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Folks have been picking around for arrowheads throughout the Midwest for generations. But now, archaeologists report that a nefarious breed of looter is stripping history wholesale from public and private soil. The worst ones are essentially grave robbers who come armed, often in the dark of night, to plunder Native American burial grounds. Some hawk the artifacts on eBay or other sites. Others use them as currency for drugs.
Deep in the Ozark Mountains, where authorities say the methamphetamine epidemic is again gaining steam, addicts known as "twiggers" (tweakers who dig) have been mining rock shelters and caves for anything of value — possibly even skeletal remains. The weird nexus between looting and meth has been noted by experts for several years, especially in the Pacific Northwest. Today, these shady characters are leaving their footprints in America's heartland.
"What's really frustrating is that archaeological sites are nonrenewable," says Neal Lopinot, a Missouri State University archaeologist. "Once they're destroyed, that's it. They're gone."
The bluff line running south from Cahokia Mounds to Dupo, Illinois, is "crawling" with archaeological sites, observes Julie Holt, who chairs the anthropology department at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. "You can't put a shovel in the ground without hitting something," she says.
In the 1800s digging into Indian burials was something families did on Sunday outings after church. At the time, it was widely believed that the earthwork mounds along the Mississippi and eastward had been built by an advanced race that was squeezed out by the more primitive Native Americans.
As a result, if you plucked an intriguing item from a mound, you'd probably have no qualms about taking it home to display on the mantel, says Iowa-based archaeological researcher Bob Palmer.
"In some parts of the country people still find mound-digging to be acceptable," Palmer notes. Last fall, roughly 60 miles downriver from St. Louis, a landowner reported damage to the burial mound on his property, prompting Dawn Cobb of the Illinois historic preservation office to drive down to investigate.
"There was this huge, gaping hole with human remains scattered around," Cobb remembers. Illinois, like Missouri and Arkansas, has a law protecting unmarked graves. If someone gets an owner's permission, they can dig on private property. However, if they hit bone, they must stop. That law clearly failed to deter anyone in this case.
"We had no leads," Cobb says. "The hole was at least a year old. There's nothing the landowner can do from a legal standpoint."
South of the bootheel, on the Arkansas side of the Central Mississippi Valley, Terry Melton feels that frustration. The 42-year-old chicken farmer has been running looters off his family's land in the Strawberry and Black river bottoms for at least a decade. None has been convicted. On one occasion, he felt threatened enough by a trio of them to brandish an AK-47.
"There's got to be something down here worth selling, otherwise the idiots wouldn't keep coming back," Melton says, bouncing his pickup truck over a potholed dirt road as he heads toward a remote soybean field surrounding two small burial mounds.
The Meltons have been farming this flat expanse for at least a century. Humans first occupied it 10,000 years ago, according to radiocarbon dating of artifacts. Scientists have identified at least 40 ancient human skeletons in this area, where looters have struck three times since last October.
Juliet Morrow of the Arkansas Archaeological Survey began a meticulous excavation of one of the mounds in June 2009. "It's really depressing," she says. With a furrowed brow, she points out bone fragments and evidence of haphazard digging. The site is important, she says, because nothing is known about the Archaic period (8,000 to 1,000 B.C.) in Arkansas.
Melton says he's found so much trash over the years that he knows which brand of cigarettes and beer the trespassers like most (Marlboro Lights and Busch). He once even found a sock that someone used to wipe his butt.
Other clues are more subtle. The reason that dozens of small holes dot the soil, Morrow notes, is that looters slide fishing rods and old radio antennas deep into the ground to feel for something hard. Sometimes, they'll paint their shovels white to make them easier to see in the dark. You can tell they come at night, she adds, because they inadvertently leave behind perfect spear points, some 4,000 years old.
She can't say how much one of those might be worth to a looter. "Professional archaeologists do not appraise anything," she explains. "It's priceless; you can't put a dollar value on it."
The major prize for looters in this area used to be decorated ceramic pots dating back to the time of first European contact 500 years ago. But whole vessels are fairly rare now, and on these northeast Arkansan mounds, only shards remain.
Terry Melton's cousin, Jamie Nunnally, has parked his truck and joined the group. Clad in camouflage overalls, he says he once fired shots in the air to scare looters off his nearby field. "We'll probably never get it stopped," he says. "I quit calling the law."
Both cousins remember the wild nighttime chase of June 13, 2005. They caught two thieves leaving the mound around 12:30 a.m. and pursued them at high speeds through the bottoms. The perpetrators not only dropped their bag of stolen artifacts, they also jumped a small bridge, lost their muffler and ditched their pickup, leaving a shovel inside. Sheriff's deputies from two different counties showed up. No convictions resulted.