Across the American Southwest, thieves are stealing pieces of history. "Archaeological looting is the destruction of our cultural heritage," says Ann Howard, manager with the Arizona State Parks Department and one of those trying to ensure the safety of more than 60,000 ancient sites in the state.
"There's cultural sites out there that consist of archaeological sites, historical sites and tribal sites. These are being destroyed rapidly by both inadvertent damage and purposeful damage by looters, people who know what they're doing," she says. "Unfortunately these cultural resources are irreplaceable or non-renewable, so we're rapidly losing our cultural heritage and once it's destroyed, it's gone. Forever."
Her co-worker, Mary Estes, directs several hundred volunteers who are working to stop this destruction. "The program is called the Arizona State Site Steward Program and we currently have around 700 members. Because this was one of the first stewardship programs developed in the United States, one of the oldest ones at this point in time, it is a role model for many other states and countries wishing to develop similar programs," she says. "The chief objective of the program is to assist with cultural resource management by site monitoring and reporting any damage such as illegal collecting or looting at these sites."
That illegal collecting and looting' is part of a global criminal network. Ann Howard says the sale of antiquities amounts to a 4 and a half billion dollar a year business. "Unfortunately there is a black market or a market in general for antiquities, and as long as people are willing to buy these artifacts and cultural remains, then it'll continue to be a problem that sites get looted and these artifacts and even human remains get removed and taken away from sites."
The industry thrives in the American southwest, with its millions of hectares of unpopulated countryside and thousands of diverse historical sites. Allen Dart has been an Arizona archaeologist for over 30 years. "There's a lot of open desert and archeological sites are so visible, so people, even those with untrained eyes, can see large concentrations of artifacts or remnants of architectural features or rock art sites fairly easily," he says. "And some of the more unscrupulous ones will damage these sites to collect artifacts or rock art panels for sale."
Mr. Dart says the choice of which items to take depends on the interest and initiative of the collector, and how much a particular artifact will sell for on the Internet. "The ones who do it for gain are very often looking for whole pots, especially the ones with painted designs and they will focus on areas with complete pots. The most common areas where you find those on archaeological sites are in burials and prehistoric buildings that have been burned where you can sometimes find whole vessels in there."
As head of Arizona's Public Archaeology Program, Ann Howard sees the same sort of desecration. "Nice artifacts, like axes and stuff, are quite often in with burials, human remains, which means these remains are being destroyed and desecrated," she says. "So they're tearing up all of the archaeological site just to get to a few pieces that to them have monetary value."
"I've seen whole lots dug up with holes all over the site where they were looking for burials," says Todd Bostwick, principal archaelogist for the city of Phoenix. He says he has a hard time keeping up with reports of vandalism and theft. "The bones are just thrown aside because they're not interested in the skeletons, they're only interested in the objects buried with the skeletons." He says arrowheads, pottery, and jewelry are popular items for thieves to dig up and carry off. Taking a petroglyph off a rock wall requires a hammer and chisel. "It's hard to move rock art, very destructive to try and re-locate it and it's not really an object to transport and sell easily."
There are laws, both federal and state, against taking or destroying artifacts. But successful prosecution often depends on catching perpetrators in the act, a difficult task, and fines, when they're imposed, are minimal. Archaeologist Allen Dart says enforcement and education are both necessary. "The only way to really combat this is to educate the public about how destructive it is and to those who don't care about that aspect, to bolster law enforcement activities to stop them from doing it."
Researchers suggest that anyone with artifacts in their possession consider donating them to museums - to help citizens of today learn more about the citizens of yesterday.