Looters: theives of time

To the trained eye, the clues are as obvious as a neon sign: a pile of dirt, a pile of pebbles, a flashlight battery, dim footprints in the dust.

To the trained eye of John Rose, Bureau of Land Management archaeologist, the signs that this archaeological site has been recently looted are everywhere.

It¹s a problem he¹s encountering more and more these days.

At this site, a rock shelter that for generations provided the area¹s American Indians with a spot of shade and some protection from the elements, Rose points out the telltale signs of looting as the punishing summer sun beats down on the hills south of Oatman.

³Here¹s where they were digging,² he points to a gash in the dirt.

³Here¹s the pile of screened dirt.

Here, next to the dirt, is a pile of small rocks that they dumped from the screen after sifting the dirt.²

These looters, he explains are of the more sophisticated variety.

They are digging and then taking the dirt and sifting it through a screen in an effort to extract even the smallest bits of history to be sold on the black market.

This is one of two archaeological sites in the county where Rose has found signs of recent screening.

When visiting another site, he was greeted with the leavings of metal detector aficionados.

At another site, ancient petroglyphs had been chipped from the rock.

Whey the sudden upswing in looting? Rose isn¹t sure, maybe it¹s just that the population of Northwestern Arizona is swelling.

Whatever the reason, the problem is critical and he is working with BLM law enforcement officers to catch the perpetrators.

Looters, Rose said, fall into a few predictable categories.

Some are just in it for the money.

Well preserved pots, baskets or tools can fetch thousands of dollars on the antiquities black market.

Professional looters are likely to be involved in other types of criminal activity and may be armed.

Other looters are hobbyists who are simply interested in the prestige that comes with owning pieces of the past.

Metal detector hobbyists are ³looking for old coins, following rumors of buried treasure and prospecting,² Rose said.

³Many don¹t realize that what they¹re doing is illegal.²

Some are very aware that what they¹re doing is illegal and find the danger titillating.

This is another stereotypical looter profile.

Federal law forbids taking artifacts from public land or prospecting land where someone else has a mining claim.

The penalties for breaking the law range from a fine of $100,000 to five years in jail.

Professional looters get around the law by claiming that their artifacts come from private land.

Proving them otherwise is difficult and can be costly so the best way to combat the problem is to catch them in the act.

In Mohave County, Rose gets assistance from about 50 Œsite stewards.¹ These volunteers monitor archaeological sites by visiting on a quarterly basis and taking an inventory of the site.

Any signs of looting or vandalism are reported to Rose.

Last winter, vandals were observed at a historical site in the Hualapai Mountains.

Thanks to the concern of a hiker who hears the names of the vandals and secretly copied their car¹s license plate number, the vandals were identified, cited and fined.

Unfortunately, they were just a few of many.

³Many historic sites are trashed,² Rose said.

³It shows a lack of respect people have for the land, for Native Americans in this place and for the place to go out and willfully destroy something you know is irreplaceable.²

The loss to scientists seeking to put together a picture of the past is just part of the irreparable damage done by looters.

Here, looters are taking ³artifacts² from a living culture.

The ancient sites in Mohave County can be linked to either the Hualapai or Fort Mojave Indian tribes, Rose said.

Loretta Jackson, program manager of the Hualapai office of cultural resources, calls the looting ³cultural genocide.²

³These areas are very important to us, they identify who we are and identify our links to the past and to our ancestors,² she said.

³These Œarchaeological sites¹ are our past home sites, sacred sites.

When people are looting for profit, for one thing, it¹s against the law, but they are also desecrating sacred sites, severing our ties to these sites.²

Jackson said that at many of the Œartifacts¹ were ceremonially blessed and buried.

Those covered by nature were covered for a reason.

Disturbing the Earth at these sites is taboo for the Hualapai who believe the spirit world counts on humans to protect their belongings.

³These items are not meant to be uprooted or touched by another human,² she said.

Aside from the taboo, looters are stealing small pieces of the past that the Hualapai could have used to help their children establish a sense of place and history.

³When people are looting, they¹re stealing our past, they¹re stealing our culture, taking things our children will never see.

It¹s dehumanizing.²

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Anyone who encounters suspected looters or vandals should never confront them, according to Rose.

Instead, report the incident to the BLM.

If it¹s possible to discreetly get a physical description of the person and a vehicle license number, that information can be included in the report.

The phone number for the BLM Kingman office is 692-4400.

Over the years, a number of artifacts have been returned to the Hualapai Tribe by people who feel guilty for having taken them or who lose interest in the objects.

Jackson said the tribe welcomes any returned items.

Her office can be reached at (520)769-2223.