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Recent Events "Facing the Crisis"
July 1, 1998

[image] Big Boy Pipe from the Spiro site in eastern Oklahoma (University of Arkansas Museum; Courtesy Hester Davis) [LARGER IMAGE]

A widely publicized case of looting at the Slack Farm site in Kentucky, with a visually grisly article in National Geographic, gave the coalition of Native Americans and archaeologists the ammunition they needed to get the attention of Congress once again in protecting sites. More than 400 graves had been disturbed, left with mounds of dirt with pieces of human bone beside the gaping holes. The result of Slack Farm was the passage in 1990 of the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act. The act is not to the liking of many archaeologists or museum curators across the country who must tell descendent tribes of any human remains or grave offerings in their collections. If claimed by the tribe, the museum must give them back. The discussions, meetings, seminars, articles, and hearings leading to passage of this act have resulted in vast changes in how archaeologists in the U.S. think about excavations and in much improved relationships between archaeologists and Native American groups in most cases.

In the east where there is little federal land, many states have, in the last ten to 15 years, either passed laws strengthening previous antiquity acts, or enacted legislation dealing specifically with looting of graves. In Arkansas, for example, in 1991, the legislature passed a law which protects all unmarked graves--Native American, black, pioneer, whomever--on public and private land. Arkansas is a largely rural state, and "normal farming practices" are exempt; but a farmer cannot let his friend come and get the pots from a grave which he may have disturbed in planting his soybeans, nor can he deliberately dig up the contents himself. The law has not yet been challenged, particularly this section dealing with what a person can do with what has always been considered private property. But in Arkansas and other states where recent laws have been directed at stopping looting, the impression is that such digging has been reduced. In Indiana, for example, there is a strong state law dealing with protection of archaeological sites. In a case dealing with a particular section of ARPA, which makes it a federal crime to transport antiquities across state lines which are taken in violation of state law, a man named Arthur Gerber dug in a large mound without landowner permission and took the artifacts to Kentucky and sold them. He was arrested, tried, convicted, and given a one-year jail sentence on five counts, to serve concurrently, a $5000 fine, and three years supervised release. The resulting publicity has meant that the public in Indiana is much more aware that it is illegal to dig. The preservation community in the state has been able to use the case in stressing the importance of leaving archaeological sites alone unless they are to be disturbed by construction, and law enforcement agencies are more aware of their duty to protect sites.

In an equally well known case, in 1997, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals redeemed itself in archaeological circles by sentencing Earl Shumway, a "repeat looter of prehistoric sites" on federal land in Utah to the "largest sentence ever handed down in an archaeological violation case" (Anonymous 1997:12)--six and one-half years in federal prison. This catches the attention of others who may have been digging on federal land.

A tougher nut to crack has been the looting of shipwrecks in our waters off the shores of states in the southeast, on the Gulf of Mexico, and in California. The 1989 Abandoned Shipwreck Act gives a measure of protection to wrecks within our waters, and most of our coastal states have some kind of protective laws as well. But the treasure-hunting fever has always captured the imagination of Americans--most of the prehistoric mounds and dry bluff shelters in Arkansas have holes dug where treasure hunters have been sure they will find the gold which De Soto is supposed to have buried. The Abandoned Shipwreck Act changed salvage laws with regard to historic wrecks, but does allow entrepreneurs to work within the laws of the state. In some cases this means obtaining permits which put restrictions on how the salvage is to be done (i.e., under the direction of a professional archeologist) and what is to be done with the objects recovered.   cont.


Part 2: Beginning of a Change

Part 3: Recent Events

Part 4: The Future

References Cited

© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America