Site stewards hike the desert checking on treasures from the past

When Arizona Site Stewards Gale Barg and Sharon Popp go hiking in the desert they tread lightly so as not to disturb geoglyphs or ancient paths.

As they visit Native American camps, villages, cemeteries, rock writing sites, pioneer homesteads and mining camps their trained eyes look for clues to the past: rock circles or alignments, rock writing, pottery sherds, a metate once used to grind grain or corn.

To the untrained eye, clues may seem elusive, but when Barg and Popp went through the initial training class to become site stewards they were taught what to look for.

"You really get hooked on it," Popp, a site steward for four years, said.

"It is exciting to see something from the past.

We also look for lithics (stone chips) that may have been used to scrape or cut.

We can tell by the material where it came from."

The primary goal of site stewards, however, is to gather evidence of something both sinister and illegal: looting and vandalism of archaeological sites.

"Site stewards are the rangers' eyes in the desert," said Bureau of Land Management archeologist John Rose.

"We take looting very seriously."

Rose said archeological sites on federal or tribal land more than 100 years old are protected by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act.

Damaging such a site is a federal offence, and can result in fines or prison.

"Looting is a crime and a serious problem in Mohave County.

Looters dig into sites and graves to collect artifacts to sell," he said.

"They mix up the dirt and destroy the relationship between artifacts.

They steal sherds, baskets and sandals.

Some even take bones out of graves."

The looters then sell the artifacts on the black market or on e-Bay, he said.

"People have also tried to steal petroglyphs by trying to remove the portion of the rock with the writing.

What they end up doing is splintering the rock and destroying it," Popp said.

Barg, who also became a site steward four years ago, said she visits archaeological sites once of week or more during the cooler months.

She often goes with Popp, but also visits sites alone or with her boyfriend, sometimes to remote sites as far away as the town site of Signal, near Wikieup.

"They train us to look for certain signs that the site has been vandalized," she said.

"Digging, darker dirt (a sign the ground has been disturbed) or piles of sherds are signs someone has vandalized the site."

Popp, who lives in Golden Valley, said she visits sites in the area at least once a week, and has come across burros, desert bighorn sheep, and other wildlife during her visits.

Site stewards are trained to take information and photos of the site and to use a Global Positioning System to locate the site for future reference.

Stewards never remove anything from a site.

Barg and Popp report looting or vandalizing incidents as well as other illegal activities such as trash dumping, cactus theft, poaching or reptile trapping.

"Most human history in the Southwest was made by thousands of people who did not leave a written history.

Every time someone vandalizes an archeological site they rob us of our historic treasures," Rose said.

"They prevent us from learning about the families that once lived here."

Looters know they are committing a crime, are often armed, and frequently engaged in other illegal activities, Rose said.

Stewards are cautioned never to approach looters at a site, but to discretely take down a car license and description of the looters in order to report the incident to land managers who investigate the crime.

Barg said she has never had to confront anyone at a site, and most of her time is spent enjoying the desert surroundings while reporting on existing sites or discovering new sites.

Site stewards go to assigned sites - sites that have already been visited by an archaeologist and deemed historical - most often in areas in which they live.

It is BLM archeologist Jerica Richardson's job to classify archeological sites in the Coyote Pass area between Golden Valley and Kingman.

She has classified about a dozen sites in the 640 square-mile area.

However, Rose said new archaeological sites are often discovered by site stewards.

Unfortunately, the fragile and irreplaceable sites are disappearing fast.

Stewards are needed in Mohave County for the Arizona Site Steward Program to protect sites until scientific information can be obtained.

Started in 1980 to stop archaeological looting, the Arizona Site Steward Program is the first such program in the nation.

Other states are now modeling similar programs after Arizona's site steward program.

There are currently 700 site stewards statewide.