- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2008


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.

“It picks up every time we have a long weekend. People head for the desert in the hope of finding something valuable,” said a local law-enforcement official who wanted to remain anonymous. “Half of them are just methamphetamine addicts who want some money to feed their drug habit. But behind them are serious art dealers, often with international connections.”

The federal government appears to lack strong convictions about what it should protect and where.

“Only 15 percent of the Four Corners area has been surveyed and inventoried by archaeologists,” Ms. Farnsworth said. “The rest is still untouched. We suspect there are somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 unexplored archaeological sites out there.”

Art poachers come every year, mostly when the scorching summer temperatures begin to subside. Dozens of them, federal officials say: by foot, horses, mules, pickup trucks, all-terrain vehicles, sport utility vehicles and any other means of transportation.

Some, said Ms. Farnsworth, are well-read and know how to make a professional archaeological dig to maximize the return. But others do little more than damage.

All of this, one investigator said, is just the tip of the iceberg because “there is definitely a network out there” that delivers the loot to private collectors around the world.

Big money is in play. “If you mine a site systematically and professionally, you can potentially make hundreds of thousands of dollars out of it,” Ms. Farnsworth said. “It’s possible to make $1,000 just between breakfast and lunch.”

On the East Coast, act collectors easily will pay $15,000 for a restored Anasazi jar and $7,500 for a smaller bowl. Even tiny calcium-covered arrowheads go for up to $90; ax heads for up to $700.

Art dealers insist their items are sold with certificates of authenticity and provenance, assertions that evoke sarcastic laughs from federal investigators.

“Those can be produced right here on any computer in less than 10 minutes,” said one of them, pointing out that under existing law, these documents don’t have to be approved by any cultural authority or even notarized.

The Carter-era law made the burden of proof in art-theft investigations inordinately heavy and left plenty of escape hatches for wrongdoers.

As a result, investigators are basically left with two options: catching the thieves red-handed, which is not easy given the vastness of the area, or tenuously building the cases by matching soil samples taken from the shoes and clothing of the suspects and matching them with the soil from the looted site.

Looters raid the Four Corners nearly every week, but only three criminal historical-site vandalism cases were opened in the Cortez area last year. Twelve investigations are continuing, federal officials said.

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