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October 2010 cover image On the Scent

Stolen History

Looters threaten Texas cultural resources.

By Rusty Middleton

At about 2 in the morning, near the end of his shift, Texas park police officer Kerr Wardlaw spotted a light glowing on the side of a ridge at Devils River State Natural Area. At Devils River, that is a real attention-getter. There are very few campsites in this remote park and certainly none on the side of a steep cliff face. No one is supposed to camp outside of a designated campground and definitely not in an area of known archaeological sites.

Wardlaw hiked in the dark to the base of the cliff just below a large cave. “I yelled at whoever was up there and told them to come down,” says Wardlaw. He confronted two brothers who both appeared intoxicated. He gave them citations and ordered them to leave the area.

The next morning Wardlaw went back and found evidence of digging in the cave and a backpack that had been ditched in the brush containing a pistol and some whiskey.

Eventually, the men were fined $2,000 by a justice of the peace for several offenses, including damage to a cultural resource.

“We estimated that they actually did about $30,000 in damage,” says Texas Parks and Wildlife Department cultural resources coordinator Todd McMakin. The matter may still be pursued in civil court.

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Elsewhere in the same natural area, looters dug pits in another cave and caused extensive damage to its archaeological resources. No one was caught in that incident.

Archaeologists labored to restore the cave to something close to its original condition, but it had been heavily damaged. The historical evidence of the people who once occupied the place was disturbed so much that archaeologists will find it hard to answer questions about how the cave was used by its prehistoric inhabitants. Any artifacts that might be recovered eventually from the looters have virtually no scientific value because the exact location from which they were retrieved cannot be ascertained.

Just in the last year, there have been six other examples of looting in state parks around the state. Devils River SNA has been hit the hardest, with three incidents, while Mother Neff State Park has experienced two. There have been incidents at Lake Whitney and Lake Somerville state parks and Lost Maples State Natural Area. To try to stop such destruction, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s State Parks Division has created an anti-looting initiative.

The initiative has several goals. One is to educate law enforcement about the maze of sometimes-obscure cultural resource and archaeological protection laws. For example, some parks and recreational areas have joint federal and state administration or ownership. In that case, much more extensive federal laws, such as the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, can apply to looting incidents.

There is also a need to bring greater standardization to the process. In the past, citations were the end of the incident. Now there will be a statewide system of reporting and follow-up so trends can be identified.

Now, it is McMakin’s job to personally go to the site of any significant incidents of looting and help with the investigation. He also closely monitors the Internet, searching for artifacts for sale that can be traced back or somehow associated with known incidents of looting or vandalism.

“Another issue we have with cultural resource protection is that sometimes judges and district attorneys are just not that well-informed about this area of the law. Some JPs might not even recognize looting as a crime. We need to get them up to speed on this,” says McMakin. “It’s vital to protect what we have left of these remaining sites. This is a nonrenewable resource that belongs to all Texans.”

McMakin says the issue is just as important on private lands.

“There are almost no laws to protect cultural resources on private lands,” McMakin says, and about 95 percent of land in Texas is privately owned. “That makes the sites we have left on public lands all the more precious. We need to save this irreplaceable heritage for future generations.”

 

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