The Pothunting Problem- Thieves of Time in the American Southwest

Two hours after wearing a surveillance wire in a pot-hunting investigation, I placed a loaded .38 Colt revolver in my pickup. Just in case. I told my wife to lock the doors and windows, shut the blinds, and keep our small sons inside. The young pothunter I had just helped  the feds bust knew I had fingered him. He had to know. I was the only finger.

I had a meeting to attend that night, far from home. My name and address were listed in the telephone book, and I couldn’t know if the pothunter would seek revenge. Some do.

That day, in New Mexico years ago, federal agents taped a live microphone to my chest. I pulled my shirt on and together we waited for the pothunter to arrive at the museum. I was the museum’s director, and the pothunter was coming to see me. The young man had heard rumors of valuable Mimbres-culture pots and where to find them. Tempted by a fast fortune, he grabbed a shovel and went exploring on federal land. He called the museum to discuss getting an appraisal of his illegal find. As luck would have it, I answered the phone. Sitting next to me in my office was an armed Bureau of Land Management (BLM) agent drinking coffee.

Covering the phone’s mouthpiece with my hand, I said to the agent, “You’re not going to believe this. I’ve got a pothunter who wants me to evaluate pots he’s dug up. What should I tell him?”

The sting was set for two weeks later. With plain-clothes agents in the museum, one watching the building from the outside and another posing as a perspective buyer, we waited for the pothunter. He was on time.

We went down to the windowless vault where collections were stored. Chatting excitedly about his find, with everything he said being recorded, the man even marked on a U.S. Forest Service map exactly where he had dug up his prehistoric artifacts, a few small corrugated plainware bowls and a couple of large painted sherds, or pieces of broken pots, in the classic Mimbres style.

After collecting what we needed for the investigation, I told the unsuspecting pothunter that I would get back to him with an appraisal. As he left town, the feds pulled him over. Meanwhile, an agent stayed with me as I assessed the value of the pots and pieces. Based on the condition of one of the pots, I determined the value of the collection to exceed $500, the magic number for a felony conviction.

The feds stopped the pothunter and confiscated the pots, a shovel, and other evidence. Soon after the agent departed, it occurred to me that it would be months before a trial date or a judgment would be made on this case — I’d made myself and my family vulnerable. It was a long six months to when the digger pled guilty and received his sentence.

Across the Southwest, the illegal excavation of artifacts on public and tribal lands has been hobby, occupation, guilty pleasure and even family tradition. At the turn of the 20th century, metropolitan museums around the world competed to establish collections. Some museums paid locals, including Mormon families in southeast Utah, to dig pots, primarily from ancient Indian burials. Southwest Colorado, southeast Utah, and southwest New Mexico — home to the Ancestral Puebloan and Mogollon/Mimbres cultures — have been epicenters for pothunting in the Southwest.

In the old days, it was family fun on Sunday afternoons to have “skeleton picnics” — at ancient sites, everyone got a shovel and dug in, seeing what turned up. When human remains were uncovered, the bones were tossed aside with the exception of skulls. They, as well as intact pots, were coveted finds. In the Mimbres and Animas River Valleys in New Mexico, the Mancos Valley in Colorado, and in side canyons of the San Juan River in Utah, local families matched the zeal of the Southwest’s first archaeologists who were also letting the dust fly.

By 1906 with the passage of the federal Antiquities Act, Congress legislated that digging prehistoric Indian sites on public land without a federal permit was illegal. But without enforcement, looting continued into the 1930s. Pothunting died down during World War II, but as surplus Jeeps became popular, looters drove even deeper into backcountry areas where they accessed new sites.

Professional archaeologists advocated for tougher laws and President Jimmy Carter signed the Archaeological Resources Protection Act in 1979, which mandated stiffer penalties on looters. By then a black market for grave goods had begun. Illegally gotten goods sold alongside legal goods in Santa Fe, Denver, and Manhattan where Sotheby’s yearly Indian Arts catalog skyrocketed prices.

By the late 1980s, as federal enforcement increased, so did the pothunting frenzy, which spilled onto private land. In disgust, state legislators passed burial bills or laws to protect unmarked graves, both prehistoric and historic, on private property. For their efforts, state legislators were cursed. Or worse. State Senator Tilman Bishop of Grand Junction, the author of the Colorado burial bill, received an unmarked package at his legislative office containing a box of bones with a skull and a fairly complete 1,000 year-old Anasazi skeleton wrapped in a local newspaper. A note attached to it stated, “This is none of your business.”

In June 2009 a bust went down in Blanding, Utah and the BLM arrested 24 suspects who in a sting had been paid more than $335,000 by an informant.  Indicted for the second time, a Blanding physician committed suicide. A second suspect fatally shot himself twice in the chest. In southwest New Mexico, older pothunters have died of painful paralysis because a type of arthritis runs amok through their bodies. Native Americans seem to understand. They nod their heads slowly and know better than to disturb ancient graves.

In Utah, U.S. senators expressed outrage over the Blanding raid during which armed federal agents wearing flak gear, bullet proof vests and carrying automatic weapons knocked on doors and entered homes. Locals complained about “Gestapo tactics.” But in a state with liberal gun laws, federal agents have few options but to expect the worst when entering a private residence.

Though this may not have been the situation in Blanding, for the past decade commercial pot hunting and pothunters have been linked routinely to the illegal drug trade as a way to launder cash. A dealer who has sold methamphetamine, cocaine or marijuana can be exposed carrying wads of cash into a bank. To avoid the exposure, a tactic used by dealers is to purchase ancient pots and resell them using phony certificates stating the artifacts came off private lands. Rather than concentrate on local pothunters, dealers, and regional raids, it’s time to focus on the high-end buyers and their lust for Southwestern antiquities.

Instead of complaining about the raid, Utah Senators should use their influence to pass a national cultural export law prohibiting the sale of Native American antiquities outside of the United States. It’s ironic that five years before passage of the Antiquities Act in 1906, which prevents digging cultural resources on public lands, Congress passed a law prohibiting the illegal shipment of wild game across state lines. Now we have the Endangered Species Act (1973) and a host of international treaties on game protection, but the U.S. is one of the few nations in the world that does not have a law restricting the sale of our cultural artifacts.

Try to leave Mexico City with pre-Columbian statues in your luggage. Try to get on a plane in London with early Anglo-Saxon or Celtic jewelry. You won’t get far. But board a plane in Denver or Salt Lake City with rare Anasazi bowls — destination either domestic or international — and no one will stop you.

America needs more rangers on the ground who will enforce Congressional laws which protect American treasures. We also need a new law, a federal mandate that states unequivocally that prehistoric American Indian artifacts are unique in the world and will not be traded or sold outside the United States.

For all of us who hike in southern Utah we need an ethic of “Leave no trace,” and if we discover something to photograph it, admire it, and bury it right there. That goes for arrowheads, too.  I call it “catch and release arrowhead hunting.”    Under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act or ARPA, it is illegal to surface collect arrowheads on federal/Indian lands without an archaeological permit. Arrowheads are considered archaeological resources and to collect them, one must be an archaeologist with a federally-issued permit. A law enforcement officer can issue a citation under the Theft of Government Property statute, 18 USC 641. And there are federal regulations for all federal agencies that can also apply.

So for legal as well as moral reasons, we need the concept of an “open museum” across the vast canyonlands of Southern Utah.  If we find something we can photograph and enjoy it, but then put it back. That’s an ethic we can all embrace.



Andrew Gulliford is a professor of  History and Environmental Studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango. He is the author of Sacred Objects and Sacred Places: Preserving Tribal Traditions published by the University Press of Colorado. He can be reached at

2 Responses to “The Pothunting Problem- Thieves of Time in the American Southwest”

  1. Hello Mr. Gulliford,
    I am doing my senior project on a policy in my state regarding the punishments for illegally defacing or damaging a grave or burial site. I found your article very interesting, particularly your theory of an “open museum” in nature. I was wondering if you believe that all artifacts should be left in the place they were found? What we refer to as “pot hunting” is taking some sort of historical artifact for personal use which therefore deprives others of the experience to witness it. However, when archaeologists take artifacts from historical sites, is that depriving others of seeing history as well? If you would like to tell me your stance on whether archaeologists should be able to take historical items from their place or origination that would be very helpful for my project. All of the other information was very useful. Thank you!

  2. Dear Mr. Gulliford,

    Back in the early 70’s I was closely acquainted with an older gentleman. He passed away a few years ago and his wife passed on earlier this year. This gentleman was a prolific artifact hunter for many years during the 1950’s and 60’s and perhaps as late as 1972. As I recall he had a considerable collection of arrowheads and other artifacts, most of which I believe were found in the Northern and Central Utah areas. Recently, I was contacted by the Executor of his estate and asked if I wanted his collection of Metates and Manos. Apparently his remaining family members have no interest in having these items. My inclination is to acquire them with the idea that I can have them placed in the Museum of Natural History. While there is no way of knowing exactly where they came from, I have seen many museum pieces similar to these, most of which came from the South East Utah region and possibly Colorado or Northern Arizona. The family wishes to remain anonymous and they have no idea what my intentions are.

    My question is, would I be in violation of any State or Federal laws by accepting these items from a private collection and if I did, could I legally donate them to a museum? I have no interest in profiting from these culturally significant items but truly believe that they would best be served in a public setting for educational purposes.

    Any information I could get would be beneficial.

    Thank you,


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