Stealing History 

Looters ransack archaeological sites throughout the West, but Montana officials notice a surprising lack of in-state incidents. A Missoula specialist says they're just not digging deep enough.

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The Bitterroot National Forest is no stranger to looting. In 1992, a historic location in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness known as the Magruder Massacre site was picked clean by a casual artifact collector from Lewiston, Idaho. The massacre had occurred in 1864, when a band of outlaws murdered three residents of a local mining town, including a merchant named Lloyd Magruder. The men responsible for the massacre were eventually apprehended, and their trial and subsequent hangings were the first on record in the Territory of Idaho.

click to enlarge Historic artifacts like these were recovered in the Bitterroot National Forest, where the site of the Magruder Massacre was picked clean in 1992 by a casual looter from Idaho. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Historic artifacts like these were recovered in the Bitterroot National Forest, where the site of the Magruder Massacre was picked clean in 1992 by a casual looter from Idaho.

"A book had just come out on the Magruder Massacre, and this individual had read it," says Milo McLeod, a retired Forest Service archaeologist who worked on the Bitterroot at the time of the looting. "He wanted to go find the site and see if he could find some artifacts that related to the massacre."

The items were later recovered by local Forest Service personnel—bullet casings, a watch fragment, nothing overtly spectacular—and had little market value, but McLeod doesn't measure the loss in dollars. Had those artifacts been properly excavated, they may have yielded rare information on exactly how the Magruder Massacre unfolded. Once disturbed, the items can no longer tell their story.

"Looting had been a problem on both pre-historic sites and our historic sites for decades," McLeod says. "The first people didn't think very much of it. It was good recreation to go out and look for arrowheads or collect bottles. But what they didn't realize was archaeological sites hold keys to the past. By excavating...we can learn a lot about what happened in the past, and when those artifacts are taken away, it's almost like tearing pages from a book."

McLeod breaks Montana's archaeological resources down into two types: pre-historic and historic. The former applies to nomadic American Indian tribes, whose burial plots are specifically targeted by looters who use jury-rigged tools made from car antennas to hunt artifacts and even human remains. The latter encompasses battlefields, mining structures and logging camps—anything related to the settlement of the West.

"It's not the same as the Southwest, where they have the exquisite pottery," says McLeod. "But a lot of Montana's battlefield sites—Little Bighorn, the Big Hole, the Bear Paw—these sites have been collected. And there is trafficking of artifacts, and if you can prove that a cartridge case or arrowhead came from Little Bighorn, it has high monetary value."

Casual looting has been the primary concern among Montana's archaeologists for generations. Bitterroot National Forest archaeologist Mary Williams says many Montanans grew up with the belief that artifact hunting was a recreational hobby, not a crime. She still struggles with people getting in her face and telling her it's their right to collect arrowheads or old fragments of pottery, even if the land is federally owned. Her rebuttal is simple: No, it isn't.

"The laws spell out very clearly what is and isn't allowed," Williams says, referring to both ARPA and the state's own Antiquities Act.

While the acceptance of casual collecting as Montana tradition doesn't necessarily include commercial gain, Williams says it's far too easy for the two to overlap. The Official Overstreet Indian Arrowheads Identification and Price Guide—what McAllister calls the Bible of looting—lists the market value of a single pre-historic lance point found in Beaverhead County at $8,000 to $14,000. Selling a projectile point like that is perfectly legal if it's recovered from private property with permission from the landowner. But with thousands of dollars in potential profits, recreational collection can be an effective cover for commercial looting on public lands.

"It's something that, on federal properties, is quite prevalent unfortunately," says Dean Wyckoff, a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Billings. "It kind of ranges across the whole spectrum, from somebody out casually collecting to somebody actually that's very organized and methodical at hitting sites that are rich with those resources. Excavating to screening, what have you. There's a market for that stuff."

Wyckoff says he's currently working several ARPA investigations, though he could not offer details on the nature of the crimes. He understands that while most may see the consequences as minimal, they are very real.

"A lot of times it seems the looters and even the public...they don't see the victims," Wyckoff says. "It seems like it may be a victimless crime, but it really isn't because those activities really affect our ability to gather historical importance related to the sites. If you have somebody in there that's looting, they haphazardly collect a lot of the time and a lot of the very important information regarding the artifacts is lost when it's not done by a trained archaeologist."

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