People of the Dirt, Part Two: The Obsessive and Destructive Artifact Thieves
In one episode of Breaking Bad, a TV series about criminals producing methamphetamine, two of the characters, Jesse and Mike are trying to retrieve a huge stash of the drug stolen from their boss by two addicts. Jesse, a former addict, soon tires of sitting in a car and waiting for the armed and unpredictable addicts to emerge from the house. Much to Mike’s dismay, Jesse grabs a shovel from the trunk and begins digging a hole in the front yard of the hideout. Almost immediately, one of the addicts, Tucker, emerges from the house and joins in digging the hole.
While Tucker is distracted, Jesse and Mike break into the house and retrieve the drugs.
Jesse later explains to a shocked Mike, “Hey, I know meth heads.”
Meth addicts typically display increased alertness, concentration, paranoia and increased energy. The addicts in Breaking Bad spend hours dismantling electronic devices and then reassembling them without distraction.
This portrayal, it turns out, is painfully and bizarrely accurate. Meth heads really do like to dig, and they are digging for Indian artifacts at a recklessly alarming rate. Unfortunately, this isn’t a TV show, and they are being joined by many other people who are also interested in a quick payoff as evidenced by the hundreds of postings on YouTube of various digging endeavors.
Although viewed by many as a benign hobby, digging for Native artifacts is a burgeoning business online and at artifact shows, where ancient pottery fetches thousands of dollars and even arrowheads can bring hundreds, depending on condition and type.
According to archaeologists, the most sought after artifacts are found in burials. “An unbroken, decorated pottery item has nearly always been taken from a burial site,” says Christopher Moore, professor of Anthropology at the University of Indianapolis. “Typically we see a big increase in people digging for artifacts during economic downturns.”
Looters seeking the high-end artifacts found in burial sites will often use a tile probe—a long probe with a handle attached—to poke into the ground until they hit something hard. Pottery found in this manner typically has a small cylindrical hole where the probe first made contact.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, NAGPRA was passed in 1990 to help protect such artifacts. Although NAGPRA includes provisions for remains and cultural items found on tribal and federal land, laws governing such activity on private land is complex and varies from state to state. “Dealers and sellers usually sidestep questions about the origins of such objects, saying that they came from old collections, pre-dating federal law protecting the items, or were found in an eroding riverbank,” says Moore.
Native people are working to increase awareness about the disrespect and damage such digging and trafficking in artifacts does to contemporary tribal cultures. “When you remove the bones of my loved ones from the earth where they were interred, you remove them from the proximity of family,” says Ben Barnes, second chief of the Shawnee tribe of Oklahoma.
He also bemoans the attitude of artifact collectors that allows them to see Native artifacts as fossils. “They cognitively lack the ability to see remains and artifacts as connected to living cultures.”
Digging for artifacts by untrained archaeologists forever destroys important cultural context of a site, says Larry Zimmerman, professor of anthropology at Indiana and Purdue universities. “Excavation by hobbyists forever loses the environmental information that is crucial to dating items.”
Many tribal people maintain that the practice reflects not only a deep cultural hegemony of European conquest and entitlement over indigenous peoples but also demonstrates a peculiar urge to accumulate that reflects contemporary acquisitive culture. “It’s about greed and the same sense of entitlement that led to the depopulation of indigenous peoples from North America in the name of Manifest Destiny,” says Henrietta Mann, Cheyenne, who is president of the Cheyenne and Arapaho College in Oklahoma.
A recent article on RifleandRod.com about Kevin Dowdy of Georgia typifies the mainstream American view of collecting. Like most enthusiasts, Dowdy began collecting artifacts as a youngster. After attending shows where the items are bought, sold and traded, he met with others who shared his interest. He recently appeared on the History Channel’s American Pickers show.
“It’s truly amazing to pick up a piece of history, a tool that hasn’t been touched by human hands for years,” he said in the article.
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