Archaeological Looting: US Gets Tougher on Lucrative Crime

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If a group of hikers came across this piney area on the San Juan Mesa, they probably wouldn't know they were standing on an ancient Pueblo Indian dwelling - now just piles of rubble covered over with 500 years of soil and vegetation.

But someone did know and came with shovels and picks to dig for pottery, baskets, and turquoise jewelry. The booty could have meant thousands of dollars to the finder on the stolen antiquities market. This illicit business is so lucrative, say law enforcement officials, that it ranks right behind drugs, guns, and money laundering. Now Congress is preparing tougher penalties for damage to the nation's cultural heritage.

This fallen village is one of as many as 8,000 sites scattered around the volcanically formed Jemez Mountains in niches so remote the looting wasn't discovered until the pot hunters - and pots - were long gone.

Remote, vulnerable sites

With one of the highest concentrations of significant archeological sites in the Southwest, the Jemez district of the Santa Fe National Forest is a vivid example of just how hard it is to keep tabs on some of the nation's oldest ruins and relics.

A decade ago, if pot hunters were caught, they'd likely have gotten a slap on the wrist - if prosecutors had pursued the case at all. But in recent years, the US government, one of the largest preservers of such sites, has become more diligent about catching and prosecuting offenders, and judges are giving longer sentences.

Perhaps more important, is a shift in public sentiment - resulting in citizens more willing to report suspicious activity and juries more willing to convict.

"I don't think there is any question that there is a much greater degree of awareness and a higher level of sympathy toward ... preservation," says J.J. Brody, former director of the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. "But this is by no means a perfect world. Looting is still a very serious problem."

While the days of loading up the kids in the camper and heading to Indian country for recreational pot- hunting may be gone, vandalizing and looting of these important historical sites continues.

Congress is expected in November to pass tougher sentencing rules for crimes against cultural property - currently treated only like a property crime for purposes of punishment.

For instance, last year, a man took a sledgehammer to the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, denting the 250-year-old symbol of American freedom. The penalty he faced was "no more serious than, say, [if he'd been] stealing a computer or throwing a rock through a government window," says Richard Waldbauer, assistant director of the Federal Preservation Institute at the National Park Service in Washington. …