The LA Times and New York Times both covered the Federal indictment of 24 Indian artifact looters. The Los Angeles Times gives us some context into why it is a crime:
“Pot hunting” for Native American treasures is a pastime in many rural communities in the history-rich region. The high desert of the Four Corners region was home to a flourishing Native American civilization centuries before European exploration, and traces of these inhabitants are found throughout the canyons and mesas of the Southwest, preserved by the arid air inside caves, on rock faces and in towering cliff houses. […] Many experts also say the government hasn’t convinced the public of the damage done by pot hunting, which destroys the historical record that allows archaeologists to better understand the Southwest’s earliest inhabitants. “It’s like burning down the library before you have a chance to read the books in it,” said Barbara Pahl of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Southwest residents have been scooping up artifacts for generations. Since the early 20th century, settlers were even encouraged to dig up arrowheads, pottery and other remains. In the 1920s the University of Utah paid Blanding residents $2 per ancient pot. Federal authorities estimate that 90% of the 20,000 archaeological sites in San Juan County, where Blanding is located, have been plundered.
The New York Times unravels the details of the sting operation:
Theft from public lands, under the legal theory that everything there belongs to the federal government, is punishable by up to 10 years in prison for each count. Theft from tribal lands, by contrast, is punishable by only five years in prison. A 1979 federal law intended to protect archeological resources allows added penalties of up two years in prison on federal or tribal lands, while a 1990 law about Indian human remains provides a system for returning recovered grave artifacts to descendants whenever possible.
And all those questions hinged on the work of the former artifact dealer, identified in the court documents only as “the Source.” Over 18 months, from early 2007 through last November, the former dealer — who was wired for real-time audio/video transmission to F.B.I. agents — bought about 256 artifacts from the defendants, according to the F.B.I. affidavit, valued at almost $336,000.
And part of the sting required getting the defendants to say exactly where the pieces came from so that legality or illegality was certain.
“Individuals who deal in stolen archeological objects are usually very careful to disguise the site of origin,” the affidavit says. But either out of braggadocio or because the F.B.I. operative was so trusted, the indicted defendants apparently incriminated themselves by pointing or circling on the map where things came from, before signing a so-called letter of provenance, indicating a phony legal location.
24 Charged in Crackdown on Native American Artifact Looting (Los Angeles Times)
23 People Arrested or Sought in the Looting of Artifacts (New York Times)