Stolen pre-Columbian arrowheads that were returned to the government of Mexico 2012.

People of the Dirt, Part Two: The Obsessive and Destructive Artifact Thieves

Mary Annette Pember

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.

RELATED: People of the Dirt: FBI Bust of Remains Collector Hints at Sensitivity to Native Issues

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.”

RELATED: FBI Seizes Thousands of Artifacts from Indiana Home

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 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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Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
I wonder how people would react to NDNs digging up old Civil War battlegrounds or burial spots looking for stuff to sell?

choctawgirl's picture
Submitted by choctawgirl on
Exactly. I hate seeing people dig up artifacts from our ancestors and collecting arrow heads and everything. I always have a knot in my stomach and a pang in my heart for everything that the white man makes sore with everything that he touches. It should be given back to the tribe if they really respected Natives. They don't understand that people were dying when these events were occurring for a lot of cases not just finding them because the Natives were hunting. These objects are sacred and all of Turtle Island is sacred but they refuse to acknowledge that because of selfishness and greed.

hesutu's picture
Submitted by hesutu on
Michael Madrid, you make a good point about digging up settler graves. I bet there's a lot of gold teeth and what not at Arlington National Cemetery. Some of it is going to be of historical value if someone were to dig up enough of it. For example, it's valid "science" to study the dental health of the remains there, and figure out if dental health has improved over time. Could get a paper or two out of the project. So why shouldn't whoever wants to be allowed to dig up any church, municipal or national cemetery they happen to find? Obviously those opposed to such things must simply be ignorant and "hate science". No, the reason this is not done is because it is desecration. Desecration of the graves of our ancestors is not acceptable, no matter what the anthropologists and archaeologists claim.

trevmma's picture
Submitted by trevmma on
Now here is our side of the story she doesnt tell you Their Story in Stone... There it goes , another site gone to house development. That place used to house so many ancient artifacts and memories. Man did I have to work hard for them, endless hours of excavating at my parents land for what might seem to some as a rock, to me it was my LIFE my HAPPIENESS and my ESCAPE from very sad times in my life. Would have been a lot easier if I would have lucked out and was raised in a area of farming, but I had 15 years to SAVE as many of the most beautiful artifacts, that if not for my LOVE would never of seen the light of day to be cherished at the local public shows, It is a huge part of my life being a amateur archaeologist to show the public that right under their very own feet we have these amazing stone tools crafted by many thousands of ancient people, and believe it or not well over half the population never knew existed. The feeling is just so amazing you get uncovering one of these priceless pieces of ancient history. Everyone of them tell a story and makes you wonder in pure amazement of the life it had and why it lays here underneath this earth. As I sit gazing in awe at the beautiful work of art I have just uncovered , my mind begins to try and unravel and try to see a glimpse of the life these men and women lived and how they survived. Im completely memorized by every artifact I save. What did it see? What did it hunt? How was it shafted? A past time of mine when im not saving these gorgeous works of art and tools used and crafted by men many thousands of years ago is sitting in at some of the local amateur archaeological meeting. This is Where us amateurs welcome the public with never any charge to share our knowledge about the sites we save, the feelings and theories on hows and whys , but best of all to let the unknowledged hold , see and feel the life in these objects and explain there reasons. Every year a site gets built on that tells a story on ancient life or the professional archaeologists scare people of calling us thief’s , drug addicts or money hungry animals ( we are not the ones getting the paychecks for this). I have never EVER thought about how much is this worth or how much is that worth, I just think about how much I cant wait to display these awesome artifacts to the untrained eye and let them see and feel what this continent used to consist of,not much at all like todays governing societies . These people respected other spaces, traded items and let others share their flint outcroppings. Its sad when I cant even go to my old site and see what the professional’s had dug up , everyone of us amateurs know its put away in the basements at these museum’s for future study for only them to see, for what? I have nothing against them for trying to save time lines , but we are humans too that would like to enjoy our only life on this planet, as well as informing people to get along and share this wonderful place, because before we know it everyone of our sites will be houses and stores and as a amateur archaeologists I feel its our jobs to save and beautifully display and show the public free or charge and HANDS ON the awesome artifacts that we can save before it happens cause I sure would want my time capsule of how we worked shown and cherished when im dead and gone to live on and not rot in the ground or some museum basement never to be seen! I think the smile and enjoyment it puts on all of our hearts is worth more than any paycheck cause I sure have lost a few in gas for the car and electric in my house displaying these beautiful artifacts. Just wish we could all get along on this only place we can call home. To all of those YouTubers and amateur archs out there , thanks for your hard work and the displaying of your finds to the public Most artifact collectors do not have access to farmland in their regions of the country so most have to excavate for them or walk miles through creek beds. Its ALWAYS done on private property with permission and seldomly do these properties stay empty for long. Everywhere I have excavated as a young man has since been covered up and built on by todays forever growing and fast building society. Thankfully we have the armatures such as Brooksy that have the drive to find these almost forever lost story telling relics, if not we would never have seen these pieces of art and survival tools come back to life for the respect to the makers that worked so so hard on them and traveled so far for their material. We should NEVER let these monumentus pieces of ancient history sit forever in the ground but to recollect them and display the creators back to life, such as we would want with our modern day tools. The ancient ones deserve to have their story of life be told not hidden, so please refrain from thinking we are thieves , we are mere heros to these helpless artifacts. P.s. just think they are up there looking down saying ( Hey check it out Johnny, Brooksy just unearthed that killer Mozarkite calf creek you made a few thousand years ago and now posting it to youtube where the public will see your fine craftsmanship and see that you were once a living soul that walked this earth many years ago. Unknown -

WillyB.'s picture
Submitted by WillyB. on
American Indians were not and are not ANY different than Europeans or modern arrowhead hunters-there are good and bad among them. Cherry picking the bad actors and putting them up as typical examples of arrowhead hunters is literally laughable. If Indians had the technology, they would have conquered the whites just the same as indigenous peoples conquered and murdered each other LONG before whites arrived. There was no idyllic time when peaceful Indians lived in harmony-just look at the archaeological record and see how indigenous people murdered each other long before contact with the Europeans. Many Indians suffered a great deal at the hands of Europeans, but plenty of settlers, including women and children, were murdered by those same Indians of the day. The whole American Indians were victims of whites is a crock of bull. Indians didn't disappear, they inter-married, adapted and used modern technologies, and are here today, even in my own DNA. Take all the artifact digging EVER DONE by collectors and it wouldn't equal 1% of the archaeological sites destroyed by road construction and land development, which you conveniently fail to mention in this one sided, totally laughable piece of "journalism."

Catfish101's picture
Submitted by Catfish101 on
I too love arrowheads. We have family outings that evolve around finding flint and stone implements. This article doesn't show how everyday life destroys these pieces of history. The other day I seen some plumbers in a big deep hole out behind the house. I ask you ever find any indian artifacts when you dig this much, he replied " Yes we find empty whisky bottles all the time". So with that being said get out and find your own arrowhead and stop laying claim to mine.