A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Looting in the U.S.
People have been digging into prehistoric sites in the U.S. since Europeans arrived, and the first publication of an excavation was in 1787 when Thomas Jefferson described his investigations of a mound in Virginia. What is there in the mound and village sites of native North Americans, in the trash dumps of pioneers, in the wrecks of hundreds of ships along our coasts and rivers that appeals to collectors? What provides the impetus for their indiscriminate digging, which destroys the context of large and small sites alike? I will provide some answers to these questions, but I can tell you now that most archaeologists have no good information on the amount of looting, only vague impressions as to whether recent laws and publicity are having any effect, and no clue as to how the market for Native American antiquities works.
What do collectors and dealers find appealing about archaeological sites? In the American Southwest, the ruins of pueblo and other village areas are full of beautiful pottery, shell and turquoise jewelry, and sometimes perishable material as well, which bring good returns in the market. In the valley of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers the Indians placed beautifully made pottery vessels, carved effigy pipes, and religious objects of copper, mica, and shell in the graves of their dead. These artifacts have been removed from graves and sold to dealers for decades. During the Great Depression in Arkansas, pots sold for $5.00 a piece--sometimes the only cash a farmer had to feed his family. Now, plain pottery vessels may bring $100 while an effigy vessel may bring as much as $50,000. No wonder digging is a long-standing tradition in Arkansas.
But the whole situation for archaeology and archaeologists in the U.S. has changed in the last 25 years. The focus and nature of the crisis, about which I wrote in the early 1970s (Davis 1971, 1972) has shifted considerably. Looting of graves had been done by casual collectors as well as concerted commercial interests; now, while random and haphazard digging seems to have been reduced, in many parts of the country looting is purposeful, with profit making the illicit digging worth the risk.