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Stealing History

Looters ransack archaeological sites throughout the West, but Montana officials notice a surprising lack of in-state incidents. A Missoula specialist says they're just not digging deep enough.

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At 2 a.m. on Dec. 22, 1977, Martin McAllister received a phone call from law enforcement officers with the Tonto National Forest in Arizona. Several armed men were suspected of raiding a pre-historic pueblo site in a remote portion of Yavapai County and McAllister's expertise in archaeological fieldwork was needed to collect evidence and assess the damage. McAllister gathered his crew of U.S. Forest Service archaeologists and prepared to meet with officials for an investigation at dawn.

That morning McAllister watched from a ridge as local sheriff's deputies and Forest Service officers apprehended Thayde Jones and Robert Gevara (a third man, Kyle Jones, fled on foot but was caught later in the day walking along a nearby dirt road). McAllister and his crew waited for the all clear, then set to work assessing the site and cataloging an impressive collection of disturbed artifacts, including 16 ornate pots and a complete human skull. The job took all afternoon. When McAllister was finished, the evidence completely filled the flatbed of a quarter-ton pickup.

Martin McAllister founded Archaeological Damage Investigation and Assessment in the mid-1980s, a Missoula company that specializes in cultural resource crime. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Martin McAllister founded Archaeological Damage Investigation and Assessment in the mid-1980s, a Missoula company that specializes in cultural resource crime.

An appraiser later placed the value of the looters' haul at $1,217, but McAllister insists the figure would have been much higher had the items made it to the commercial antiquities market. And the story doesn't stop with Jones, Jones and Gevara. While McAllister assessed the site, law enforcement stumbled on Don Lowden, a looter unaffiliated with the other three, digging at a pueblo site no more than a mile away. Lowden became the third looting operation busted in the immediate area in two days.

For McAllister, the incident stands out as the most grotesque display of disrespect for the nation's archaeological resources he's ever witnessed. And, in the kind of ironic twist expected of odd entrepreneurial endeavors, it represents the catalyst for McAllister leaving his traditional fieldwork and founding a new, specialized type of archaeology.

He now runs Archaeological Damage Investigation and Assessment (ADIA), a Missoula-based private contracting firm that's operated in some form since the mid-1980s. McAllister makes a living putting dollar values on vandalism at cultural sites, working with undercover investigations to bust looting rings, and training law enforcement officials and archaeologists across the country in how to better protect vulnerable cultural locations through the federal Archaeological Resources and Protection Act (ARPA). Colleagues point to him as the foremost expert in a field he essentially pioneered.

"He found a great niche for himself and for us in terms of being an advocate for ARPA and law enforcement, for the kind of case work that needs to go into ARPA to make it effectively work," says Carl Davis, the U.S. Forest Service's regional archaeologist in Helena. "Truthfully, there is a lot of reluctance by a lot of archaeologists to get into law enforcement, particularly when it involves bad guys that do meth and have felony arms violations and poach deer."

McAllister knew exactly what he was getting into when he started ADIA. In his experience, looting often ties directly to more sensational crimes, like illegal arms sales and trafficking of methamphetamine and marijuana. For exactly that reason, McAllister believes looting should be a higher priority for U.S. law enforcement.

"It's not to say it's the most serious crime going on in the United States today, but we ought to be trying to stop it," McAllister says. "These items are like threatened and endangered species. Eventually someone's going to kill the last grizzly bear and there aren't going to be any more grizzly bears in the Lower 48. The same thing happens with artifacts. Archaeological sites are being made all the time, but [looters] tend to target a certain kind of archaeological site. Until we invent a time machine, the sites, they're not coming back. Once they're gone, they're gone forever."

But McAllister fights a larger problem than just looting: widespread ignorance and a general lack of urgency among officials who should be on the lookout for criminals ransacking sacred sites. Sitting in his home office in the upper Rattlesnake Canyon, he explains that most of his work takes place in the Southwest, where high-profile cases such as Jones, Jones and Gevara have forced federal law enforcement officials to put more emphasis on patrolling for ARPA violations. Though based in Missoula for more than a decade, his company has conducted little business in Montana. It's not that there isn't a need, McAllister says, but rather that the state—like much of the country—simply isn't familiar with the problem.

"I hope this doesn't hurt anybody's feelings, but I think the reason that we're not getting more ARPA cases in Montana is that people just aren't looking," McAllister says. "I think the violations are occurring, we just don't have enough eyes out there watching the sites."

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