Grave Robbers: People of the Dirt: The Obsessive and Destructive Artifact Thieves

People of the Dirt-Part 2 

May 12, 2014 

In one episode of Breaking Bad, a TV series about criminals producing methamphetamine, two of the characters, Jesse and Mike are trying to retrieve a huge stash of the drug stolen from their boss by two addicts. Jesse, a former addict, soon tires of sitting in a car and waiting for the armed and unpredictable addicts to emerge from the house. Much to Mike’s dismay, Jesse grabs a shovel from the trunk and begins digging a hole in the front yard of the hideout. Almost immediately, one of the addicts, Tucker, emerges from the house and joins in digging the hole. 

While Tucker is distracted, Jesse and Mike break into the house and retrieve the drugs. 

Jesse later explains to a shocked Mike, “Hey, I know meth heads.” 

Meth addicts typically display increased alertness, concentration, paranoia and increased energy. The addicts in Breaking Bad spend hours dismantling electronic devices and then reassembling them without distraction. 

This portrayal, it turns out, is painfully and bizarrely accurate. Meth heads really do like to dig, and they are digging for Indian artifacts at a recklessly alarming rate. Unfortunately, this isn’t a TV show, and they are being joined by many other people who are also interested in a quick payoff as evidenced by the hundreds of postings on YouTube of various digging endeavors. 

Although viewed by many as a benign hobby, digging for Native artifacts is a burgeoning business online and at artifact shows, where ancient pottery fetches thousands of dollars and even arrowheads can bring hundreds, depending on condition and type. 

According to archaeologists, the most sought after artifacts are found in burials. “An unbroken, decorated pottery item has nearly always been taken from a burial site,” says Christopher Moore, professor of Anthropology at the University of Indianapolis. “Typically we see a big increase in people digging for artifacts during economic downturns.” 

Looters seeking the high-end artifacts found in burial sites will often use a tile probe—a long probe with a handle attached—to poke into the ground until they hit something hard. Pottery found in this manner typically has a small cylindrical hole where the probe first made contact. 

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, NAGPRA was passed in 1990 to help protect such artifacts. Although NAGPRA includes provisions for remains and cultural items found on tribal and federal land, laws governing such activity on private land is complex and varies from state to state. “Dealers and sellers usually sidestep questions about the origins of such objects, saying that they came from old collections, pre-dating federal law protecting the items, or were found in an eroding riverbank,” says Moore. 

Native people are working to increase awareness about the disrespect and damage such digging and trafficking in artifacts does to contemporary tribal cultures. “When you remove the bones of my loved ones from the earth where they were interred, you remove them from the proximity of family,” says Ben Barnes, second chief of the Shawnee tribe of Oklahoma. 

He also bemoans the attitude of artifact collectors that allows them to see Native artifacts as fossils. “They cognitively lack the ability to see remains and artifacts as connected to living cultures.” 

Digging for artifacts by untrained archaeologists forever destroys important cultural context of a site, says Larry Zimmerman, professor of anthropology at Indiana and Purdue universities. “Excavation by hobbyists forever loses the environmental information that is crucial to dating items.” 

Many tribal people maintain that the practice reflects not only a deep cultural hegemony of European conquest and entitlement over indigenous peoples but also demonstrates a peculiar urge to accumulate that reflects contemporary acquisitive culture. “It’s about greed and the same sense of entitlement that led to the depopulation of indigenous peoples from North America in the name of Manifest Destiny,” says Henrietta Mann, Cheyenne, who is president of the Cheyenne and Arapaho College in Oklahoma. 

A recent article on about Kevin Dowdy of Georgia typifies the mainstream American view of collecting. Like most enthusiasts, Dowdy began collecting artifacts as a youngster. After attending shows where the items are bought, sold and traded, he met with others who shared his interest. He recently appeared on the History Channel’s American Pickers show. 

“It’s truly amazing to pick up a piece of history, a tool that hasn’t been touched by human hands for years,” he said in the article. 

The main reason for collecting Native artifacts given by, however, points to a more visceral urge among enthusiasts and provides an entre to the darker side of the hobby. “Enthusiasts are attracted to the strange world,” tops the list of motivations for the collector. 

U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent Robert Stills described digging for artifacts as an addiction in a recent article in the Riverfront Times. The paper also quoted Jerry Hilliard, assistant station archaeologist at the University of Arkansas saying, “A new wave of looting has been seen in epidemic proportions.” 

Brief research into the topic on YouTube bears out these claims. Among the thousands of postings related to artifact collecting is an enthusiast named Brooksy. He has posted numerous videos of himself and friends digging for artifacts. One post includes over 35 minutes of footage shot at an artifact show, and is comprised solely of close-ups of framed box after box of arrowheads and artifacts. His forearms, covered with arrowhead tattoos, slide into the picture as he repeatedly fondles the items exclaiming, “Look at that!” in his heavy Arkansas accent. The large number of arrowheads and other artifacts at that one show is overwhelming as is his mind-numbing attention to each items detail. 

Brooksy, like many of his brethren, has the habit of including Native flute music with his videos, and appears to burn sage at the beginning of one dig. His prayer is, “Thank you, great spirit, for everything and the chance to look for the finds left behind from those who came before us who left nothing but what they took from the earth.” 

Apparently many collectors see their actions as a form of honoring Native peoples. “I actually think it’s paying respect to the people that were here before us, and passing on that history to the next generation,” said Doody in the RifleandRod article. 

The hobby of hunting and collecting artifacts does not honor Native peoples and is a symptom of the U. S. policy of removing them from their lands according to Barnes of the Shawnee tribe. “Since [collectors] don’t see any real Indians living nearby, we are like fossils to them,” he says. 

Dr. Garrick Bailey, a professor of anthropology at the University of Tulsa, says that until very recently, the remains and artifacts of indigenous peoples were viewed by mainstream America as merely scientific specimens and part of the natural fauna of the land. Bailey served on the review committee for the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. 

At another point along the digging and collecting spectrum are the self-described outlaw diggers like “Guycuchio” and his crew. “Guycuchio,” a wiry young man, appears to be wound tight, and sports the remnants of a black eye and wears enormous black disks in both ears. 

After arriving at their spot, they dig until they are shoulder-deep in the earth. Despite the obvious heat and humidity of the Louisiana location, “Guycuchio” displays his jittery enthusiasm as he photographs the handful of arrowheads and spear point he has found. “This area is pretty tore up from me and the other outlaws,” he observes. 

Timbergiantbigfoot, however, seems motivated by curiosity and the hope of finding remains of Big Foot. He appears to be part of another subculture of diggers who are convinced that the government is withholding evidence of ancient remains of Big Foot; it is up to him and others to unearth the evidence and share it with the world. He and his buddies find what he describes as mounds or ancient graves in the woods. So they dig. Finding nothing, they vow to return later. 

According to authorities the land, private, state and federal, is littered with such efforts. 

Money, obsession and/or the drug-fueled need for repetitive movement are all motivations to dig. 

State and federal agents are increasingly finding a connection between artifacts and drugs. Sergeant Kevin Glaser of the Southeast Missouri Drug Task Force told the Riverfront Times that his officers have gone into meth houses and found tubs filled with arrowheads and artifacts.