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Preservation of Archeological and Historical Sites For Future Generations

Bullets, brass, buttons, medals and the like disappear from the topsoil at Fort McRae. All-terrain vehicle traffic tears through a Mogollon site dating from 490 to 650 A.D, destroying hearths and unearthing a burial.

Spray painted graffiti covers the walls of a historic power plant. Gaping holes remain where ancient pottery was once buried and then was probably sold on the black market. Whether intended to be or not, all of these actions damage archeological resources and are illegal under at least one of several laws and regulations.

Humans damage historic and archeological sites through artifact removal, unintentional damage, vandalism, and looting. These four types of human-caused damage are represented in the examples above and have occurred within the boundaries of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Albuquerque Area Office.

Artifact Removal

Artifact removal occurs because of one’s desire to collect things because of what they are, arrowheads, for example, or to have a memory connection to site or event, like a tourist with a knickknack from vacation. Artifact removal is the most common type of site damage. It removes pieces of the puzzle, and is a violation of state and federal laws and regulations.

The Mogollon: Early Inhabitants of Southwestern New Mexico and Southeastern Arizona

Mogollon (Mug-ee-own) culture is a subculture of Puebloan, meaning that folks lived similarly to those of existing pueblo peoples, yet differently. The differences derived from the adaptations to the environment-living in mountains versus river valleys or desert.

The Mogollon people settled near water sources and alluvial fans; springs and the Rio Grande were prime locations. Some settlements were seasonal in nature, such as locations near food sources to be collected or processed, or locations containing raw materials for tools. Collecting seeds and nuts was important; corn and squash supplemented a diet of gathered wild foods and meats, such as venison, rabbit, and fish. Women ground and crushed gathered foods as indicated by the large number of metates, manos, mortars, pestles and choppers found at the sites.

Between 490 and 650 A.D., people settled in a small group on three knolls along the Rio Grande. These folks were probably extended family groups. They lived in pithouses-a structure similar to a garden level apartment-with half of the structure dug into the ground with short walls and a roof above ground level. Each home had a hearth for cooking and warmth. Brownware potteries were the dishes of the day.

Between 1000 and 1450 A.D., people settled on another knoll overlooking the Rio Grande, about 100 miles north of the other settlement. Here, they lived in both pithouses and cobblestone structures, maybe during two different times of occupation. Time to develop skills and trade with other tribes introduced new styles of pottery, one being the infamous Mimbres pottery, black designs on a white background.

In death, a pot represented a human being. Whole, it had a purpose-it contained water, nuts or seeds, grains, etc. Broken, its contents spilled from it. Just like a human: Alive, it had purpose-to work, to feel, to think, to express. Dead, the essence was lost. So, in death, a pottery, broken with a hole in the bottom, was buried with the body, symbolizing the body's loss of purpose.

At Fort McRae, folks have been seen using metal detectors to locate pieces of the past from this fort that dates to the 1860s. Using metal detectors in State Parks is not allowed and Park Rangers will issue a ticket for the offense. Offenders are looking for bullets, brass, coins, medals, buttons and other pieces from the past. This activity, whether it be for metal items, pottery sherds, stone tools or other items, is “Artifact Removal.”

“A good rule of thumb is ‘If you see, let it be,’” says Jeff Hanson, archeologist for the Bureau of Reclamation’s Albuquerque Area Office.

Unintentional Damage

Unintentional damage is the most common type of site destruction and causes severe damage, usually through development for roads, utility lines, and buildings. The identification and mapping of archeological sites prior to construction can lead to site protection and avoid unintentional damage. Such encounters of sites during construction can lead to delays of the project and increased costs for data recovery and mitigation.

All-terrain vehicles have cut deep pathways throughout a Jornada Mogollon site that dates from 490 to 650 A.D. The trails intersect throughout the site like strands of a spider web. The sandy soil is eroding, exposing hearths, pottery sherds, pithouses, and even a burial. 20-gage shotgun shells and 9mm hollow point rounds are scattered at the site. Two borrow pits dug deeply into the site have destroyed even more of the cultural resources.

“This is a heavily diseased site,” says Hanson, “In medical terms, I would call it terminal.” While those driving the ATVs might not know that they are destroying a site, they are trespassing on federal property and have caused damage to the site well in excess of the $500 minimum limit for a felony charge under Archeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA).

Hanson said, “We’ve considered our options for this site and determined that ‘no action’ is not an alternative. Fencing won’t work because law enforcement is not in the area often enough to catch trespassers. Full-scale data recovery is too costly because of the size of the area. We will do some limited, targeted excavation to recover what data we can and increase monitoring of the site.”


Vandalism is common on historic structures, bridges, and archaeological sites, most commonly through graffiti and property destruction. Vandalism destroys the context of the structures or sites through malicious mischief, the “I was here” phenomenon, and is costly to repair. Depending on the location of the site, the solution can be placement of physical barriers and law enforcement.

The coal-fired power plant at Elephant Butte Dam is one building of the historic site that was instrumental in the construction of Elephant Butte Dam. With the low water levels in the reservoir, the building is exposed and accessible to many curious people. Every time the building has been exposed, new graffiti appears on the walls. Now, some of that graffiti, those etchings 50 years and older, are protected under the preservation laws. While the building itself is culturally significant, so are these etchings. Unfortunately, recent spray paint graffiti from gangs and others defaces these historic resources, and it is in violation of ARPA.

“We asked New Mexico State Parks to place a ‘No Trespassing’ sign at this site to discourage such activity, yet we can see trespassing has occurred evidenced by new graffiti and the bed sack of a traveler stowed here,” said Hanson. This highly visible site has the potential to pique the interest of even more curiosity seekers because State Parks is seriously considering moving a couple of concessionaires near the location.

“Back in the 1970s when the water level was this low, State Parks moved a couple of concessionaires from dry areas of the lake to down there,” said Rolf Hechler, Region 3 Manager for New Mexico State Parks, as he pointed to an area to the west of the power plant. “We are considering such a move again because the lake level will probably be even lower next year,” he continued.

In preparation for this potential move, Christy Tafoya, State Parks archeologist, and Jeff Hanson are mapping the site and discussing options to protect the site from further incursion, in keeping with Section 110 of the National Historic Preservation Act. And, if the concessionaires will be moved in close proximity to this site, no infrastructure development will occur without Reclamation first complying with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. “We may proceed with additional site protection by fencing this area,” said Hanson.


Looting is the intentional, illegal removal of artifacts that have value. Many times, these artifacts are then sold on the Black Market. Looting is on the increase, primarily because of the increased market value of artifacts. It is evident in many sites along the Rio Grande, and should not to be confused with legal collection.

“According to Interpol, trafficking in cultural resources is the third leading crime in dollars worldwide, following guns and drugs,” said John Fryar, Special Agent for Bureau of Indian Affairs. Gaping holes mar the surfaces of a pithouse and a nearby cobblestone structure at a site from the Mimbres-El Paso Mogollon phase, dating from 1000-1450 A.D. The site is culturally rich with two distinct architectural types of housing, pithouses and cobble-masonry structures, and pottery sherds representing at least eight distinct styles. The site is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

“This site is vulnerable because human activity regularly occurs in the area,” said Hanson as he pointed to a road and agricultural activity nearby. “The site is quite large, rich with cultural resources, and I’m concerned that additional looting could occur,” he said.

Because of the value of the resources and the value of the damage to the sites, looting is almost always a felony under ARPA and usually involves other illegal activities. “Many times, looters are involved in other illegal activities such as theft, poaching, and illegal trafficking,” said Fryar. “Many looters have criminal histories that involve drug violations and domestic violence,” he continued.

Fryar urges people to use caution if encountering a looter because some previous offenders that have been apprehended have been armed with weapons, and some have been drugged up on methamphetamines. “They are not interested in being caught,” Fryar said.

Hanson plans to use a site stewardship program implemented by New Mexico Historic Protection Division to monitor sites at risk for looting. “Regular monitoring of sites will hopefully discourage looters, and if looting does occur, reporting of it soon after the incident will allow law enforcement officials to investigate the crime and pursue the criminals,” said Hanson.

These crimes need to stop

Archaeological sites are priceless links to the past, constitute our collective national heritage, are fragile nonrenewable resources, and are in ever present danger of being destroyed by natural or human causes. Unfortunately, we can only attempt to preserve sites and ultimately mitigate natural destruction, such as fire, flooding, and erosion. But, we can reduce and eliminate human destruction of sites.

These crimes—artifact removal, unintentional damage, vandalism and looting—destroy our heritage for us and for generations to come. They eliminate our ability to understand others better by removing or destroying resources from the past; these acts interrupt the continuum of the evolution of resources to the ones we have today. It is the physical remains of pre-literate societies in conjunction with residual oral history and examination of the historic evolution of culture that archeologists use to theorize on the cultures of the pre-literate societies: their ways of life, spiritual beliefs, and modicums of being.

Management of Sites

When a site is subject to destruction, archeologists have a set of available options from which to choose. They are implementation of mitigation measures, full data recovery, emergency data recovery, and no action alternative. The choice is made by evaluation of the potential outcomes and selecting the reasonable solution.

An archeologist must address three questions when determining the reasonable solution. They are:

  • Will leaving the site as status quo actually preserve it?
  • Is there a compelling reason to excavate the site for its research value?
  • What is the relative cost of preserving the site compared with excavating it?

“The conditions are unique in each situation and require careful examination, in consultation with any affiliated tribes and agencies, before a final decision is reached,” said Hanson.

Site Stewardship Program

“Occupation of the Southwest has existed for hundreds, even thousands of years,” said Hanson. “There are at least 400 archeological and historical sites within the Albuquerque Area Office, and we are finding more sites each year. Being the only archeologist for the Albuquerque Area Office, it is difficult for me to monitor these sites with any regularity.”

SiteWatch is a new program implemented in New Mexico to enlist volunteers to adopt a site and regularly monitor it for the agency on whose land it sits. With several hundred thousand sites throughout New Mexico, Art Krupicz, New Mexico SiteWatch Coordinator, modeled this much-needed program after the successful program in Arizona. Recently, Krupicz, Hanson, Fryar and Tafoya trained 20 new volunteers for New Mexico SiteWatch.

“I am happy to announce that some of our sites will now be monitored by SiteWatch Stewards,” said Hanson. “This is a great program that I hope to utilize at Reclamation sites throughout the Albuquerque Area Office,” he said.

While Krupicz manages the statewide program, Tafoya assists in placing Site Stewards at archeological and historical sites located within New Mexico State Parks. On lands owned by Reclamation and managed by State Parks, Tafoya and Hanson will work together in placing the Site Stewards.

The two-day training to become a Site Steward covered types of disturbance, pertinent federal and state laws with emphasis on ARPA, law enforcement investigation, field operations, and cultural history overview. Classroom instruction was reinforced through a mock apprehension of a suspect at a site and a practical, site-monitoring exercise. Some volunteers participated in an elective exercise to gain skills in surveying and recording a new site.

“We are doing what we call site survey,” says Tafoya to a group of volunteers in the Site Stewardship class. “This activity will help us map the boundaries to the site so that future development activities can avoid this area,” she continued.

In addition to monitoring and recording damage to existing sites, archeologists anticipate Site Stewards discovering new sites that will need to be surveyed and recorded, under the supervision of experienced archeologists.

In both the classroom and during the practical exercise, Krupicz reinforced that volunteers are not to confront suspicious persons at the sites. Stewards are to monitor archeological sites and report any unauthorized or suspicious activity to the law enforcement authorities. “Our goal,” he said, “is adopted from the Arizona program, ‘find it, record it, and report it—not intrude, investigate or interpret.’”

“I hope that routine monitoring by Site Stewards will discourage looters and vandals, and educate those who unintentionally remove artifacts and unintentionally cause damage. At a minimum, their early detection of human damage to sites will help us investigate criminal activity and pursue a conviction,” Hanson said.

In Conclusion

Manmade damage to archeological and historical resources occurs through artifact removal, unintentional damage, vandalism and looting. These actions remove pieces of past and break the evidence chain continuum of human existence; thereby, limiting our ability to know those who have gone before us. Federal, State and local laws and regulations prohibit these actions because, on the whole, people want to know and attempt to understand the past. A cadre of volunteers called Site Stewards is one of several efforts to monitor these sites in the effort of preservation.

Overview of Several Federal Preservation Laws

Just as cultural resources are a hundred to thousands of years old, the history for protecting artifacts and burials extends from current laws and regulations in the United States to Spanish New Mexico and as far back as ancient Egypt. “Mesa Verde (in Southwestern Colorado) was an early reason to establish heritage preservation laws,” said Art Krupicz, New Mexico SiteWatch Coordinator. “It was a case of ‘visitors loving a place to death,’” he continued.

The United States continues to develop its historic preservation policy. Currently, preservation-related provisions exist in nine federal laws, four Executive Orders, and over a dozen regulations and standards.

“While Thomas Jefferson could arguably be the first American archeologist, Preservation Policy in America did not begin until the early twentieth century,” said Jeff Hanson, Reclamation archeologist.

The United States Congress passed the Antiquities Act in 1906 to protect archeological sites on Federal land by establishing a permit system for excavations, declaring that artifacts found on federal land belong to the federal government, initiating the National Monument system, and creating misdemeanor penalties for violations.

“It was a toothless law, but, nevertheless, a big step for this country symbolically,” said Krupicz.

Passage of federal preservation law stalled until 1966 when the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) was passed. This law established State Historic Preservation Offices, expanded the use of the National Register of Historic Places, created the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, among other things. Two sections of this law, Section 110 and 106, are important in Reclamation’s efforts to address archeological sites on its lands.

Under Section 110, Reclamation identifies historic properties and evaluates them for eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places. If eligible, Reclamation manages and maintains these sites according to their historic, archaeological and cultural value.

Under Section 106, Reclamation takes into account the effects of a project on cultural resources and consults with impacted and interested parties to “ensure that preservation values are factored into Reclamation’s planning and decisions.” While Section 106 encourages site preservation, it is not mandated. Section 106 does require Reclamation to “assume responsibility for the consequences of its actions.”

The Archeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) was passed in 1979 and strengthened in 1988.

According to an article written by Robert D. Hicks, “ARPA prohibits people from excavating, damaging, defacing, altering, or removing archeological resources, or attempting these acts, from public or Native American lands without a permit.”

An object or resource that is evidence of past human existence only needs to be 100 years old and located on public or American Indian lands to be protected by ARPA. The crime is a felony if the value of the resource, commercial and/or archeological, and the cost to repair the damage from the illegal acquisition of the resource exceeds $500.

“Just over a year ago, November 1, 2002, sentencing guidelines were put in place for cultural resource crimes, including ARPA violations,” said John Fryar, Special Agent for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

A person convicted of an ARPA violation could forfeit all archeological resources and tools used in commission of the crime, including vehicles. In addition to forfeiture, penalties are lodged for the crime. Penalties for a misdemeanor ARPA conviction are $10,000 fine and/or up to one year in jail. Penalties for a first felony conviction are $20,000 fine and/or up to two years in jail. Penalties for a second felony conviction are $100,000 fine and/or up to five years in jail. Civil penalties can also be lodged against the convicted. The statute of limitations to prosecute someone for an ARPA offense is five years from the date of the occurrence for a criminal case, and seven years from the date of occurrence for a civil case.

“It takes a team effort of a law enforcement officer and an archeologist to process a looted or damaged site in order to achieve an ARPA conviction,” said Fryar.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was passed in 1990 to require consultation with federally recognized tribes when excavating American Indian graves, requires museums and other institutions to inventory and return American Indian remains, burial artifacts and sacred items to the affiliated tribes, and provides penalties for trafficking in American Indian remains and other items covered in the Act.

“To prosecute and convict someone for NAGPRA violations, the crime must have happened after 1990, when the law was enacted,” Fryar said. Penalties for the first NAGPRA offense are $100,000 fine and/or up to one year in jail. The second offense carries a $250,000 fine and/or up to five years in jail.


Last updated: January 19, 2007