One of the themes in my historical novel Wolf Catcher, which will be published by TouchPoint Press on February 2, 2022, is the problem of archeological looting. Of course, this issue isn’t new. Human beings have been rifling through ancient sites for thousands of years, mostly plundering rich burials for financial gain.
Before my job took me to Arizona, I had little knowledge of the issue. The state is vast, with a lasting history of the Native Americans who have populated this land going back maybe 15,000 years. In the late 1800s “grave robbing” in America became the norm. The idea that the Native American culture was dying gave looters the ridiculous idea that stealing pottery, jewelry, and other funerary objects was perfectly fine.
In reality, the wonton destruction of ancient sites—looters have been known to employee backhoes and other large equipment to rip through pueblo dwellings and burials—is sadly common in the American Southwest. While archeological looting today is a crime, the law is very hard to enforce. Here I will let some of the characters in Wolf Catcher explain.
“How can this happen?” Kate asked.
Cooper placed his arm around her shoulders, all the levity and earnest excitement that had permeated their time at the site having evaporated into the chilled air. A thick bank of dark clouds blocked out the sun. “I have an idea that the problem of catching pothunters has to do with manpower, am I right?”
George spoke as he scanned the ground for evidence of looting. “Manpower is a great deal of the problem. First, the question is who is responsible for a specific site? A ruin could be on land controlled by National Park officers, Bureau of Land Management investigators, tribal authorities, U.S. Forest Service rangers, Bureau of Indian Affairs agents, or state investigators.”
“It sounds to me like you have too many people involved, not too few,” Kate said as she searched the ground for clues.
“Consider this,” George said. “The BIA, which watches over about five hundred seventy tribes nationwide, currently has just one investigator assigned to looting. Here in Arizona, just two investigators cover looting on trust lands. That area covers nine million acres. BLM officers cover more than a million acres each.”
“The other problem is the sheer number of ruins,” Rebecca explained. “In Arizona, we have catalogued more than a hundred thousand sites, but most of them haven’t been inventoried, so we don’t even know what’s in them. How, then, can we know what’s missing?”
So, manpower and vast areas of rugged wilderness make catching looters difficult. But prosecuting them is even more of a problem. The way the laws are written, those caught looting can play dumb and act as if they had no idea they were breaking the law. Often, they get off with little more than a warning.
Not only do we need to install harsher penalties for archeological looting, we need to change the way we think about it. Looting is a crime against all of us, because once you’ve removed an artifact from its resting place, you’ve destroyed its sense of time and place. Our ability to understand its historical significance is then lost forever.
What can we do? Be very careful when you consider acquiring an ancient object. Even if it comes from a tony Scottsdale shop, ask for its provenance. Where and when was it harvested and by whom. And, when you’re out hiking, stop and think about picking up that pretty pottery shard or arrowhead. It’s best to admire the object, then leave it where you found it.
The past and present collide when a tenacious reporter seeks information on an eleventh century magician…and uncovers more than she bargained for.
February 2, 2022
In 1939, archeologists uncovered a tomb at the Northern Arizona site called Ridge Ruin. The man, bedecked in fine turquoise jewelry and intricate bead work, was surrounded by wooden swords with handles carved into animal hooves and human hands. The Hopi workers stepped back from the grave, knowing what the Moochiwimi sticks meant. This man, buried nine hundred years earlier, was a magician.
Former television journalist Kate Butler hangs on to her investigative reporting career by writing freelance magazine articles. Her research on The Magician shows he bore some European facial characteristics and physical qualities that made him different from the people who buried him. Her quest to discover The Magician’s origin carries her back to a time when the high desert world was shattered by the birth of a volcano and into the present-day dangers of archeological looting where black market sales of antiquities can lead to murder.
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