THE Mimbres Indians, who inhabited a long, scruffy valley of southwestern New Mexico until their disappearance sometime in the 12th century, must have had a wry sense of humor. Their distinctive black-on-white burial bowls, considered among the most valuable prehistoric artifacts in the world, often include scenes of men riding giant water-spouting fish, of women browbeating their cowering husbands, of whimsical fairy animals, or of lighthearted references to sex.
But the Mimbres most likely would not have been amused by the greed and grave robbing that their valuable artwork has inspired. Mimbres bowls are increasingly sought by art collectors around the world and occasionally figure prominently in the catalogs of New York art auction houses. Individual bowls now routinely fetch in the thousands of dollars: One bowl recently brought $40,000 from an undisclosed buyer.
The result is a market in both legally and illegally unearthed bowls that art experts and some archaeologists here fear could strip the Mimbres' homeland of much of the artwork they left behind.
``Pot hunting'' in Indian graves and other archaeological sites is illegal except by permit on public land; it is legal, though some would say unethical, on private land.
The unearthing of the past has accelerated all across the region, but the delicate designs of the Mimbres Indians and the skyrocketing value of their bowls make the problem particularly acute here.
In part as a response to concerns over a disappearing culture, the National Park Service is studying the establishment of a research and historical center in Silver City to showcase the Mimbres' work. Efforts are also being stepped up to protect grave sites located on public lands from pillaging.
But with legal and black-market sales of Mimbres artifacts now estimated by many to be this area's second-largest export after copper, local residents find themselves engaged in frequent soul-searching about the propriety of grave digging and the ownership of historical objects.
``The question being asked is, `Who owns the past?''' says Andrew Gulliford, director of the museum at Western New Mexico University here, where a collection of Mimbres bowls is displayed.
For most people around Silver City, the West's very strong sense of private-property rights renders nonnegotiable the notion that a landowner can do as he wishes with whatever is found on - or under - his ground. ``In England, if you dig eight inches underground and find an Anglo-Saxon sword, it doesn't belong to you, but to the national trust,'' Dr. Gulliford says. ``People in the Southwest just don't think that way.''
And when a bowl found after a two-hour dig can mean making the payments on a pickup, or keeping the farm for another year, some pot-hunters here have few qualms about digging on public lands, where archaeological sites are protected by federal law.
Pot-hunters on public lands often work by night, setting up a floorless tent over a burial site so that lanterns won't be seen by patrolling aircraft. In some extreme cases, bulldozers have been flown in to remote sites to get the job done quickly. New Mexico now outlaws the use of machines, such as bulldozers and backhoes, to dig archaeological sites.
But federal and state officials are spread thin. A 1987 report by the federal General Accounting Office found that the National Park Service had 357 people in four Southwestern states watching over more than 4.5 million acres of land.
``In one case we developed a list of 700 names of people with direct connections to other states and other countries, all playing their part in the buying or selling'' of Indian artifacts, says Linda Kelley, a Park Service archaeologist. ``The network starts in the smallest rural areas, but quickly hooks up with people in the larger cities. Sometimes [it's] prominent businessmen, in one case even a judge, people the public would never suspect'' of illegal trafficking.
Jack Inmon, vice-president of Home Federal Savings in Demming, N.M., south of Silver City, is one lifelong collector of Mimbres bowls and other Indian artifacts who helps pot-hunters connect with the market. But he says he works only with artifacts dug on private property.
``There are millionaires in Scottsdale [Ariz.] who will pay incredible prices for these pieces,'' he says. ``But those I know won't buy it unless there's documentation, maps and such, that it came from private land.''
Mr. Inmon estimates that 25 to 30 pot hunters live in Demming alone. ``They're just normal guys who've enjoyed hunting for arrowheads, and then maybe they've gotten in a tight [bind] for money,'' he says.
Like other collectors here, Inmon says he'd like to see more artifacts donated to local museums - as he plans to do with his collection. But he says that museums give no assurances that objects will be displayed, or even kept in their collections.
Local philanthropy has also been discouraged by years of digs by major universities from around the country, from which thousands of artifacts have been carted out of the state. ``Those of us who live here kind of resent the big universities taking away everything they find,'' Inmon says, ``while their archaeologists criticize the pot-hunter for keeping what he finds.''
Some here say a rapprochement between the professional and amateur archaeologists could be one key to stemming illegal pot hunting and the black market in Indian artifacts.
``What we need is more cooperation between the two groups,'' says Mel Johnson, past president of the Grant County Archaeological Society, whose members include amateur archaeologists from Silver City. Not only would it mean a sharing of knowledge, he says, but it could help develop the community's sense of having a stake in preservation of local culture.
``With the mining slowly giving out around here, we're going to have to have something for the tourists,'' says John King, a longtime collector in Hurley, N.M. ``What the Indians left us could be a part of that.''