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RAIDERS OF LOST ART

The caller wanted to talk to Peter Hester about death.
Hester, a self-styled adventurer, amateur archaeologist and the most notorious of Arizona's pot hunters--those who excavate long-abandoned Indian villages and burial sites for knowledge, fun and profit--is familiar with the subject. Digging from the ground what is left behind by the dead is his business. He listened carefully to the man on the phone, who identified himself as a Hopi Indian.

"You have disturbed the graves of my ancestors. How about if I dig up your grandparents?" the Hopi asked.

Hester laughed. He had heard that one before. Ever since novelist Tony Hillerman had written in his series of Native American mysteries about a bitter Indian activist who dug up the remains of a museum curator's grandparents and mailed them to her, threatening the exhumation of pot hunters' relatives had become a standard intimidation technique.

"They're buried in Williams and Ashfork," Hester replied flippantly.
"Go for it."
There was silence for a moment. And then came a more ominous warning.
"Maasaw is watching you, Hester," he said.

Maasaw, the Hopi god of death, the guardian of the Fourth World, was waiting for the pot hunter. His final day of judgment was approaching.

Hester snorts, recalling the threat. "I immediately thought about it and realized that since Maasaw teaches people about death, we probably have a lot in common.

"So I got serious and told the guy, `Man, I am Maasaw.'"
Sitting in his rustic, book-lined Camp Verde office, surrounded by Indian pottery and artifacts he has taken from more than 100 archaeological sites around the state, Hester looks more like Arizona's version of Indiana Jones than a Hopi deity. He has lively, piercing blue eyes and graying hair, which he often ties back into a ponytail. His weathered, angular face, boots, blue jeans and strutting, frontier-style cockiness mark him as a man who could fit easily in another age--as a cavalry scout, cowboy or gambler. Or, perhaps, an outlaw.

According to federal law-enforcement officials and state preservationists, that MD120 Col 1, Depth P54.04 I9.06 is exactly what Hester is--the Southwest's number one archaeological outlaw, the King of the Pot Hunters. It is a badge he has worn with a measure of pride for more than twenty years, as he has dug, bought and sold Indian artifacts in northern and central Arizona in relative anonymity, dealing only with a shadowy network of buyers and sellers--and making a healthy living in the process.

But now Hester is on the front line of a complex political battle with roots stretching literally under our feet. All across Arizona, remnants of past and present Native American civilizations are buried in the soil, and the question of who has the right to excavate the human remains, pots and other ancient artifacts has sparked a conflict with wide-ranging scientific, religious, financial and, some say, constitutional implications.

To the tribes of Arizona Native Americans, pot hunters like Hester are contemptible grave robbers, looting and desecrating the sacred resting places of ancient ancestors for the filthy lucre the pottery buried with the dead will produce. Loris Minkler, an assistant to the Hopi tribal chairman, says pot hunters are "rapists, plain and simple."

"They eliminate a significant part of our past," she says. "Ninety percent of the archaeological sites in Arizona have been damaged by these destroyers."

State preservationists, acting as Indian advocates, agree. While it has been illegal to dig for artifacts on state and federal land for years, only this summer did the Hopi tribe, working with the state, manage to push through the Arizona State Legislature a bill making it a felony for pot hunters intentionally to disturb burial sites on private property without first notifying the state museum director, who reserves the right to excavate--and confiscate--all the valuable burial artifacts on-site in the name of the Indians.

To Hester and others like him, who view themselves not as grave robbers but as serious businesspeople and amateur scientists, the law threatens to take away their avocation and livelihood. Joined by rural Arizonans who see the bill as a direct infringement on the sanctity of private property, Hester has pledged to challenge the measure by excavating a site he owns in the Verde Valley--and daring the state to stop him.

The battle over bones in Arizona, pitting fundamentally different concepts of ownership and ancestry against one Col 3, Depth P54.10 I9.14 private ranch land on state property; and although they claimed they had merely made a mistake in determining the rancher's boundaries and were in possession of only twelve small pottery shards, the four were charged with knowingly excavating a state archaeological site, collecting artifacts without a permit, criminal damage and conspiracy. One of the pot hunters pleaded guilty to the charges and served six months in jail. After years of sporadic litigation, Hester arranged a deal with prosecutors in 1986 and pleaded no contest to excavating the site, for which he received two years' probation, a $750 fine and was ordered to pay $1,000 in restitution.

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Darrin Hostetler