Nevada Public Radio Listen Live

Facebook Twitter Follow Nevada Public Radio

Support Nevada Public Radio
January 16, 2004

ARCHIVE: Archaeology Thieves


David Peeler and Frank Embrey were digging for signs of the past in a remote section of Death Valley National Park a couple of years ago . . . apparently, they had been digging on public lands for years, collecting native American artifacts. At least that's what they told the park ranger who happened to stop their Chevy truck on its way home. In the back he found 3 metates - boulders with smooth holes worn into their surface where Native Americans once ground nuts. The chance encounter between the ranger and the vandals triggered a massive multi-state investigation of artifact theft. At a press conference in December Assistant U.S. Attorney, Margaret Stanish explained why so few of these crimes are prosecuted:

You basically have to have somebody witness the criminal activity or a defendant who makes admissions or is quite frankly caught red handed, which is what happened in this case.

Agencies across the west formed a special task force. It spent two years and 10,000 hours tracking down the activities of Peeler, Embry and three acquaintances. Over the years the five stole 11-thousand artifacts from public lands: Shards of pottery, pendants, figurines, woven sandals, spearheads and even the bones of Indians who once used them. The commercial value of the items was estimated at about $21,000, but the fine levied against the defendants was much higher Stanish says:

Approximately a half a million dollars is really a price that is determined by the archeological value of the information that is lost. That is somewhat intangible. It is not something you can put on e-bay and sell.

It's been illegal to take items off public land for nearly a century. But despite the law and recently enhanced penalties, private collecting is wide spread. In fact, most natural history museum inventories of Native American artifacts were supplied by private collectors, according to Stephanie Makseym-Kelly of the Smithsonian Museum of the Native American. She says public lands are most vulnerable to this kind of collecting:

People do that. There is nothing to prevent them from doing it. It is harmless and most of the time it doesn't seem to impact anything.

No one stopped John Ligon of northern Nevada when he recently picked up an 800 year-old petroglyph from the desert and stuck it in his front yard for decoration. Now, he's being prosecuted. His attorney Scott Freeman thinks the Federal government is too aggressively enforcing a relatively unknown law:

Maybe there should be a sign that says you may not take arrowheads from this seemingly desolate area. So it is one of the issues that are going to be litigated in our case. Mr. Ligon meant no ill will.

Signs are slowly going up at some of the tens of thousands of documented archeological sites around the nation. Don't erase signs of the past, they say. But without enough resources to put signs up at the literally millions of archeological sites and police them, land management agencies are trying to keep locations secret and recruiting volunteers to monitor the nation's cultural resources for signs of looting.

Ky Plaskon, News 88.9 KNPR

See discussion rules.


Apr 4, 2009 | Drug Donation Program
Nevada lawmakers are debating the creation of a program that would help cancer patients get expensive prescription drugs for less.

Mar 13, 2009 | Budget Wrangling
As state lawmakers wrestle with Nevada's multi-billion-dollar budget deficit, there are several plans afoot aimed at softening the next economic bust.

Mar 2, 2009 | Autism
The cost of treating children with autism can be $24,000 to $40,000 per child per year according to the Autism Coalition of Nevada. A bill before the Nevada Legislature aims to help families pay for the care.

Feb 16, 2007 | Chinese New Year
This weekend marks a celebration of Chinese New Year. KNPR's Rick Andrews reports on how the holiday is being celebrated by the valley's growing Asian community.

Dec 7, 2006 | Food and Beverage
The economy of scale for food and beverage operations in Las Vegas means any edge in efficiency is real money. Rick Andrews reports on a software product scoring with food and beverage managers looking at the bottom line...and what you're likely to order.

Nov 15, 2006 | Global Gaming Expo
The Global Gaming Expo trade show and conference got underway Tuesday in Las Vegas. Vendors showcase their latest wares including new slot machines.

Nov 1, 2006 | Stardust Memories
When it opened in 1958 the Stardust was the world's largest hotel. Now, after more than 48 years, it's closed.

Sep 27, 2006 | Nevada Northern Railway
The 'Nevada Northern' is celebrating its centenial anniversary. News 88.9's Rick Andrews went on a tour of the museum with executive director Mark Bassett.

Jun 30, 2006 | Standing Up for Ringo
Congresswoman Shelley Berkley tells the story of how she saw the Beatles in Las Vegas in August 1964.

Jun 29, 2006 | Sports Supplements
From fortified cereals to energy drinks to serious sports nutrition, people are willing to spend lots money to supplement their diets. Rick Andrews reports on the business of sports supplements.

May 25, 2006 | Love
Wednesday Cirque du Soleil provided a glimpse of their much anticipated show based on the music of the Beatles. Flo Rogers reports on Love.

May 24, 2006 | Telecommunications
A Senate telecommunications bill currently being considered includes provisions on most everything, but some worry that controversial measures will derail the entire package.

May 16, 2006 | Nanotech
Universities across the country are spending millions to expand nano technology research...manipulating molecules 10,000 times smaller than a human hair. Rick Andrews reports on nano research at UNLV.

Apr 24, 2006 | Earthscope
Hualapai Mountain Park, near Kingman, has been chosen by the National Science Foundation to be home to a seismic monitoring station. Gillian Ferris Kohl reports.

Apr 18, 2006 | Anatomical Donation for Science
In the second of two reports exploring innovative medical facilities in the Valley, Rick Andrews visits the Medical Education and Research Institute of Nevada in Henderson.

Apr 12, 2006 | Immigration Reform Stalled
Immigration legislation in the U.S. Senate is at a standstill. Many in the Republican Party blame Nevada Democrat, Senator Harry Reid for the impasse. Jill Morrison reports from Capitol Hill.

Apr 1, 2006 | New Plans for Nellis
The first of April brings news that a large piece of military land in Las Vegas may be redeveloped.

Mar 28, 2006 | Test Site Worker Compensation
Senator Harry Reid is trying to get compensation for Test Site workers who were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation, but never compensated.

Feb 27, 2006 | StoryCorps - Alice Keys
Alice Keys has been active in the African American community for decades and known through her association with the Moulin Rouge Casino. Here's her recollection of meeting one of the great African Americans of the last century.

Feb 21, 2006 | StoryCorps - Alan Morel and Mike Genoshe
When close friends interview each other, the stories are often more intimate and revealing than talking to a reporter. A case in point is Alan Morel and Mike Genoshe talking about their hopes for their adopted son.

Web hosting facilities provided by Switch.