Forensics, looting, and the law: The view from Ohio

Andrew VasicekReview4 Comments

An article I first encountered in the online version of the newspaper The Columbus Dispatch, out of Columbus, Ohio, caught my eye awhile ago when searching for current news to discuss, but then things got busy and it slipped my mind. Rediscovering it now, I realise that the innovative project it describes is worthy of dissemination here. The article describes a course held last August to provide archaeologists and law-enforcement officials/investigators from around the region, and from across the US, the tools, on-the-ground training, and ‘forensic’ perspective they need to investigate cases of prehistoric and historic site looting (see photo at left). For the 4th time, this course was held within Wayne National Forest near Nelsonville, Ohio, an area containing a variety of archaeological sites spanning 12,000 years of occupation, and including Hopewell-culture burial grounds significant to several Native American descendant tribes. Both an introductory and advanced course are offered, with the advanced course geared more towards professional practicing archaeologists employed by National Parks or Forestry departments around the country; often the first individual to stumble on cases on fresh looting.

Mock ‘crime-scenes’ illustrating several illicit surface collection and excavation scenarios were set up and then utilized, most illustrating evidence for the looting of small, portable prehistoric artifacts such as arrowheads. Field training went hand-in-hand with workshops on the finer points of local and national laws that permit the arrest and trial of looters caught in the act-an outcome which happens far too infrequently, even in the US, according to course instructor Martin McAllister, founder of the cultural resources management firm Archaeological Damage Investigation & Assessment (ADIA), and Wayne Forest chief archaeologist Ann Cramer. Rick Perkins, chief ranger of the nearby Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, and Steve Vance, tribal historic-preservation officer for the Cheyenne River Sioux of South Dakota (and an attendant), both attested to the importance of a course that provides field investigators the skills with which to record burial looting events, evidence for which can be subtle or deliberately concealed. Legal fines can be as steep as $250,000 and five years in prison for deliberate removal of artifacts more than 100 yrs old (error in original article corrected, McAllister, pers. comm.) and additional penalties are in place for damage to burials under NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act), as well as lesser fines for damaging historic period sites. Therefore, one would think that casual visitors and locals would have every incentive to leave the past alone, and yet looting continues apace.

Although the article does not report whether or not participants or course conveners deemed the class a success, the continued offering of such classes by ADIA (above), sometimes within western US states (such as McAllister’s native Montana) suggests that all involved come away much more informed. Comparative international examples exist, such as the village workshops conducted by Heritage Watch within communities near threatened sites in Cambodia, but these tend to be more focused on the value of intact sites themselves (a crucial educational message regardless), and less about training authorities to recognize and document looting ex post facto. If any readers of this blog know about current workshops or classes in their area of the world that are comparable to this, I’d love to hear about them. I suspect, however, that such training efforts are rare internationally due to monetary or staff constraints-making this innovative project a model to be followed in future wherever possible.

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Andrew Vasicek

Andrew Vasicek graduated from the University of Rochester in 2002 where he studied evolutionary biology and European history. He received his JD from Boston College Law School in 2006. The focus of his legal studies was intellectual property law and environmental law. He is presently a contract attorney with Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP

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4 Comments on “Forensics, looting, and the law: The view from Ohio”

  1. Larry Rothfield

    This is a hopeful development. Certainly it would be a great advancement if archaeologists could be trained to gather evidence of looting that would actually be of use to bring looters to justice. The sad fact buried in the story, however, is that archaeologists are being "deputized" because there are only three historic preservation officers responsible for policing three million acres.

  2. Damien Huffer

    Yes, conditions of understaffing in many threatened areas are of true consern, I agree. We archaeologists can certainly recognize large scale looting, especially if sites of specific time periods that we've excavated ourselves are being targeted. Greater awareness of how to use 'forensic' techniques to recover more information potentially tied to the looters themselves is something this course seems to stress…documentation above and beyond photos of smashed bones or looters pits.

  3. Martin E. McAllister

    As the owner of ADIA and one of the instructors for the Ohio class hosted by the Wayne National Forest, I wanted to add a few comments. I have been teaching these classes throughout the U.S. since 1979 (over 200 classes with almost 8,000 participants). We have also presented classes in Puerto Rico and Guam. We hope we have had an effect by making both law enforcement officers and archaeologists aware of these violations and providing them with information on how to proceed if they encounter one. We have had some success because several cases have been made by participants in the class after taking it. Unfortunately, as noted in Larry R.'s comment, we have pitifully few law enforcement officers to cover millions of acres of public and tribal land and these officers have many other law enforcement responsibilities in addition to trying to protect tens of thousands of archaeological sites.

    We are, however, in a much better position than in many other countries where laws to protect these sites are inadequate as are law enforcement resources. The one major advantage that other countries have is that in most of them mere possession of an artifact is illegal no matter where it came from. In the U.S., we must prove that an artifact was illegally obtained unless we actually observe it being removed from protected lands. This can be very difficult. I participated in an international conference in 2007 with archaeologists from the Middle East in which we learned about the magnitude of the problems they face. This was analogous to my experience working as an archaeologist in Guatemala where I began my professional career.

    I continue to offer training in this area through my firm, ADIA, in the hope that it will lead to better detection, investigation, and prosecution of archaeological violations cases. Anything we can do to protect archaeological sites is extremely important because they are like threatened and endanger species, once gone they are gone forever and cannot be replaced. We certainly would welcome the opportunity to do this training in other countries if we could make this happen.

    I did want to correct one significant error in the original article on the Ohio class. It states that archaeological resources have to be "1,000 years old" to be protected. In reality, archaeological resources only have be 100 years old to be protected under the federal Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979. This extends protection to many important historic sites that are relatively recent in age.

    I would be happy to answer any questions about archaeological crime and the training that we offer. Additional information also is available through our website, that there is a link to in your original discussion of the class.

    Martin E. McAllister, MA, RPA
    Archaeologist / Owner

  4. Damien Huffer


    Thanks for your more detailed explanation of the true scope of your efforts, and the successes they have brought about to date. Much appreciated. As a semi-native of Arizona (and one with experience in the CRM world around the state), as well as in my current work in Southeast Asia, I, too, have become ever more aware of the sheer magnitude of looting in some locations. In that vein, I fully agree with your assessment of the value of undamaged archaeological sites, something that SAFE strives to communicate world-wide.

    It would be wonderful if equivalent classes could begin overseas, and I for one would love to discuss their implementation in future. Thank you, also, for correcting the article's original error. Fact checking is always crucial.


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