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January 16, 2004
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ARCHIVE: Archaeology Thieves

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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

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