Posted by: teofilo  :  Category: antiquities looting, southern Utah

One of the biggest things to happen in Southwestern archaeology recently was the dramatic arrest in June 2009 of 24 people, most of them from Blanding, Utah, on charges of illegally excavating and selling artifacts from public lands.  The resulting criminal cases have been going on ever since, and they’ve mostly resulted in either plea deals or very light sentences after conviction.  Keith has done some reporting on this issue, including an interesting interview with Winston Hurst, an archaeologist from Blanding who has been put in a very awkward position by these events.  I was covering developments in the cases pretty closely for a while, but then things slowed down and recently I haven’t been keeping as close an eye on the cases as I was before.  One case I did follow with some interest was that of Bob Knowlton, an antiquities dealer from Grand Junction, Colorado.  He initially pleaded not guilty, but, like some other suspects, has recently changed his plea to guilty as part of a plea bargain under which the charges seem to have been reduced to two misdemeanors associated with the sale of a single artifact.  He claims to have purchased that artifact, a “cloud blower” pipe from Big Westwater Ruin near Blanding, from the family of Lamar Lindsay, the archaeologist who supervised excavation of the site,which is on BLM land.  It seems Lindsay, who worked for the state of Utah, discussed the pipe in his report on the site, but it somehow never ended up in the Utah Museum of Natural History with the rest of the artifacts from the site.  If Knowlton is telling the truth, it seems that Lindsay kept the pipe, and after his death someone in his family sold it to Knowlton.

This points to one aspect of these cases that doesn’t get discussed much: the role that some “professional” archaeologists have played, and probably continue to play, in the illicit antiquities trade on both the supply and demand sides.  These days archaeologists tend to portray themselves as “scientists” interested in knowledge as opposed to the “pothunters” who are only interested in material gain.  There’s quite a bit of truth to that characterization in the present context, but the distinction is pretty recent.  Some prominent Southwestern archaeologists of the early twentieth century began their careers as pothunters, and both they and other archaeologists continued to collect antiquities, often without much regard for their origin, well into the recent past.  I think it’s pretty likely that there are still archaeologists out there who do the sort of thing Knowlton is implying Lindsay did, i.e., keep particularly nice artifacts for their own collections, and there are probably even more who buy artifacts from others without paying too much attention to where they came from.

Even beyond that sort of thing, however, there’s really not all that much difference between “professional” archaeology and pothunting, as many Native Americans (and Craig Childs) would be quick to explain.  Both involve digging up artifacts and keeping them; the main distinction is (theoretically) that archaeologists keep careful records of what they find and make that information available to the scholarly community through publications.  Another distinction is that many artifacts from professional excavations end up in museums where the public can see them rather than in private collections, but given that the vast majority of the artifacts actually end up in the back storage facilities of museums rather than on display, this is something of a distinction without a difference.  I do think archaeology is worth doing, and that the information gained through excavation makes an important contribution to human knowledge, but let’s not kid ourselves about what’s really going on here or get up on any high horses.  If archaeologists want to convince the general public that what they do is good and what pothunters do is bad—and judging from both the opposition to archaeology among many tribes and the lenient sentences being handed down to the Blanding defendants, they are nowhere close to convincing enough people of either—they need to start doing a much better job of explaining the difference.  As Winston Hurst explained in Keith’s interview, if it continues to just seem like a dispute over who gets to dig up and keep artifacts, local people or government archaeologists, there’s no way the government is going to win in the court of public opinion.

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21 Responses to “Looting”

  1. Keith Kloor Says:

    Hmm, “not much difference between ‘professional’ archaeology and pothunters…”? That, coupled with your strong suggestion that some archaeologists are keeping their own personal collections strikes me as a pretty strong indictment of the profession.

    Yet you agree that archaeology “is worth doing.” Care to spell out how archaeologists can best practice their discipline (in the field) without them being called “professional” gravediggers?

  2. Sonya Atalay Says:

    Interesting thoughts here and I’m glad to see this discussion - so timely! Certainly there are many problems with the way archaeology was practiced in the past, prior to it becoming a professional discipline. Archaeology has a colonialist legacy that its practitioners need to own up to if there is any hope of moving the discipline forward. And there are still some very problematic ways in which archaeologists conduct research. But I argue strongly that exploitation and acts of “professional gravedigging” need not be the legacy and face of archaeology today. Myself and other archaeologists (a steadily growing number, I would argue) are working in collaboration with descendant and local communities in various ways. Of course “collaboration” means many things to many people and there are a range of approaches - some archaeologists (myself included) add complexity to this issue of collaboration by thinking of it as a “collaborative continuum” (see the work of Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh and TJ Ferguson for their introduction of this term in their edited book on collaboration). Not all collaboration is equal - that’s for sure. The term itself has been exploited and over-used, and doesn’t always mean that people (non-archaeologists) are truly active participants in producing archaeological knowledge - there are cases when they are used to give a ’stamp of approval’ at the end of a “collaborative” project, and in many cases are not actively involved in developing the research design and have no say whatsoever in deciding what types of research/testing are useful or beneficial for their community. Native and Indigenous scholars have been pointing this out for over two decades - asking what the benefits of research are to the communities who are the objects of study (Vine Deloria’s name always come up here, but there are many others, including non-academic activists who live in these communities and feel the direct effects and impact of the research being done) . Some archaeologists have avoided (or exempted themselves) from these critiques by claiming that their work on dead people somehow means concerns for ethical concerns of working with humans (and IRB rules) don’t apply. Recent NAGPRA discussions clearly demonstrate my point about differing views and approaches to “collaboration” .  We have groups of archaeologists strongly against the new CUHR (10.11) rule on culturally unidentifiable human remains, claiming it is a bad idea because it will hurt the collaborative relationships that have been built in 20 years of NAGPRA. Yet the overwhelming evidence from speaking with a large majority of tribes and Native American organizations (such as the Native American Rights Fund and the National Organization of American Indians) clearly demonstrate that Native people are in favor of the new regulations and they feel they have not been given equal power to make claims and repatriate under NAGPRA. The recently released government accountability office report also clearly demonstrates that 20 years after the NAGPRA law was passed there is still a major lack of compliance with the law among some major federal agencies (the report didn’t examine museums, but if they did, unfortunately they would find much the same thing in terms of lack of compliance). So what does that say about the “collaborations” that some of those against the new NAGPRA rules claim are happening (and claim will be damaged)? What kind of collaboration is it if there is not real power sharing and a sense of reciprocity involved in the engagement??  How useful are these “collaborative relationships” if 60% of the human remains held by museums and federal agencies have still not  been repatriated  as required by the law, and if ‘consultation’ is not even happening with tribes?
    Keith - you ask how archaeologists might best practice the discipline without them being called “grave diggers”. I’ve got an answer for you: community based participatory research (CBPR) - a mouthful, I know. I’ve spent the last 5 years studying it in other disciplines, applying it to archaeology in partnerships with Native American and rural communities in Turkey, and am just finishing up a book on it. CBPR has been around for some time but is only now (slowly) being applied to archaeology - and I argue that it’s the hope for archaeology to be a sustainable discipline that both engages local and indigenous communities in the practice of archaeology and makes the discipline relevant to contemporary social problems. CBPR has a history of successful application in many other (scientific and humanities) fields and provides a methodology for conducting research that is rigorous while engaging communities in the process of knowledge production - not just including them at the end-point or giving them a powerless seat at the ‘discussion table’ without any substantive engagement in the research process or products.  Democratizing archaeological research - thatwhat’s it’s about and it moves us well beyond the point of being professional gravediggers. Here’s one brief example that’s accessible online of my CBPR work with local communities in Turkey: https://scholarworks.iu.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/2022/6814/Atalay%20CBR%20Indigenous%20Archaeology.pdf?sequence=1
    CBPR has worked (and is growing) in medicine, sociology, art, theater, a whole range of science and humanities disciplines, and it’s exciting to think how it will impact and change the way archaeology is practiced in the coming century. I say it’s time for archaeology to catch up to our colleagues in other disciplines and engage more fully in community based research, incorporate community-campus partnerships into our teaching, train a new generation of archaeologists to move beyond the old way of doing archaeology to really, once and for all, move beyond the legacy of collectors and grave diggers to decolonize the discipline.

  3. teofilo Says:

    Well, I don’t think there’s anything they can do in terms of procedure; some people are going to call them that as long as they dig.  And I say there’s not much difference, but, at least to my mind, there is some difference, and what they need to do is explain what that difference is and why it’s important.
    Basically, I think archaeology has two image problems.  One, which affects relationships with tribes most of all but crops up elsewhere from time to time, is the idea that they are just putting a “professional” gloss on pothunting, and that nobody should be digging at all.  To get around this, which will be very difficult, archaeologists really need to show how their digging really does result in positive outcomes despite the damage it does, and part of that is going to have to be a more honest acknowledgment that excavation is a destructive process and that the damage it does is not trivial.
    The other image problem is that so many people see archaeology as being basically treasure-hunting, and that they don’t see anything wrong with that.  This is how the pothunters feel, obviously, but it goes way beyond that.  Think of the popularity of Indiana Jones.  (How carefully does he record the proveniences of the artifacts he takes?)  As long as there’s a general perception that archaeology is about digging up cool stuff, the distinction between professionals doing that for a museum and ordinary people doing it for their own collections is a very subtle distinction to get across.  In that context, when professional archaeologists go after pothunters it looks to a lot of people like elitist academics using the long arm of the law to keep ordinary people from doing the same stuff they get to do all the time, and that breeds resentment.  Combating this attitude will be very hard, because it’s so ingrained, but it will again involve explaining that archaeology is not just about collecting artifacts but about understanding the past, which requires careful collection of information rather than just hoarding of objects.  I think a lot of archaeologists have made some progress on this front, and there are certainly a lot of attempts out there in museums and the like to explain this distinction, but it’s going to take continuing sustained effort to make significant headway.

  4. Pascvaks Says:

    Once upon a time, long, long ago, Archaeology was a rich person’s pastime.  If s/he undertook the field, they usually paid to have it excavated, washed, glued, shipped, and displayed, or found some others with more money than they needed to help them do all this.  Today, the field is a profession.  It’s not personal, it’s profitable.

    Mush as Climatology is about big money, speeches, chicken dinners, and publication of facts not in evidence, so too is Archaeology and a few hundred other endeavours in today’s high-tech, high-stakes, high-cost, big-game, political world where causes become religions overnight.

    The difference between ‘professional’ archaeology and pothunters is off by a factor of $billions when compared to ’professional’ climatologists and carbon credit traders.  But it’s only a matter of scale.  They’re really very much alike.

  5. teofilo Says:

    Sonya: Thanks for stopping by.  I agree with pretty much everything you say, and I think it points to a good way forward in addressing the first of the problems I mentioned in my previous comment.  You mentioned TJ Ferguson; I think he’s a great example of an archaeologist who’s really made a serious effort to understand the Native viewpoint and represent Native interests in discussion with other archaeologists.  In the Southwest, at least, there have been very few archaeologists who are themselves tribal members so far, although that is slowly beginning to change, and as it does I think attitudes in the profession will start to shift away from the colonialist paradigm that is still pretty dominant there.

  6. Keith Kloor Says:


    Seems you’re stuck on the image problem, which is a legacy of archaeology. But why generalize and say contemporary SW archaeologists are little more than Indiana Jones knockoffs?

    Don’t you think you’re being a little harsh here?

    Additionally, take a look at that Hurst interview again. He makes a very powerful case for the importance of the archaeological record. You can’t create that record without excavation. (And of course what Sonya talks about is very important too.)

    Anyway, I’d like to respond more in full when I have more time. Let me just say that all the archaeologists I know and have worked over the years on stories are the futhest thing from pothunters. Indeed, many of them seem to go out of their way NOT to excavate until they have good reason to, are distinctly aware of the damage excavation causes, and are quite sensitive in how they deal with what they uncover.

  7. teofilo Says:

    But why generalize and say contemporary SW archaeologists are little more than Indiana Jones knockoffs?
    That’s not what I’m saying.  Contemporary archaeologists in the Southwest certainly are quite different from Indiana Jones and from pothunters.  They really are interested in understanding the past rather than collecting artifacts.
    The problem is that lots of non-archaeologists don’t understand this.  They assume archaeology is still about digging up artifacts for their own sake.  Some think this is a bad thing, while others think it’s a good thing, but it’s a very widespread perception.  It’s a problem of image rather than reality, to be sure, but that doesn’t make it any less important to combat that perception.
    You seem to have the idea that what I’m doing here is criticizing contemporary archaeologists personally.  Again, that’s not what I’m doing at all, although to the extent that there are any archaeologists out there participating in the illegal antiquities trade (or, for that matter, the legal antiquities trade) they’re not helping and should stop.  What I’m trying to say here is that archaeologists need to do a better job of engaging with the public and explaining what it is that they do and why it’s important.
    This is similar to what Craig Childs said in his talk at the Pecos Conference last year, and indeed a lot of what I’m saying here echoes things he’s said in various contexts.  His new book is, I believe, basically about this subject, and it sounds pretty interesting.

  8. teofilo Says:

    And no, I wouldn’t say I’m being particularly harsh.  You want to see harsh, look at what Paul Barford has to say about his fellow British archaeologists.

  9. Jim Allison Says:

    The post touches on some legitimate issues that are worth discussing further—what are the differences between pothunting and archaeology? what should archaeologists do to remedy their image problems? why is archaeology worth doing? does the fact that many artifacts wind up in museum storage really mean that putting them in museums rather than private collections is really “a distinction without a difference? were the “dramatic”, heavy-handed raids justified? or counterproductive? why have the sentences been so light? And so on. But I can’t get past the fact that some of the assertions in the post diverge so radically from my personal experience.
    I agree that archaeologists have some image problems, and I wouldn’t argue that the current practice of archaeology is perfect, but some of the assertions in the post and comments are misleading and more than a little harsh.  The fact that people who should know better repeat these kinds of assertions is a big part of the reason that archaeologists have image problems (although media depictions of archaeologists likely play an even greater role).
    Statements like “Some prominent Southwestern archaeologists of the early twentieth century began their careers as pothunters, and both they and other archaeologists continued to collect antiquities, often without much regard for their origin, well into the recent past.” are nothing more than innuendo, with little relationship to the current practice of archaeology. Who do you mean? And when? Earl Morris apparently did at least a little bit of collecting/pot hunting in addition to being a prominent Southwestern archaeologist, but he’s been dead for more than 50 years. Anyone else? The Wetherhills maybe? But they did their collecting mostly in the late nineteenth century.
    And “well into the recent past”?  What does that mean? Are you talking about anything after World War II? Archaeology has come a long way since the 1930s, and the whole idea of the archaeologist as collector is so thoroughly against professional ethics that I would be surprised if any archaeologist openly had a collection, even if it were legally obtained. It’s possible that a few are collecting secretly, but the fact that it would have to be secret is evidence of the complete disapproval other archaeologists would have of their collecting. Any archaeologist caught today doing pothunting on the side would be run out of the profession. If Lamar Lindsay really had the artifact at his house, that is disturbing and clearly not in keeping with his professional responsibilities, although I would like to know more about what actually happened before passing judgment.
    There’s no question that archaeologists could do more to work with Native Americans, who often do seem to think (wrongly) that there’s not much difference between pothunting and archaeology (incidentally, I’m not at all sure that Craig Childs would say the same thing). But over the last 20 years it has become routine to consult with Native American tribes and archaeological projects are often modified as a result of their concerns.

  10. Jim Allison Says:

    “You seem to have the idea that what I’m doing here is criticizing contemporary archaeologists personally.”
    I think that’s a pretty reasonable interpretation of the original post-or if you’re not criticizing archaeologists personally (i.e., by name) you’re criticizing the profession as a whole. And in ways that make it more difficult to combat the misperceptions.
    “What I’m trying to say here is that archaeologists need to do a better job of engaging with the public and explaining what it is that they do and why it’s important.”
    This I agree with, although from where I sit that seems easier to say than to do. There are significant obstacles to engaging the public, not the least of which come from one of the differences between pothunting and archaeology-when an archaeologist does field work, it amounts to making an enormous commitment to analyze and write up the results. It takes a lot of time (and money), and time and money are usually in short supply. At this point in my career/life, at least, I can’t make a commitment to blog regularly on archaeology, for instance, although that would be one way to reach at least a few people.
    I do what I can in my classes, as well as by talking to reporters whenever they show interest, speaking to local amateur archaeology groups, incorporating volunteers into my research projects, etc. It probably isn’t enough to make much difference, but it’s what I can manage.

  11. teofilo Says:

    Jim: Thanks for stopping by.  Those are some fair criticisms of the post, which I wrote in a bit of a deliberately polemical way and probably went a bit beyond things that I can rigorously back up.  By the “prominent Southwestern archaeologists” bit I primarily was referring to Morris, who did more than a little pothunting throughout his career, especially early on, and who also did quite a bit of “professional” excavation without much documentation.  You could also put the Wetherills in there for some of their early work, although I agree that it would be a bit misleading.  I do find it a little irritating the way some archaeologists seem to love Morris and despise Richard Wetherill, mostly it seems because Morris was better at ingratiating himself with museums and universities and gaining respect as a professional archaeologist (and also because he happened to live longer).  But that’s kind of beside the point, and I don’t have sufficient knowledge of the background of any other early Southwestern archaeologists to definitively say if any of them also had pothunting/collecting backgrounds or for how long.
    Again, with the “recent past” thing I don’t know anything specific that I can really back up; I’ve heard some rumors about some mid-century archaeologists, but nothing substantial enough to name any names publicly.  You’re certainly right that any such behavior would be subject to harsh disapproval from the archaeological community, and both your and Keith’s comments are making me think that the post is coming across as implying more of a substantial connection between archaeology and pothunting in recent times than I intended.
    What I’m mostly trying to do here is push back a bit on the self-righteousness that you sometimes hear from archaeologists, both in pothunting investigations and NAGPRA-related issues, where they present themselves as neutral “scientists” in pursuit of knowledge being assailed by greedy looters on the one side and religious fanatics on the other.  There’s something to that characterization, but it needs to be justified with an explanation of exactly what archaeology is and what it tries to accomplish, and in my experience it often isn’t.

  12. teofilo Says:

    This I agree with, although from where I sit that seems easier to say than to do. There are significant obstacles to engaging the public, not the least of which come from one of the differences between pothunting and archaeology–when an archaeologist does field work, it amounts to making an enormous commitment to analyze and write up the results. It takes a lot of time (and money), and time and money are usually in short supply.

    Absolutely, and it’s a big problem.  The rise of new media such as blogs has made a bit of a dent in the money issue, but it hasn’t done anything about time, and figuring out how to find the time to make the results of archaeology available to the public is going to be hard.

  13. teofilo Says:

    I also concede the point that blurring the distinction between archaeologists and pothunters is probably not the best way to encourage archaeologists to sharpen the distinction between themselves and pothunters.

  14. Jim Allison Says:

    To the extent that archaeologists like Morris better than Wetherhill, it probably has a lot to do with the fact that Morris produced some really good (at least for the time) reports. I still refer to Morris’ La Plata district (southwest Colorado) work.
    But the fact that Morris was tied into a network of contemporary Southwestern archaeologists, some of whom were based in the Southwest (as was Morris), and that he was accepted as a colleague by them probably plays a role too. But I don’t despise Wetherhill.

  15. teofilo Says:

    Morris certainly did produce good reports, and I don’t mean to criticize him too strongly.  (I was just reading about him in the Aztec administrative history; there’s a lot of interesting stuff there.)  My impression of attitudes toward Wetherill is largely shaped by my experience dealing with visitors at Chaco.  He has both his fans and his detractors, and feelings tend to be very strong on both sides but especially on the negative side, which includes quite a few archaeologists.  That said, that’s obviously not a representative sample of Southwestern archaeologists or any other group, so I shouldn’t generalize too much from it.
    In general what I mainly dislike is self-righteousness, and in disputes I tend to instinctively oppose the side that seems more self-righteous.  This means I often end up taking both sides of arguments at different times and in different contexts.  I try not to form definite opinions of my own any more than necessary.

  16. Collide-a-scape » Blog Archive » Collide-a-scape >> More on Looting Says:

    [...] been some interesting discussion in the comments to my post on looting and archaeology, including some pushback on the polemical tone and innuendo [...]

  17. JohnB Says:

    Sonya, or any other, exactly what is meant by “decolonizing” archaeology? Is this an American thing?

    I also have trouble understanding the idea of ;
    “hope for archaeology to be a sustainable discipline that both engages local and indigenous communities in the practice of archaeology and makes the discipline relevant to contemporary social problems.”

    Sorry, but that sounds like social science gibberish. The last 50 years has been spent trying to get archaeology out of the airy fairy dreamland state and make it into an actual physical science. I can only see comments like that as trying to take the science backwards. (If I understand them correctly)

    We never speak of physics in the context of “making the discipline relevent in terms of modern social problems” for the simple reason that there is no need to. The facts simply are, a particular groups inability to deal with those facts is not the problem of the science involved.

    I add that any concern about “modern social relevence” is doomed to failure. If faced with an oral tradition of say, 5,000 years continual habitation of an area and the archaeological evidence of only 500 years, what do you do? Tell the truth and destroy the social fabric, or lie?

    Societies should be relevent to science and facts, not the other way around.

    I’m sorry Dr. Atalay, but if I understand you correctly (given the myriad indefinable terms you used) then Archaeology has just moved from the “Science” building to “Humanities”, just across from “Music Appreciation”.

  18. teofilo Says:

    I for one am strongly in favor of moving archaeology out of “Science” and into “Humanities.”  But then, that’s really an issue for archaeologists to decide among themselves, and I’m no archaeologist.

  19. Keith Kloor Says:


    An archaeologist/friend once told me that archaeology was a soft science that wanted to be a hard science. (Heh, he was telling me that while he was documenting rock art panels.)

    Do bear in mind that archaeology, a subset of anthropology, deals with people and cultures. So while I understand where your own concerns are coming from, I think the thrust of Sonya’s post in this thread is about greater collaboration between archaeologists and Native Americans. (Sonya, if you’re following along, please correct me or clarify further).

    Anyway, my larger point is that the comparison of archaeology with physics is an apples/oranges thing. They are two very different types of science.

  20. teofilo Says:

    John’s view of what archaeology is and should be is a pretty common one.  I disagree with it, as my response shows, but it’s definitely one perspective that’s out there.

  21. Tom Fuller Says:

    IIRC, after great controversy back in the 60s, a lot of archaeologists decided to put their heads down, get more data, and let the soft science/hard science conundrum solve itself after they retired…

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