Friday 30 April 2010

Drugs, Guns and Dirt

There is a revealing article by Samir Patel a senior editor at ARCHAEOLOGY (,'Drugs, Guns and Dirt', Archaeology Vol. 62 Number 2, March/April 2009) about the collecting of portable antiquities in the US. In particular it stresses how:
the locus of archaeological crime in the Southwest and across the nation is shifting into the world of drugs and guns. It is a far cry from the traditional, familial world of pot hunters and metal detectorists.
It is suggested that there has been a broad shift from the treasure hunters of the 1960s and 1970s to the profit-motivated commercial looters of the 1980s and 1990s (both still significant problems in the US). The meth connection represents a third phase, it is looting with no knowledge or regard to the objects being taken, the purest commodification of the past.

A case is discussed of a raid by federal agents from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service on a "trailer" (many Americans it seems live in caravan parks) outside Grants, New Mexico in April 2004 caught a dealer who traded in both meth and antiquities. The BLM case agent for archaeological crime in New Mexico had earlier received a tip about the theft of some illegally owned Anasazi items had been stolen from a private home. Officers quickly identified the thief and"flipped" him, that is, they got him to help catch the person who had bought the objects through a 'sting' operation. As the agents stormed the trailer in which the transaction took place, the suspect ran out the back. When stopped at gunpoint by the cover team waiting there he asked them, "what are you guys here for? Are you here for the meth?".

In the trailer raided in April 2004,
agents found a pound and a half of meth (with a street value of a few hundred thousand dollars, depending on how it was cut), at least five loaded firearms, and 16 pounds of marijuana. On the kitchen counter, where he cut meth for sale, and on shelves around the house were at least 30 or 40 intact prehistoric Anasazi pots. "You could seewhat he was doing his business in," says [Agent N]. "This was the perfect example of how the drug trade has overlapped with the illegal artifact trade".
The article states that most New Mexico cases "come from the poverty-stricken trailer parks of Farmington, Bloomfield, and Aztec in the state's archaeology-rich northwest corner". An agent identified only as "N" says that history buffs aren't his targets: "All I've been dealing with is tweakers," he says, using the slang term for methamphetamine addicts, who loot sites for artifacts they can sell or trade for more drugs". Law enforcement officials in the Southwest even have a term for those who combine tweaking and digging--"twiggers".
Blythe Bowman, a criminologist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, has been studying archaeologists' experience with looting and has found reports of the same drug-related archaeological looting in the US not just from the southwest, but reports came in from California, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Oregon, Georgia, and other places. She surmises that
The energizing and obsessive effects [which meth produces in an addict] make it fun, almost pleasurable, for tweakers to do the tedious work of artifact hunting. They have the steam to wander sites and dig holes for hours, the focus to scan the ground closely,and the compulsive need to find more and more. According to those who have spoken to twiggers directly, the ability to sell artifacts seems almost secondary to the addictive thrill of discovery. It makes them the perfect, tireless looting workforce.
it also makes them sound like British metal detectorists, does it not?
"Because of their obsessive behavior, according to Glenna Dean, former New Mexico state archaeologist, they tend to "hoover" sites, pick them clean in ways that more discerning looters would not. Online auction sites then provide a market for any stray bits of history that turn up. Because long-term meth use leads to agitation and violent behavior, and because of the ubiquity of guns in the Southwest, the discovery and policing of looting has become more dangerous.
US portable antiquity collectors suggest that the way to "stop looting' is for archaeological authorities to guard archaeological sites more carefully and enforce laws more strictly. Convictions for archaeological crimes are difficult to obtain even under the best circumstances. Federal officers are spread extremely thin across the Southwest and there are hurdles to making a case, such as proving that an artefact was illegally taken from federal land. Once a suspect in drug-related crime is caught, looting offenses take a back seat to drugs charges - violators of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act face two years in prison, but only if the value of the artifacts exceeds $500, while drugs and firearms carry much steeper penalties. These factors all mean that in the US there is little additional risk for a tweaker or drug dealer to diversify into the antiquities trade. In addition many (including as we have seen judges) still regard looting as a victimless crime. In the Southwest, in the drug trade, antiquities are what a stolen car stereo might be in New York- an untraceable commodity of the criminal underground. As Patel observes:
Artifacts can be looted from remote public lands near impoverished communities with acute drug problems, and there is an infrastructure of shady galleries and trading posts that can "launder" them for sale.
Well, of course this is not just the case with Anasazi pots on the US market. The international trade in antiquities, including to the US, is one of the sources of revenue for organized criminal groups from eastern Europe, the Near East and Far East, and these goods are "laundered" through an infrastructure provided by the no-questions-asked market in unprovenanced antiquities which most antiquity collectors worldwide frequent. It is to preserving the anonymity and lack of transparency of this market that allows this to continue that US collectors' advocacy groups such as the ACCG are devoting their efforts and resources.

While in America's southwest, "a kind of strange synergy is developing with meth in particular that puts every archaeological site and collections at greater risk", elsewhere in the market the same kind of synergy has developed between dealers and the law breakers who supply part of the indiscriminate market with all manner of illegally dug-up and illegally exported collectable archaeological artefacts.


Paul Barford said...

Nicholas Merkelson has posted a story based on this on his blog

and refers readers to his earlier post "Subsistence Digging is (Not) Looting?," "where I examine the practice of subsistence digging by impoverished peoples to supplement their meager farming income. One might say an even more disastrous and negative form of subsistence digging is practiced by twiggers!"

The problem is that the original article was apologetic with regard those "subsistence diggers".

Damien Huffer said...

Yeah, looting for "subsistence" or raw profit is still looting. What's sad is how grossly the middle-men might cheat or underpay local villagers after a site's been destroyed...all that destruction for nothing. Anyone who's worked in the SW US archaeological world (CRM or otherwise) will have by now heard of or seen evidence of vandals and twiggers. I have... And what's Arizona just done in response to enormous budget cuts? Closed numerous national parks with archaeological ruins on them, of course! "It's open season, boys..."

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