Looting of Native American Sites in South Dakota

Josh Verges of the ArgusLeader had a good detailed story about the indictment of three men in South Dakota for trafficking in Native American artifacts:

The federal indictments of three men accused of trafficking in Native American artifacts reveal a lucrative trade centered on the illegal harvesting of a culture’s buried history.

U.S. Attorney Marty Jackley said the indictments – the first of their kind in his two and a half years on the job – are partly a response to his conversations with tribal members.”When I travel to Cheyenne River and Standing Rock … this is very important to their culture and their tradition,” he said.

Jackley said the investigation continues with the possibility of more indictments, and those already filed involve a “significant number of artifacts.”

Brian Ekrem, 28, of Selby and Richard Geffre, 49, of Pierre allegedly sold three copper arm bands in violation of the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act and were involved in the collection of many other artifacts, including beads, arrowheads and bone tools.  Scott Matteson, 60, of Fort Pierre is accused of buying red stone discs, arrowheads and a sandstone scraping tool, all of which had been removed from public and Indian lands.

Each man pleaded not guilty earlier this month in Pierre and was released without bond until his next court appearance. In each case, court records do not specify how the items were obtained or to which tribe they probably belonged.  Matteson said last week that he bought the items from an artifacts dealer and he did not know their origins. He said that transaction of less than $300 has resulted in what he hopes is only a temporary loss of his artifact museum.

He said federal agents recently confiscated his 38-foot trailer filled with Native American arrowheads, pots and other relics, which he has collected during the past 50 years.

Verges and the two other men were most likely looting sites and burial grounds.  Policing these violations is difficult given the vast geographical area federal agents and prosecutors are tasked with safeguarding.  That’s why its particularly disturbing that President Bush has decided to pardon David Lane Woolsey (via) of St. George Utah, who violated the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. 

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Antiquities Looting in the West Bank

Karen Lange reports on the problem of antiquities looting in the West Bank for the December issue of National Geographic (via). Preventing looting of sites is a pressing problem everywhere, but these difficulties are more acute on the West Bank because of the ragged borders, dueling legal regimes of Israel and Palestine, and the lack of economic opportunity. Morag Kersel argues the demand for artifacts in Israel have helped fuel the demand for looting as well.

One Palestinian, Abu Mohrez, decried the damage done to Khirbet Tawas a Byzantine basilica “They wrecked the place, and it used to be beautiful.” Lange reports:

With ruthless efficiency the looters dug beneath each foundation and into every well and cistern, searching for anything they could sell: Byzantine coins, clay lamps, glass bracelets. In the process they toppled columns and riddled the site with holes, erasing the outlines of walls and doorways—and the only surviving record of thousands of ancient lives.

The scene is a familiar one. Looters use backhoes, bulldozers and metal detectors to find coins and other metal objects. Graves are desecrated as well. How can these looters do such damage? One anonymous looter argues “We need to feed our families.” The legal framework does not appear to be the problem. Palestinian law forbids looting, as well as the possession and trade of antiquities. As one might imagine, Israeli soldiers aren’t a popular bunch in the Palestinian territories, and are unable to effectively police the ancient sites.

Once again there are a number of familiar culprits. The inability to police and guard sites, economic hardship, an antiquities trade which avoids detailed provenance, and a paucity of licitly excavated objects on the market.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Chicago, Cuno and Iraq


Tom Hundley has a very long piece in yesterday’s Chicago Tribune on antiquities looting, Iraq, and Jim Cuno’s arguments (with slideshow). It’s an interesting read, as it summarizes nicely some of the problems with antiquities looting in Iraq, which he argues began in the difficult economic times after the first Iraq War.

At the close of the war in 1991, as Saddam fought off insurrections from the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south, the U.S. government imposed a no-fly zone over large swaths of Iraq. This, along with strict UN trade sanctions, created a kind of perfect storm. With the weakened Baghdad regime unable to control large parts of the country, impoverished Iraqi villagers—often with the blessing of village elders—turned to the only source of income available to them: scavenging the hundreds of archeological sites that dot the landscape between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

In some areas, the trade in looted antiquities accounted for almost 85 percent of local economic activity. Meanwhile, a weak U.S. economy at the end of George H. W. Bush’s presidency was encouraging the truly rich to look for alternatives to stocks and bonds. Art and antiquities fit the bill. As supply obligingly met demand, the market for Mesopotamian antiquities blossomed. Within months of the war’s end, a treasure trove of Mesopotamian antiquities began to show up in the gilded display rooms of auction houses in London and New York, no questions asked.

The article then goes on to summarize James Cuno’s views, and gives a very superficial discussion of national patrimony laws. He writes incorrectly I think that the Hague and UNESCO Conventions are the foundation for national patrimony laws. I think that’s a questionable assertion, as many patrimony laws were established long before these.

It is worth noting that there is a gross factual inaccuracy in the piece. Despite what the article says, the U.S. has ratified the 1954 Hague Convention. Perhaps Hundley should have spent a bit more time talking with Patty Gerstenblith, whom he quotes in the piece, or even Larry Rothfield — another Chicagoan — who has written a recent work on the looting in Iraq.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Update on the Baghdad Museum

Martin Bailey has a very interesting interview with John Curtis, the Keeper of the Middle East at the British Museum on the current state of protection of archaeological sites in Iraq, now that we are approaching the five-year anniversary of the invasion, and the looting of the museum which soon followed. Here’s an excerpt:

TAN: How serious is looting of archaeological sites?

JC: The situation has been very bad, particularly in the south, at sites such as Isin, Tell Jokha (ancient Umma) and Bismaya (ancient Adab). However, recently there seems to have been an improvement. Professor Elizabeth Stone of Stony Brook University in New York State is monitoring satellite images of sites for evidence of digging. There now seems to be quite a falling off in the digging.

TAN: Why the improvement?

JC: Dr Abbas al-Hussainy, until recently the head of antiquities, had good contacts with tribal groups in the south and he stressed to them the importance of preserving sites. Another reason is that the market seems to have dried up, and there is no point in digging if you cannot realise quick profits. There may have been an improvement in policing of sites, but this is very recent, only in the past few months.

TAN: Are looted Iraqi antiquities turning up in western markets?

JC: There doesn’t seem to have been much Iraqi material appearing in London or western markets, and very little on eBay. There may be collectors buying in the Gulf states and the Far East, but this is speculation. Probably a lot of the looted material has remained in Iraq.

TAN: How much damage has been caused to sites by Coalition troops?

JC: Iraq is a vast archaeological site. You cannot have military manoeuvres without causing a great deal of damage.

I expect a number of new five-year what now retrospectives on the looting of the Baghdad museum, and the ongoing looting in Iraq. It seems to me that this issue is still under-reported, particularly by American journalists. What are American and Iraqi officials doing to safeguard sites? Sadly, I think they are doing very little, because the security situation in the country remains unstable.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com