Environment | Law

Mary Pember: Digging the dirt for Native ancestors and artifacts






The Indiana home where the remains and artifacts were found. Photo by Mary Annette Pember

Mary Annette Pember reports on the looting of Native grave sites across the country:
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.

Get the Story:
Mary Annette Pember: People of the Dirt, Part Two: The Obsessive and Destructive Artifact Thieves (Indian Country Today 5/12)

Related Stories:
Mary Pember: FBI finds ancestors and artifacts in Indiana home (5/8)