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The Southwest's good ol' artifact boys

Federal raids on antiquities hunters and collectors in the Southwest unearth ordinary citizens.

June 15, 2009|Craig Childs | Craig Childs is the author of several books, including "House of Rain" and "Animal Dialogues."

After federal raids last week on the somewhat casual, small-town traffic in illicit Southwest artifacts, one prominent pot hunter is dead and nearly a dozen more are under indictment.

The criminal actions grew out of a two-year undercover investigation in the Four Corners region, in which a wired informant purchased more than $300,000 in illicit antiquities. Most were bought in the high desert town of Blanding, Utah.

You might have an imaginary picture of the pot hunters and collectors who live there, a crew of dirty, well-armed black-market privateers roving the desert (in the case of many Western pot hunters, you'd be right). But the scenario becomes more complicated when you look closely at who is actually named. The federal action laid bare a little known culture of ordinary citizens who collect and sell human history.

Many of those named in the indictments come from prominent local families, their surnames going back more than 100 years in the area. One is a 78-year-old member of the Utah Tourism Hall of Fame, a friendly face greeting you at the Blanding Visitor Center. Half of those indicted are in their 60s and 70s, people who grew up pot hunting when it was not even thought of as unethical, much less illegal.

The federal action, a lot of locals think, was akin to busting a bunch of good ol' boys with a backwoods still. They don't give much thought to how illegal digging in the Four Corners has decimated one of the richest archaeological regions in the country, putting thousands of years of human history into private hands.

Pulling artifacts from the land without documentation and adding them to private collections is a form of archaeological genocide, erasing the record of a people from a place.

Yet for many in the Four Corners area, it is like collecting seashells. Sunday picnics used to include shovels. An old-timer once told me that there were so many pots they were like pumpkins on the ground, and few saw anything wrong with digging and collecting. The pastime was hardly frowned on until the 1980s, when a similar federal raid blew open this same town of Blanding.

One of those targeted in this most recent sting was James Redd, 60, a longtime family doctor and one of the most prominent citizens in Blanding.

Redd and his wife, who was also targeted in the raids, faced similar charges in the 1990s when they were caught digging on state land. After a lengthy legal battle, the Redds were acquitted.

Redd was found dead on his property last Tuesday, the day after his home was searched. It appears that he committed suicide.

The following morning, community members gathered at the foot of the Redds' driveway, some weeping, some deeply angered, saying that agents had gone too far in a town where pot hunting was once a respectable part of life.

The sting extended beyond Blanding to nearby Colorado and New Mexico. Forrest Fenn, a wealthy collector in Santa Fe, also had his home searched, although he was not named in the indictment. Agents entered Fenn's home on Monday and confiscated artifacts, records and his computers.

Only weeks before, I had visited Fenn and spent a day going through his artifacts, most of which he insisted were legal, either acquired from private land (legal in this country) or from a chain of transactions predating antiquities laws.

With infectious enthusiasm, he told me that he is in love with artifacts, that he can feel time in them. He said that everyone should have the right to make direct and daily contact with the past, not just scientists and curators. When I countered that scientists and curators are working to create a much larger body of knowledge, Fenn replied: "They already have so much they don't know what to do with it. Why do they have to have everything?"

Most privately held artifacts come with very little context or data, details of their past effectively erased. Knowing this, I was not convinced by Fenn, but I certainly understood his desire for an intimate relationship with these objects and not one constrained by institutional decree.

Most scholars and archaeologists avoid contact with private collectors whose artifacts lack impeccable provenance. But like it or not, these people are part of what seems to be a basic human need, an artifact culture yearning for a palpable connection to the past, even if it means nabbing it from the ground.

Perhaps last week's raid of so many ordinary citizens was a necessary step in pushing pot hunting further from the realm of what is acceptable. But it deepens a rift so terrible that one of those involved ended his life.

When I heard that his home had been raided, I contacted Fenn with my condolences, an act that felt slightly uncomfortable considering that I have long been an avid defender of artifacts remaining in situ and not on collectors' shelves. But contacting him was the right thing to do. What kind of person would I be if I distanced myself from a friend in distress? That, I feel, is part of the reconciliation.

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