SANTA FE NATIONAL FOREST, N.M. — If a group of hikers came across this piney area on the San Juan Mesa, they probably wouldn't know they were standing on an ancient Pueblo Indian dwelling now just piles of rubble covered over with 500 years of soil and vegetation.
But someone did know and came with shovels and picks to dig for pottery, baskets, and turquoise jewelry. The booty could have meant thousands of dollars to the finder on the stolen antiquities market. This illicit business is so lucrative, say law enforcement officials, that it ranks right behind drugs, guns, and money laundering. Now Congress is preparing tougher penalties for damage to the nation's cultural heritage.
This fallen village is one of as many as 8,000 sites scattered around the volcanically formed Jemez Mountains in niches so remote the looting wasn't discovered until the pot hunters and pots were long gone.
With one of the highest concentrations of significant archeological sites in the Southwest, the Jemez district of the Santa Fe National Forest is a vivid example of just how hard it is to keep tabs on some of the nation's oldest ruins and relics.
A decade ago, if pot hunters were caught, they'd likely have gotten a slap on the wrist if prosecutors had pursued the case at all. But in recent years, the US government, one of the largest preservers of such sites, has become more diligent about catching and prosecuting offenders, and judges are giving longer sentences.
Perhaps more important, is a shift in public sentiment resulting in citizens more willing to report suspicious activity and juries more willing to convict.
"I don't think there is any question that there is a much greater degree of awareness and a higher level of sympathy toward ... preservation," says J.J. Brody, former director of the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. "But this is by no means a perfect world. Looting is still a very serious problem."
While the days of loading up the kids in the camper and heading to Indian country for recreational pot- hunting may be gone, vandalizing and looting of these important historical sites continues.
Congress is expected in November to pass tougher sentencing rules for crimes against cultural property currently treated only like a property crime for purposes of punishment.
For instance, last year, a man took a sledgehammer to the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, denting the 250-year-old symbol of American freedom. The penalty he faced was "no more serious than, say, [if he'd been] stealing a computer or throwing a rock through a government window," says Richard Waldbauer, assistant director of the Federal Preservation Institute at the National Park Service in Washington. (Last month the man who struck the bell was sentenced to nine months in prison and ordered to pay restitution of $7,093.)
"We've never had a penalty that fit the severity of the crime of damage or destruction to our nation's irreplaceable cultural heritage," says Mr. Waldbauer, who helped write the new sentencing guidelines for Congress.
But in recent years, several major cases have shown what can be done when all agencies work together. Probably the most significant is the Quarrell case, in which two brothers where convicted of excavating, damaging, altering, and defacing an archeological resource as well as conspiracy to do so.
When a hiker noticed and reported freshly dug holes in a remote area of the Gila National Forest in southwest New Mexico, US Forest Service officials began monitoring the site. When the brothers returned, they were arrested. They'd been looking for highly prized Mimbres painted pottery. Some pieces of the geometrically decorated pottery have sold legally for as much as $100,000.
Last August, the men were each sentenced to a year in prison and a fine of $19,615 for restoration of the site they damaged. The case is on appeal.
"It's a different type of challenge than, say, narcotics," says Robin Poague, a Forest Service agent who investigated the Quarrell case. "In those ... cases, it's illegal to possess cocaine. But Mimbres pots are not illegal to possess. So you have to catch people in the act of stealing them."
That's an amazingly difficult task, Mr. Poague continues. Arizona and New Mexico have about 55,000 heritage sites on 21 million acres of land and only 45 patrol officers. That's why public engagement is critical in preserving these sites, he says. The interagency Site Steward program, which began in Arizona and has spread to other states, is one way. Volunteers check sites and report to law enforcement. The program is considered very successful.
"The public is responding by recognizing that our cultural heritage is non- renewable and irreplaceable," says Waldbauer. "It is not something that can be cavalierly tossed about in a weekend picnic lark. It is inherent in the social wealth of our communities."