Wednesday 24 March 2010

Collecting Antiquities in and around the Ozarks

Compiled from: Nicholas Phillips, "Tweakers 'N Diggers: Looters are pillaging Native American burial grounds to finance their meth habits", The Riverfront Times March 24, 2010.

Collecting Native American artefacts has a long tradition in the Midwest of the USA. People have been hunting the fields and open land for arrowheads throughout the region for generations. The bluff line running south from Cahokia Mounds to Dupo, Illinois, is very rich in with archaeological sites. In the 1800s digging into Indian burials was something families did on Sunday outings after church. At the time, it was widely believed that the earthwork mounds along the Mississippi and eastward had been built by an advanced race of Mound Builders that was squeezed out by the more primitive Native Americans. "In some parts of the country people still find mound-digging to be acceptable," says Iowa-based archaeological researcher Bob Palmer.

But now, archaeologists report that a nefarious breed of looter is stripping history wholesale from public and private soil. The worst ones are essentially grave robbers who come armed, often in the dark of night, to plunder Native American burial grounds. Some hawk the artifacts on eBay or other sites. Others use them as currency for drugs.

Deep in the Ozark Mountains, where authorities say the methamphetamine epidemic is again gaining steam, addicts known as "twiggers" (tweakers who dig) have been mining rock shelters and caves for anything of value — possibly even skeletal remains. The weird nexus between looting and meth has been noted by experts for several years, especially in the Pacific Northwest. Today, these shady characters are leaving their footprints in America's heartland.

A major article in the St Louis-based Riverfront Times covers the activities of these people that some might prefer to see as "subsistence diggers", making cash out of selling dugup artefacts to indiscriminate collectors. The article commences with the story of the arrest of Leslie Jones for looting sites and Native American graves.
Leslie Jones was a familiar face to local law enforcement[...] That he was mixed up in the illicit trade for both artifacts and drugs was no isolated incident. [...] Jones confessed to making money off the stolen artifacts by selling them to collectors. "He may have gotten spear points worth hundreds of dollars," suggests Mark Wagner, a Southern Illinois University Carbondale archaeologist who evaluated the seized items. "We don't know. They've all disappeared into this dealer network."

The major problem in fighting the plague, the indiscriminate market, with an extreme lack of transparency and accountability.

The Mark Twain National Forest (1.5 million acres)mostly in SE Missouri has the most caves in the US national forest system, but a majority "have been looted into oblivion" since about the 1950s says heritage program manager Keri Hicks. "We don't have enough law enforcement to be effective with trying to protect or monitor it", Hicks says.

The Buffalo River National park in northeastern Akansas has similar problems. "Industrial-strength looters" have been invading the region for several years, says federal archaeologist Caven Clark. The problem here is considerably worse than in southeastern Missouri. "When I got here, what I found was more looting than I'd ever seen before", Clark said. In the last three years, he says, 22 serious cases were reported, some of which went to federal court where the pillagers were prosecuted under the 1979 federal Archaeological Resources Protection Act, prohibiting looting on federal property. Nevertheless,

Of the 350 caves and rock shelters in and around the Buffalo, more than 95 percent of them have been worked over, Clark estimates. Crooks target the sheltered sites because humans have huddled in them for millenniums and artifacts have accumulated. Compared to the wet caves of the eastern Ozarks, the sites here are relatively dry, which has helped preserve the bark fiber sandals, fabrics and cordage. "Those things would fetch an unbelievable price," Clark says, but they are very rare. The serious thieves wear camouflage and burrow ferociously into the ground. "I've seen some holes you could probably drop a Volkswagen into," says Clark, adding that they also leave plenty of trash. "We joke that Mountain Dew might as well be probable cause".

Much of the looting however is believed to be linked to drugs. Special agent Robert Still estimates that 70 percent of the archaeological crimes he's worked have some drug connection. Caven Clark has seen the same correlation. "Bad boys are bad boys," he says.

This problem does not affect just state-owned lands. The article gives examples of artefact hunters trespassing on archaeological sites on private land - in effect precisely the same problem that the UK has with those they call "nighthawks". This seems to be on the increase. The example is given of chicken farmer Terry Melton on the Arkansas side of the Central Mississippi Valley who has been running looters off his family's land in the Strawberry and Black river bottoms. "There's got to be something down here worth selling, otherwise the idiots wouldn't keep coming back," Melton says. His cousin adds "We'll probably never get it stopped [...] I quit calling the law". Melton complains that the judge won't discipline the looters, even though it's always the same crowd.

Looting has severely damaged the sites in the region. "The major prize for looters in this area used to be decorated ceramic pots dating back to the time of first European contact 500 years ago. But whole vessels are fairly rare now, and on these northeast Arkansan mounds, only shards remain".

More and more landowners in Missouri's Franklin and Jefferson counties , where the Ozark Mountains begin to roll west and south, have been complaining of unwelcome surface collectors — and sometimes diggers — on their property.

Anti-looting laws have not been warmly received in the deep Ozarks, where, jokes Clark, "digging is a custom among our people." [Jerry Hilliard, assistant station archaeologist at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville] agrees that quirks of highland culture play a role at the state level, too. "Government intervention has always been something that rural folks in the Ozarks have been very skeptical of," he says. "They don't want to be told what they can or can't do on their land."
Antiquity collector and dealer Wayne Sayles, founder of the ACCG lives in the Ozarks.
Leslie Jones was sentenced January 25 in the Southern District of Illinois for his crimes at Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge. Archaeologists calculated that he had churned up enough soil to fill a semitrailer. The judge ordered him to serve 30 days in prison, perform 100 hours of community service and pay $150,000 in restitution. [...] [Anthropologist] Dr. Julie Holt [..] was not as impressed. "The judge gave that guy a slap on the wrist," she complains. "Do you think if he dug up your grandma, he'd get 30 days? No. He'd be in prison for a long time with psychological testing. But somehow, it's OK if it's a Native American burial." [...] Unlike Jones, most people sentenced for ARPA violations don't end up in prison. In Bob Palmer's analysis of federal prosecutions from 1996 to 2005, he determined that 83 looters were found guilty. Of these, less than a fourth of them did any time, and the ones who did served no more than a year.

Vignette: Tom Huck from Riverfront Times article.


Damien Huffer said...

Don't forget the Southwest US! It's just as bad in the deserts.

Paul Barford said...

Indeed, I certainly was not forgetting that, I am doing my best to keep up to date with the Four Corners case(s). The significance of the article was it referred specifcally to the Ozarks where a prominent and noisy collectors' "rights" activist lives. I was making the point that he and his group are very selective about what kind of collectiong they want to persuade the US public is "OK" even when carried out indiscriminately.

I say there are only two types of collecting of archaeological material - irrespective of the material the objects are made from and whether they are round and flat or not. The two types are responsible and indiscriminate.

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