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RAIDERS OF LOST ART

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One of the most extreme cases is the Four Mile Ruin site, a Mongollon village near Snowflake. More than 500 out of 600 rooms at the massive ruins were excavated by collectors in the 1980s for pottery. "There were bones lying around everywhere," Lerner says. "The site had just been bulldozed."

Another site, near Winslow--the Homolovi ruin--was pillaged by pot hunters until it was protected as a state park in 1986. "There were so many holes in the ground at Homolovi," Lerner says, "it looked like Dresden."

Charles Redman, the chairman of the anthropology department at Arizona State University, picks a different war--saying the Homolovi site resembles "a Civil War battlefield, with thousands of holes"--but agrees with Lerner that pot hunters have had a devastating effect on Arizona archaeology.

"They have an enormous impact in this state, in particular," Redman says. "Many sites in Arizona have been totally destroyed by these people, to the point that more have been destroyed than are left."

Take one look at Four Mile Ruin or Homolovi, Lerner says, and it is easy to see that destructive pot hunting is still a popular activity. Or, take a look at Walter's collection.

Identifying himself only by his first name because he "doesn't want the Indians knocking on the door," Walter says he is a "collector of fascinating and important things." In his little clapboard house south of Cottonwood, Walter proudly shows them off.

He has several boxes of bones he found while digging for pottery all over northern Arizona. On his mantle sits a skull, with a bumper sticker stuck to the forehead proclaiming, "This House Protected by Smith and Wesson." He says he collects mostly pottery--an extensive collection he gets "wherever I can, as long as I don't get into trouble"--but also keeps an occasional bone to remind him of a unique dig.

"For instance, the skull I got on one site where I really found some outstanding items," he says. "I kept him because he was good luck. I call him `Lucky Dug.'"

Walter is the kind of collector--the skull-and-bone hoarder who treats human remains as mere curios--who earns special abhorrence from tribal members. But they are quick to point out that it is not just these extreme cases that justify the restrictions on the use of private property imposed by the new state law. Cecil Antone, a Gila Indian and a key member of the state and tribal group that lobbied for new burial excavation laws, says any infringement on the principle of private ownership is counterbalanced by a more humane principle--the right of the dead to rest undisturbed.

"Private property has to do with respect for rights of all peoples," Antone says. "White society has a problem. They need to gain sensitivity and to abstain from the desecration of the dead for any reason. What we are really talking about is a spiritual issue rather than a matter of law."

BY SECURING THE stringent enforcement of state and federal laws against digging on both private and public land, the tribes hope to cut off the flow of artifacts to dealers and collectors. But just as important, they say, is their plan to retrieve remains and burial objects that have been locked away for decades in dusty closets and storerooms of state and federal museums.

"These are our people," Minkler says. "They have significance way beyond the study of bones in a box."

House Bill 2523, signed into law by Governor Rose Mofford earlier this year, amends the state's Antiquities Acts to include steps for tribes to take if they want to regain religious and burial items in state collections and taken from state lands. Its counterpart on the national level is the Native American Grave and Repatriation Act, a law sponsored by Senator John McCain and Representative Morris Udall, which established a national review board to decide what artifacts in federally funded institutions will be returned to tribes requesting repatriation. At stake in Arizona are thousands of pots, artifacts and skeletal remains, including several hundred remains at ASU's anthropology department more than 1,300 specimens stored at NAU's Museum of Northern Arizona and priceless religious items at Phoenix's Heard Museum.

To determine the origin of the objects and remains, the laws require the museums to make an inventory of their collections immediately. The tribes, then, can request the return of objects, and each request will be considered by the national board, appointed by the Secretary of the Interior. It sounds simple, but in reality, museum officials say, it's a logistical nightmare that may end up being decided not by professional archaeologists or the tribes but by the courts.

ASU's Redman says "it's impossible to catalogue and determine the origin of all the artifacts in every collection. Each one would require a lifelong study, and even then we couldn't determine for sure. If I dig something out of the ground that's 1,000 years old, how can you conclusively trace it to the Indians that are living out here in 1990? You can't."

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Darrin Hostetler