CSI: Mound Builders style
Crime-scene training helps protect artifacts, archaeological sites
Thursday, September 16, 2010 02:54 AM
By Wesley Lowery
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
NELSONVILLE, Ohio – Dressed in a loose-fitting camouflage jacket and dirt-covered jeans, Martin McAllister wandered out of a densely wooded area at the Wayne Natural Forest yesterday afternoon.
His arrowhead belt buckle tipped two approaching forest rangers to his intentions. After questioning and searching him, the officers discovered yet another arrowhead, this one an ancient artifact illegally dug up by McAllister just moments earlier.
But McAllister will serve no time for his “offenses”; they were part of a staged artifact-looting and crime-scene investigation meant to educate archaeologists and law-enforcement officers about how to handle suspected looting cases.
The training session was one of a dozen or so workshops held annually to teach more about the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, a 1979 law that made it a federal crime to remove artifacts 1,000 years or older without a permit.
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Those convicted could face fines of up to $250,000 and five years of imprisonment. There also are penalties for taking artifacts that are newer.
About 25 archaeologists and law-enforcement agents, some traveling from as far as Alaska, Tennessee and South Dakota, participated in the mock investigation.
“Sadly, archaeology sites are being looted every day,” said McAllister, the session’s instructor and owner of a Montana-based archaeological-damage assessment firm.
Antiquity trafficking, a $6billion to $7 billion industry, is the fourth-largest illegal market in the world, according to a study by the U.S. National Central Bureau of Interpol, the world’s largest international police agency.
But only 50 to 100 cases of artifact theft and trafficking make it to U.S. courts each year, McAllister said.
This was the fourth time that the forest in Nelsonville has hosted one of the sessions, said Ann Cramer, the forest’s archaeologist.
Each year, rangers in the 240,000-acre forest, which is home to thousands of historic burial mounds, rock cellars, Underground Railroad sites and iron- and coal-production remnants, investigate a handful of reports about suspicious activity and potential lootings, Cramer said.
“There are 12,000 years of human history out here, ” Cramer said. “There’s a huge black market and it exists here in Ohio.”
The Hopewell Culture National Historical Park in Chillicothe has lootings reported monthly, said Rick Perkins, the park’s chief ranger.
The 1,170-acre park contains one of the largest concentrations of Native American ceremonial burial grounds in the country.
“Once these burial mounds are dug into, they’re exposed and gone forever,” Perkins said.
The pillaging of Native American burial mounds damages sites that are both historically and culturally significant, said Steve Vance, tribal historic-preservation officer for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota.
Vance, who traveled across the country for the session, said his job is hindered by a lack of manpower; he and two other officers are responsible for watching over about 3 million acres.
“It is important to the Sioux people that we leave these (mounds) undisturbed,” Vance said.