A two-year undercover sting aimed at a black market in ancient American Indian artifacts has led to federal indictments in Utah naming 24 people.
The indictments unsealed Wednesday resulted in an early morning sweep in three states. About 150 federal agents, sheriffs' deputies and local and tribal police served arrest and search warrants in Utah, Colorado and New Mexico. Archaeologists were along to help identify artifacts.
"Today's action is a sad reminder that the stealing and destruction of archaeological and American Indian treasures from public lands is a highly lucrative business," said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar at a Salt Lake City news conference. "We will not tolerate that kind of activity in the United States."
The indictments allege violation of federal laws that prohibit the digging and selling of centuries-old pots, sandals, bowls, baskets, pipes, mugs, religious items and other artifacts left by ancient Native Americans on what is now federal and tribal land.
Archaeologists and others familiar with artifacts theft say thieves "steal" the historic and cultural context of the items they take.
"When you pull them out of the ground, entire histories are gone," says Craig Childs, who is writing a book on artifacts theft titled Finders Keepers. "It is a form of archaeological genocide, where you are getting rid of the entire history of people living in a place."
Most of those targeted live in southeastern Utah, where generations of families have been involved in both legal and illegal trade in artifacts. Federal law does not prohibit the digging and removal of artifacts from private land.
This artifacts subculture began in the late 1800s, when rancher Richard Wetherill discovered the cliff dwellings of a lost culture referred to as the Anasazi. The dwellings eventually were protected with the creation of Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado.
Wetherill and his family also found burial sites containing clay pots, reed sandals and religious items. That attracted the interest of collectors and museums. A lucrative trade developed that continues in both legal and black market forms today.
Childs says "pothunters," as they're called, aren't always motivated by profit. "The stronger focus is finding the thing ... and figuring out the puzzle and getting your treasure," he says. "It is definitely a treasure hunter's sport."
Enforcing laws targeting artifacts theft has been difficult because the region is vast and remote. Pothunters are rarely caught in the act, and they often claim that the items they sell were found on private land.
The sting revealed Wednesday involved 256 artifacts purchased by an undercover informant for $335,685. The informant is described in a search warrant affidavit as a "major dealer in archaeological artifacts for 10 years." Meetings with targets were recorded. Some of the suspects indicated that they took the artifacts from federal and tribal land by pointing to spots on a map, according to the search warrant affidavit.
The charges allege theft of government property, theft from tribal lands and depredation of government property. Both felony and misdemeanor counts are involved. Penalties upon conviction range up to 10 years in prison.
Most of the arrests took place in Blanding, Utah, which is a center of both legitimate and illegal artifacts markets. Arrests also occurred in Moab and Monticello, Utah, and in neighboring Colorado and New Mexico.
The region is known for thousands of archaeological sites containing dwellings and burial grounds of ancient native people who mysteriously vanished before modern tribes appeared. Some archaeologists consider the area to have the world's greatest concentration of artifacts and cliff paintings and etchings.