Clarke Morrison, Asheville Citizen-Times
ASHEVILLE, N.C. - Clues to ages gone by are scattered in forested coves across Western North Carolina.
Often they are stone tools, shards of pottery and other remnants of the lives of Native Americans buried in spots where they gathered.
Some thousands of years old, the items are important to archaeologists who work to piece together the region's history.
"They tell us about who used to live here and how they lived," said Rodney Snedeker, forest archaeologist and tribal liaison with the National Forests in North Carolina. "That tells us about human behavior. They also contain a lot of data about environmental changes over time."
But Snedeker and other archaeologists say these historical treasures are increasingly being looted by amateur relic hunters who dig up sites in the national forests, looking for arrowheads and other artifacts.
The arrowheads can sell for as little as $5 apiece. Other items can fetch thousands of dollars.
A search on eBay for "Indian artifacts for sale" results in a list of more than 3,000 items.
The looting of important historical sites is a felony crime under the federal Archaeological Resources Protection Act. First-time offenders can be fined up to $20,000 and imprisoned for up to a year, while second-time offenders face fines up to $100,000 and up to five years in prison.
Even with heavy potential sentences, the number of documented violations of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act in North Carolina's national forests has nearly doubled in recent years to about 20-25 a year.
A federal grand jury in Asheville recently indicted two men on charges of violating the act. According to court records, Michael E. Ballew and Kelly Daniel Robinson damaged archaeological resources in the Upper Curtis Creek area of Pisgah National Forest in McDowell County. The violations occurred in July and August 2011 and the summer of 2012, the indictment states.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Edwards said he couldn't provide details about damage done at the site because the case is pending.
Ballew and Robinson were released on $25,000 unsecured bonds following a hearing in U.S. District Court in Asheville. Trial dates have not been scheduled, according to court records. Neither man could be reached for comment.
Thousands of acres, little oversight
Archaeological resources are vulnerable because they usually are in places where people believe they can do something illicit without being observed.
Looters know to look by targeting rock overhangs that were used by Native Americans for shelter, said David Moore, who runs the archaeology program at Warren Wilson College.
Moore said he witnessed damage to sites in the Upper Curtis Creek area from people digging around the rock outcroppings.
"It was clear that people were vandalizing them, people digging in the soil in the shelter, very intentionally looking for artifacts," he said. "We have many examples of these kinds of sites that have been destroyed by looting."
"They just dig holes and sift the soil," he said. "Usually they are looking for stone tools, arrowheads and spear points and things like that. And by definition, when you dig into an archaeological site you destroy it, because the context of that soil is what makes the site important."
The Forest Service has documented about 3,000 archaeological sites across Pisgah and Nantahala national forests, which cover more than a million acres in Western North Carolina, Snedeker said.
But only about 20 percent of the forests has been inventoried, meaning there are many more sites yet to be found.
"These would be primarily prehistoric American Indian sites - hunting camps, areas where stone was quarried to make stone tools, village sites where groups of Indians lived," he said. "We have sites that are 10,000 to 12,000 years old, and we have American Indian sites that date all the way up to European contact."
Databases are maintained that contain information about the sites and their locations, but they aren't available to the public.
"There are unscrupulous people who would use them to find the sites and destroy them," Moore said.
Many sites on private land are vulnerable and have been impacted by development. That's why laws were enacted to protect archaeological resources on public lands, Snedeker said.
"The amount of damage has increased dramatically," he said. "People are digging a lot more at these sites and causing a lot more damage."
Snedeker cited the example of an area in Transylvania County that was discovered to have been looted in the late 1990s.
"It had artifacts that were at least 6,000 years old," he said. "It was a large cove where people had lived for thousands of years. People found all these holes in the ground and broken artifacts on the surface. It was heavily damaged."
No one was ever caught.
From historians to thieves
Snedeker believes the increase in looting is because of a greater interest in history and a desire by many to make money.
"They may do that for their own collections, or they may do it to sell the artifacts," Moore said. "There is a market. Today, it's often driven by these reality shows on television."
A show on cable network Spike TV called "American Digger" features a former professional wrestler who digs up artifacts and sells them. The National Geographic Channel also has a version called "Diggers."
Moore said the shows have been widely protested by professional archaeologists for the damage they promote.
Arrowheads and projectile points from Western North Carolina can sell anywhere from around $5 to as much as $100, depending on how old they are and where they were found, Snedeker said.
"Whole vessels can sell for much more. They can sell for hundreds of dollars, possibly thousands," he said. "The more rare an item is and the more location information you have on it makes it worth more.
"There's an international market for American Indian artifacts. Some pottery items in the Southwest have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars."
It's not illegal to sell artifacts, but it's illegal to dig them up on federal land, Snedeker said.
Forest Service rangers patrol and sometimes use surveillance in areas prone to looting in an attempt to catch violators, Snedeker said. They also get tips from the public about such damage.
The agency also conducts demonstrations to educate the public about why it's important to protect archaeological resources.
"Archaeological sites are public property," he said. "They belong to everyone. They're the history of everyone who lived here, everyone who might have done something here."