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Disappearing history: Protecting 9.3 million acres of ancient culture

John Madsen scans a hillside littered with a layer of softball-size pinkish stones, pointing out what’s missing from the scene – larger rocks that had been darkened by age and decorated by a long-vanished civilization.

An entire hillside of Hohokam rock art had been stolen. Thieves rolled boulders covered with petroglyphs down the slopes. What didn’t break into pieces, they loaded up onto trucks. What was too big to roll, they broke off and carried away.

Madsen, associate curator of archaeology at Arizona State Museum, simply says: “It’s all gone.”

Perhaps the ancient stone canvases ended up on eBay. Perhaps they became lawn ornaments or conversation pieces atop someone’s fireplace.

Wherever they ended up, the hillside has been stripped of artifacts that can’t be replaced. It’s more than just a cultural loss. The hillside is on state trust land, and taking artifacts is a crime.

In southern Arizona, crimes against antiquities don’t escape Madsen. He hears about them from volunteers assigned to keep an eye on culturally significant sites.
Madsen, in turn, reports to Brad Geeck and Steve Ross with the Arizona State Land Department, which administers the trust land. Geeck is a trespass investigator with the agency, and Ross is an archaeologist.

They oversee the trust land’s cultural resources.

Madsen notes that the area where he’s standing – roughly near Picacho Peak – was once part of a large Hohokam settlement. He speaks as though it still exists.

“This one here has about 150 villages,” he said.

Though many artifacts of Hohokam rock art have vanished from one hillside, many more remain. Not far from here, Madsen, Geeck and Ross scramble around rocks covered with Hohokam art. Roughly 1,000 years ago, early desert dwellers chipped away at the rock surface, a layer of mineral darkened with time.

The Hohokam exposed the lighter undercoating to create figures of animals and people. They made abstract shapes including squiggles and concentric circles.

Archaeologists have theories about the meaning of rock art, but not definite answers. The images might have been tied to religious ceremonies. They might have had more practical purposes, perhaps as trail or boundary markers.

Archaeologists continue to study rock art and artifacts from the Hohokam past. Excavation on state land, including trust land, requires a permit from the Arizona State Museum. And culturally significant sites on state trust land are generally off-limits.

Ross understands that somebody who stumbles onto a site might be curious.

“Look at anything you want,” he says. “But don’t take anything, and don’t bring your friends back there.”

Much of that is a matter of education. In years past, pot-hunting on public land often was part of a family outing. Now it’s illegal on nearly all state and federal lands.

Thieves face the ‘HEAT’

To help halt theft of artifacts, Geeck and Ross started a program known as HEAT, for Heritage Education and Training. Since 2002, they have led classes once or twice a year, teaching law enforcement officers how to investigate antiquities theft.

Attorneys take the class as well. It counts for continuing legal education credit, Geeck says.

As a practical matter, it makes sense to enlist local police to help solve antiquities crimes. The Land Department has only two investigators, Geeck included. Between them, they must cover 9.3 million acres of state trust land.

In addition, the investigators have no enforcement power. They can’t make arrests, even though Geeck himself is a former sheriff’s deputy.

With HEAT, officers learn how to treat an antiquities crime scene, whether that involves theft of rock art, pottery or human remains.

“The effort that goes into evidence recovery, to me, is akin to a homicide investigation,” Geeck says.

Better than catching somebody with the goods, however, is preventing theft altogether. That’s where the site-steward program comes in. It’s run by Arizona State Parks.

About 800 volunteers monitor some 3,000 sites throughout the state, says Nicole Armstrong-Best, interim site steward coordinator for Arizona State Parks. The program also is connected to the Arizona State Land Department and State Parks, as well as with federal land agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service and the National Park Service.

Stewards keep a distance when monitoring a site. If they see any vandalism or disturbance, they report it to a regional coordinator.

That, in turns, is reported to the agency administering the site.

In southern Arizona, stewards report to Madsen of the Arizona State Museum.

“Most of the rock art in this area is susceptible to theft,” he says.

“If it’s on state lands down in this region, they then call me and I forward my concern to Brad and Steve.”
It’s not just the location, Armstrong-Best says. It’s also a matter of timing. Thefts appeared to increase around the time of the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, the largest such event in the country. It’s held every February. Monitors began keeping a closer watch on sites in the weeks leading up the show.

Since then, thefts at those sites have dropped.

If stewards spot someone suspicious, they don’t wave a badge and make arrests, Armstrong-Best says.

“We absolutely advise our stewards not to approach the site if anyone is there,” she says. “They’re just to monitor and report on the site – not to get involved.”

The borderlands, however, present a special problem, Madsen says. One couple, a husband and wife, accidentally came across an armed gang.

They escaped unharmed, but that incident and others like it led Madsen to put safety over surveillance.

He pulled site stewards off all trust lands south of interstates 10 and 8.

There is plenty of rock art elsewhere. But that’s not the only heritage left by the Hohokam. They left pots, figurines, shell jewelry and human remains. Madsen, it happens, has the job making sure remains, if disturbed, are returned to their rightful owners. That could be next of kin or a related Indian tribe.

It’s a complicated process, spelled out in detail by state law.

Unlike other artifacts, remains found on private property cannot be sold on eBay – at least not legally. Nor can the pots found at burial sites, because they are considered funerary artifacts. Sellers often point out that the pots they are offering weren’t recovered from public lands or from a burial site.

Geeck and Ross suspect that’s not always the case.

Threat of urban sprawl

Many times, it’s not theft that accounts for disturbance of burial grounds or other cultural sites. It’s progress. With urban growth, state trust land is often sold to developers.

That’s where Ross, the Land Department’s archaeologist, comes in.

“Usually, I go out and look at sites when they’re in the direct path of development,” Ross says.

If the site has cultural significance, developers must survey the area for antiquities. And, if necessary, they must engage in what’s known as data recovery, where artifacts and possible remains are scientifically recovered and cataloged. Everything is mapped out.

Not all culturally relevant sites are found far in the desert. One parcel of state trust land in Phoenix yielded one set of remains after an initial test.

“During data recovery,” Ross added, “they found 25 human remains.”

But even as developers work with the Land Department to preserve the history and the artifacts of earlier times, development brings more people. And more people means disturbance of adjoining trust lands.

Already, Ross and Geeck see scars on state land adjacent to a master- planned community between Phoenix and Tucson. The desert landscape is crisscrossed by trails created by off-highway vehicles, which flatten vegetation and churn up areas once home to the Hohokam.

Across the Hohokam range are earthen hillocks known as platform mounds. They were thought to be raised foundations for the households of village leaders or for ceremonial sites.

“The platform was the center of the village itself,” Ross says.

After the Hohokam vanished about 1450, the rooms above the platform mounds filled in with dirt. Standing atop a mound, visitors can see the outlines of long-buried walls.
One such platform mound can be seen from a roadside south of Phoenix.

In the recent past, some off-highway-vehicle operators did not regard it as part of the state’s heritage, but just another hill to climb.

“People were riding their dirt bikes and quads up over the platform mound, and causing erosion,” Ross says.

To fence or not to fence

The mound was fenced off eventually. But that brings its own set of problems, Ross adds.

“Once you put up a fence, you identify a cultural resource site,” he says.

In one case, the Land Department not only put up a fence, it allowed restoration groups put up a marker identifying the site. It wasn’t a Hohokam settlement. It was a stage stop dating back to 1879 and a nearby schoolhouse built in 1912.

The one-room adobe station provided water and fresh horses for travelers who made their way from Picacho to Florence, according to a signpost donated by the Hohokam Resource Conservation and Development Area and the Arizona Historical Society.

Geeck, however, is not a fan of historical markers on trust land.

“My personal opinion is you don’t put a sign out and draw attention,” he says.

As the site suggests, not all artifacts covered by the antiquities law have to date back to pre-Columbian Indians. It could be an old Spanish coin. It could a whiskey bottle from Wyatt Earp’s day. It could be something more familiar.

“Anything older than 50 years is considered a cultural resource,” Ross says. He adds: “We have power lines, gas lines and probably fiber- optic lines that are historic.”

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