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In March, archaeologists under contract with the Arizona Department of Transportation, inching along with trowels and brushes, exhumed 57 skeletons alongside a lonesome two-lane road in the Tonto National Forest.
The bodies dated to the 13th or 14th century, the earthly remains of prehistoric Native Americans, laid to rest with heads facing Tonto Creek and the rising sun to the east. As is often the case with Native American burials, the graves yielded a treasure trove of decorated and undecorated ceramics, shell and turquoise jewelry, and even some wooden artifacts that appeared to be jewel-encrusted walking sticks.
There were no press releases announcing the discovery.
"It takes a good while to conduct a search like this," says Dr. William Doelle, the president of Desert Archaeology, the Tucson firm hired by ADOT to excavate the site. "So if word gets out that there's a big cemetery, that means we have to hire guards for after hours and perhaps stand off pothunters left and right."
Archaeological artifacts found on federal lands, by law, belong to the federal government. Since 1990, with the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, the remains of any Indians exhumed on federal lands, and any artifacts found with the remains, belong to the tribes that claim to be descendants of the deceased.
"NAGPRA, above all things, is civil rights legislation," says one former U.S. attorney who used to prosecute NAGPRA violations. "It was meant to right past wrongs."
Starting in the late 1800s and continuing into the present, pothunters of the Indiana Jones variety rummaged through burial sites, tossing bones every which way, looking for prize pottery to sell to museums and collectors. Archaeologists gathered bones and all and measured and photographed and catalogued them for their scholarly musings, then threw everything in a box on a shelf in case anyone wanted to look at it later. Christians may be so cavalier about human remains that they keep the bones of their saints as relics, but in many Native American religions, human remains are taboo.
NAGPRA and the corresponding Arizona Burial Protection Act of 1990 ruled that Native Americans had to be consulted on what to do with the remains of their ancestors stored in museums or dug up during construction projects. Though they could choose to leave them in the museums or take possession of them, Native American tribes in Arizona mostly want them reinterred. And they want all the art and artifacts that came out of the ground with them reburied also, much to the consternation of the museums and collectors who believe that art has a right to exist on its own terms.
"We are from different cultures," says Leigh Jenkins of the Hopi nation. "You have a dominant culture that places significant commercial value on these funerary objects. We don't."
The State of Arizona has been relatively efficient in carrying out its law, having completed 129 repatriations since the law took effect in 1990.
The federal law, however well-intentioned, has proved difficult to carry out and the bodies have stacked up. The Tonto National Forest alone is in possession of 700-some sets of remains and thousands of related funerary objects that Arizona tribes want the government to rebury. Five years after the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act passed Congress, the U.S. Forest Service is still trying to figure out how to give up the dead.
In a sense, NAGPRA implies that an ethnic culture holds copyright and exclusive ownership of its history. Using the law as a club, Native Americans can refuse archaeologists permission to conduct anything more than a cursory examination of the remains they exhume. The Arizona tribes often will not allow modern testing methods if they damage even the tiniest pieces of bone. They can deny nonintrusive testing, as well, if they choose.
And so the science of archaeology is being squeezed by political correctness and ethnic politics because the law places Native American religious beliefs over scientific research. Native Americans in the 1990s have a political clout that no bureaucrat in his right mind wants to tangle with.
Consequently, state and federal officials, archaeologists and the Native Americans charged with the disposition of such items generally meet inquiries into archaeological digs with a none-of-your-business stoniness--even if they take place on public lands funded by tax dollars. Because everyone is walking on ethnic eggshells, science takes a back seat to emotion and politics.
Bill Doelle, the head archaeologist on the Tonto Basin project, looks as if he came from Central Casting--khakied and bespectacled, tousle-haired and slender--as he stands over the foundation of a house that his people are excavating. A big stone metate, or stone basin used to grind corn into flour, sits on the floor where it was left centuries ago, likely too heavy to carry when the homeowners abandoned this dwelling. Next to it are the shattered remains of two earthenware urns and a notched stone that was likely used to straighten arrow shafts.
Most of the artifacts found in archaeological sites were left behind as trash by the cultures they belonged to. They come out of the ground shattered by the crush of time, dissolved by the elements, buried in the litter of nature. The most beautiful, the most intact ceramics come out of graves, where, for the most part, they have weathered the centuries in hollows beneath the planking that prehistoric Indians placed above the bodies like coffin lids to keep them from being crushed by the weight of burial.