Archaeologist and Archaeology Southwest CEO William Doelle once visited Grand Gulch, an isolated Anasazi historical site. As he examined petroglyphs along the rock walls, he noticed a small, red drawing of a person — with a bullet mark right over its heart.
“It’s like, ‘Well, good shot,’ but the level of destruction is very disappointing to see when you’re back in these places where the preservation is otherwise extremely good,” Doelle said. “What motivates someone who sees an ancient painting like this and feels a need to test their marksmanship? I can’t explain it.”
Similarly, BYU assistant archaeology professor Michael Searcy said he’s excavated archaeological sites in northern Mexico that were pristine aside from obvious looter’s pits. According to Searcy, most looters often approach archaeology in a disorganized manner, leading to literal holes in a site’s context and history.
“The parts that were looted were so badly destroyed that we found looter’s pits on top of looter’s pits,” Searcy said. “It’s almost uninterpretable when it comes to looking at structures or burials. There’s really no way to interpret the information and data because it’s so destroyed and damaged.”
At best, cases like these are the result of carelessness. At worst, they’re the product of deliberate vandalism and theft — both felonious actions punishable by fines and prison time, according to Brenden Rensink, a BYU assistant history professor, historian of the North American West and assistant director of the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies.
According to the Utah Bureau of Land Management, Utah has a long history of looting and vandalism on both archaeological and paleontological sites. These sites are considered significant to Native American communities located in Utah, including the Navajo, Ute, Paiute, Goshute and Shoshone peoples.
While over 900 archaeological sites were discovered across Utah in 2017, the southern portion of the state — home to Zion National Park, Bears Ears National Monument and the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument — are notably vulnerable to negative human impact because of tourism, Rensink said.
According to Rensink, designating monument sites can be a double-edged sword — remote sites may not need monument status because of the difficulty of hiking into them, but any damage or theft is less likely to be noticed. On the other hand, protected monuments often attract large groups of people, which can result in damages and theft.
“There’s some concern that monument status could lead to increased traffic and more risk,” Rensink said. “There’s kind of a devil’s bargain and we’re really not sure how it’s going to play out.”
Rensink noted the reduction of the original Bears Ears National Monument has left it unclear whether archaeological sites within the boundaries will receive the same protections. Some sites left out of the new boundaries include Grand Gulch, Valley of the Gods and Cedar Mesa, according to The New York Times.
“Bears Ears was only a monument in its original boundaries for a very short time,” Rensink said. “It’s been split into two along with Grand Staircase Escalante, so it’s hard to say if it’s going to receive more or less protection.”
Rensink said other monuments, like The Canyons of the Ancients in Colorado, have been left underdeveloped to reduce human traffic, which has led to some increased protection for sacred sites.
Regardless of a site’s remoteness, Doelle said it can be difficult to date damage and theft to an archaeological site. Searcy also noted once an artifact is taken from its original location, it loses most of its historical context and significance.
“A lot of times people come and say, ‘Hey, I have an artifact I found in my grandpa’s basement,’ and my first question is, ‘Where is it originally from?'” Searcy said. “If it’s looted, for the most part, you’re losing probably 80 percent of the information. That’s how important context is.”
Shawn Lambert, the public archaeologist for the Utah Division of State History, said accidents are treated differently than intentional looting. He said someone who accidentally ran over an archaeological site on BLM land may not face criminal charges. However, Lambert said his job is to educate and inform people to help decrease both accidental and intentional looting and destruction.
“Most of the people who are doing this don’t understand what they’re doing. They may not know they’re shooting at rock art or running over a site,” he said. “We need to educate people about these resources and how to help people be stewards over these resources.”
According to BYU Anthropology Department Chair James Allison, looting and vandalism don’t only interfere with archaeological work — they also disrespect Native American culture, indirectly exacerbating distrust and other issues.
“There are huge problems in Native American society with a legacy of racism and poverty, and those problems are not made any better by the disrespect shown to their ancestral sites,” Allison said.
Allison and Searcy said the looting of any human remains, either modern or ancient, is strictly forbidden by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. According to the U.S. General Services Administration, human remains and Native American cultural items must be returned to “lineal descendants.”
“Someone values those sites for their ancestral connections and they do actually have a sacredness to them,” Allison said. “It’s like going into a cemetery and stealing the rings off corpses. It’s very offensive.”
According to Doelle and Rensink, there is always a market for historical antiquities obtained legally. Rensink said artifacts obtained legally are fine to sell.
“Legality depends on where the artifact was found,” Rensink said. “If you own the land and there are artifacts there, you can sell them legally.”
Despite this, a black market for illicit artifacts and goods still exists and attracts a wide variety of consumers, including international terrorists. According to a study by The Antiquities Coalition, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria turned to the dark web to exchange stolen artifacts for bitcoin to fund their operations.
According to the study, following the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, a hacking group discovered ISIS had access to over $3 million in bitcoin, which the group used to purchase weapons used in the attack.
Searcy said many looters will often trade among themselves in person or on auction websites like eBay. Unfortunately, according to Searcy, many artifacts are hard to trace to their original location, which results in many stolen pieces being passed off as legitimate.
Searcy also said it can be difficult to patrol for looters because many sites are located in remote locations. Site protection is often the responsibility of the land managers, like the Forest Service or BLM. Concrete evidence on illicit artifact trading occasionally leads to joint sting operations like Operation Cerberus Action, he said.
The FBI, BLM and the state of Utah conducted a sting in 2006, leading to 24 indictments involving antiquities collectors who stole from graves and ruins on the Colorado Plateau, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. Operation Cerberus Action recovered over 6,000 artifacts and two defendants died by suicide. The other defendants were not required to serve jail time, according to the Tribune.
Lambert said thieves and vandals could face steep fines and prison time in a worst-case scenario.
“You could get fiercely fined up to hundreds of thousands of dollars and you could also go to jail for intentionally looting archaeological sites,” he said.