CODY, Wyo. — The looting of an archaeological site in the Shoshone Canyon west of here has law enforcement officials with the Bureau of Land Management offering a reward for the capture and conviction of those responsible.
Special Agent Mike Ramirez with the BLM in Billings said that while the case remains under investigation, it is clear the looting was not the random act of casual collectors.
“This wasn’t something somebody stumbled upon,” Ramirez said. “It’s quite evident that the people who dug this site did it on purpose. They actively pursued it and obliterated it, along with any hopes of recovering things.”
Ramirez couldn’t speak of the site in detail given the ongoing investigation. The Shoshone Canyon is located between Cody and Yellowstone National Park.
Ramirez said archaeologists weren’t aware of the historic site prior to the incident. The looting was initially reported by members of the public, he said, and a $2,500 reward is being offered for the arrest and conviction of those responsible for digging the site.
“It wasn’t a recent Native American site within last 100 years,” Ramirez said. “We’re looking at the possibility of something quite older that might have been recovered. It’s kind of a guess what was in there, but all indications are that it was older than 4,000 years.”
After learning of the incident, Ramirez said, archaeologists returned to the site, hoping to recover and preserve any remaining artifacts. While crews analyzed a number of different layers, nothing remained of scientific value.
“As far as selling this stuff, eBay and places like that have been a conduit for selling these things,” Ramirez said. “As investigators, we have to tie a particular object to that site. We’d have to somehow prove that it came from there.”
Ramirez said it’s a felony to excavate, collect, damage or destroy archaeological resources on federal lands under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act.
It’s also a federal crime to sell, purchase or transport for sale any American Indian remains under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
Despite the laws, Ramirez said, looting of American Indian burial sites also has occurred in the past.
“Unfortunately, the only thing missing out of the body would be the head,” he said of one past incident. “When the person was buried, they probably had a head.”
Ramirez said most artifact hunters are surface collectors and hobbyists. They may find something of value on the ground, such as arrowheads or stone tools. Others may return to a site and conduct an illegal dig.
Either way, he said, the scientific damage is lasting.
“The damage of that is quite big, scientifically,” he said. “The whole loss of a timeline, on the scientific side, is tremendous. You can’ fix that. Once its messed up, it’s done.”
Ramirez said one individual was caught in the act of digging and collecting bottles and other artifacts near Fort Benton from the late 18th century. Other cases have occurred in both Montana and Wyoming, which are rich in Native American and paleontological history.
“In Eastern Montana and parts of Wyoming, there’s so much public land that archaeologists and paleontologists don’t have a real good handle on where some of these sites are,” Ramirez said. “If we don’t know where they are we can’t protect them. It helps us out if people report something strange. That’s how our investigation starts.”