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The Future "Facing the Crisis"
July 1, 1998

In the last 20 years, and the last eight years in Arkansas, the looting situation has changed. In the east, state laws and well-publicized cases seem to have reduced the amount of such digging. In the west, however, looting continues although federal agents are bringing more and more cases to court and violators are being sentenced. But there will never be enough law enforcement agents to patrol the federal land, and never enough professional and amateur archaeologists to keep track of even the large and important sites in the west. As many have said since the early 1970s, the answer to reducing the looting lies in educating landowners, collectors, and dealers about the loss of information about the past when sites are pillaged for artifacts with no records being made.

Many archaeologists have pronounced that by eliminating the market, you will eliminate the digging. This seems a trifle naive, not to say unrealistic, to me. Everything I read says there will always be a market because collecting is part of human nature (Belk 1995). So long as there is a large market to be fed, there will be illegal digging. While the risks may be greater today than they were, the rewards when you are not caught are also greater.

In the east, landowners determine whether they will allow digging on their land. We need to get to the next generation of landowners so that digging in a grave just to get the artifacts will be as abhorrent as disturbing your grandmother's grave to get her gold wedding ring. Digging in graves and strewing the bones around seems a particularly blatant act of grave robbing. Some have thought that this has been tolerated because the diggers are of European descent, and they are not digging up their own ancestors--they are "only" digging up Indians! But if the Sierra Club can, in the course of 20 years or so, change the nation's attitudes toward the environment, why can't archaeologists and Native Americans mount a campaign to change attitudes toward digging in sites of the past in ways that destroys that past?

[image] Shell gorget with dancing figure from Tennessee (Courtesy Hester Davis) [LARGER IMAGE]

The Society for American Archeology has a very active Public Education Committee which is beginning to make inroads in the teaching of history/prehistory in public elementary schools. Curricula are being circulated nationwide. Books and articles are being written at all levels about what is good and bad archaeology, and how to learn about the past. Discovery Channel and The Learning Channel have begun to carry educational programs which help in this cause. Successes have been spotty but encouraging. But can we say the crisis is abating? I don't think so yet. In Arkansas, commercial diggers are working at night; elsewhere they may have gone underground (if you'll pardon the expression) to acquire the objects for the antiquities market. Along the Rio Grande, individuals from south Texas are looting graves on the Mexican side of the river, and bringing the objects illegally back across the border into Texas and selling them in antique shops and flea markets (Hester 1996). A recent small notice in the classified ad sections of the Austin, TX, paper said: "Seeking proven Indian mounds for harvesting artifacts. Will perform minor repair work or negotiable lease." Eternal vigilance must be maintained.

So who owns the past in this country? The answer depends upon whom you talk to. Archaeologists used to be taught that we owned the past--we found it, we studied it, we understood what it meant. More recently, we have said "the past belongs to everyone." But Native Americans are now telling us in no uncertain words that we do not own their past, and they know more about their past than we do, without digging up anything, and that we certainly don't understand the meaning of some of the objects we find. The crisis of looting in parts of the U.S. may be lessening, in the West it continues as before despite arrests and convictions. Archaeology in the U.S. has been changed forever.

Hester Davis is with Arkansas Archaeological Survey.


Part 2: Beginning of a Change

Part 3: Recent Events

Part 4: The Future

References Cited

© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America