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Digging for Indian Pots : Brazen Thieves Plunder History With a Shovel

December 28, 1986|TAMARA JONES | Associated Press

In the loneliest reaches of America's wilderness, a bold new breed of thief is ransacking history with shovels, trowels and bulldozers.

Tunneling carelessly through prehistoric Indian graves and villages, they plunder the past for artifacts that might fetch thousands of dollars on the black market and ultimately end up in private collections as far away as Japan.

Despite tougher new laws protecting archeological ruins on public land, experts say, the destruction continues at a pace that could obliterate some national historic sites within a few years. In the 11 months ending in September, 1985, federal agencies reported 899 cases of archeological vandalism.

'Heritage Being Lost'

Tossing aside human bones, plowing through ancient walls, these pothunters destroy in a moment what has slumbered undisturbed for centuries as they cart off pottery, jewelry and tools for personal collections or profit.

"Our national heritage is being lost because of vandalism and artifact-hunting," Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel said recently. "It is a page from the history book of this nation that's been taken for good. It cannot be replaced."

The pothunters' determination is shockingly evident at Poncho House Ruins, a spectacular chain of ancient Arizona cliff dwellings deep inside the Navajo reservation.

Tucked into a cliff 600 feet down a sheer sandstone wall, the ruins are difficult and dangerous to reach. By foot, it takes 40 minutes to hike down to the canyon floor on uncertain paths of slippery shale, then scramble up to the dwellings themselves.

Navajo rangers suspect that pothunters have flown into the canyon at least once, when they received a report of an unmarked black helicopter hovering over Poncho House.

Decade of Attack

Poncho House was inhabited from as early as AD 1100 to about 1300. It appears on the National Register of Historic Sites, and the magnificent ruins were undisturbed until this century.

But over the last decade or so, pothunters have systematically burrowed through the rooms, thought to have been part of a storage or granary complex. The digging has undermined the foundation and exposed the ruins to erosion.

"It won't be long till it all caves in," tribal archeologist Tony Klesert said.

The Navajos have counted more than 100 pothunting incidents over the last few years, Klesert said.

The damage and sometimes wholesale destruction of ruins particularly pains Indians, who decry the theft of funerary goods buried with ancestors, and archeologists, who complain that pothunting destroys the research value of a site.

What takes a pothunter 20 minutes to dig up, an archeologist might spend years excavating and then piecing together the scientific clues to prehistoric people--what they ate, what they wore, how they lived, how they died.

Scientists believe that modern man can learn from the mistakes, misfortunes and successes of early cultures. Soil clinging to Anasazi artifacts, for example, might help foretell the conditions that precede droughts like the prolonged one that drove the Anasazi from their ancestral homeland in the 13th Century.

Although pothunters have hit thousands of sites across the country, archeologists and law enforcement officers say the problem is most acute in the archeological mother lode--the Four Corners area where Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico meet. About 1.5 million sites, including cliff dwellings, dry caves and buried villages, dot the region.

No one knows for certain how widespread the damage is. But archeologists and rangers with the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service estimate that 60% to 95% of all major documented sites have been vandalized.

But these rough figures probably represent "the rock-bottom number," said Park Service archeologist Frank McManamon. He said the federal government has no comprehensive inventory of sites, let alone damage to those sites.

In southwestern Colorado alone, the BLM estimates, there are 100 archeological sites per square mile on the 77,000 rugged acres it manages and that at least 85% of those sites have been plundered.

Opinions vary on just who the pothunters are, whether they are organized and how profitable their enterprise is.

Pothunter Profile

Most pothunters are thought to be from the Four Corners, boasting a keen interest in archeology and impressive knowledge of regional history. It is unknown whether they loot primarily to build private collections, swap among fellow pothunters or sell to outsiders.

At the turn of the century and during the Depression, museums and universities paid pothunters $2 to $3 per vessel, and sale of pilfered artifacts kept food on the table for many families in the Four Corners.

"For three summers during the Depression, pothunting was my father's only job," said Devar Shumway, 67, of Blanding, Utah, a tiny town whose pothunting tradition made it the target of a federal investigation last spring. Shumway, in turn, passed along the practice to his 11 children.

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