18 months after Utah raid, do artifact laws stop theft?

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A caravan of well-armed federal agents rolled into this town in June 2009 to shackle and haul away a score of southern Utahns who allegedly had turned a century-old pot-hunting hobby into a lucrative black market in American Indian artifacts.

Al Hartmann  |  The Salt Lake Tribune Teri Paul museum director for Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum describes one of the displays of Anasazi pottery at the museum.  6/12/09 The artful simplicity of those black zigzags, squares and diamonds — painted on white clay pots a millennium ago — holds the timeless allure of a link in the human chain. But Congress decreed in 1906 that what remained in the earth on federal lands belonged to science and posterity, not on living-room mantels. And, in Utah’s Four Corners region, the largest-ever push to enforce that decree and subsequent laws would provoke a tragic clash of cultures.

The laws, the arrests, the penalties — nothing has stopped the criminal trafficking, last year or last century. Over time, many archaeologists and prosecutors believe, they are changing most people’s attitudes. But many fear the justice system never can stop the stubborn few.

“As archaeologists, we’ve become a little numb to it because we see it everywhere we go,” said Kevin Jones, Utah’s state archaeologist. Many of the sites he has studied are compromised. Without the federal laws, though, “we would have nothing left.”

Illegal or not, Americans still clutch after the Southwest’s past by combing its canyons for ruins. The laws against it, starting with the Antiquities Act, are clear but went largely ignored by the public and the government for decades. The Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) in 1979 added teeth with specific prison sentences but did not end the damage.

ARPA and its potential prison terms have a mixed record of effectiveness, often depending on a prosecutor’s aggressiveness, said Jerry Spangler, executive director of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance. Most people have learned not to vandalize or pick up artifacts, he said, but hard-core pothunters just seek more remote ruins.

“It’s like drug laws,” Spangler said. “The minimum mandatory [drug sentences] are on the books, but it sure hasn’t stopped people from selling drugs.”

Now, though, the government warns that it’s serious.


Author: Brandon Loomis | Source: Utah News [December 25, 2010]


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