Many artifacts remain in alleged looters' custody

Published June 11, 2009 7:25 pm
Archeology » Law requires that stolen materials end up with museums and tribes.
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Many Indian artifacts involved in a major federal sting remain with the very people suspected of looting them from public land or buying them from looters, although federal authorities hope to eventually hand these treasures over to tribes for repatriation or to museums.

Federal agents on Wednesday executed search warrants in San Juan County targeting some of the 24 defendants charged with trafficking and stealing artifacts. They catalogued and photographed hundreds of items, then left them, said Melodie Rydalch, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Salt Lake City.

"They [the suspects] have to keep track of them as a condition for their pretrial release," she said. The suspects also must refrain from selling any artifacts and make "reasonable efforts" to protect them from damage and theft.

"It will be closely monitored by the judge," Rydalch said.

Many of the artifacts in question are several centuries old, likely relics of the Ancestral Puebloan, or Anasazi, culture. Some are ceramic pottery, figurines or stone objects, but many, such as sandals and yucca leaf loincloths, are made of perishable plant fibers, according to court filings.

At this early juncture in the legal process, officers lack the authority to seize artifacts, the number of which could far exceed the 256 linked to a confidential informants' transactions that form the basis of the 12 federal indictments unsealed Wednesday, Rydalch said. Prosecutors have filed forfeiture papers to take possession of property used to facilitate the crimes, and evidence documented in Wednesdays searches will be used to expand the probe.

"The investigation does not close with the issuance of indictments. Additional charges could be filed," she said. "But at the end of the day, we can seize and forfeit only what we can prove was taken from federal and Indian lands."

Forrest Cuch finds little solace in the explanation. The director of Utah's Division of Indian Affairs still questions the wisdom of allowing suspected looters to retain custody of materials that are highly susceptible to insect and moisture damage.

"They need to be removed and held by law enforcement," he said. "They have to be curated in a temperature-control climate."

Rydalch said the feds do have the artifacts their source purchased, but added their informant also was selling artifacts.

The indictments, for example, charge two Blanding residents with receiving a ceramic mug, an ax, a gourd necklace and an effigy bird pendant.

What becomes of these materials once they wind up in federal custody is another question. If prosecutors establish they came from federal lands, they will be subject to the 1979 Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) and the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

Items stolen from burial sites most likely will be handed over to tribes under NAGPRA, which allows for the re-internment of funerary objects and human remains. It may take years before they are released from evidence storage, but other looted items will go to designated repositories, typically museums.

"ARPA compels us to curate them with a professional curatorial facility," said Richard Hanes, who heads the Bureau of Land Management's Division of Cultural and Paleontological Resources and Tribal Coordination. "They have to meet certain federal standards for security, climate control and accessibility."

Archaeologist Joel Janetski, a Brigham Young University professor, hopes the artifacts will remain in Utah, preferably at Blanding's Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum or the Utah Museum of Natural History. The looted artifacts still hold intrinsic value that visitors should be allowed to enjoy, even though they have lost some of their value to science, he said.

"The perishables can still be dated exactly," Janetski said. "To have these really rare and beautiful things come out without any controls is really disheartening."

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