By Mike Toner

One of many boxes of return and remorse letters held by the Flagstaff Area National Monuments in a storage closet. | Credit: Photo courtesy of the National Park Service
The admonition to “leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but pictures” is as familiar to national parks’ visitors as admission fees. So, it seems, is the urge to take more than pictures—a transgression that, for many, begets a nagging remorse that belatedly prompts them to return the little treasures they pocketed during their visit. Thousands of pottery sherds, rocks, and fossils are returned every year to national parks like Mesa Verde, Grand Canyon, and Canyon de Chelly—some with apologies.
The considerable accumulation of fossilized wood that employees at Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona refer to as a “conscience pile” attests to the number of people who took mementoes of their visits despite the park’s prominently posted no-collecting entreaties and later returned them. Each year, roughly eighty to 100 such souvenirs—with and without apologies, with and without names—are mailed back to the park by people suffering pangs of regret. “They are beautiful, but I can’t enjoy them. They weigh like a ton of bricks on my conscience,” a contrite visitor wrote to park officials. One woman returned a piece of petrified wood her husband had taken during their summer vacation, reporting: “Upon returning home we first found that my stepmother had kidney failure. Then our dog died, our central air conditioning went out, and our freezer. Our truck broke down, needing major repairs, our cat was killed, and last night close by our home a gas well blew out.” More than fifty such letters are chronicled in a book entitled Bad Luck, Hot Rocks by Ryan Thompson and Phil Orr.

A bow stave (top), pieces of string made from hair (center) piece of yucca string, and two fragments of an arrow shaft (bottom) were taken from Walnut Canyon National Monument in Arizona. | Credit: Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

The scope of thievery from public lands—from rattlesnakes and rare cacti from Arizona’s parks, to a baby bison taken from Yellowstone, and 200-million-year-old dinosaur footprints chiseled out of rocks in Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park—is as wide ranging as the several hundred parks and other sites from which they are taken. But because most thefts go undetected and unreported, estimates of the scope of the problem are little better than guesswork. What’s gone missing is anybody’s guess, but Gwenn Gallenstein, who is systematically studying and reporting on the removal and return of materials to National Park Service properties, said the volume of returns suggests that the problem of pilferage is “profound and widespread.”

These are some of the numerous boxes of artifacts that were left on the doorstep of the Florida Public Archaeology Network. | Credit: Nicole Grinnan/Florida Public Archaeology Network

This is an article excerpt from the Fall 2022 edition of American Archaeology Magazine.  Become a member of The Archaeological Conservancy for your complimentary subscription!


| The Archaeological Conservancy 2022



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