In the loneliest reaches of America's wilderness, a bold new breed of thief is ransacking history with shovels, trowels and bulldozers.
Tunneling carelessly through prehistoric Indian graves and villages, they plunder the past for artifacts that might fetch thousands of dollars on the black market and ultimately end up in private collections as far away as Japan.
Despite tougher new laws protecting archeological ruins on public land, experts say, the destruction continues at a pace that could obliterate some national historic sites within a few years. In the 11 months ending in September, 1985, federal agencies reported 899 cases of archeological vandalism.
'Heritage Being Lost'
Tossing aside human bones, plowing through ancient walls, these pothunters destroy in a moment what has slumbered undisturbed for centuries as they cart off pottery, jewelry and tools for personal collections or profit.
"Our national heritage is being lost because of vandalism and artifact-hunting," Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel said recently. "It is a page from the history book of this nation that's been taken for good. It cannot be replaced."
The pothunters' determination is shockingly evident at Poncho House Ruins, a spectacular chain of ancient Arizona cliff dwellings deep inside the Navajo reservation.
Tucked into a cliff 600 feet down a sheer sandstone wall, the ruins are difficult and dangerous to reach. By foot, it takes 40 minutes to hike down to the canyon floor on uncertain paths of slippery shale, then scramble up to the dwellings themselves.
Navajo rangers suspect that pothunters have flown into the canyon at least once, when they received a report of an unmarked black helicopter hovering over Poncho House.
Decade of Attack
Poncho House was inhabited from as early as AD 1100 to about 1300. It appears on the National Register of Historic Sites, and the magnificent ruins were undisturbed until this century.
But over the last decade or so, pothunters have systematically burrowed through the rooms, thought to have been part of a storage or granary complex. The digging has undermined the foundation and exposed the ruins to erosion.
"It won't be long till it all caves in," tribal archeologist Tony Klesert said.
The Navajos have counted more than 100 pothunting incidents over the last few years, Klesert said.
The damage and sometimes wholesale destruction of ruins particularly pains Indians, who decry the theft of funerary goods buried with ancestors, and archeologists, who complain that pothunting destroys the research value of a site.
What takes a pothunter 20 minutes to dig up, an archeologist might spend years excavating and then piecing together the scientific clues to prehistoric people--what they ate, what they wore, how they lived, how they died.
Scientists believe that modern man can learn from the mistakes, misfortunes and successes of early cultures. Soil clinging to Anasazi artifacts, for example, might help foretell the conditions that precede droughts like the prolonged one that drove the Anasazi from their ancestral homeland in the 13th Century.
Although pothunters have hit thousands of sites across the country, archeologists and law enforcement officers say the problem is most acute in the archeological mother lode--the Four Corners area where Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico meet. About 1.5 million sites, including cliff dwellings, dry caves and buried villages, dot the region.
No one knows for certain how widespread the damage is. But archeologists and rangers with the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service estimate that 60% to 95% of all major documented sites have been vandalized.
But these rough figures probably represent "the rock-bottom number," said Park Service archeologist Frank McManamon. He said the federal government has no comprehensive inventory of sites, let alone damage to those sites.
In southwestern Colorado alone, the BLM estimates, there are 100 archeological sites per square mile on the 77,000 rugged acres it manages and that at least 85% of those sites have been plundered.
Opinions vary on just who the pothunters are, whether they are organized and how profitable their enterprise is.
Most pothunters are thought to be from the Four Corners, boasting a keen interest in archeology and impressive knowledge of regional history. It is unknown whether they loot primarily to build private collections, swap among fellow pothunters or sell to outsiders.
At the turn of the century and during the Depression, museums and universities paid pothunters $2 to $3 per vessel, and sale of pilfered artifacts kept food on the table for many families in the Four Corners.
"For three summers during the Depression, pothunting was my father's only job," said Devar Shumway, 67, of Blanding, Utah, a tiny town whose pothunting tradition made it the target of a federal investigation last spring. Shumway, in turn, passed along the practice to his 11 children.
More alarming to authorities than the mom-and-pop pothunters are professional looters who turn to guerrilla tactics. Ranchers, sheepherders, backpackers and others have reported encounters with pothunters who carried automatic weapons, blackened their faces and wore camouflage fatigues.
Threats of Force
"We've had reports of citizens being turned back from public lands by individuals who put a gun in their face or blocked a road with a truck," said Walter Johnson, the BLM's director of law enforcement and resource protection.
"You'd better believe they're dangerous," said Pete Steele, a BLM ranger and self-described reformed pothunter in southeastern Utah. "It's a holdout of the Old West."
Commercial pothunters' use of radio scanners and lookouts with walkie-talkies has convinced authorities that big money is involved and that the thieves may have formed a loose network.
But confronting vandals has proven nearly impossible for land management agencies strapped for cash and manpower.
Some of the sites are in such remote, rugged areas that the thieves resort to helicopters, four-wheel drive vehicles or horses to reach them.
"We don't have the numbers to stand watch over every acre," Johnson said, noting that the BLM manages more than 300 million acres across the country with 28 agents and 35 rangers.
Agents must catch pothunters red-handed, because the 1979 Archeological Resources Protection Act outlaws taking artifacts only from public land. Digging up the same artifacts from private property, with the owner's permission, is legal.
The thin line between crime and adventure is dramatically visible in Gallup, N.M., on a site known as Box S Canyon.
Box S is a 700-room pueblo that Zuni Indian ancestors inhabited through the 13th Century. Today's Zuni reservation sprawls across desert terrain the size of Belgium--and stops at Box S Canyon. A barbed-wire fence through the pueblo puts 10% of it on the reservation, the rest on private land.
Most of what is on private land has been destroyed by pothunters who used backhoes to claw through the graves, ceremonial rooms and ancient trash heaps.
Human bones are scattered around the site amid beer cans and other debris. The sight sickens the Zunis, who can only watch sadly from their side of the barbed wire.
But even if a pothunter is caught on federally protected land, experts say, judges and juries seldom take the crime seriously and have never imposed the law's maximum penalty--$10,000 in fines and a year in jail for a first offense.
Recruiting the Public
"Chances are 9 to 1 you're going to get away with it because you're not going to get caught, or if you are caught, you'll be let off," said Christine Rogers, who prosecuted 11 such cases while an assistant U.S. attorney in Portland, Ore. She now consults on forensic archeology cases and lectures at law enforcement training seminars.
The Interior Department has concluded that the best way to stop the plunderers is by recruiting the public.
"Public involvement is critical," Hodel said while inspecting looted sites on the Arizona-Utah border recently. "The government can't do it alone. There aren't enough soldiers in the Army to police these sites."
Authorities refuse to discuss undercover operations aimed at ferreting out the middlemen who buy from pothunters and sell to dealers or collectors, but such efforts appear to have been fruitless so far.
Utah, Colorado Raids
The federal government's first major enforcement of the archeology-protection act, a series of spring raids in Utah and Colorado, not only produced no indictments but also brought three civil suits against the agencies involved.
Utah state archeologist David Madsen insists that the crux of the problem lies not in the Four Corners "but in Albuquerque, Denver, L.A., Boston, New York and London, where they're buying this stuff."
Some experts scoff at the notion of an active black market in Indian artifacts.
"It's not that interesting. The market is very small," said Ellen Napiura, vice president and director of tribal art at Sotheby's in New York City. Reports of high prices for the articles are "blown completely out of proportion. Most of it is worth about $100. Most of it is not very beautiful," she said.
High Auction Prices
However, American Indian Art magazine's list of the highest prices paid for American Indian and Eskimo art at auctions in 1985-86 included a wooden club and pipe tomahawk that fetched $54,600 and a Zia pottery jar that brought $22,000.
John Douglas, chief BLM archeologist in Washington, asserted that "a single pot can bring tens of thousands of dollars as it goes through international trading."
The president of the Society of California Archeology, Mark Raab, agreed.
"In Phoenix and Albuquerque, curio shops act as middlemen and buy artifacts out the back door from a network of pothunters, then turn around and hawk them to the orthodontist in Scottsdale," he said. "There's a really robust market out there of affluent collectors who buy with no questions asked."
Prime targets are ruins of the Anasazi, or ancient people, who were highly skilled basket-weavers and artisans in the Four Corners area. A popular defense by pothunters is that the Anasazi treasures would be buried forever or hidden away in universities or museums if looters didn't put them in the public eye.
"I hate to see artifacts leave San Juan County, and what I do keeps them from getting squashed under books in some university basement," said Casey Shumway, one of Devar Shumway's sons.
Steele also grew up in the Four Corners and has admitted having done his share of artifact-hunting. The BLM ranger speaks eloquently of the magic of holding something so old in your hand.
But ask him what's so wrong, then, about pothunting and his voice fills with passion.
"Archeology is still in its infancy," he said. "Do we have to pump every drop of oil from the ground, mine every drop of uranium? Do we have to take every picture?
"There's a whole generation behind me. They deserve the thrill of discovery too."