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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


While citizen volunteers pound the desert pavement trying to protect sites, tourists traipse past galleries right here in Santa Fe containing a variety of Native American artifacts.

Although most of those artifacts have been acquired legally, some galleries have run afoul of the law.

Young recalls a handful of gallery owners who were searched or targeted by undercover investigators in the ’90s because of the illegal items they were selling. Among others, these included the East-West Trading Company, Morning Star Gallery and Joshua Baer & Co.

Another gallery owner, Thomas Cavaliere—whose home was searched in June—was arrested during a 1999 investigation of gallery owners; in 2004, he pleaded guilty to violating the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

Santa Fe’s location—surrounded by incredible archaeological resources and close to a handful of Native American communities—contributes to the city’s connections to the black market. But so does its wealth, and the appreciation so many Santa Feans have for Native culture, art and antiquities.

That is something of a double-edged sword, Eric Blinman, director of the New Mexico Office of Archaeological Studies in Santa Fe, says. “You have the appreciation for culture on the one hand,” he says, “and yet, it fuels the collection, antiquarian perspective on the other.”
As an archaeologist who volunteered on his first dig before his freshman year in high school, Blinman understands the “thrill of discovery” someone feels when finding an artifact. But the compulsion to collect those items? Not so much. He wishes people would differentiate between the thrill of discovery and the desire for ownership.

“The most egregious parts of the looting, highlighted by what was going on in the Four Corners areas, is that it was creating a collector motivation for owning things,” Blinman says. “It was creating a mercenary context for the destruction of archaeological sites.” But even casual collecting—by those who might not even realize they, too, are looting—is a problem.

“If someone were hiking up in the mountains and found an arrowhead, they can have the thrill of discovery, and if they leave the arrowhead there, someone else can enjoy the thrill of discovery,” he says. “If they take the arrowhead home with them, it’s out of circulation, and they have, for however long, the thrill of ownership—and they deny the experience to everyone else.”

When it comes to archaeological sites, looters and archaeologists view them through distinctly different lenses. Looters look for particular objects, Blinman says, while archaeologists seek information. Information about past lives and how history played out over time, he says, is gleaned not only from artifacts—and how they lie within the soil in relation to one another—but also from pollen samples that help scientists reconstruct the environment and charcoal from an ancient hearth that can be radio-carbon dated.

“So when an object is removed from its context [by a looter], from our perspective, it probably loses more than 95 percent of the potential information that it had to contribute to our understanding of the past,” he says. “And that loss of information is permanent because you can’t dig a site a second time.”

Throughout the profession, that sobering reality has led to plenty of hand-wringing, particularly when it comes to sites on private land, where it’s perfectly legal for owners to take pick and shovel to the soil.

One of the four Santa Fe residents searched in June, Forrest Fenn is a name long familiar to the state’s archaeologists. Since 1987, the collector and avocational archaeologist has been excavating San Lazaro Pueblo in the Galisteo Basin. San Lazaro is a 5,000-room village spread across some 57 acres of Fenn’s privately owned land. The site was occupied from approximately AD 1150 through contact with the Spanish, who built a mission there, as well.

Although Fenn’s attorney prohibited him from being interviewed, Fenn provided SFR a copy of his book, The Secrets of San Lazaro Pueblo.

Within the book, Fenn details his thoughts on the site, the research conducted by early archaeologists—portions of the site were first excavated in 1912—and the observations offered by engineers studying water supplies and Museum of New Mexico archaeologists, whom Fenn called upon to help excavate and conserve delicate plaster masks he unearthed. (One of those archaeologists was Blinman, who formerly worked at the museum.)

Museum of New Mexico staff were able to study the masks and urged Fenn to consult with local Native American tribes.

But collaboration with Fenn at San Lazaro divided the state’s archaeological community, Tim Maxwell, the museum’s retired director, says.

“I would say that among my colleagues, it was about 50-50 between those who supported us and who thought we were legitimizing [Fenn’s excavations].”

Fenn was acting within the law—excavations are legal on private land, as long as they do not disrupt burials—but archaeologists would have preferred the site be preserved or excavated according to scientific methods.

A former gallery owner, Fenn sells artifacts from his private collection—not those from San Lazaro—online at the Old Santa Fe Trading Co. The volume and quality of items for sale are nothing short of dizzying: dozens of pairs of high-top moccasins, more than 25 pairs of moccasins, historic pottery, arrowheads and even Crow trousers that belonged to “Bear in the Clouds” (currently listed for sale at $55,000).

Regardless of Fenn’s habits and methods—and the anger his work at San Lazaro has elicited from those within the archaeological community—Fenn is passionate about the site and its history. As he writes in the preface to The Secrets of San Lazaro Pueblo:
A sparse few will berate this effort for its lack of metric measurements, footnotes, references, bibliography, computer graphics, and the bewilderment of archaeospeak. In fact, this book was written mostly just for the fun of doing it and to experience the exhilaration that comes from speaking about a subject we love in a simple, main-street prose. We lack any ambition to be technically dull, nor do we crave the accolades of those who will surely find fault with our processes.

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