Looters prey on Arkansas artifacts for quick profit

JONESBORO, Ark. (AP) – Artifacts of prehistoric people who lived in Arkansas are being dug up by criminals. Dr. Julie Morrow, station archaeologist for Arkansas Archaeological Survey, wants to get the word out that raiding the state’s past is a felony.

Morrow said that every winter, looters go to the Little Turkey Hill and Harter Knoll sites in Independence County to dig.

“It’s a felony,” Morrow told The Jonesboro Sun. “People think they can trespass on anybody’s land. They think they don’t need permission.”

Morrow said the Antiquities Act and an unmarked burial law protect the sits. If items taken from a burial site are valued at more than $2,000, it makes the theft a felony, she said.

Landowner Terry Melton reported to Morrow that the looters had again dug on his property, so Morrow and her team went to the site. They found a female mandible from a human skeleton, as well as small teeth, part of her pelvis and other bones.

“Looters may have taken things out of the grave,” she said. “You can see chop marks from shovels on the bone. This could date back to the Archaic period.”

She might have been buried with shells that were found at the dig, a canine-tooth necklace, spear points, and antlers formed into flintknapping tools, Morrow said.

“Everything was in disarray like a modern crime scene,” she said. “We don’t know what is associated with the skeleton.”

Morrow said the McDuffee site east of Jonesboro has been looted more than once by pot hunters.

Artifact hunting, in some cases, is related to illegal drug use. Law officers have known for some time that some methamphetamine users work through their high by trolling for arrowheads.

“What happens is they take (methamphetamine) and they’ll be up for two or three days. They need to expend that energy. The get money by surface hunting artifacts. Others are digging for them. We know drugs are related to looting, but not in every case,” she said. “They sell anything they can find. It’s a vicious cycle. It’s an easy way to get money around here.”

Some items are so valued by pot hunters – either for their own collections or to sell to other collectors – that it is worth the risk of getting caught. Morrow added that in some cases archaeology sites are used as party spots.

Morrow said sheriffs and prosecutors should devote more effort to pursuing offenders who dig at protected sites. But she acknowledged that unethical collectors create a market for the plunder.

“A single projectile point, one well made, can bring thousands of dollars. A Clovis type may bring $20,000, $30,000 or more,” Morrow said. “This is like digging your own grandmother up.”

In addition to losing valuable northeast Arkansas artifacts, looters sometimes damage or steal farming equipment, vandalize the landowners’ property and make huge holes in the ground that cause dangerous conditions for tractors and other agricultural vehicles.

Morrow is to give a talk next week in Jonesboro on the looting. The Central Mississippi Valley Archaeological Society will present The Looting of Arkansas Heritage at 7 p.m. on May 5 in Room 182 of the Arkansas State University Museum. The lecture is free and open to the public.


Information from: The Jonesboro Sun, http://www.jonesborosun.com

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AP-WS-04-27-09 1523EDT