Heritage Resource Looting and Vandalism in Arizona: How Serious is the Problem?
Who We Are
We are professional archaeologists and resource managers with career and organizational commitments to the protection and appropriate uses of heritage sites and objects—places and things inherited from the past and still valued today. The Arizona State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) and Archaeology Southwest are dedicated to the proposition that archaeological and historical resources should be protected from unauthorized alteration, especially by profit- and pleasure-motivated looters and vandals.
What We Did
To learn more about the unauthorized damages to Arizona’s heritage resources, we turned to information collected by the Arizona Site Stewards (AZSS). AZSS is the award-winning corps of AZ State Parks volunteers who systematically monitor significant heritage sites on Arizona’s state and federal lands. In effect, regional clusters of AZSS volunteers take responsibility for visiting about 2,400 individual heritage sites at least twice a year to collect and report basic information on site conditions, changes, and concerns.
What We Found Out
Legacy data from hundreds of volunteers spread across decades are not always tidy or easy to interpret, so the trick is to look for especially robust patterns. Here’s what we found when we looked at AZSS reports between January 2009 and July 2021. During those 12 years, the AZSS reported 2,157 looting and vandalism incidents on state and federal lands in Arizona. These are summarized in the table below by the type of damage.
What The Data Mean
Looting and vandalism at archaeological and historical sites persist as threats to the state’s extraordinary cultural heritage. Thefts from and destruction of significant places is occurring all across Arizona, on state, federal, and Native American lands (see map below).
The Problem Is Big and Has Real Victims and Consequences
The AZSS volunteers have the resources and authority to monitor only a small percentage of Arizona’s heritage sites. Accordingly, the data in the above table and map seriously under-represent the extent and severity of looting and vandalism that has actually occurred and is expected to continue occurring in Arizona.
These selfish, unlawful activities result in the permanent destruction of Arizona’s rich cultural history and ultimately cause harm to all Arizonans. These activities are especially concerning to Native American citizens and communities. Many Native Americans regard heritage places as integral parts of communities and of family histories.
In addition to permanently destroying Arizona heritage, these unlawful activities—whether purposely or naively committed—result in:
- Robbing future generations of opportunities to recognize and benefit from heritage sites for cultural, educational, scientific, and recreational purposes;
- Tarnishing Arizona’s reputation for responsibly protecting cultural resources in a manner consistent with its status as a steadily expanding outdoor adventure and heritage tourism destination;
- Permanently replacing significant heritage places with unsightly and compromised sites and landscapes;
- Erasing or forever compromising Arizonans’ connections to authentic heritage places;
- Disrespecting and degrading Native American values and cultural connections to lands and homes.
Everybody Should Learn More and Help Out
- Arizona’s heritage sites are irreplaceable foundations for the state’s rich history.
- Destruction of Arizona’s heritage sites, whether Native American, Hispanic, or Anglo in origin/association, represents permanent harm and loss to all Arizonans.
- Laws are in place to help preserve heritage resources; however, public awareness and assistance is needed to effectively mitigate the ongoing loss of these places.
- Looting and vandalism of archaeological and historical sites are illegal in all jurisdictions and represent an affront to responsible heritage stewardship and protection.
- Metal detecting is illegal on State Trust Lands and many other jurisdictions.
- Cash rewards are available for reports that result in the charging of suspect(s)
- As with other forms of responsible outdoor adventure and recreation, it is possible to visit and benefit from Arizona’s varied heritage sites without compounding the problem (check out How to Visit Cultural Sites With Respect).
Kathryn Leonard, Arizona State Historic Preservation Officer, Arizona State Parks & Trails
Shannon Cowell, Preservation Archaeologist, Archaeology Southwest
Ashleigh Thompson, Director, Tribal Collaboration Initiative, Archaeology Southwest
John R. Welch, Director, Landscape and Site Preservation Program, Archaeology Southwest