“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 archaeologists have slowed the rate of looting. Still, sobering statistics indicate that it remains a substantial problem. Tens of thousands of looted Native American artifacts are recovered by federal authorities every year, but the process of destruction of archaeological sites, and archaeological knowledge, continues. Further work is critical to prevent any more irreparable damage to our past.
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 under federal and state protection. Further, 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. 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, archaeological sites are frequently damaged to clear lands for agricultural or development projects.
Looting and vandalism of archaeological sites has persisted throughout recent history. Between 1980 and 1987, for example, the Navajo Reservation saw a dramatic increase in vandalism and looting of archaeological 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 archaeological 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.
Illegal artifact looting becomes popular during the Missouri River’s five-year drought.
The F.B.I. estimates that looters in the U.S. make $500 million a year.
An archaeologist discusses underwater treasures and their hunters.
A treasure hunter in Oregon faces legal trouble for unauthorized digging.
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.
Civil War-era graves are disturbed by thieves.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the U.S. Forest Service, and the FBI track archaeological crimes in the Four Corners.
Two dozen people in Utah are prosecuted for illegal digging.
A professional archaeologist discusses local residents’ lootings.
An amateur archaeologist hunts for Civil War relics on private properties.
Looters take advantage of dropping lake levels in Texas to find hidden artifacts.
Archaeologists discuss the phenomenon of looting addiction that is unique to the U.S.
Archaeologists 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.
Sease, Catherine. “Conservation and the Antiquities Trade.” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 36 (1997): 49-58.
Zimmerman, Larry J., Karen D. Vitelli, and Julia J. Hollowell, eds. Ethical Issues in Archaeology. Lanham, MD: Rowman Altamira, 2003.
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.
In the face of such market demand, which fuels the trade in illicit antiquities in the United States, attempts to return artifacts to their descendant communities have been mounted by Native American nations and NGOs. One way to return culturally significant Native American artifacts to descendant communities entails the purchasing of cultural materials in auction houses, which are then repatriated. Pierre Servan-Schreiber, a French lawyer acting on behalf of the Hopi Nation, bought a Hopi item for €13,000 in 2013 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 in 2013, to be returned to the Hopi and San Carlos Apache tribes.
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.
SAFE has been working on promoting public awareness on the dangers of archaeological looting in the United States. Various blog posts by archaeologists 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 archaeological ethics among the public by, for example, speaking out against treasure hunting TV shows that might promote looting and destruction of archaeological sites.
Other professional archaeological organizations include the Society for American Archaeology (SAA), which promotes archaeological ethics and participates in CPAC testimonies, and the Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA), which promotes scholarly research and the dissemination of knowledge concerning historical archaeology.
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.
The Proposed Bear Ears National Monument Lillia McEnaney / 07.16.2016
Florida Archaeologists Condemn Proposed ‘Citizen Archaeology’ Permit Social Media Team / 01.17.2016
Sioux Pipe Bag Recovered 13 Years After Theft Social Media Team / 01.11.2016
LA Art Dealer Imprisoned for Smuggling Operations Logan Recchia / 12.21.2015