TED Case Studies

Artifact Trade



CASE NAME: Artifact Trade in US

I. Identification

1. The Issue

This case study concerns the illegal trade of Native American artifacts. Artifacts here include human remains, funerary and sacred objects, and everyday objects. For decades, archaeological sites in the United States have been vandalized and looted. In the process, much of the site is destroyed, rendering it useless to archaeologists and historians for the reconstruction of ancient cultures. Furthermore, the Native American peoples themselves are disrupted and disturbed by the removal of sacred objects from their culture and ceremonies. One recent case is that of Little Bighorn, which is the first conviction under NAGPRA. These thefts occur on both private and federal lands, encompassing a wide range of jurisdictions. The trade is largely spurred by increasing pressure from the international art market.

2. Description

The rising discovery of archaeological sites in the American southwest during the 1870s and 1880s led to increased interest in southwestern artifacts. This in turn resulted in the looting of these sites, as well as "recreational" digging by both residents and tourists. For many inhabitants of the region, the sale of these artifacts represented substantial extra income. The realization by Federal Agencies of the destruction led to the creation of the Federal Antiquities Act in 1906. This act prevented the destruction of monuments and antiquities on public land, yet allowed the free import and export of such artifacts.

Little documentation of the problem exists for the period 1906 through the 1960s. As interest in the American Indians rose in the 1970s, the true dimension of the problem came to light. The increase in public interest had jumped demand for artifacts in both the domestic and international markets. Sites fell under increasingly heavy destruction in the search to satisfy demand.

Most of the vandalism occurred in remote areas (virtually all of the sites) and under cover of darkness. Heavy equipment, which destroys the land in a short period of time, was a common instrument because of its quickness in uncovering the site. Deep plowing, for example, cuts through the earth in huge chunks in order to bring artifacts to the surface. This technique essentially destroys the site for all further possible usage. Other methods included probes, camouflage, and aircraft.(1)

In an attempt to stem the loss of cultural artifacts and vandalism, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) was instituted in 1979 to create authorities capable of enforcement. This act was amended in 1988. It is still proving both inefficient and ineffective, however, in controlling the problem.

According to a 1988 Congressional report on the vandalism and looting in the four-corners region of the country (namely, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado), up to 90% of the known sites in this area are believed to have been vandalized to some extent. There is a 42% increase in reported events from 1985 data, although most vandalism remains unreported since most sites have not been surveyed in order to assess the extent of the problem.(2)

At the time of the report, around 19,000 sites were known to exist. This area contains sites from many different tribes, including those of the Navajo, Anasazi, Ute, Apache, and Hopi. The Bureau of Land Management is responsible for 55.5 million acres in the region, with only 4.5% of the area surveyed to know of its contents. It is estimated that 90% of the area is American Indian, and that 50-90% has been looted. The National Park Service controls 5.29 million acres; 10% had been surveyed. The Bureau of Land Management has 30.5 million acres, with 4.3% surveyed, while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service controls 2.45 million acres, having surveyed only 1%. The U.S. Forest Service has 42.7 million acres and had surveyed about 7%. The Forest Service estimates that Utah faces a greater problem with looting than does either Arizona or New Mexico, by as much as a factor of five. In addition, although this agency has done the most of the federal agencies in controlling looting, its efforts are exceedingly uneven, concentrated primarily in Arizona.(3)

Because of the vast land areas the local agency offices are responsible for covering and the remote locations of many of the archaeological sites, agency staff rarely revisit most archaeological sites after they are initially recorded. Therefore the extent to which recorded sites have been recently looted is unknown.(4)

The greatest problem inherent to all of these agencies is the lack of staff and resources to adequately implement the measures delineated by ARPA. ARPA was designed "to protect archaeological resources on public and Indian lands."(5) It required permits to excavate an area. It also prohibited the trade of stolen artifacts, except surface arrowheads which were covered under the 1906 Antiquities Act and the regulations concerning the theft of government property.

ARPA has also proved difficult in the courtroom. Most Americans are uneducated about the effects of artifact looting and the precise definitions contained in the ARPA. As a result, vandals are often prosecuted not with ARPA but rather with either the 1906 Act or government property theft, which tend to be easier to explain and to understand. The combination of these two problems has led the Congress to conclude that looting of archaeological sites in the Navajo Reservation alone suffered a 1,000% increase from 1980 to 1987.(6)

The international art market drives the destruction of sites for their hidden resources. The business is both large and dangerous. It dominates the black market, which often proves disadvantageous to archaeologists whose lives are jeopardized by their work. Although pottery is one of the prized artifacts, almost anything will bring a price, including human remains.

Individual objects on the market are often difficult to trace to the country of origin, never mind to the original site. Oftentimes, whole sites are destroyed in the hunt for the best "marketable" objects. In addition, the largest objects are often impaired by transport, cut into smaller pieces for the journey. This is simply further destruction to history.

Art has become a favored means of investment since the 1950s. In addition, objects tend to acquire higher prices the further they travel from "home". One example given was a Mimbres pot, renowned for its specific style. Native to southern New Mexico, such a pot there could fetch $200-$1,000, but in Albuquerque could garner up to $45,000. This same pot might receive $95,000 in New York, while prices of $400,000 have been recorded in Europe.7 Most stolen pieces that find their way overseas eventually reside in Europe and Japan, although Korea, Taiwan and Saudi Arabia have also become recent storehouses. Since the U.S. Customs Agency is currently [as of 1993] not involved in regulation, it is estimated that the loss is in the multimillions of dollars.8

Part of the problem stems from the right of ownership. In most of the rest of the world, antiquities are nationalized. Thus, once an artifact is discovered, it is owned by the national government. In the U.S. this is not the case. The owner of the property, by U.S. law, also owns whatever is contained on, or in, that land. In addition, as has already been demonstrated, the federally-owned lands are vast and their contents remain largely unknown. Furthermore, prosecution of looters and vandals is tenuous at best. An attempt to reconcile the situation was made November 16, 1990, when President George Bush signed into law the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). NAGPRA, under the official jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Interior, is designed to reduce the international market by cataloguing all artifacts, beginning with museum collections. Furthermore, NAGPRA aims to repatriate all sacred objects and human remains still contained within or upon archaeological sites.

NAGPRA, while concerned with the reduction of illegal trafficking and vandalism, is also concerned with the cultural effects upon Native Americans. Looting, vandalism, and the illegal trade creates ethical problems, as the ancestors and their objects from burial are very important to Native American Indians.

Traditional Native Americans see an essential relationship between humans and the objects they create. Respect of all life elements -- rocks, trees, clay -- is necessary because we understand our inseparable relationship with every part of our world.

This is why we honor our ancestors and the objects they created. This honoring allows us to remember our past and natural process of transformation--of breathing, living, dying, and becoming one with the natural world.(9) Native American customs thus forbid the disturbance of graves and burial sites. This has contributed to problems even within purely archaeological studies. Religious artifacts and sacred sites are crucial cultural resources, essential to the way of life of the Native Americans. The cultural implications of the trade are vast and disturbing.

NAGPRA has assisted in promoting heritage values in archaeological resource management and federal land protection. It has helped bring culture to the forefront of policy with regard to this area of concern. Currently there are over 200 proposals for NAGPRA grants, although competing for a limited number of funds. Furthermore, the Russian government is examining NAGPRA in light of its own problems with illegal looting and trade of stolen artifacts.(10) Education among the public is also increasing. A new video from the National Park Service is now shown in all middle and high schools in Arizona, New Mexico, southern Utah and southwestern Colorado. Silent Witness: Protecting American Indian Archaeological Heritage is designed to increase awareness of these issues among the young, to stem future problems.(11) In addition, Indian cultural centers and museums are on the rise across the country. Within a few years, the Smithsonian Institution plans to add The Museum of the American Indian to its mall of museums.

Also contributing to recent optimism is the fact that federal law enforcement officers and the legal industry have become more familiar with both ARPA and NAGPRA and their concerns, thus permitting the increased use of these acts in prosecutions. In fact, NAGPRA just received its first conviction in late March 1995. A collector in Virginia was convicted of selling dozens of artifacts, including an Indian leg bone from the Little Bighorn National Monument site (of General Custer fame) in Montana. The source in Montana was also arrested and the Maryland buyer has been indicted in Kentucky for attempting to auction the artifacts.(12) Nevertheless, looting remains a tremendous problem. Resource management is but one lingering concern. These artifacts represent a vital part of American history: their creators are gone and the artifacts cannot be replaced.

3. Related Cases



GUANO case

BULB case

Keyword Clusters

(1): Trade Product = ARTIFact

(2): Bio-geography = DRY

(3): Environmental Problem = HISTory

4. Draft Author:

Amy Van Allen

II. Legal Clusters

5. Discourse and Status:

No one discounts the devastation that has resulted from the looting and vandalism. In addition, the tremendous effect of the international market is indisputable. While most countries are establishing agreements to protect cultural resources, there is not yet an international agreement to this effect. The U.S. is now aware of the situation, as are most countries who have similar sites, such as Peru, Mexico, Thailand, and Egypt. Russia is currently exploring American attempts to control the situation to determine their applicability to the similar Russian cases.

6. Forum and Scope:

USA and UNILATeral

The basis for the resolution of the problem is U.S. law. The U.S. must be able to educate the public about artifacts and archaeology, as well as to adequately prosecute looters and vandals. In addition, a broad international law regarding the illegal sale of artifacts must be enacted.

7. Decision Breadth:

1 (USA)

8. Legal Standing:


The Acts of NAGPRA, ARPA and Antiquities are punishable and enforceable by U.S. law. Vandals and looters may be prosecuted under these laws, although their use has proved difficult. NAGPRA, in March 1995, won its first conviction.

III. Geographic Clusters

9. Geographic Locations

a. Geographic Domain: North America

b. Geographic Site: Western North America

c. Geographic Impact: USA

10. Sub-National Factors:


Indian Reservations are, in essence, sub-national factors. They are private lands belonging the tribes. These sovereign territories and their contents are protected by U.S. law.

11. Type of Habitat:


Most of the southwestern United States, on which this argument centers, is dry land, if not desert. More temperate climates are found to the north and east.

IV. Trade Clusters

12. Type of Measure:

Regulatory Ban [REGBAN]

The strongest measure the U.S. Government is using to protect against further illegal trade is the inventorying all of items, beginning with museum collections. This is stipulated by NAGPRA. The hope is that knowledge of the artifacts will decrease the likelihood of their disappearance. Greater surveying of the lands is crucial here.

13. Direct v. Indirect Impacts:


U.S. regulations, if successful, will dramatically reduce the number of Native American artifacts on the international art market. It would also have a profound effect upon preserving archaeological sites and American Indian heritage. This hope is contingent upon greater public awareness of the impact of the destruction.

14. Relation of Trade Measure to Environmental Impact

a. Directly Related to Product: YES ARTifacts

b. Indirectly Related to Product: NO

c. Not Related to Product: NO

d. Related to Process: NO

15. Trade Product Identification:


The trade is in final products, primarily crafts. Looted artifacts from archaeological sites center around pottery.

16. Economic Data

The impact here is in money lost to the federal government in the value of artifacts. Some would also argue that these objects are irreplaceable and that history renders them priceless.

17. Impact of Trade Restriction:


If successful, the U.S. will reduce the number of stolen artifacts on the international black market. This would drastically raise the price of objects there currently, as well as those from private collections that are put up for sale.

18. Industry Sector:


19. Exporters and Importers:


V. Environment Clusters

20. Environmental Problem Type:


21. Name, Type, and Diversity of Species

Name: MANY

Type: MANY

Diversity: MANY

22. Resource Impact and Effect:

HIGH and PRODuct

This case, broadly, is a resource depletion problem. Although the environment itself is not directly affected by the removal of the artifacts (except for the destructive means often used to obtain them), the issue is the depletion of cultural resources.

23. Urgency of Problem:

HIGH and 100s of years

24. Substitutes:


These objects cannot be replaced, since they come from ancient and deceased cultures. There are no substitutes. See the EGYPT case.

VI. Other Factors

25. Culture:


This issue is culturally-based. The U.S. Government is attempting to protect the historical culture of the Native Americans as well as their religious sentiments regarding ceremonial and sacred objects and the dead. These objects are traditional parts of Native American history. They serve as links with ancestors, through common rituals and ceremonies. Native Americans, in addition, believe in the links through all forms of life, especially through materials from the earth.

26. Trans-Boundary Issues:


27. Rights:


Looting of the artifacts destroys Native American culture. This, in turn, affects their history and ceremonies. The Native Americans, as a result, are harmed.

28. Relevant Literature

Federal Archaeology. 7, no. 2 (Summer 1994).

Green, Ernestene L. Ethics and Values in Archaeology. New York: The Free Press. 1984.

Harrington, Spencer P.M. "The Looting of Arkansas." Archaeology. 44, no. 3 (May/June 1991): 22-30.

Hillerman, Tony. A Thief of Time. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

Lipe, William D. "Strategies for Resource Protection: Results from Save the Past for the Future." SAA Bulletin 12, no. 5 (November/December 1994): 4-7.

Meyer, Karl E. The Plundered Past. New York: Atheneum. 1973.

Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Review Committee. "Progress on Implementing the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act: A Report to Congress." June 1993.

Neary, John. "A Legacy of Wanton Thievery." Archaeology. 46, no. 5 (September/October 1993): 57-59.

Sebastian, Lynne. "Looting and the Law: The View from New Mexico." Archaeology. 43, no. 6 (November/December 1990): 52.

Society for American Archaeology. Save the Past for the Future: Actions for the '90s. Final Report, Taos Conference on Preventing Archaeological Looting and Vandalism. Washington, D.C.: SAA, 1990.

"Special Report: The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act." Federal Archaeology. 7, no. 3 (Fall/Winter 1995).

U.S. Congress. House of Representatives. Subcommittee on General Oversight and Investigations. Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs. "The Destruction of America's Archaeological Heritage: Looting and Vandalism of Indian Archaeological Sites in the Four Corners States of the Southwest." February, 1988.


1. In his many novels, Tony Hillerman describes these various processes for looting archaeological sites. In particular, see A Thief of Time.

2. U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Subcommittee on General Oversight and Investigations, Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, "The Destruction of America's Archaeological Heritage: Looting and Vandalism of Indian Archaeological Sites in the Four Corners States of the Southwest." February, 1988, 1-5.

3. Ibid., 6-39.

4. John Neary, "A Legacy of Wanton Thievery," Archaeology 46, no. 5 (September/October 1993): 57.

5. Ibid., 12.

6. Ibid., 9.

7. Neary 59.

8. Ibid.

9. Tessie Naranjo, "Thought on Two Worldviews," Federal Archaeology, 7, no. 3 (Fall/Winter 1995): 16.

10. "NAGPRA News," Federal Archaeology, 7, no. 2 (Summer 1994): 44-45.

11. "Silent Witness: Learning Guide Testifies to Loss of Native American Treasures," Federal Archaeology, 7, no. 3 (Fall/Winter 1995): 8.

12. New Releases from the National Park Service, March 1995.

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