The Buried Past
by Tim Vanderpool
Operation Cerberus Action unfolded on June 10, 2009, when federal authorities arrested 24 people in the rugged Four Corners region of Arizona on charges of trafficking in stolen Native American artifacts. The investigation was aptly named: the two-year probe carried with it the specter of Cerberus, a mythical, multiheaded canine said to fiercely guard the underworld.
The world that agents from the FBI and U.S. Bureau of Land Management uncovered was one of cutthroat artifact collectors and black marketeers who had plundered countless ancient sites, destroying the archaeological record and spiriting away precious antiquities.
Reverberations were immediately felt on the UA campus, where phones at the Arizona State Museum were ringing. Operation Cerberus agents needed help identifying the stolen pieces. Soon, the museum’s crack researchers were sifting through priceless purloined artifacts.
They couldn’t have tapped into a better brain trust. Founded by the territorial legislature in 1893, the museum serves as Arizona’s official archaeological repository, with more than 175,000 artifacts ranging from sandals and baskets to pottery, textiles, and cradle boards.
Venerated for their integrity and skill, museum scientists are regularly called upon to evaluate objects retrieved from legitimate archaeological sites as well as those confiscated from the looters who’ve become a scourge in the Southwest.
Museum staffers also are known for their commitment to returning artifacts to Native American tribes, as well as human remains previously collected by archaeologists from ancient burial sites. That repatriation process became mandatory in 1990, when Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Significant looting in the late 1980s and early 1990s led to a similar state statute in Arizona.
“We actually started repatriating before it was required by federal law,” says Patrick Lyons, the museum’s head of collections and acting associate director. Longtime former museum director Raymond Thompson had championed the policy, which was buttressed by Arizona’s provisions protecting burial sites.
“A lot of people view this is as a human rights issue,” Lyons says. “And this institution has a really good working relationship with all the tribes. We’re known as the institution that doesn’t just follow the letter of the law, but the spirit as well.”
Complying with these laws is complicated, as museum scientists must establish which tribe can claim rightful ownership of remains. This involves plenty of archaeological detective work.
Many protected objects come from what are called “legacy collections,” gathered before legal protections were enacted. Native American remains also are exposed in routine excavations such as road projects, requiring the museum to negotiate complex burial agreements between contractors, researchers, and tribes. “The laws are based on the concept of cultural affiliation and that can get really dicey,” says Lyons.
The numbers are equally daunting: as of January 2010, the museum had curated 6,552 sets of human remains and repatriated hundreds. “But we’ve also found hundreds more as we go through these old collections,” he says.
This expertise takes on added urgency and intrigue with stolen items. “A number of us have been involved in state and federal cases,” Lyons says. “We help identify things as prehistoric, and we help law enforcement officers and prosecutors determine whether the elements of a crime, as determined by law, have been met. Is it archaeological (more than 100 years old)? Is it prehistoric? Is it likely that it came from reservation lands? Did the person (who removed it) have a permit to be at that place at that time, doing that work?”
Staff members have attended federal law enforcement training seminars on the Archaeological Resources Protection Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Both laws are extremely complex. “But we’re not cops, and we’re not lawyers,” Lyons says. “We know how old stuff is, and we know where it came from.”
Nonetheless, museum archaeologists are often the eyes and ears of law enforcement, reporting thefts or suspicious activities they see in the field. They’re assisted by volunteers with the Arizona Site Stewards Program, which is administered through Arizona State Parks Department. Each year, the stewards report more than 200 vandalism incidents and nearly 30 lootings at archaeological sites across the state.
Unfortunately, the difficulty of protecting ancient sites is exacerbated along the U.S.-Mexico border, where illicit traffic can damage artifacts in remote areas that are difficult and sometimes dangerous to safeguard. Perennial funding shortfalls worsen the problem, according to a recent report by the Good Neighbor Environmental Board, which advises the president and Congress on border issues. “Protecting cultural and natural resources in remote areas in the border region is extremely difficult,” says the report. “Public land managers have far too few patrol officers to oversee the lands under their jurisdiction."
“For example, much of the border area of the Coronado National Forest in Southern Arizona is remote and un-roaded,” it continues. “This 1.7-million-acre National Forest has approximately six fulltime law enforcement personnel. Other employees occasionally are placed in the field, but seldom on the border. The financial incentives, coupled with the low probability of getting caught, keep looters active.”
The bottom line, concludes the report, is that people must learn why these precious remains should remain untouched — except by trained scientists. “Public education is the key to cultural resource preservation in the border region,” it says.
In the meantime, experts at the Arizona State Museum will continue to make sure protected objects are returned to their rightful place and artifact thieves go to jail. “People think of it as a victimless crime,” says Lyons. “But it is not. These things belong to the deceased and their descendants.”
Back to Alumni magazine