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Plunder for Profit : Looters Rob Old Graves and History

February 11, 1988|LARRY GREEN and WENDY LEOPOLD | Times Staff Writers

UNIONTOWN, Ky. — Crows caw in the distance and a cold drizzle falls from a churning gray sky in this remote corner of northwestern Kentucky where hundreds of freshly dug holes--open wounds upon the land--mar a sloping farm field.

The crude excavations are littered with black fragments of ancient pottery, a few discarded beer cans, abandoned shovels and the broken, mud-stained bones of perhaps 1,200 Indians.

From a nearby rise, a knot of local people watches silently as three American Indians walk among the opened graves and mounds of dirt. They carry a mussel shell filled with burning tobacco as they pray for the disturbed spirits of their ancestors.

"There have been incidents before, but something this massive is outrageous," said one of the three, John Thomas, a Shawnee activist who conducts the solemn, makeshift ceremony every four days.

Far-Ranging Scavengers

The site, on the banks of the Ohio River near its confluence with the Wabash River, is a ghostly symbol on a grand scale of something that is happening with increasing frequency in America--the looting and destruction of archeological sites and desecration of historic graves by commercial artifact hunters. Profit-driven relic scavengers are harvesting the nation's history--digging up the graves of Indians, pioneer settlers and Civil War soldiers on both private and public lands.

Looters using metal detectors have been caught digging in the Richmond and Fredericksburg Civil War battlefields, and in some areas of the Southwest, looters have used heavy earth-moving machinery to uncover Indian artifacts.

Here at Uniontown, 10 men, four of them from neighboring Illinois and Indiana, allegedly paid a local farmer $10,000 for the right to dig on 40 acres in the months between the harvest and spring planting.

With water from rented tanks to soften the hard, dry soil, they allegedly used shovels to digging up the ancient graves in mid-October and continued until mid-December, when residents of the area complained and Kentucky State Police moved in to make arrests. The 10 are charged with desecration of a venerated object. They have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.

"This site had greater potential than any I know of to tell us what happened to the native peoples of the Ohio Valley," said Cheryl Ann Munson, senior archeologist at Indiana University's Glenn Black Laboratory of Archeology.

"The value of (this) site was what it could tell us about the native cultures of the region and why they disappeared . . . . Looters have compromised much of what we can compare," said Munson, who was to begin studying the Uniontown site next month with a grant from the Kentucky Heritage Council.

"This was really a commercial mining operation of the burial ground for artifacts . . . (and it) is a clear example of what's happening all over the nation," added Francis P. McManamon, chief of the U.S. Interior Department's archeological assistance agency.

"This ranks as one of the five worst cases nationwide that I know of," said David J. Wolf, a forensic anthropologist with the Kentucky State Medical Examiner's Office.

"An archeological site is similar to an endangered species in wildlife," said Mark Leone, an official of the Society for American Archeology. "There are only so many of them. They don't reproduce, and once they're gone, they're gone . . . . The Kentucky example is disturbing because it is making a profit off the remains of the cultural past and exploiting another people's heritage."

'It's Not Right'

"It's grave robbing," said Kentucky state Sen. John T. Hall. "They're looking at it for monetary value and that's not right. Digging up anybody's bones is wrong. It's just not a proper way to make a living."

If it is not proper, it is lucrative. Norman Reid, who owns the Indian Hill Museum in nearby Bone Gap, Ill., said that items from similar graves have been sold for thousands of dollars. One collector paid $17,000 for a stone ax. Slate pendants can fetch between $300 and $1,000. Pipes have been sold for $5,000 each. A copper death mask could be worth $100,000 or more. "That's like finding a Rembrandt."

"If you want to stoop that low, it's a very profitable business," Reid said.

"There's a wide-open market for Indian artifacts," Munson said. "It's a black market only for lack of ethics involved."

"We need to cut off access to the markets," said Suzan Shown Harjo, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. In addition to arresting looters, Harjo said that penalties should be imposed on "all those intermediaries, brokers and final recipients, whether it's the Smithsonian itself or the favorite local museum or a pawn shop . . . . It has to get to the point where the risk is not worth the price."

Enforcement Criticized

"Federal agencies . . . have not been effective in identifying and prosecuting the buyers of looted artifacts," the congressional General Accounting Office said in a December report on the problem.

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