This is part of my on-going “Stolen and Looted” series in which I examine cultural resource management practices, looting of archaeological sites, and out-right theft of artifacts.
In an online newspaper called The Spectrum, which is the online version of a Southern Utah printed paper, there was an article by Byron Loosle titled Archaeological Artifacts: Grandfather Clause or Illegal Action? In this article, Loosle summarizes very well the problem with looting artifacts from public lands and archaeological sites in general. While it’s legal in the United States to remove artifacts from private lands (assuming one has the landowner’s permission), it is actually a crime to pick up even projectile points (a.k.a. arrowheads) from the surface when on public lands like National Parks.
Loosle makes a couple of quick points an analogies that I think are effective:
the impact of any type of collecting can be crippling to science and research efforts. In order to piece together the big picture and gain a firm understanding of the history of prehistoric cultures, scientists rely not only on studying the artifacts themselves, but the locations in which they lie.
A high percentage of sites in the Great Basin, for example, are the result of transient hunting and gathering activities that occurred over about 10,000 years. Many of these transient hunting sites are small and represent only temporary use. Even the larger sites usually show only surface or very shallow deposits. These variables make extracting information from sites very difficult.
Like clothes and hairstyles, arrowhead styles changed through time. Scientists rely on these markers to date a site. The type of stone used for the point can help us understand where people had traveled, and artifact placement shows where activities occurred in the past. Just one visit from an enthusiastic collector can virtually destroy the information potential of a small site, just as repeated visits to more substantial sites leaves devastating results.
Actually, that’s a relatively large portion of the article, which is very short, but these types of internet articles seem to disappear after a few months or even weeks and Loosle’s words are worth repeating. I hope he doesn’t mind my liberal interpretation of “fair use” with this quote.
In spite of the lucidity and clarity of Loosle’s remarks, there was a single comment at the time I wrote this by someone upset that “BLM people” would expect him to just leave an arrowhead on the ground where he sees it. The commenter makes several ignorant remarks about proving he didn’t make it himself or that he found it on public lands, etc., missing completely Loosle’s main points.
Interestingly enough, I empathize -as I’m sure most archaeologists and cultural resource managers do- with the commenter’s motivation to pick up and keep an “arrowhead.” But Loosle wasn’t speaking to the casual hiker that spots a projectile point on the surface along a trail. Indeed, he notes that “approximately 90 percent of the Anasazi structural sites in Washington County have been damaged by illicit digging, with percentages just as high for sites compromised by surface collection activities in Beaver and Iron counties.”
These damages aren’t done by people walking along and spotting arrowheads. These are people who are actively digging and looking for artifacts with an intent to remove cultural resources from lands shared by us all. These people are thieves and they’re stealing from me, you and even the commentor to Loosle’s article. They’re making a profit at the expense of us ever gaining contextual knowledge which could help create a more complete understanding of our cutural heritages.