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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