Archaeology: Not As Dry And Dusty As You Think Real archaeologists are nothing like Indiana Jones, but that doesn't mean their world isn't dramatic and dangerous. Author Craig Childs sheds a light on pot hunters and relic diggers in his new book, Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession.
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Archaeology: Not As Dry And Dusty As You Think

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Archaeology: Not As Dry And Dusty As You Think

Archaeology: Not As Dry And Dusty As You Think

Archaeology: Not As Dry And Dusty As You Think

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Finders Keepers book cover
Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession
By Craig Childs
Hardcover, 288 pages
Little, Brown and Company
List price: $24.99

Read An Excerpt

Real archaeologists are nothing like Indiana Jones, but that doesn't mean the job isn't dangerous or dramatic.

Author Craig Childs' new book, Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession, reads almost like a thriller, chock-full of vendettas, suicides and large-scale criminal enterprises dedicated to the multimillion-dollar trade in antiquities.

Childs tells NPR's Audie Cornish that emotions run high in the world of antiquities. "There's such an attachment to what is the right and wrong thing to do with these objects," he says. "What is legal? What is illegal? It really rises to the surface to where I know some archaeologists who want pot hunters dead, and I know pot hunters who want archaeologists dead." His book follows several families of pot hunters who ran afoul of the government after digging up relics on public land.

And many objects now in museums may not be legal, Childs says. For example, the famous Euphronios krater, an ancient Greek vessel for mixing wine and water, stood in the Metropolitan Museum of Art for almost 40 years. "You'd go into the Met and there it was, in its own display case," Childs says. "Just beautiful paintings of warriors and gods all around it, one of the finest Greek vessels ever found, and it was sold with paperwork that said, you know, this thing is legal." But an extensive investigation proved that the krater had been looted from an Etruscan tomb in Italy, and in 2008 the Met returned it to the Italian government.

The Euphronios krater stood in the Metropolitan Museum of Art for almost 40 years before being returned to the Italian government. Wikimedia Commons hide caption

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Wikimedia Commons

Childs says grave robbers like those who took the Euphronios krater are destroying priceless information. "Archaeology as a science is holding on to the information. So you're digging up an object, and you have the context around it. Did this pot come from a kitchen site, a living room, a burial?"

But Childs says it can be difficult to strike the right balance between expanding archaeological knowledge and preserving historical sites. "I've worked on quite a few archaeological excavations where you're down in a trench, digging with a trowel, and wondering, ‘What on earth am I doing, digging through some dead person's belongings?'

Craig Childs grew up hunting for potsherds and arrowheads in the American Southwest. Courtesy of Craig Childs hide caption

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Courtesy of Craig Childs

Craig Childs grew up hunting for potsherds and arrowheads in the American Southwest.

Courtesy of Craig Childs

"Just walking out in places where there's archaeology on the ground is tricky," he adds, "because when you find something, when you lean over and pick up an arrow or a potsherd, or you see the rim of an ancient bowl sticking out of the ground, you kind of have to decide, what are you going to do next?"

For his part, Childs says, he prefers to leave artifacts in the ground. There are very few undisturbed archaeological sites still out there, and though he's walked for thousands of miles throughout the American Southwest, Childs says that wherever he goes, pot hunters have been there before him. "When I find something that's on the ground, even if it's a tiny thing, even if it's a broken arrowhead, it is so much more powerful there than it is on a shelf or a display case."

Excerpt: "Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession"

Book Cover
Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession
By Craig Childs
Hardcover, 288 pages
Little, Brown and Company
List price: $24.99

Chapter 1


I grew up spitting on potsherds. I would find them on the dry, gravelly earth of south-central Arizona — pieces of broken bowls, jars, and water ollas dating back several hundred years. Rubbing spit around with my thumb, I would clean off the dirt to see if there might be a fragment of a design underneath, part of a red spiral or maybe the head of a waterbird painted with a human-hair brush. The prettier the design, the longer I held it, as if it were an eye opening in my hand, staring out from the other end of time.

My dad used to take me hunting in the desert, and we would find pottery on gentle mounds or exposed at the cut of an arroyo. He would go down on one knee, the butt of his 12 -gauge resting on the ground, his fingers sorting through ancient trash left from an era when huts and adobe fortresses once stretched across this country. It was not really trash, not in the way we think of it. People here used to bury their dead in rubbish mounds, not stuffing bodies in randomly but interring them with a full complement of vessels and jewelry made of shell and turquoise. Trash was a part of their social architecture, a claim on the ground. You could walk up to a site centuries later and know exactly who had lived there based on what they left in front of their settlements; who they traded with, what they made themselves, what kind of wares they employed in their kitchens. These refuse piles, their surfaces now winnowed down to just stone and pottery, are the stories of actual lives.

I would watch my dad closely, matching his motions, leaning my . 22 barrel against my shoulder as I searched for the right sherd to pick up, a big curve the cattle had not crushed and modern pickers had not taken. I learned to stand up with one I liked and admire it for a moment, just as he did, before flicking it to the ground like a bottle cap, or a coin winged into a fountain.

If he ever took one home, I never saw it. Had my dad been a pothunter, I would have been one too, happily booting a shovel into the ground right next to him. But he was not. It was enough for him to imagine people buried under his feet, funerary vessels encircling their heads as he walked by. He liked to talk about mystery and the lay of things . Then, we would find a car battery someone had junked out in the desert, and if there had not been any luck with quail or cottontail, we would take aim and blow the crap out of the thing. It was our contribution to archaeology. If the belly-ruptured remains of a battery ever survived for a thousand years, someone might find them and be able to look back and see the two of us out on a Sunday afternoon, 1977.

The general cutoff for archaeology is sixty years. Before that, it is trash, after that, an artifact. In a way, this is an arbitrary line, but sixty years is about the time when objects begin to fade from living memory. Even ugly things become beautiful after sixty years. What may have once been commonplace becomes rare. A forgotten vessel, such as a bottle or a jar, turns into a time machine. A piece of glass or pottery opens a keyhole to look through.

The lives of these artifacts do not begin when they are lifted from the ground, or when you first make eye contact with them in a museum case. They begin centuries, even millennia, earlier, when they are first conceived — a potter fashioning a vessel from riverbed clay, an artisan polishing tiny shell beads for a necklace, later to be worn, then lost, maybe found again. They each carry private, human histories. Usually we see them in climate-controlled rooms, dustfree display cases, where it can be difficult to imagine where they came from. This is not the same as seeing them in their place, where they were left. In situ, an object is far more than just itself. It becomes the horizon and the whole sky, and the occasional whip of a breeze where my father and I would walk, stopping along the way to peer back through time. The past becomes an entire landscape, a country. In order to understand why it has a hold on us, and why we sometimes have bitterly different responses to how we treat it, one needs to come to the ground and see where it all begins both physically and emotionally.

. . .

By my early twenties I was eating jackrabbits and wiping my ass with rocks, a free man in the wilderness. Indeed, if ever awards were given to folks of my ilk, unaffiliated backcountry aficionados, I would have had my Eagle Scout badge. For money I got a job taking high school kids from Los Angeles into the desert. The company paid seventy-five dollars a day, good wages for a ratty bunch of guides working desolate country around the lower Colorado River between Arizona, Nevada, California, and Mexico. We taught basic outdoor skills, and we called ourselves naturalists. Mostly in our twenties and thirties, we were burgeoning scientists and misanthropes, each bringing to the table some appreciable field skill. One could heal injuries and cure sicknesses with local plants she knew by their Latin names; another excelled at finding potable water in the most forbidding terrain. There were those who could start fires with hand drills, those who caught small creatures with snares. I was the archaeology guy, finding rock art and little bits of fascination on the ground.

On our days off we scavenged food from the company van and headed out together to set up quick camps and climb bareback ridges for no reason other than the sun and the hard scrape of the earth. Dressed in threadbare T-shirts or sports bras, we were tanned and scabbed and exquisite.

Midday on one of these excursions we found a rocky alcove out of the sun and the six of us piled into its shade. We lowered packs off our shoulders, uncapped water bottles. Right away the place looked familiar, lived in. Sharper rocks had been cleared out of the way, and the low ceiling had a bit of fire-black, a sign that the shelter had been used by fire builders. I ran my hand across the ground where I found dry, hard nuts of bighorn sheep droppings. Between them was a small seashell, a little Olivella like a curl of white paper.

A seashell in the middle of the desert means a lot. The nearest place to pick one up is the coast some 150 miles away in Mexico. For well over a thousand years people had traveled across dunes and arid horizons to fill baskets with shells. They were a primary trade resource for the prehistoric Southwest, moving along organized routes where traders lived off of water caches, globelike ollas they had left in the sand, or rare natural waterholes that they decorated with rock art. The shells they carried were traded inland sometimes as far as 600 miles. This one was left behind.

“Check this out,” I said, holding it up for all to see. “Dead people.”

The others gathered around the shell as if I had found a diamond. It just takes one little thing to send my mind reeling. I saw copper-skinned people filing between isolated mountains, baskets weighted across their foreheads on leather tumps. They had bare legs, hard footsoles, and spun countless generations of themselves before asphalt or steel ever came to this land. They used to pour shells into graves as offerings and made them into jewelry. In good times, when civilization was running high, these shells passed through by the millions (at one Southwestern archaeological site researchers counted 3 . 9 million imported shells). Certain villages acted as production centers where artisans worked them into pendants or fetishes, carved and polished them, decorated them with precious stones. From there the shells moved into high-profile pueblos built like citadels across the landscape. All of this you see in one object, something small as a thumbnail.

We each began combing the ground. I found a few more shells. Bone beads started coming up, each hardly bigger than the polished head of a pin. One guide was methodically picking beads from the sand, crouching and hopping from one to the next, resting them two at a time on the skin of his thumb before cupping them and hunting for more. He collected a handful, then stopped to count them, quietly thrilling to his addition.

I watched him for a while, then asked, “You aren’t going to take those, are you?”

He looked up at me from under his wild, blond mop. From nights spent in Yuma together I knew him as a boxing drunkard, and from the field as a competent, intuitive traveler. We had stayed up nights talking about stars and miracles, and he was a good few inches taller than me.

“Aw, man, don’t start that,” he said.

“Come on,” I complained. “They’ve been here forever, just leave them.”

The others said nothing.

Gut reactions do not come from reason or deliberation.

They are an instant reaction of the heart. Mine said the beads should stay. I felt that the cave would lose a bit of its magic if he took them.

“They’re beads,” the blond man said. “You know, trade beads. It’s what beads are for. They go.”

“What about their context — this shelter, this desert? They belong here.”

He closed his fist on the beads and said, “I am their context.”

I sighed. I had to let go. Arguing any further would just create animosity, not something I wanted on a walk with friends.

I waved my hand in the air, saying, “OK, OK.”

He retired to the back of the alcove, admiring his find, and I watched the sun move outside, wishing I knew the words to put the beads back.

. . .

To truly unravel the dilemmas of archaeology, there are many parts of the equation to understand. Why do we take things? Why do we leave them?

James O. Young has written eloquently on the competing claims over ownership. Chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Young takes a frank and principled approach to archaeology, saying that artifacts ultimately belong to the cultures that made them. That is, they belong to these cultures if they are proven to have had a genuine, substantial, and enduring significance to the people. If they aren’t so significant, it’s finders keepers. For instance, a member of the Hopi Cultural Protection Office says that even a digging stick, one that might be found in a cave, is culturally significant, sacred in fact, and belongs in Hopi custody. Young contends that cultures cannot rightly claim every single thing produced by past members.

It would be untenable, a flood coming out of museums, private collections, and all those who bought trinkets at roadside stands or found them lying on the ground. We would all have to shake out our pockets to return what has been picked up.

In Young’s view, smaller or less important artifacts — like a random bead — are subject to the discretion of whoever finds them (depending on local laws, of course). Young writes of an arrowhead that his mother dug from her garden in suburban Vancouver, one now on his mantel: “It has no particular significance to any aboriginal culture. If it were a rare and unusually beautiful example, or had considerable ritual significance, the situation might be different. As it is, I do not act wrongly in keeping it. I own it.”

When I asked about his decision to keep the object, Young replied, “The arrowhead was in a state of nature. Keeping it would be no different than picking a flower that grew wild in my garden. If it were an item of huge cultural significance, the situation could be different.”

But huge cultural significance is not easily quantifiable. Who decides? He continued, “If I found the artifact in a park or other public property, I think that I would offer it to some public body.”

This is almost a universal response: find something and pick it up, and if reasonable ethics prevail you turn it over to the proper authorities, handing it to a park ranger who is likely mystified as to why people keep grabbing objects and handing them in, filling so many drawers and boxes it seems a waste. It is as if we cannot stand to leave things the way we find them. There is a widespread assumption that removing an artifact is preferred, whether you take it for yourself or not. Jimmy Carter, when he was president, amended a crucial antiquities act so that it would have a loophole for arrowheads. Being an arrowhead collector himself, Carter wanted to make sure you could still scratch one out of the dirt and take it home, connecting yourself with the history of your country by owning a piece of it. (Carter’s clause does not legalize arrowhead-hunting on public lands, but merely says that one cannot be penalized for it under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979. One can be penalized under other laws, however, meaning it is still illegal.)

I took the question of ownership to Randy Cohen, who writes a weekly ethics column for the New York Times Magazine . Cohen answered smoothly: “In ethics, truly abandoned property, by which I mean something deliberately abandoned or that can’t be reunited with its owner, is in fact up for grabs. It follows the finders keepers rule. So, if you see a $ 20 bill on the street you’ve got as much claim to it as anybody, if there is no way you can reunite it with its owner. But if you find a guy’s wallet and it has some ID in it, you can’t keep it. You have to make a good faith effort to return it. And so the question with antiquities then becomes well, is there a legitimate owner? And in my view there is. Cultures have a claim on their significant objects.”

And when the bloodlines that made the artifacts are long gone, as was arguably the case for the beads in the rock shelter? Cohen argues that there is a kind of continuity that makes the locality where the artifacts are found a stand-in for the owner. They should remain in place. He told me, “There is much to be said for keeping archaeological works in the location where they are found, because their meaning is often very much tied into place. It’s a really good thing that the pyramids are still in Egypt. Our understanding of them is aided by that, deepened by that. So that becomes a kind of argument for keeping it there.”

Cohen asked what I do with my finds, and I told him I leave them there. I might take a picture or make a sketch in my journal, but I don’t tell anyone where they are. I prefer to walk away and let time fill back in behind me. Too much has been taken already. We don’t need any more. I have been in the bowels of museums around the country, and the sheer volume of artifacts sitting in dark storage is overwhelming. Enough is enough.

“That’s an interesting way to look at it,” Cohen said. “I don’t have a counterargument to that. Once there’s an excess of this kind of stuff it gets very tricky. What do you imagine happens to what you leave behind?”

“If somebody else finds it, it’s probably gone,” I said.

. . .

W hen the heat of day drifted off, we emerged from the cave and walked. The sky fell to sunset. A gibbous moon passed over us into the evening, unveiling pale shadows of saguaros and cholla. We traveled across vacant magma fields, dark rhyolitic char brought up from inside the earth. When the night grew too long, we set a scattered camp. The bead stealer and I sat up and watched the stars.

Though it was not what I wanted, I said, “Maybe you’re right. Maybe the beads were meant to travel.” After all, I tried to convince myself, they were only beads, perhaps a small thing to quibble over. I certainly didn’t find Young at fault for keeping an arrowhead his mother found in the garden.

“Maybe,” my companion agreed.

Neither of us really knew.

Legally, he was not allowed to take those beads. In the United States, it has been illegal to remove artifacts without permission from public lands since 1906 . That 1906 law reads that in order to “appropriate, excavate, injure, or destroy any historic or prehistoric ruin or monument, or any object of antiquity, situated on lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States,” one must have government permission.

In the open desert, however, other laws applied. Older laws. Conscience and gut reaction. There was no government but the elements, no secretaries but us.

In the morning we broke camp and flushed into the desert like birds. We moved quickly, coming down from mountains into boulder-bottomed arroyos. Shadows cleared out as the afternoon heat came on. Our movements slowed. The sun seemed to have halted, a marble stopped in the bowl of the sky. As our rest stops became longer, I scanned the horizon with a pair of field glasses and spotted a bit of shadow rippling half a mile away.

“There,” I said. “A cave.”

We changed course, crossed a field of bony ocotillos over a ridge. The cave was up a slope of broken rock, hard to spot, just a wink of shade. When we climbed inside, it was as if we were stepping into a ballroom. Our shadows danced into an enclosure much larger than I had expected. One of the guides set off running, making gymnastic leaps with her arms thrown outward. Elegant scarves of dust sailed behind her.

“We could live in this place,” another said, his voice boosted to echo through the room.

The ceiling was made of domed bedrock that emitted a faint hum, an echo of dust devils riding across the desert far away. I walked in and crouched over beetle tracks in the dust, tiny notations. It was an undisturbed space, centuries of powdery accumulation. Beneath the dust were subtle shapes, as if a deep snow had fallen on sleeping figures. As I walked farther, I tested my weight, pressing into a desiccated sponge of buried wood-rat droppings and cactus needles. Below were muted spaces, loose fill. It was in caves like this that people used to live and bury their dead, not just a day’s stopover but an actual habitation site.

“People are buried in here,” I said.

The others stopped, looked around, let their eyes adjust. Judging by the size of the cave, it must have been an important place, a grand shelter probably used for 10,000 years, and beneath us lay unseen graves, skeletons supine, surrounded by whatever offerings were given to them. Usually you would find a cave like this and it would be a war zone oflooters’ pits, yet there was not even a quick cathole in here.

In the 1930 s, the eminent Southwest archaeologist Emil Haury and his field-hardened sidekick Julian Hayden excavated a similar-looking place, Ventana Cave, also in southern Arizona. They came out with Stone Age utensils and textiles, Neolithic pottery and jewelry, all highly preserved by the region’s aridity. Ventana Cave dates from Paleo-Indians to Indians, a rare view into continuous human history from the eighth millennium BC onward. They found the skeleton of an infant bundled inside a twine bag and placed in a nest of grass, and near that more adult burials with quivers and arrows, shell pendants, necklaces. A mummify ed man was unearthed with earrings still hanging from the flaps of his earlobes and a clay plug piercing his nose. It was not just the dead that came out. One of the cleanest records of North American occupation was exhumed from that cave, its contents painstakingly illustrated, measured, photographed, and installed in museum storage.

Emil Haury isn’t the only man who explored caves like this one. There are also men like Jack Harelson, a former insurance agent who fancied himself an amateur archaeologist. His house was heavily stocked with illegally obtained artifacts he had either picked up or dug, including one of the oldest pair of sandals ever found in North America (around 10,000 years old).

Harelson’s biggest dig was Elephant Mountain Cave, an expansive natural shelter in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, its mouth partly obscured by scrub and boulders. He excavated the site in the 1980s, spent several years privately removing the floor with shovels and screens. It was his own personal Atlantis. Among the many hundreds of artifacts he recovered, Harelson dug up a 2,000 -year-old sealed torso-sized basket, heavy with objects inside. Showing at least some restraint, he left the basket unopened until he got it back to his garage, invited some friends over, and peeled it open before them. He pulled out a bowl, a knife, and a net used to catch rabbits. Under that was a mummifi d boy who had

been about four years old when he died, and below his leathery corpse was another mummy, that of a girl about ten years old with long black hair, her body tucked knees to chest.

At a later point the mummies’ heads were pulled off, the bodies bagged and buried in Harelson’s backyard.

For his part in this Harelson was caught and jailed in 1996 , hit with eighteen months in prison. Two thousand objects were confiscated from his house. Harelson defended himself by saying he was an amateur archaeologist and that he intended to hand over the material to a museum when he was finished. (He had produced other finds before — mammoth bones donated to the Nevada State Museum, for example. But turning over artifacts would have implicated him in a crime.)

Harelson’s fine was a record-breaking $ 2.5 million — $ 750,000 for restoration and repair of the cave, and $ 1.75 million for the scientific and cultural value destroyed by his excavation. As he passed down this heavy sentence, the judge in the case was heard to say, “You are not an amateur archaeologist. You are a common thief.” (Harelson, incensed, later hired a hit man and made a list of those he wanted killed: the judge, the lead officer in the case, two former business partners, and his ex-wife, who had handed over incriminating evidence. Harelson paid for the first kill with $ 10,000 in raw opals, but the man he hired turned out to be an undercover agent. Harelson was sentenced to a further ten years in prison.)

I walked the breadth of the cave we had found, well aware of why Harelson is vilified and Haury and Hayden have been celebrated. One made collection a private pleasure, taking history for himself. The others added their finds to a greater body of knowledge, now accessible through libraries and museums. The distance between these two ends of the spectrum seems like forever, but it is not.

In the back of the cave was an oval-shaped enclosure, a natural vestibule. I stepped into it and found Irvin, a fellow guide known for digging up grubs for eating. He was standing before a pyramid of stacked rock. The pile was waist high and slowly being reclaimed by the earth, flushed in centuries of dust. I walked up beside him.

“Kind of out of place,” Irvin said.

“Shrine,” I said. Why a shrine? Why else would people put a neat, tall rock pile back here? It was something special, ceremonial , as many archaeologists would say.

“Well, let’s see,” Irvin said. He rolled up his sleeve, got down on his knees, and shoved his arm into a wood-rat burrow at the base of the pyramid. He went nearly up to his shoulder, his cheek pressed into soft blow-sand.

“Rattlesnakes,” I warned.

He puffed dust away from his mouth and said, “I know.”

“What’s in there?” I asked.

He was concentrating, feeling around. I wanted it to be my hand reaching into the ground, but I did not have the brazenness. He came out holding a fistful of dust and a short wooden rod only slightly longer and fatter than a pencil. It had sinew wrapped around it. Irvin looked at the object for a moment and then handed it to me before sticking his arm back down the hole.

The sinew had turned brittle. There were stripes of red paint, a hematite pigment.

“It’s a painted arrow shaft.” I laughed in surprise. The Patayan people, who likely put it here several centuries ago, were no-nonsense desert types, rarely dabbling in decoration. This was a rare find. Irvin’s hand was rummaging around in the archaeological record, looking for more, upsetting the lay of strata that would help a researcher if this place were ever excavated. But it was a wood-rat burrow, and I figured rodents had already been churning up the record, probably denning in coils of baskets down there.

The other guides started coming around, asking what we were doing. I passed them the arrow. Next Irvin came out with a wooden stub. He passed it up and I blew off dust — another painted projectile. This was a hunting shrine, had to be. Rituals would have been held in this cave, maybe a particularly potent hunter buried here.

In many of the old cultures, hunting is a sacred act. Among the San people of South Africa, when a man shoots a poison arrow into an eland, he bridges himself into the animal. It may take days to track down the dying eland, and during that time people are quiet around the hunter so that the prey will not be startled. He drinks little, tries not to urinate so that the animal will also not urinate and expel the poison. If it is a first-time kill, a young hunter will start a fire and use its ash to draw a circle on his forehead and a line down his nose, the same markings as those on the face of the eland.

No doubt the Patayans whose cave we had entered gave such detailed motions to their hunt. The same families may have lived in this region for over a thousand years, enough time to entrench their traditions, except rather than eland, Patayans would have pursued bighorn sheep. They are known to have set fire to bighorn carcasses in what were likely ritual acts, leaving behind charred skulls and horns stacked upon each other in the open desert. Little is known about these people, partly because universities that establish summer field camps prefer the higher, cooler parts of the state. What is known is that they buried their dead in caves and on the graves built cook fires and sleeping platforms, adding layers of their lives to the ground.

Now their offerings were in my hands. We passed them around, fireworks going off in our imaginations. These were not beads spilled accidentally in a rock shelter. These had been put here as offerings. I trusted the people around me, even the bead stealer. We all knew this was different. The objects inside the rock stack had been painted and lowered into the ground, maybe settled on the chest of a dead man Irvin was reaching around.

After making the circle, each artifact was returned to Irvin, who placed it back inside. We were somewhere between Harelson and Haury; curious, perhaps meddlesome, but not intending to take anything. I wanted more, though. I knew there was more. I was caught up in the elation of discovery, my eye fixed on the pyramid itself. I wondered if it had some interior chamber such as those inside stupas in India or chortens in Tibet. It looked easy to uncap. I felt hesitation in my body, a sense of trespass, but my curiosity was overwhelming. I told myself that we would leave this place exactly as it was. Only a moment’s disruption, and we’d be gone.

I reached out and grabbed the flat, heavy topstone and lifted it off. I set it on the ground as dust spilled into a space inside the pyramid. Irvin got off his knees and looked in, our heads touching.A nest of shadowy wooden objects lay within, and for a moment I just stared like it was a bottomless well, nothing but time down there. I reached in, touched one, lifted it out. It felt dry and old.

It was a bow, but made small, a miniature. I had never seen such a thing in the wild. It would have been a representational object, certainly an offering. Along its sides were etchings, lines and hatchwork. A shiver started at the back of my neck and spread around my body, as if gaps between centuries were closing.

The other guides stared at the bow in my hands. A bunch of Tom Sawyers and Huck Finns we were, enchanted by what a person might find in a cave. Irvin took the bow from me, studied it, and grinned with amazement. He handed it to someone else as I dislodged another, and then another, each with a different sign etched or painted on it.

I envisioned people gathered here, ceremonies invoking animal spirits, calling for a good hunt. The Patayans were here before reservations, before the Spanish and their horses, before guns. Dating back at least to the early centuries AD and probably long before that, the people who occupied the desert surrounding the lower Colorado River moved seasonally, growing crops along the river, hunting and gathering in the desert beyond. We were well within their migration range, a place they would have come to in the spring while their temporary encampments were being washed out by annual river floods. This cave would have been a key location, a place to take shelter for a period, or a place where young men came to mark their first kill.

“These are cool,” someone said, letting loose a laugh that somehow sounded mean. I looked up. I knew him only as an ugly man with an expansive, ratty beard and an unstable

character. He was new to the company, and this was the first time he and I had ever walked in the desert together.

“I mean, it’s a real bow,” he said. “A real Indian bow. Have you ever seen one of these before?”

I said, “No, not out here.”

He looked at me and said, “You can’t tell me we have to leave these.”

My mouth was open. I needed a drink of water badly.

“I think they should stay, yes,” I said, my lips gummy with thirst.

“Get off your shit,” Ugly Man replied.

“I don’t think we should be stealing from a shrine,” I said.

“That’s pussy talk.” He glowered, making sure I did not get an edge on him. He had heard me with the bead stealer and knew I would be easy. “These people have been dead forever. When was the last time anyone was here? I mean, really? It’s been hundreds of years. You think they remember this place? They don’t.”

Earlier in the day Ugly Man and I had had a small altercation, and he had threatened to brain me with a rock. I had stared back at him dumbfounded, not sure what to say. He radiated aggression. I had to be careful. A fistfight in a cave full of hunting magic and ancient dead would not be good. And for me, a fight with Ugly Man would not end well. Though American born, he had just gotten out of the Israeli army, fighting Palestinians house to house. I, however, was raised mostly by a single mother and have a predilection for flowers.

“It’s a shrine,” I complained again.

He wagged the bow at me. “Listen, somebody else is going to find this. How could they not? And they’ll take all these bows just like that.”

“You want to take them instead?”

“Better us than them.” He glanced around to see who was with him, but nobody was. Ugly Man cocked his jaw. “Come on, there’s nothing wrong with it.”

Trying to answer him, I felt like I was stammering, empty-handed. I had no argument for how I felt, other than that we should not take these things. They are not ours. But I had never had to come up with a reason why.

The day before, I had given up on the beads much easier, but this transgression felt a level deeper. Professor Young would have said that this was culturally significant and probably would have felt a justifiable responsibility to report it to officials, something I would not do for fear of the cave being excavated and its contents moved into storage. Randy Cohen would have called the cave a stand-in for the rightful owners and probably done the same as Young. What would I do?

I blurted, “Finders keepers.”

Ugly blinked as if confused. But he knew I had him. Being the finder of these bows, I got to say what happened to them. He studied the bow in his hands, my words more potent than a double dare.

“Oh, come on,” he said in disbelief. “Really?”

He glanced around again and saw he still had no supporters. It would have shamed him to take the bow outright, with nobody believing in him. He was in the wrong crowd and had to suck it in, looking at the cave ceiling, letting out a frustrated breath.

“OK, whatever,” he said. “You can keep your bow.” Later, I couldn’t get the rotten taste out of my mouth. Even as we dispersed to our own parts of the cave, each taking a bow to study in silence, I felt I had opened a door I should have left closed. I sat with my journal, my private room of drawings and words, sketching bows and arrows on clean, white paper, but I had trouble concentrating. When the shadows began tilting outside, it was time to go. Each person set a bow or two at the foot of the shrine. I gathered them and placed them back just as I had roughly sketched them from memory, the one with zigzags above the one etched with lines. It might matter how they were placed, I thought.

One seemed to be missing.

I had not thought to count them to start with, and now I wasn’t sure. The cache felt that much smaller, though. I looked behind me, saw everybody readying for departure. Ugly was stuffing something in his pack, having trouble making it fit. He got the thing in, slung his pack onto his shoulders, and moved for the entrance. Before he was out he checked his back, saw me watching him, and quickly looked away. I knew it then for sure: He had screwed me. He was making off with a bow.

My brain kept shouting as I watched him leave, Do something, do something, do something! But I had no plea that would convince him. Short of my stealing the bow back, which could involve physical violence, there was nothing I could do. The bow was now his.

What does it mean that we take memories out of the ground like this, permanently emptying the land piece by piece? In describing the spiritual and physical landscape of North America, N. Scott Momaday once wrote that over the course of thousands of years of occupation people “died into the ground again and again and so made it sacred.” By one bow, this cave had now been unhallowed.

It felt like winter inside me. I was the one who had spotted this place to begin with, who had uncapped the small pyramid, and who had let the bow escape. I felt like a thief. I had to be more careful about my actions and the fine lines of ethics around me. It is, after all, only a matter of scale among beads, bows, and who knows what else. I reached out and put the topstone back, sealing the chamber, cutting my losses. I turned and walked out of the cave, where I was branded by sunlight. The desert opened the way it always does, welcoming all sinners.