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Speed digging 

Bill addresses threat to state's antiquities.

DEFACED: Cave painting gets graffiti treatment.
  • DEFACED: Cave painting gets graffiti treatment.

The looting of valuable Indian artifacts from private and state lands in Arkansas for the lucrative (if often illegal) antiquities trade, a longtime problem in Arkansas, has gotten a boost from an unlikely source: People high on methamphetamines.

Stir in the increasing destruction of prehistoric rock art, the mining of Civil War sites, the burgeoning of artifact trading sites on the Internet, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster for Arkansas’s history and prehistory.

Now, a bill that’s been approved by the House and amended by the Senate would toughen the penalties for digging on private and state land.

The bill, by state Rep. Roy Ragland of Marshall, makes stealing artifacts and the destruction of private or state land in the process a Class D felony. Picking up artifacts from the ground without a landowner’s permission would remain a misdemeanor.

The bill, which is back in a House committee, updates the state’s antiquities law, and creates a monetary dividing line for punishment: Those who dig up artifacts worth more than $1,000 or who damage property to that extent could be convicted of a Class D felony on first offense and subject to a fine; second offense would be a Class C, subject to jail time and a fine. Looting artifacts or doing damage under $1,000 would be a misdemeanor.

One of the first press reports, and the most tragic, to note the connection between methamphetamines and antiquities was in 1999, when Ricky Leon Crisp and Justin Avery Griffith left Crisp’s 16-month-old daughter and a 4-month-old girl in a car to die while the two, high on meth, searched for arrowheads. Since then, there have been press reports of law enforcement authorities commonly finding Indian artifacts along with meth-making equipment during drug busts.

While many meth users are hobbyists — “You get kind of wired on that stuff and you need to have something to do,” a man in jail in White County was quoted in a newspaper as saying — artifacts can bring in quick cash, with points selling from $10 to hundreds of dollars, depending on their age. Pots are quite valuable: An Indian vessel said to have been found in Arkansas was being auctioned on ebay.com this week for $250. A hole left by the pothunter’s tool, the probe, pierces the side of the vessel.

Ragland has been working with the state Archeological Survey for a couple of years on the bill. Ann Early, state archeologist, said the state’s current antiquities law, written in the 1960s, “was not written in a fashion that allows law enforcement officers and private landowners to protect sites the way they wish.” The language addresses the artifacts removed but not the digging itself, which damages both the interpretive value of the site as well as the property. (Landowners find other damage as well, such as cut fence lines.) When state Game and Fish officers caught people digging for artifacts after the draw-down of Lake Conway last year, Early noted, they complained the antiquities law was too vague.

Graffiti is covered in Ragland’s bill also; the defacing of rock art has become a problem in Arkansas and looters have gone so far as to chisel the rock away so the art can be sold.

Gary Gazaway, who owns 800 acres on the Black River outside Pocahontas, found on his property a tent with the floor cut out so that looters could work without being detected. He and other landowners, including James Johnston of Fayetteville and Billy Ray James of Pocahontas, asked Ragland to sponsor the bill.

Johnston, who bought property outside Marshall specifically to save the archaic Indian site on it, said police had caught a couple of men who confessed to picking up artifacts on his property, but let them off with a warning. But they weren’t just picking things up; they left a 100-by-8-foot hole 8 to 10 inches deep.

Indian sites are not the only ones at risk: Clay County Sheriff Ronnie Cole supports the stiffer penalty Ragland’s bill would impose after a judge let off without penalty men from out of state who were picking up artifacts with metal detectors from the Chalk Bluff Civil War battleground. Despite the fact that it is known law that it’s illegal to remove things from state property, the judge said there should have been a sign at the site saying so. “I was pretty upset,” Cole said.

Planter and rancher James said he’d put up with artifact hunting for years, but that he was fed up. He’s found several meth labs on his property as well as looted sites and four of his employees have been arrested for meth. “The court clerk said if I had another she was going to move her office to my farm,” James said.

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