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An archaeologist and his hometown's pothunting obsession


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Winston Hurst (Courtesy Crow Canyon Archaeological Center)

In the early morning hours of June 10, hundreds of federal agents descended on the small town of Blanding in southern Utah, arresting 16 residents for looting archaeological sites on public and tribal lands. One of the accused was James Redd, 60, the town's prominent doctor, who killed himself the next day.

Archaeologist Winston Hurst, who was born in Blanding and still lives there, is a staunch advocate of archaeological preservation. At the same time, the people of his hometown have a long tradition of pothunting, which Hurst argues won't be eradicated by enforcement alone. Journalist Keith Kloor met with Hurst at his home to discuss Blanding's legacy of looting, the current case, and how best to deter pothunters.

A federal raid on pothunters took place in Blanding in 1986. How similar were the recent arrests?

In some ways, it wasn't quite as bad. Back then they [the federal agents] were a lot more gung ho, but they still came in this time and arrested these guys who have no criminal records and have never entertained a violent thought toward another human being. They go in with half a dozen guys, with automatic weapons, flak jackets, and black FBI suits and not only arrest them, but put them in leg chains and handcuffs. It's nothing but theater.

So is it not acceptable to do these kinds of undercover investigations--maybe not the way it was carried out... But in terms of going after people with these large-scale investigations. Is that necessary?

I have very mixed feelings about that. I'd love to see them go in and sting some of these high level dealers that are at the top of the food chain that really drive this sort of thing [several dealers were later revealed to have been targets of the federal operation-ed]. The thing is it's hard to measure the outcomes of fuzzy things like educational programs. But a bust. Boy its right there, you can show product for that, it's a lot easier to justify, it's a lot easier show results.

Some archaeologists think this bust is going to make the looting problem worse, that it's like hitting a beehive. Do you feel that way?

A certain segment of the population will use it as another excuse to justify their collecting.

I grew up in this town. Collecting artifacts is in the water here. You grow up, you collect artifacts. Hell, when I was a teenage kid, I was digging ruins. I didn't know any better. I didn't know it was illegal until I was in college taking classes in archaeology. We just did it. It's something you did like you hunted rabbits.

James Redd was among your best friends since childhood. Do you have any sense why he took his own life?

It's just incomprehensibly tragic that anything to do with artifacts or archaeology should ever drive someone to suicide, especially someone like Jim. But whenever there's an outcome like this, there's always a lot more back story than meets the eye. In this case, the arrest may have been what pushed him over the edge.

How do you maintain friendships with people who feel looting is acceptable?

I don't know how well I do it. I did it to some degree with Jim, but we weren't very close friends in the last 20 years because of this kind of thing. I'd go to him as a doctor, and we were always friendly. But visits between the families and visits to each other's houses, that was pretty much over with.

The looting problem is complicated by the fact that collecting artifacts on private property is legal. Does that muddy the issue in the minds of some pothunters?

Yes, but having said that, I think it would be a big mistake to criminalize collecting on private land. That would create a revolution in conservative places like this. If these people want to protect the archaeology, they will, if they want to tear it up, they will. Sending in divisions of law enforcement won't make a difference. It's all about hearts and minds.

You often talk about winning hearts and minds. How do archaeologists do that? Does the BLM [Bureau of Land Management] have more staff, offer more internships? How do you turn that attitude around, the attitude that says its okay to rob grave and steal artifacts? How do you change that?

You have to have intelligent discourse with them, and the only way to have that is treat them with a certain amount of respect. Because if you're going to punch them in the nose, there's no dialogue, there's absolutely no open-mindedness, nothing but a fight. Once it's a fight, they're going to retrench in opposition to you. And once that's the case, forget it, at that point I'd say enforcement means nothing.

How should the BLM go on from here and have that intelligent discourse?

I don't think it should ever be primarily a BLM thing. It's always going to feel like propaganda if it's coming from them. What the BLM should do is quietly and intelligently and consistently perform their mandates and enforce the rules. And they should do it in a way that treats people with respect and treats them as though they have some intelligence.

And emphasize that it's not just about who gets to own stuff. That's the great tragedy in all this. Most of the federal agents involved and most of the community really don't understand it. They really think of it being a contest about who gets to own stuff. If that's all is, then all this is is a contest between socialized artifact ownership and the right of the individual to own artifact. If that's what it is, there's no way you'll ever get the support of hearts and minds in the rural west.

Native Americans will tell you the artifacts belongs to them. How do you advance the argument that this belongs to everyone, or the heritage of the country? Who does these artifacts belong to?

I think you get away from talking about who it belongs to. That's the whole problem. You try to focus about the archaeological record, why it's important. And how artifacts fit into it. And how collection of artifacts without benefit of science and documentation strip it and scramble it and permanently destroy the archaeological record. And make it a sense of loss to people.

When I got into studying archaeology, it didn't take very long. First year of course work, and I didn't get this message from professors or anybody like that. It was just implicit in coming to understand what archaeology is, what it does, and the nature of the archaeological record. It was not hard for me to get to the point where I knew it was better to leave [an artifact] on the ground than to take it home and put it in my drawer.

The first time I walked away and left artifacts where I found them was a deeply satisfying thing to me, because I understood the whole big picture of it. And I know the people here very well and I have the highest respect for most of them and I have absolutely no doubt that if they got it, they'd be perfectly happy to leave that stuff alone. The challenge is to get that into people's heads. And it's kinda hard, because they're not sitting in college classes. You don't have that sort of environment. You have to get to them sort of quietly. You get into their heads by talking to them when they're little kids, by talking to them in the Boy Scouts, by talking to people in a conversational, quiet way. Not by beating them over the head with propaganda.

I can't think of a better ambassador for archaeology in the community than yourself, someone who grew up here, with friends and family here. But you haven't done these sorts of things in a personal manner, imparting the information they would get in a college course?

No, I've done some. But it's been pretty easy to tuck my head in and stay low and I haven't done as much as I could, even with Jim. When things got awkward, we just quit talking.

So did that happen because it would have been harder for you to remain in the community? Did you feel like you had to pull back?

Yeah, it's a thing of cowardice. There comes a point where its easier...it takes a lot of energy. It's like being an international diplomat, dealing with this stuff. It's easier just to quietly back away and stay low and shut up and sometimes it's probably best to do that. To a degree, I'm of the opinion that there's kind of a long, slow awakening and people will get it and the harder you push, the more they'll push back. So I'm not inclined to do a lot preaching anymore.

So that what was part of your thinking, not wanting to push too hard?

Yeah, these are strong people around here. [He laughs] They're not afraid to stand up and kick you back if you kick them.

Did anybody ever threaten you?

I've never had an overt threat. There have been some vague implications from some of the more hardcore right wingers, but it's more of a general side-of-the mouth, anti-liberal thing.

Are there other people like Dr. Redd who you would say are really good people, but have this unfortunate quirk?

I'm not going to say they're all really good people. Some of them are absolute jackasses and need to have their asses kicked. But some of them are basically good people. Yeah, they broke the law and deserve the consequences of it, but I've tried to make the point to the community that you don't have to agree with the law but that you have to understand its coming out of a form of representative government, because there are enough people in the United States who care about the archaeological record that they've been able to get laws passed to protect that. And so, you don't have to agree with that, you can work to get those laws changed, but to just say, well, I disagree with that law, so I'm going to break it, that's just not going to work in a society based on the rule of law. I think everybody gets that and these guys who have been involved in it, I think they're waking up to that idea too. In the past, they've tended to see it as something like a speeding ticket. And they will still argue that this kind of activity should not be criminalized at the level it is. You know, "it's not robbing banks, it's not mugging little old ladies and raping women." And I have to concur with them to a degree. On the other hand, the problem is, that the only way you can get people to take this stuff seriously is to have sanctions at that level. Because if you treat it just like a speeding ticket, then there goes the archaeological record.

So maybe now after this latest raid, people will take it more seriously.

Well, certainly, that was the whole point of what they did. And from a certain point of view it probably needed to happen. I don't know... it's complicated. There's something wrong with equating artifacts, with equating arrowheads with a violent crime in some way. At the same time, if people are just going to continue to devour the archaeological record, then if it's worth saving, then at some point it's worth it to criminalize it...though it seems unfortunate. But that's where we are.

There is an irony to all this, in that members of this community come from families that were trained how to excavate ruins by archaeologists 75 years ago.

I'm not sure they were trained so much as they were legitimized. They trained the archaeologists in that case. They already knew how to find stuff. What happened is the University of Utah came down and hired these guys and made them part of the legitimate university expedition with a Harvard Ph.D. and sent them out to dig out pots and they did that for half a decade. Then when [the archaeologist] died of cancer they continued to do what they were doing, arguing that they were seeing all this stuff leave to the museum. So yeah, it was a legitimatization.

[University of Colorado at Boulder archaeologist] Cathy Cameron was telling me that part of the problem with pothunting is that it's a "Depth of Time" issue. If the burials are 10 or 20 years old, or even their own pioneer graves, they wouldn't touch them. But 500 years old, 1,000 years old... Would you agree with that?

I think so. I think it's a variation on a standard human, universal thing, where people can personalize history back to about the third generation, then it tends to fade into a historical blur, and it becomes mythical time.

Some people have an inherent love for history and some are absolutely bored to death. And if you're bored with history, you're going to be bored with archaeology. You can't expect everybody to have a passion...

But that being the case, if that's the way we're hardwired, then that suggests it would make it more difficult to educate people. So how do you get around that?

Just talk to them, try to get them interested in it, that there's value in it, quiet discourse. I think the challenge is to get people to think of the archaeological record as a record. You have people who are bored with history but don't think that they're entitled to go into an archive with a pair of scissors and cut out the stuff that they think is cool and take it home and put on their shelf. Even if they aren't personally interested in it, it would never occur to them to make the argument that they are entitled to tear a page out of a unique manuscript.

The challenge we have is to make people understand that all the written history of the human race represents a very small piece of the human experience. It not only represents the small amount of time that there have been humans have been on the planet. But at any given time it represents a relatively small sample of the few people who were on this planet. So as interesting as written history is, we tend to make much of it, like the old story of the guy looking for his wallet under the street light, even though he lost it in the dark. Because that's what we have to look at. And we forget that 99.9 percent of the human experience is not represented by human history. And the history of that is the archaeological record. And that's the primary record of the human experience, across the world, through all times and all places. That's what we need to get through to people.

And when they're out their stripping it, either collecting surface artifacts or digging it up and busting the connections between the artifacts and the context in which they left behind, we're sterilizing, randomizing, scrambling that record, just as much as if you walked into a monastery in northern Italy and started hacking some old medieval manuscript, because you could sell a page for a buck, or because you thought it looked cool.

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