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
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