Stealing the Past

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

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.

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."

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.

According to Peter Schoenburg, Fenn's attorney, regarding the recent search, a federal informant had visited people's homes and taken "a broad-based look at materials in people's collections." Fenn has not been charged, he says, "and of the thousands of objects in his collection, they took four items" during the June search. One object, a buffalo skull, was sold to an undercover agent, he says, while agents took "another buffalo skull, an old basket and an art object he made himself."

"I fully expect we are going to be able to resolve this matter," Schoenburg says. "He hasn't done anything wrong and is not going to get charged with any of those crimes." He adds it is "a mistake to lump him in with the other people in this case."

Schoenburg says the laws protecting archaeological resources and, in particular, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, can present a "difficult and changing environment for any dealer and any collector."

"Although I think the law has good intentions, it's written extremely vaguely, and it's often a very difficult moving target for a collector," he says. "That said, I don't think Forrest came close to the gray area of prohibited items. He is well on this side of the line and careful never to cross it."

Complaints about the vagueness of the laws protecting resources are common among collectors.

"Many things going on, like this particular set of raids—whatever polite word you want to use for them—seems to be about new interpretations of old laws, especially [the Archaeological Resources Protection Act], and I don't know what that's all about," Arch Thiessen, president of the Antique Tribal Art Dealers Association, says.

Thiessen, a nuclear physicist who retired recently from Los Alamos National Laboratory, runs the internet-based trading site Sunshine Studio. He doesn't sell historic property, he says, nor do most of the association's members.

He estimates that at least half the population of Santa Fe collects Native American art and says people should buy from dealers who "can give you, with the item, a guarantee that it was free and clear and not obtained some illegal way." He recommends against buying historic pots or other older-looking objects from individual dealers at places such as flea markets.

"Frequently what happened is those pots were buried with the owner, and if they were taken up from a burial site, that makes it illegal—but there's no way you can know if it was a burial site or not, after the fact. Or whether it was on public land or private land," he says. "If someone gives you a map, you better go out with a GPS and make sure it's really on private land."

But it's best just to avoid getting involved with historic objects, he says: "This is too flaky an area with too much danger."

According to John Fryar, a former Bureau of Indian Affairs cultural resources crimes investigator and a member of the Pueblo of Acoma, people tend to view looting as a crime that's not serious; they perceive it simply as a property crime, he says.
"But it's stealing history, damaging and taking things that can never be replaced," he says. "And a lot of times, [looters] are desecrating burials, they're desecrating sacred items and sacred places."

He points to the outrage people expressed after 300 grave sites at a cemetery in Illinois were recently disturbed. "Look at the public outcry over that," he says. "I don't see that happening with Native American sites, though it's the same thing: They're desecrating burials."

Those activities affect the Native Americans, he says, especially if a particular tribe or individuals have ties to that particular site.

"It has a very big impact on their emotional well-being, their spiritual well-being," he says. "It affects the whole community in a way that's kind of hard to describe unless you're feeling the pain that these people are feeling."

Although Fryar retired from the BIA three years ago, he continues teaching classes about the Archaeological Resources Protection Act to law enforcement officials, archaeologists and prosecutors. He urges caution when investigating or confronting looters.

"When I was doing a lot of work in this area, this area of cultural resources crimes, I saw constantly that a lot of these looters had criminal backgrounds," he says. "There was a lot of drug activity involved—and that was getting worse, especially methamphetamines—and a lot had domestic violence-type crimes in their backgrounds."

Looting isn't a harmless activity, and often the people participating in the activity—no matter what their walks of life—are involved in other illegal activities, as well.

"This is not just a mom-and-pop thing like it used to be in the early 1900s, when people would go take picnics and look for arrowheads and pots," he says. "These are people who sometimes make a living doing this. They have a lot to lose, and they don't want to get caught."

In the Four Corners case, the affidavits, indictment and arrest records reveal people from a variety of backgrounds, including those with violent police records and ties to the drug trade. One prominent member of the Blanding community—a doctor who committed suicide shortly after his arrest—and his wife were allegedly involved not only with looting and the sale of illegally obtained objects, but also a Ponzi scheme. (A second man, Steven Shrader, who had lived in Santa Fe, though not at the time of his arrest, also subsequently committed suicide.)
Agents with the BLM and FBI have deferred questions related to the Four Corners case to the US Attorney's Office in Utah. A scheduling conference was set for this week.

"We believe Utah got the first prison sentence in an ARPA case years ago, and we have always been very aggressive in investigating and prosecuting these kinds of cases," Melodie Rydalch, public information officer for the US Attorney's Office, says.

Unable to discuss the genesis of the case—beyond pointing out that looting has long been a problem in the Four Corners—Rydalch says the investigation could ultimately lead to additional charges.

Beyond that, she says, "the indictments speak for themselves, and we are prepared to proceed to trial."

The recent Four Corners investigation isn't just about those arrested; it also serves as a warning to other looters and collectors who break the laws protecting archaeological resources. And looting isn't just something for archaeologists or Native Americans to worry about, the Historic Preservation Division's Norman Nelson says. The knowledge gained from archaeological sites is important to everyone.

In New Mexico in particular, the disturbance of burials is a humanitarian issue, Nelson says: Many New Mexicans—whether Native American, Spanish or descended from those whose families arrived here as homesteaders—can look to those sites and feel a familial connection.
"Archaeology becomes much more real, tangible, if you realize [those descendents] are your next-door neighbors, and it's important to them," he says. "And maybe you don't have the same worldview, but everyone can connect with the fact that that's someone's ancestor, and you shouldn't be digging those people up."

Whether it is within a formal cemetery or not, a human burial deserves reverence.

"The very act of burying someone involves community. There's got to be someone there to bury you," Nelson says. "Whether it's 10,000 years old, 5,000 years old or 50 years old, it's a human burial and it deserves respect—and many, many, many of those archaeological sites have human burials in them."

Look at sites, he says. Draw them. But leave them undisturbed.   SFR

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