`Culture thieves' filch US history

A clash of values is breaking out in the West and other parts of the country over the growing problem of archaeological looting. Prodded by concerns that a vital part of the nation's history is being lost, federal authorities are increasingly cracking down on what have been called ``culture thieves'' -- people who dig up artifacts for pleasure or profit.

The government's actions are being cheered by many conservationists and archaeologists, who consider the plundering of ancient Indian and other sites the American equivalent of looting antiquities from the pyramids.

But the crackdown is stirring anger among some amateur collectors. Many grew up hunting for arrowheads, Indian pots, and other relics on lands near their homes. They resent the long arm of the law intruding on what, for them, has long been a way of life. The controversy is the most pronounced in the West, where the largest number of easily accessible archaeological sites exist and people are suspicious of government interference.

Last month federal agents raided 16 homes and businesses in Utah and Colorado. They seized 325 Indian artifacts in what is believed to be the largest raid of its kind undertaken in the United States to date.

But the action has also provoked two suits against the government by Utah residents angry over what they consider the heavy-handed tactics used in the searches.

The raid was the latest in a stiffening government attitude about archaeological looting. More than a dozen people have been arrested across the country for ``pot hunting'' on public lands in the past 12 months.

``In the past year, there has been a many-fold increase in the number of prosecutions,'' says Bennie Keel, chief archaeologist for the US Department of Interior.

The actions have been precipitated in part by the persistence of the problem. In the last decade treasure seekers, using everything from shovels and metal detectors to backhoes and bulldozers, have been scouring for prehistoric artifacts on National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and US Forest Service lands, as well as on private and Indian holdings.

The problem has been the most pronounced in the Southwest, where there are more than 1.5 million archaeological sites. In Southwestern New Mexico up to 90 percent of ancient Mimbres Indian sites have been vandalized. Some 70 percent of the ruins in the national forests in Arizona have been disturbed.

``It's like having pages ripped out of the only copy of a book you've never read,'' says Jim Walker of the Archaeological Conservancy in Santa Fe, N.M. ``The artifacts in context can tell a trained professional a great deal about how past lives were lived.''

The problem involves more than Indian artifacts. Looters scour Civil War battlefields in the East for muskets and bayonets. They pick through old mining camps in California. They are even digging up tombstones in Western ghost towns.

Money is the motive behind much of the mischief. Some of the highly decorative Indian pots fetch up to $50,000 on the international black market. Rare Indian baskets can bring more than that.

Not everyone, however, is after a quick buck. Artifacts wind up on the mantels of weekend collectors, many of them Western residents whose families have lived in the West for generations.

``A lot of people still have the pioneering ethic,'' says one National Park Service official in the West. ``They believe these lands are their lands.''

Whatever the motive, the pilfering on public lands is drawing Uncle Sam's attention. Last year the National Park Service for the first time successfully prosecuted three men for plundering a Civil War site in Virginia. Earlier this month, a federal judge in Idaho ordered a man to pay $11,700 to restore a ruin he had damaged in the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.

The Utah-Colorado raids were carried out by a special task group set up in 1984 by Brent Ward, US Attorney for Utah, to curb archaeological vandalism in the area. Most of the Indian pots, baskets, and other objects seized by the agents were remnants of the Anasazi culture that disappeared from the Southwest about 1200 A.D.

``It is the only operation of its kind ever undertaken under ARPA,'' says Ward, referring to the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, a federal law passed in 1979 that made artifact theft a crime punishable by up to two years in prison and a $20,000 fine.

No arrests have yet been made. But Ward expects six or seven federal indictments to result from the sweep. The raids have angered many people in southeastern Utah -- most notably those whose homes were searched. One, San Juan County Commissioner Calvin Black, has branded the searches an act of ``terrorism'' and filed suit to get his objects returned. US attorneys said late last week they would return 60 artifacts -- including Mr. Black's -- because they apparently were not taken from public lands.

Black, who says he is opposed to anyone -- including scholars -- taking artifacts from any archaeological site, plans to drop the suit when his relics are returned.

Many archaeologists believe the growing incidence of arrests and stepped-up education efforts aimed at promoting archaeological preservation are already beginning to curb the problem in some areas.

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