now catching up to the rest of the world in treating looting and artifact theft as serious crimes. Ten years ago, just three federal agents nationwide dealt full-time with the issue. Now, the FBI alone has 20 agents assigned to the arts and artifacts crimes unit—and one of them is stationed in Santa Fe.

Collectors here appreciate—and can afford—rare items. But New Mexico is also a state in which looters are wreaking destruction.

With a sweet, easy smile that somehow doesn’t distract from the serious issue at hand, archaeologist Norman Nelson breaks down the enormity of New Mexico’s looting problem. A native New Mexican and second-generation archaeologist, Nelson has worked in archaeology for three decades.

“If you were to take the southwestern part of the state, we conservatively estimate that 95 percent of those sites have been damaged—and that’s [by] everything from a shovel to a bulldozer,” Nelson, who now works at the state Historic Preservation Division and is acting coordinator of the state’s SiteWatch program, says. The prehistoric pottery found in that part of the state—Mimbres-style pottery has distinctive black-on-white geometric designs and, oftentimes, human or animal figures—is a high-end item, he says, that appeals to collectors, particularly those in places such as Scandinavia, Sweden, Germany, Japan and China.

The black-market trade in artifacts is a $5 billion to $6 billion a year business, Nelson says—and it makes up a significant chunk of the illegal global market. “Arms is first, illegal drugs is second and artifacts is third.”

The nexus of players within looting rings is complex.

“You have many different layers in there: the people who do the digging, the looting, you have the go-betweens and you have the collectors—who really fuel the market.” And while many collectors are legitimate, he adds there are others who “don’t mind crossing the line.”

Legally speaking, the line is clear: It is illegal to collect archaeological artifacts—or disturb archaeological sites—on tribal lands and public lands, whether those are administered by federal agencies such as the Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management. The laws protecting archaeological resources—including the Antiquities Act of 1906 and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979—protect everything from arrowheads to cliff dwellings, broken pieces of pottery to ceremonial kivas.

It is also illegal to disturb burials, whether they are on federal, state or private lands in New Mexico.

With hundreds of thousands of archaeological sites statewide and a shoestring staff—even stringier these days, thanks to a state hiring freeze—the Historic Preservation Division cannot monitor each site.

New Mexico has followed other states by implementing a SiteWatch program, which currently includes 13 statewide chapters and more than 250 volunteers. The state trains volunteers to keep an eye on archaeological sites and report back if they notice disturbances or discover evidence of looting.

“I have a lot of belief in that program; It’s a good way to educate people in what archaeology is and a good way to get people on the ground and help the state agencies and land management agencies to manage their resources,” Nelson says. “They are our eyes and ears on the ground.”

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