Artifacts For Sale

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Portland State University and Bureau of Land Management archaeologists work at Port Clarence, where frequent looting took place. Credit: Shelby Anderson
Portland State University and Bureau of Land Management archaeologists work at Port Clarence, where frequent looting took place. Credit: Shelby Anderson

Spring 2016: By Julian Smith.

When Shelby Anderson of Portland State University arrived at Port Clarence in western Alaska to conduct an archaeological survey in 2013, she was astonished at what she found. The narrow strip of land on the west side of Seward Peninsula, most of which is administered by the U.S. Coast Guard, is dotted with numerous sites of the Thule culture, ancestors of today’s Inuit. And almost every one of the sites Anderson surveyed had been damaged by looters.

“It was absolutely astounding,” Anderson says. “I’ve worked in other parts of the country; I know what looting can do. I’ve never seen anything this extensive.” Large pits and piles of dirt dotted ancient village sites, most of which were occupied within the last 800 years. The remains of pithouses were surrounded by broken shovels, garbage, and discarded pottery. The damage was so great it made establishing stratigraphic profiles difficult, and population estimates impossible.

The looters had come for finely-crafted antique items such as harpoon tips and figurines carved from walrus ivory. There is a thriving market for these objects, which are sold on the web and in auction houses, and in some cases command tens of thousands of dollars.

The digging up and selling of native artifacts has been going on in western Alaska for at least a century. Today, a combination of demand for these artifacts and the poverty  of the area’s residents has resulted in the destruction of hundreds of sites. Non-scientific digging occurs on both state and federal land, where it is illegal, and land owned by native corporations, where it can be legal or illegal, depending on the corporation’s policy.

Summary. Read More in our Spring 2016 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 20 No. 1. Browse Content of Spring 2016 Issue.

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Browse Articles Summaries from our last issue, Winter 2015

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