by Rob Lopresti
A year ago this week I was volunteering on an archaeological dig in Israel. Naturally I am feeling nostalgic, wondering how my buddies at Ramat Rachel are coping without me this season. («Lopresti? Was he the fat guy who hogged popsicles at breaktime?») In honor of them I will tell you about some articles from Archaeology magazine about our favorite subject, crime.
This article by Samir S. Patek in the March/April issue discusses the new trend in robbery of archaeological sites in the southwest, especially New Mexico. Apparently the new looters are very thorough. When they are done with a site there is nothing left to be found.
You see, methamphetamine use tends to make you obsessive.
The meth heads have discovered that they can make easy money digging up our heritage. Cool, huh? Since meth users are called Tweakers these new diggers are being called Twiggers. So now you have raids conducted jointly by the Drug Enforcement Agency and Bureau of Land Management where they find, for example, over a pound of meth, 16 pounds of marijuana, 5 loaded guns, and almost 40 intact Anasazi pots.
Same issue, same author, same part of the country. If you dig a body out of a grave you are either a scientist, a vandal, or a pervert, depending on your motive or who is doing the labelling, I suppose. But if you steal the body of a soldier out of a U.S. military cemetary, somebody is going to get cranky. Make it a Buffalo Soldier– from the first units of regular black soldiers– and it’s going to look even worse.
The cemetary at Fort Smith, New Mexico was supposedly emptied in the 1880s. By accident or on purpose the military managed to miss dozens of bodies. In the seventies some treasure-hunters strayed from private land onto the military site and one of them dug up what turned out to be remains of Thomas Smith, 125th United States Colored Troops, who died there in 1866.
Only after Dee "Gravedigger" Breicheisen died in 2004 did someone reveal that he had had the skeleton on his property all these years. By the time the feds arrived, most of his collection had vanished into other hands.
One archaeologist said that Breicheisen was "probably the salt of the earth. Veteran pilot. Family man. Had to be a lover of history, I’ll give him that. He just made the decision that the public’s resources belonged to him."
In the May/June issue, Charles Stanish has some news about the sale of stolen objects on eBay, a subject with which I am somewhat familiar. Stanish is surprisingly optimistic.
Stanish deals with South American sites and he says the looters there have discovered that instead of doing the risky, uncertain work of looking for ancient pottery, then selling it to a middle man for a fraction of its ultimate price, they can use their time better by creating imitation ancient pottery, and selling it on eBay to unwary buyers. "Because the eBay phenomenon has substantially reduced total costs by eliminating middlemen, brick-and-mortar stores, high-priced dealers, and other marginal expenses, the local eBayers and craftsmen can make more money cranking out cheap fakes than they can by spending days or weeks digging around looking for the real thing."
Granted the average amateur isn't going to whip up something that will fool a museum but that isn't who is buying the stuff on eBay, is it? Seems like a quotation about Gresham's Law belongs here somewhere.
So, anyway, that's the news from the Ancient Crime Squad. Till next time, look both ways when crossing the tel, and don't take any wooden l'melech handles.