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   This story appeared in The Times on Monday, April 20, 1998.

Relic looters steal the past

By John Gerome
The Chattanooga Times

The first thing that strikes you about this place is how green it is. The ground is covered with vines and grass. Maple, oak and hickory trees form a lush canopy.

Then you notice the dimples. There are dozens of them, like someone peeled the cover off a golf ball and spread it out over the forest floor. Looters dug up and pillaged this Indian burial ground so completely that nature and truckloads of dirt have yet to cover the scars.

When Pam Triplett first saw it back when there was nothing on this spot but barren ground and open pits, she couldn't believe it. It was eerie.

"It really scared me," said Mrs. Triplett, a tiny woman of Cherokee descent with black hair that falls past her shoulders. "I couldn't understand why anyone would want to dig up someone's bones, take the rings off their fingers and sell them for profit."

Moccasin Bend has been raped by generations of looters. Humans have lived here for more than 12,000 years, and its soil is rich with artifacts, many of them buried with the dead. By one estimate, thieves have raided 1,190 Indian graves and carted away countless Civil War artifacts.

Looting of this kind goes on all over the region, where millions of acres are in the public domain and much of it is culturally and historically significant.

Behind it all is greed. A rare clay pot or stone tool in mint condition can bring $250,000 or more on the black market. The network is sophisticated, with some dealers employing looters the way a company would employ salesmen.

"A lot of it ends up in Japan and Germany," said Quentin Bass, an archaeologist for the National Forest Service in East Tennessee. "In this country alone there is hundreds of millions of dollars in trade."

Eight years ago Bass worked on one of the biggest cases of this kind in the Southeast. It was an international ring that took Indian artifacts from a cave in the Cherokee National Forest and sold them overseas. Nine people were convicted, and several went to prison.

Like most looters, these men had been in trouble with the law before. Stealing from a grave site was no different to them than stealing from a grocery.

"People who would be horrified if you dug up a grave in a white cemetery in the middle of the night have no problem with digging up Indian graves," Bass said. "They think it is their right to go out into the woods and dig up everything."

Just two weeks ago, eight North Georgia residents were charged with slipping into the Chattahoochee National Forest at night to steal 21 artifacts, including ground stones, soapstone bowl fragments and a grave marker.

It is sad, said Mrs. Triplett, that in death -- as in life -- the American Indian is mistreated. Her father once took her to his family's cemetery in Murphy, N.C., where she saw that the names on the graves were English, Scottish and French. His family did not use their Cherokee names because they were afraid that if they did, their land would be taken taken from them and they would be sent to reservations.

Mrs. Triplett, 35, never thought much about her heritage when she was a girl. Her mother is white and had divorced her father when she was young. But before her father died, he told her all that he could remember about his people. An only child, she is the last link to the past.

His words help explain why today she is a volunteer with the Native American Reserve Force. The group patrols Moccasin Bend and has ended decades of pillaging on the peninsula, once so rampant that men were rumored to have plowed open the graves with bulldozers.

The turnaround at Moccasin Bend is unusual, though. It is hard to catch looters and even harder to prosecute them. Although American Indian and Civil War sites are protected by law, they are often remote and tough to police.

And while it is illegal to dig up or remove artifacts, it is not illegal to sell them. Once the items are in someone's possession, it is very difficult to prove they were acquired illegally.

Artifacts are traded openly at relic shows and on the Internet. A quick search on the Internet found a site with photographs and invitations to bid on different types of arrowheads.

"It is hard to prosecute because it is so random," said Johnny T. Terry, a police officer with the Tennessee Valley Authority. "In a lot of ways, this is learn-as-you-go law enforcement. It's not like you can go to the FBI and ask them how they do it" because they don't handle these kinds of cases.

Terry tells a story about looters in North Alabama who anchored their boat in 3 feet of water and pretended to swim. Instead, they were scooping soil from the river bottom and sifting it through a wire basket until only the artifacts remained.

TVA is the largest steward of public land in the Tennessee Valley, overseeing 11,000 miles of shoreline. The entire valley has been described as a continuous archaeological treasure, perhaps the richest place of its kind in the country. One prehistoric culture after another occupied this basin.

Yet TVA caught only about 25 looters last year and probably has enough evidence to pursue criminal or civil action against fewer than 10 of them, said Bennett Graham, senior archaeologist with the agency.

These are the profiteers and the repeat offenders, Graham explained. Scores of hobbyists who are caught snatching arrowheads from the ground are let go with a warning.

"The object is not to prosecute the whole world, just to get people to stop," he said.

While much has been removed from the Tennessee Valley, much remains. Moccasin Bend, for instance, still is considered a prime site for relics of prehistoric cultures.

But every time an artifact is removed, something precious is lost. The location of an artifact often is more important to archaeologists than the artifact itself. It reveals clues about how people lived and what their lives were like.

"It is like destroying a threatened or endangered species," said Jack Wynn, a Forest Service archaeologist in Georgia. "Once it is gone you can't replace it."

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