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A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession

by Craig Childs

Pub Date: Aug. 25th, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-316-06642-6
Publisher: Little, Brown

Naturalist Childs (The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild, 2007, etc.) probes our “meaningful, tangible connection to the people who came long before us.”

Growing up in the American Southwest, the author learned to cherish the artifacts he and his father uncovered in the desert. Here he re-creates the experience of holding such an object and imagining the people who used it “centuries, even millennia, earlier.” For the past decade, Childs has belonged to “a gang of relic hunters” who search out unaltered archaeology sites in the desert, “scouring the wilderness” to discover the “precious belongings that people cared for” without disturbing them. To remove a relic, keep it as a personal possession, sell it or even give it to a museum violates the author’s personal ethic, although he recognizes the value of museums. Federal law honors the ownership rights of Native American tribes to the remains of their dead ancestors and the funerary objects buried with them, challenging the rights of museums such as the Smithsonian. Nonetheless there is a thriving legal and illegal global trade in collectibles. Childs provides plenty of fascinating stories of treasure hunters, collectors, Buddhist monks and other adventurers, many of which are reminiscent of the escapades of Indiana Jones. One would-be collector was caught with a pair of sandals in his home that were 10,000 years old. After receiving an 18-month prison sentence, he attempted to hire a hit man to kill the judge, and his ex-wife, who had given incriminating evidence to the police. A private Santa Fe collector hoards the treasure he found on land he purchased, which contained the ruins of “a multithousand-room pueblo occupied from pre-Columbian times up to the installation of a Spanish mission.”

A colorful, informative excavation.