The map was reminiscent of the layout of the West Bank, with its contorted maze of enclaves, land strips and razor-thin passages.
“You see this red color? This is federal land,” Bureau of Land Management archaeologist Linda Farnsworth said as she swung her pencil over the Four Corners area — a plateau where Colorado, Utah, Nevada and New Mexico meet. “And the white color is private land.”
It could have appeared inconsequential, had these limits not marked an invisible front line in a clash between culture and vandalism, public good and private greed, law abidance and crime.
“Yes, the same thing done on public and private land could mean the difference between ending up in jail and walking out scot-free with plenty of money in your pockets,” Ms. Farnsworth added with a sad smile.
What she was trying to explain sounded bizarre, but the hard facts backed her up.
In this archaeologically rich region of the country, a law enacted during the presidency of Jimmy Carter made a peculiar zigzag: It accepted the importance of cultural preservation on government property, but all but brushed it off on private land.
Under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, hunting for Anasazi artifacts and selling them to the highest bidder is legal if you do it on private ranches, but is forbidden if you step onto federal or tribal property.
It’s as if the nation had two histories, two cultures and two systems of values.
It’s a barren and ascetic landscape. Sage, creosote and an occasional gnarled cedar dot the arid valleys ringed with solemn red-stone mesas. Sun, wind and silence.
Undaunted by the rigors of this environment, an ancient people known as the Anasazi established themselves here in about 1200 B.C. Their civilization prospered for roughly 2½ millennia, historians say.
The Indians grew primitive crops, invented a hunting weapon known as atlatl, domesticated animals, and built breathtaking cliff dwellings and ceremonial houses known as kivas.
Remnants of this civilization are being discovered on the vast expanse of the Southwest, from the Mojave Desert in California to the pueblo villages in northern New Mexico and from the mesas of Arizona to the canyonlands of southern Utah.
In the 1890s, local rancher Richard Wetherill became a pioneer explorer of the area, discovering the Cliff Palace, an elaborate complex of Anasazi mountain dwellings that would form the centerpiece of what is now Mesa Verde National Park.
Wetherill also laid the foundation of a business that, decades later, would lay waste to many of the unique archaeological sites: private for-profit artifact hunting.