BLM officials work to return looted artifacts to their rightful homes

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SALT LAKE CITY -- Officials with the Bureau of Land Management are taking steps to return thousands of illegally obtained artifacts to their rightful owners.

In 2009, federal law enforcement officers raided several homes in Utah and Colorado looking for the items. Many of the people accused of looting accepted plea deals in which they had to turn over the whole of their collections.

This spring, the BLM team completed the first baseline inventory of the collection, identifying approximately 200,000 individual items, including pottery, projectile points, hand tools, grinding stones and a number of perishable items made from organic materials.

“We have a little bit of everything. It’s a very representative collection,” said Nancy Mahaney, BLM Curator of the Cerberus Collection. “It’s mostly Ancestral Pueblo, those were the people who inhabited the Four Corners area prior to European contact.”

Most of the items are being stored in a warehouse in the Salt Lake Valley. However, some of the more delicate, perishable items are being stored at the Nature History Museum as they have better environmental controls to preserve the materials. The collection includes approximately 95 boxes of perishable materials, according to Mahaney.

The items date from A.D. 1 to the 1400s and many require a good deal of investigative work to determine the region where the materials are from. The BLM has reached out to several Native American communities to help with the task of identifying any potential cultural affiliations to the items that will help the BLM return the items to the correct homes.

“I think people’s concerns really are that we move forward as quickly as we can given what the regulations and everything are, to repatriate the materials, and certainly, the individuals, the human remains as quickly as we can,” Mahaney said. “But we want everyone to be involved in the process that wants to be involved, so we have to give time for everybody to review and comment before a decision is made as to what the affiliations are."

Mahaney said this project is especially challenging because the items were looted from sites; they do not have a good record of where things were found or in what original condition.

“Ideally the material will be used to help educate people regarding the detrimental nature of this kind of looting, what is lost, and how things are damaged when people undertake that, those activities,” Mahaney said.

She hopes the public will be more aware of the damage looting can do and how to act appropriately when one comes across a possible artifact.

“We want people to leave materials where they find them,” Mahaney said. “We want to encourage people to respect the sites where these materials are located and to respect the native people that created these materials, the ancestors and the native people today.”

2 comments

  • Chubby Kid From South Park

    I’m a “native person.” I was born here. Therefore: Native. If I drop garbage on the ground how long before it’s illegal for anyone to pick it up?

  • Bill Lipe

    The looters typically target human burials, because people often were buried with complete artifacts that were thought to be important to them in life or afterlife. The bones typically are discarded on the backdirt. Another favorite target of looters, and where the extremely valuable weavings, baskets, etc. come from, are dry caves. These are extremely important in archaeological research, as they often provide a good record of what resources people were using, including food remains, and also what plants and animals were being harvested, which can provide insights into environmental changes. A knowledgeable looter (and most of them know what they are doing) can destroy an amount of archaeological deposit in an afternoon that it would take archaeological researchers weeks or months to excavate carefully and several times that to study. The looters just go for the rare items that have commercial value, while archaeologists typically collect and study the common artifacts that make up most of the material at the site. They also focus on getting evidence of the date of the site and the layers within it. Several thousand years of human history in this area have been documented by careful archaeological research. Many of the collectors/looters claimed that they grew up digging for artifacts back when it was legal to do so. In fact, the only people who could make that claim must be at least 120-125 years old, because it has been illegal to dig archaeological sites on federal lands without a permit since 1906.

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