Do the feds own everything?

Utah’s U.S. senators say they want Congress to probe the actions of federal agents who arrested two dozen people — four of them older than 70 — June 10 in an investigation of the “theft” of ancient artifacts in the Four Corners region.

A day later, one of the men arrested, a prominent local doctor, committed suicide.

There are reports of neighbors being roughed up and confronted by agents in bulletproof vests with weapons drawn. Some 300 federal agents were involved.

Were authorities after armed desperadoes who had blown open the safe and opened fire at guards at some archaeological museum?

Actually, that’s not the kind of “theft” that’s alleged, at all.

Federal indictments accuse the suspects of stealing, receiving or trying to sell artifacts belonging to Indian tribes that vanished from the area centuries ago. But the artifacts — bowls, stone pipes, sandals, arrowheads and pendants — were “stolen” only in the sense that they were dug up from the desert sites where the Anasazi abandoned them, perhaps more than a thousand years ago.

Such “pot hunting” has been a common hobby around the Four Corners area — and other sparsely inhabited parts of the Southwest — for generations.

The objection from archaeologists is that such artifacts lose much of their informational value if they’re removed from their original sites without being carefully mapped and documented.

The amateur pot hunters reply that museums and archaeologists have more of this stuff than they know what to do with.

Were the areas where these artifacts were found scheduled to be mapped and professionally excavated next summer? The summer after that? In 15 years? Never? If left untouched after being “eroded out,” what would have been the most likely fate of these artifacts — to be trampled by animals, washed away in the next rains?

“Pot hunting” is legal on private land; it is considered a crime on lands controlled by the government.

But the tiny ratio of private to “government-controlled” land in the West would be considered outrageous anywhere else.

No one is endorsing wanton vandalism of such sites or artifacts. But it would be useful and realistic if a cooperative, rather than an adversarial, approach allowed quick surveys of such sites, with the most archaeologically promising being set aside for near-future professional digs, with residents told “Harvest the rest if you can.”

How do all such artifacts — even those unknown and undiscovered — automatically become the property of absentee archaeologists who may never even show up? Kate Fitz Gibbon addresses such issues in her book “Who Owns the Past?” (Rutgers, 2005.) Attorney and coin collector Peter Tompa also maintains a “Cultural Property Observer” Web site, which he “hopes … will provide a counterpoint to the ‘archaeology over all’ perspective,” at http://culturalpropertyobserver.blogspot.com/.

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