“In the United States, 95% of Native American graves in the south west of Virginia have been looted (R. D. Hicks, 1997) and the three major federal land management agencies, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Forestry Service, together estimate . . . one third of [2 million sites] have been looted or vandalised (A. L. Cheek, 1991).”

—Carolyn Shelbourn, “Time Crime,” 2008


The United States experiences unique challenges with the looting of archeological sites. Objects of cultural heritage, unless discovered on federal or tribal land, belong to the landowner. Federal lands are too vast to be closely monitored by the limited number of government officials. Therefore, the government’s successful prosecution of looters and prohibition of the black market is very challenging.

Ongoing collaborations between museum staff, the public, academia, and archeologists have slowed the rate of looting. Still, sobering statistics indicate that it remains a substantial problem. Over 90% of known American Indian archeological sites have already been destroyed or negatively affected by looters, and this process is ongoing. Further work is critical to prevent any more irreparable damage to our past.

Artifacts illegally excavated from a prehistoric Native American site on a Southern Illinois National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) were seized by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, http://www.fws.gov/midwest/news/169.html)

Artifacts illegally excavated from a prehistoric Native American site on a Southern Illinois National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) were seized by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, http://www.fws.gov/midwest/news/169.html)

United States archeological sites contain artifacts over 14,000 years old. These sites tell a fascinating story of human history on the continent, from the origins of agriculture (Poverty Point, Louisiana) to Native American diversification, innovation, conflict, and European contact. Critical research on these topics is ongoing.

Confiscated bags full of artifacts such as pottery and scrapers. Photo credit: MPR Photo/Cara Hetland http://news.minnesota.publicradio.org/features/2005/07/30_hetlandc_moartifacts/

Confiscated bags full of artifacts such as pottery and scrapers. (MPR Photo/Cara Hetland)

The Poverty Point site shows evidence of early experimentation with fired clay pottery. The Adena and Hopewell sites (Ohio River Valley, c. 1000 BCE-500 CE) are associated with elaborate grave goods and soft pottery. Cahokia Mounds (c. 800 CE) is a Mississippian center containing the largest pyramid built north of Mexico. Numerous burials found on this site reflect the complex social hierarchies and community structures that were in existence in those chiefdoms. In the southwest, most communities in early prehistory were small and widely scattered, with different styles of dwellings, ceramics, and subsistence practices revolving around the farming of corn, beans, squash, cotton, and other wild or semi-cultivated foods. Chaco Canyon (c. 900 CE) is a region in northwest New Mexico that contains several of the best examples of the “Puebloan” cliff-dwellings. Settlements here had populations rivaling those of today’s small towns.

Thanks to heightened public awareness and state and federal funding, large complexes such as Cahokia and Chaco Canyon are being preserved. However, such preservation efforts are limited to a small number of sites. Because most prehistoric and historic Native Americans lived in small, dispersed communities, looters take advantage of the small, remote sites if protective measures are not in place. Additionally, archeological sites are frequently damaged to clear lands for agricultural or development projects.

By 1988, around 90% of known sites in the Four Corners (Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico) had been looted or vandalized. Most federal lands have not been surveyed (The National Park Service has surveyed only 10% of its 5.29 million acres). The small number of staff at most federal sites makes it difficult to devote a significant amount of time to patrolling and securing archeological sites.

Looting and vandalism of archeological sites has persisted throughout recent history. Between 1980 and 1987, for example, the Navajo Reservation saw a dramatic increase in vandalism and looting of archeological materials. Between 1996 and 2005, there was an annual average of 791 incidents reported, but on annual average only 111 were solved or had the perpetrators prosecuted. Many Native American archeological and ethnographic objects are sold in Europe, Japan, and Saudi Arabia through auctions that force Native Americans to participate in bidding to buy back their own cultural heritage.

Vandalism of rock art is also a growing concern. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is searching for the culprits that vandalized ancient Native American rock art located in the desert on the west side of Utah Lake.

Civil War era materials are also being illegally excavated. Bottle diggers scour outhouses of old frontier towns, and, in some extreme cases, people have robbed Civil War soldiers’ graves to steal human remains.

Below is a selection of reports about looting from various news media. Cases of looting without official evidence or local knowledge are immeasurable.

2005
July 2005
Illegal artifact looting becomes popular during the Missouri River’s five-year drought.

2006
April 2006
The F.B.I. estimates that looters in the U.S. make $500 million a year.

2007
June 2007
An archeologist discusses underwater treasures and their hunters.

November 2007
A treasure hunter in Oregon faces legal trouble for unauthorized digging.

2008
January 2008
National parks suffer from an increasing number of looting incidents.

State park offices increase their efforts to stop illegal artifact removals.

An ancient mask is returned to an Alaska ghost village.

April 2008
Civil War-era graves are disturbed by thieves.

2009
March 2009
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service track archeological crimes in New Mexico.

September 2009
A professional archeologist discusses local residents’ lootings.

2010
July 2010
More than two dozen people in Utah are prosecuted for illegal digging.

2011
May 2011
An amateur archeologist hunts for Civil War relics on private properties.

September 2011
Looters take advantage of dropping lake levels to find hidden artifacts.

November 2011
Archeologists discuss the phenomenon of looting addiction that is unique to the U.S.

2014
September 2014
Archeologists urge Congress to protect Utah’s greater Cedar Mesa area.

Websites, Books, Journal Articles, and Databases

Ehrenhard, John E,. ed. Coping with Site Looting, Southeastern Perspectives: Essays in Archaeological Resource Protection. Atlanta, GA: National Park Service Interagency Archaeological Services, 1990.

Hicks, Robert. “Time Crime: Protecting the past in the United States.” The Illicit Antiquities Research Center, April 2002. http://www2.mcdonald.cam.ac.uk/projects/iarc/culturewithoutcontext/issue9/hicks.htm

Sease, Catherine. “Conservation and the Antiquities Trade.” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 36 (1997): 49-58.

The Trade and Environment Database: Native American Artifact Case Study. American University in Washington, DC. TED Case Studies.

Zimmerman, Larry J., Karen D. Vitelli, and Julia J. Hollowell, eds. Ethical Issues in Archaeology. Lanham, MD: Rowman Altamira, 2003.

Native American artifacts, as well as contemporary artworks made by Native Americans, have been receiving more attention in the art and cultural property world. For example, the Santa Fe Indian Market has been growing in size and reputation; major museums like the Peabody Essex Museum and MFA Boston mounted Native American Art exhibitions or renovated galleries; Sotheby’s May 21 Arts of the American West auction fetched a total of $2,963,943; and Christie’s 2011 Native American Art auction reached a total sales volume of $1,116,187.

The international market has also turned its eye to Native American objects. In 2013, for example, French auction house Néret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou sold seventy artifacts for €930,000. Another known market price for Native American objects comes from the case of Pierre Servan-Schreiber, the Hopi tribe’s French lawyer, who bought a Hopi item for €13,000 from the EVE auctioneers in France with the intention of returning it to the tribe. The Annenberg Foundation also purchased twenty-four Native American objects for $530,000.

Yet an increase in market demand also means a potential increase in the sales of suspiciously acquired artifacts. For example, in November 2013, Skinner auction house pulled a Lakota object called “Sioux Beaded and Quilled hide Shirt” right before the auction started because the object might have belonged to a Lakota leader named Little Thunder. His descendants in the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota questioned the legitimacy of its ownership. The shirt was estimated to sell for $150,000-250,000.

 

U.S. Park Ranger Chuck Lochart with a buckle that was illegally sold and a bayonette that was found by artifact hunters in Spotsylvania, VA. (Photo credit: Andrew Councill for USA Today)

U.S. Park Ranger Chuck Lochart with a buckle that was illegally sold and a bayonette that was found by artifact hunters in Spotsylvania, VA. (Photo credit: Andrew Councill for USA Today)

Some scholars comment that the U.S. Congress has been reluctant to enact broad-based cultural property protection measures. Numerous federal legislations, however, do exist with regards to specific problems. (See Kaufman, R.S. Art Law Handbook. Gaithersburg: Aspen Law & Business, 2000, especially p. 394-395).

The Antiquities Act of 1906 (16 U.S.C. §§ 431-33m) authorizes the penalization of anyone who destroys or damages historic ruins on public lands, or excavates ruins, monuments, or antiquities on lands owned or controlled by the federal government. This was later supplemented by the Archaeological Resources and Protection Act of 1979 (16 U.S.C. §§ 470aa-mm), which specifically protects archeological resources on public or Indian land from sale, exchange, or transport without proper permission.

The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (42 U.S.C. § 4321-70a) requires the government to use “all practicable means and measures” to preserve important historical and cultural sites.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1991 (NAGPRA) (25 U.S.C. §§ 3001-3013) further addresses specific Native American cultural property concerns. NAGPRA required museums receiving federal funds and other federal institutions to inventory any American Indian human remains, funerary objects, or sacred items. Descendants or related tribes hold the right to decide whether items should be returned to the tribe, reburied, or held in the collections long-term. Under NAGPRA, anyone who is found guilty of illegal trafficking of these items can be sentenced with judicial penalties. This legislation has helped to discourage the removal of objects and human remains.

Most significantly, in 1983, the U.S. signed into law the Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA). This is an implementation of the 1970 UNESCO Convention in the context of the United States and its cultural property importation policies. Under this legislation, the U.S. can enter bilateral or multilateral agreements with other State Parties to the 1970 UNESCO Convention, or impose emergency import restrictions, provided that a State Party requests it.

The National Stolen Property Act (NSPA) has been relevant to the import restriction of suspicious items and criminal punishment of illegal importers. It provides that “[w]hosoever transports, transmits, or transfers in interstate or foreign commerce any goods, wares, merchandise . . . of the value of $5,000 ore more, knowing the same to have been stolen, converted or taken by fraud . . . shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years or both.”

The National Historic Preservation Act (16 U.S.C. §§ 470a to 470w-6) is one of the most systematic programs of historic preservation. It established various Historic Preservation Offices, which create inventories of archeological and historic properties.

Some states, like Arkansas, have created their own programs to spread awareness of the issues to the general public. As of 2013, over 700 citizens belonged to the Arkansas Archeological Society, each having participated in the Arkansas Archaeological Survey Training Program in which members of the public learn excavation techniques and ethical issues in American archeology. Other state branches of the National Park Service, such as the one in South Dakota, have implemented awareness and stewardship programs and telephone hotlines in an attempt to enlist citizens as site stewards.

Federal and state laws and programs are taking steps in the right direction toward public awareness and criminal prosecution of looters, but more work is needed to continue to document and protect what remains.

The National Park Service provides information and education on looting prevention and historic site preservation. Its Archeology Program page is a goldmine of resources. It also runs the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training (NCPTT), which advances the application of science and technology to historic preservation in the fields of archeology, architecture, landscape architecture, and materials conservation.

SAFE has been working on promoting public awareness on the dangers of archeological looting in the United States. Various blog posts by archeologists provide insights into the current state of looting in the United States. The Resources tab provides various news articles and resources for students and researchers.

The Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) has implemented a Site Preservation Program, which focuses on grant giving, recognition, and public outreach. It has also been involved in shaping a better understanding of archeological ethics among the public by, for example, speaking out against treasure hunting TV shows that might promote looting and destruction of archeological sites.

Other professional archeological organizations include the Society for American Archaeology (SAA), which promotes archeological ethics and participates in CPAC testimonies, and the Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA), which promotes scholarly research and the dissemination of knowledge concerning historical archeology.

Poverty Point was designated as the 1,001st UNESCO World Heritage Site in October 2014. (NCPTT)

Poverty Point was designated as the 1,001st UNESCO World Heritage Site in October 2014. (NCPTT)

The United States has historically favored free imports of cultural property, acknowledging that exchanges enhance knowledge of the civilizations and enrich the cultural lives of all people. But import restrictions are sometimes legislated under certain political embargoes or limit the trade on stolen works of cultural property.

The Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) assists the U.S. and foreign governments in evaluating foreign countries’ requests for bilateral agreements to establish import restrictions. CPAC consists of eleven members, who include individuals from the fields of archeology, anthropology, ethnology, and museums.

A number of federal agencies contribute to the enforcement of the treaties, laws, and restrictions regarding cultural heritage, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)’s Art Crime Team, which coordinates with international law enforcement agencies like INTERPOL. See a more detailed discussion here.

In addition, the United States enters into bilateral agreements with several nations to prevent the importation of those nations’ cultural heritage–a further explanation about which can be read here.

  • SLC image 1 Many of the griding stones lined the driveway of one of the parties arrested in the "Cerberus" operation
  • SLC image 2 pottery shards
  • SLC image 3 Fine examples of complete black on white pottery pieces
  • SLC image 4 Diesplay box full of finely worked stone tools
  • SLC image 5 Fine example of the workmaship of a large stone tool, possibly an atlatl head
  • SLC image 6 Fine examples of red on white pottery, possibly used in ceremony
  • SLC image 7 Fine examples of the workmaship of large arrowheads or spearheads
  • SLC image 8 A baby's cradleboard
  • SLC image 9 This piece could have been used in religious cermony.

Hundreds of Native American artifacts were seized from households in Utah towns in 2009 by the Bureau of Land Management as a part of the operation “Cerberus.” BLM retrieved hundreds of arrowheads and ceremonial objects that have been taken by private looters.