If theft here is more dramatic, so is the scenery. The flinty blue hills arcing across the horizon — known as the Boston Mountains — are the highest on the Ozark Plateau. Steep slopes of cedar, hardwood and pine drop down into streams lined by limestone bluffs. Tucked back into the hillsides are hundreds of rock shelters and caves, all of them rife with history — and vulnerable to plunder.

"Industrial-strength looters" have been invading the Buffalo River for several years, says federal archaeologist Caven Clark. He's worked at numerous parks in the western United States, including the Ozark National Scenic Riverways. Southeastern Missouri has a problem, he adds, but not like here. "When I got here, what I found was more looting than I'd ever seen before." Much if it, he says, is linked to drugs.

Of the 350 caves and rock shelters in and around the Buffalo, more than 95 percent of them have been worked over, Clark estimates. In the last three years, he says, 22 serious cases were reported, some of which went to federal court where the pillagers were prosecuted under the federal Archaeological Resources Protection Act. Passed in 1979, the act prohibits looting on federal property.

Native American shell beads discovered within the last month on the Melton farm in northeastern Arkansas.
Nicholas Phillips
Native American shell beads discovered within the last month on the Melton farm in northeastern Arkansas.

Crooks target the sheltered sites because humans have huddled in them for millenniums and artifacts have accumulated. Compared to the wet caves of the eastern Ozarks, the sites here are relatively dry, which has helped preserve the bark fiber sandals, fabrics and cordage. "Those things would fetch an unbelievable price," Clark says, but they are very rare.

The serious thieves wear camouflage and burrow ferociously into the ground. "I've seen some holes you could probably drop a Volkswagen into," says Clark, adding that they also leave plenty of trash. "We joke that Mountain Dew might as well be probable cause."

Special agent Still estimates that 70 percent of the archaeological crimes he's worked have some drug connection. Caven Clark has seen the same correlation. "Bad boys are bad boys," he says.

What complicates investigations, he continues, is that the artifacts are often used as currency and bartered for drugs. Looters know, for example, that a nice Dalton point (8,500-7,900 B.C.) might be sold on the Internet for a couple hundred dollars or more, while a more generic point might get $10 to $40 from a collector.

"If you're in a bluff shelter all day," Clark says, "you're all pumped up on drugs, and you find six points you can turn into $20 each — there's money to be made."

Outside federal property in this part of the state, "a new wave of looting has been seen in epidemic proportions" over the last ten years, according to Jerry Hilliard, assistant station archaeologist at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. He fields eight to ten calls a year from a landowner or sheriff's deputy about such crime. "And that's the tip of the iceberg," he says, "because university people are sometimes the last people to get called."

Landowners can't report looting if they're not aware of it, according to Arkansas state archaeologist Dr. Ann Early. But even if they're aware of illicit digging, she adds, they might still keep mum to avoid unwanted attention. "A lot of digging may be going on in the counties, and the sheriffs may know nothing about it," says Early.

Hilliard is alarmed by the scale of the thievery. He says backhoes and dump trucks have been used to secretly haul huge amounts of unsifted soil away from sites. In 2003 a group in Madison County rigged a pump from a stream to a power-sprayer then blasted the inside of a nearby cave to uncover valuable items.

More recently, in Carroll County, another gang fired up a generator and ran lights into a cave. There, they cooked crank and dug several trenches five feet deep in search of ancient objects. Authorities on the scene later collected scattered human leg bones.

The group even tried to sell a human skull at a flea market, Hilliard says. "I think there is a weird underworld of selling, buying and trading of human skeletal material, because I've heard these kinds of stories over the years," Hilliard says. "I'm not sure I'd want to get into that world.

Special agent Still believes there is a black market for human remains, though he's had no direct contact with it in the Midwest. After interrogating numerous grave robbers, he's noticed that "typically human remains still tend to give people the heebie-jeebies." They might use a human bone as a poker for their campfire or play with them and bat them around, he says, but generally, they leave the bones onsite.

If you stumble across ancient remains on federal property and then fail to report them, secretly remove them or try to sell them, you're guilty of violating the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act enacted by Congress in 1990. Anti-looting laws have not been warmly received in the deep Ozarks, where, jokes Clark, "digging is a custom among our people."

Hilliard agrees that quirks of highland culture play a role at the state level, too. "Government intervention has always been something that rural folks in the Ozarks have been very skeptical of," he says. "They don't want to be told what they can or can't do on their land."

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