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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McAllister's introduction to looting came nearly a decade before his work on the Jones, Jones and Gevara case. As a young archaeologist in 1969, McAllister traveled to Guatemala to help excavate Mayan sites threatened by urban encroachment in the capital of Guatemala City. The teams worked throughout the day to unearth artifacts and gain a better understanding of the nature of the site. At night, however, local looters would plunder McAllister's grids for any relics that might net a profit on the black market.

"We had to post guards on our excavations at night," McAllister says. "If we didn't, people would actually be in digging in our excavations while we slept."

click to enlarge McAllister says rock art sites like this group of petroglyphs on Bureau of Land Management property near Santa Fe, N.M., aren’t even safe from vandalism and theft. Looters will chip away at cliff faces to remove such images and sell them on the antiquities market. - PHOTO COURTESY MARTIN MCALLISTER
  • Photo courtesy Martin McAllister
  • McAllister says rock art sites like this group of petroglyphs on Bureau of Land Management property near Santa Fe, N.M., aren’t even safe from vandalism and theft. Looters will chip away at cliff faces to remove such images and sell them on the antiquities market.

In the late '70s and early '80s, McAllister took an increasing interest in aiding Forest Service law enforcement crackdowns. The passage of ARPA in 1979—a reaction by the U.S. Congress to mounting publicity of high-profile cases like Jones, Jones and Gevara—strengthened the federal government's ability to prosecute looters on federal land and established first-time penalties of $20,000 in fines and one year in prison. Soon McAllister was dealing almost exclusively with ARPA investigations, his typical duties as an archaeologist falling by the wayside. By the time he left the Forest Service and founded Archaeological Resource Investigations, now ADIA, he had begun training law enforcement officers and fellow archaeologists in the art of assessing damage and successfully building cases against looters.

"Eventually the training and consulting on archaeological crime just outstripped everything else," McAllister says. "People always want to ask me questions about the archaeology of Montana, because I'm an archaeologist in Montana. But that's not what I do."

What McAllister does do is essentially work backwards at a scene. Field archaeologists normally excavate a site systematically, making sure not to dislodge artifacts before their precise locations are mapped and documented. The data determines the pre-historic or historic significance of the object. McAllister's job is to put looted items back in the ground—figuratively—and assess their value and the extent of the damage. At the same time, he has to place suspected looters at the scene of a particular crime. Forensic techniques like soil matching are the backbone of his science.

"You catch a guy with an artifact in his truck driving down the road or he's trying to sell it at a dealer, the burden of proof is on the government to prove that that item was illegally obtained in violation of ARPA or one of the other laws that protect these sites," McAllister says. "That's not always easy."

McAllister's passion for cultural resource law enforcement is to some degree contagious. Liv Fetterman, a former employee of McAllister's who continues to help instruct ADIA courses, started in the field as an undergraduate in archaeology at Boston University. She worked throughout the East and Southwest for years in cultural resource management before her growing distaste for looting drove her to law school at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island.

Sitting across from McAllister in his Missoula office, Fetterman explains that her first lofty goals were to change how the justice system views looting. Most attorneys have never heard of that type of crime, she says. Without solid evidence against looters, even those well versed in archaeological crime find it too complex to tackle.

"There isn't enough case law that makes ARPA a really easy hit," Fetterman says. "Add that to the fact that a lot of law enforcers aren't providing a lot of evidence and the U.S. attorneys aren't always aware, it becomes a pretty tenuous connection."

When Fetterman met McAllister she still knew little about investigating archaeological crime. Federal agencies have it on their radar, she says. But just as McAllister seeks to educate more state and local law enforcers on the problems of looting, Fetterman hopes to build awareness among attorneys across the country. McAllister's business has offered her a chance to bring her seemingly disparate academic pursuits together. She's the closest thing McAllister has to a disciple.

"It's just something that irks the hell out of me to know that people feel they can desecrate archaeological sites, and it is to me also a very limited resource," Fetterman says. "We've got tons of environmentalists working to save the environment, but we just don't have enough people working to stop the desecration of cultural resources."

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