Stolen and Looted: an interesting article

This is part of my on-going “Stolen and Looted” series in which I examine cultural resource management practices, looting of archaeological sites, and out-right theft of artifacts.

In an online newspaper called The Spectrum, which is the online version of a Southern Utah printed paper, there was an article by Byron Loosle titled Archaeological Artifacts: Grandfather Clause or Illegal Action? In this article, Loosle summarizes very well the problem with looting artifacts from public lands and archaeological sites in general. While it’s legal in the United States to remove artifacts from private lands (assuming one has the landowner’s permission), it is actually a crime to pick up even projectile points (a.k.a. arrowheads) from the surface when on public lands like National Parks.

Loosle makes a couple of quick points an analogies that I think are effective:

the impact of any type of collecting can be crippling to science and research efforts. In order to piece together the big picture and gain a firm understanding of the history of prehistoric cultures, scientists rely not only on studying the artifacts themselves, but the locations in which they lie.

A high percentage of sites in the Great Basin, for example, are the result of transient hunting and gathering activities that occurred over about 10,000 years. Many of these transient hunting sites are small and represent only temporary use. Even the larger sites usually show only surface or very shallow deposits. These variables make extracting information from sites very difficult.

Like clothes and hairstyles, arrowhead styles changed through time. Scientists rely on these markers to date a site. The type of stone used for the point can help us understand where people had traveled, and artifact placement shows where activities occurred in the past. Just one visit from an enthusiastic collector can virtually destroy the information potential of a small site, just as repeated visits to more substantial sites leaves devastating results.

Actually, that’s a relatively large portion of the article, which is very short, but these types of internet articles seem to disappear after a few months or even weeks and Loosle’s words are worth repeating. I hope he doesn’t mind my liberal interpretation of “fair use” with this quote.

In spite of the lucidity and clarity of Loosle’s remarks, there was a single comment at the time I wrote this by someone upset that “BLM people” would expect him to just leave an arrowhead on the ground where he sees it. The commenter makes several ignorant remarks about proving he didn’t make it himself or that he found it on public lands, etc., missing completely Loosle’s main points.

Interestingly enough, I empathize -as I’m sure most archaeologists and cultural resource managers do- with the commenter’s motivation to pick up and keep an “arrowhead.” But Loosle wasn’t speaking to the casual hiker that spots a projectile point on the surface along a trail. Indeed, he notes that “approximately 90 percent of the Anasazi structural sites in Washington County have been damaged by illicit digging, with percentages just as high for sites compromised by surface collection activities in Beaver and Iron counties.”

These damages aren’t done by people walking along and spotting arrowheads. These are people who are actively digging and looking for artifacts with an intent to remove cultural resources from lands shared by us all. These people are thieves and they’re stealing from me, you and even the commentor to Loosle’s article. They’re making a profit at the expense of us ever gaining contextual knowledge which could help create a more complete understanding of our cutural heritages.

About Carl Feagans 397 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.


  1. I see a very particular version of this argument because of working in a numismatics department. We get a great deal of our information from metal detectorists, and these metal detectorists are frank in telling us that they are in a small minority compared to the others who don’t report their finds. These, if we see at all, we see context-less in sale catalogues or on eBay. For this reason, there are occasionally arguments that metal-detecting should be heavily restricted or even criminalised, as it is in many other countries, but the thing is that these countries have tiny assemblages of data compared to the UK. It seems to me that we know more for allowing collectors to find things than we would otherwise by relying solely on organised digging, even if this also means a vast amount of data loss. This probably works better for coins than anything else, though, since coins contain an awful lot of encoded information in their design, and even a context-less coin will tell us something about the coinage and issue it belonged to. Obviously we’d rather have a find-spot but they’re not useless without. I guess an Anasazi arrow-head doesn’t really work in those terms…

  2. As the old story goes as a child we hunted arrow heads in plowed fields.Most the points we found were dropped due to inclusions in the flint or a bad step fracture.The plow broke many but we were proud of the finds.
    Today as you study history and learn of past cultures you understand the diffrent periods and tools. Here is the point I am trying to get to. You are walking down a river bank.You spot an arrowhead (broad term). Its at the edge of the water.The next boat or jet ski sweeps it out into the river to be gone from sight forever. No history no appreciation. I agree that it is wrong to digg and loot. But to surface hunt and pick up what is washing away should not be a crime in America. I do not know one Archeologist that does not have a house or den full of artifacts.This tells me a degree is what is needed to pick up an arrowhead? That is ridiculous. Digging on sites in parks or historical areas should be prosecuted.Graves sites should be left alone.
    But please have common sense people are going to pick up that arrowhead on the waters edge and with cooperation they would share their finds say as a Mud Creek variation 7000-2000 BP.
    Will it be wrong one day to pick up a rusted nail or an old hammer because it was a tool of ancient man? The metal detector guys are the best at research and know that the iron and artifacts have only a short time left in the soil before they are gone completly.Mineralization in diff areas afeect it faster than other.You are not dealing with drug dealers looking for a buck but some of the best and most knowledgable historians around.Un like myself who is probably mis-spelling everything at this late hour.
    Ok back to my research. Thanks Google : ) We do admire and read the reports on the sites they get to.

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