The Anasazi Indians mysteriously disappeared from the Four Corners area of the West about 700 years ago.
Now their artifacts are disappearing, too -- but it's no mystery this time. Professional "pot hunters" are systematically plundering the long-abandoned homes and burial grounds of the tribe in southeastern Utah, according to archeologists and law enforcement officials.
Baskets, jewelry and pottery from the ruins are being sold for thousands of dollars to wealthy collectors in this country, Europe and Japan, said the officials, who recently announced a renewed effort to control the problem.
"Simply put, the rampant vandalism in southeastern Utah is the worst situation in the whole country . . . . It really is a national disgrace," said Curtis Schaafsma, the state archeologist for New Mexico.
If left unchecked, looters could destroy all of Utah's major Indian ruins within three to five years, said David Madsen, that state's archeologist.
A recent tour of the area revealed remote cliff ruins that had been cratered by dozens of deep holes dug by pot hunters. Easily accessible ruins near roads have been torn open with bulldozers. Human bones and mummies are scattered around many of the ruins.
"It's a tragedy people deal in these artifacts," said Robert C. Heyder, superintendent of Mesa Verde National Park, where the Anasazi Indians' most spectacular cliff ruins are located.
Madsen blamed the looting on art dealers who "wave hundred-dollar bills under the noses of local residents" and ask them to find artifacts for wealthy collectors. Many residents know where to look because pot-hunting for personal collections has been a popular hobby for four generations.
"Stopping pot-hunting is like trying to stop the fur trade in South America," Madsen said. "If you go to Brazil and try to stop trade in furs by arresting the natives, you won't succeed. You have to deal with the people who have the money."
Others cite high unemployment in some areas as the reason some people turn to selling the artifacts.
The amount of money involved was indicated by an incident last spring in which looters allegedly received $70,000 for about 30 baskets found in a cave on U.S. Forest Service land in San Juan County. The baskets, which had been in the cave for about 1,200 years, were in nearly perfect condition.
On Nov. 14, a federal grand jury in Salt Lake City indicted a Utah man in conjunction with the theft. This is the first legal action taken against a looter in southern Utah in almost five years.
Stealing Indian artifacts from federal land is a felony under the 1979 Archaeological Resources Protection Act. It provides penalties of up to a $20,000 fine or two years in jail, or both. Repeat offenders face fines of up to $100,000 or five years in jail, or both. The act also outlaws buying or selling illegally obtained artifacts.
Law enforcement officers said catching the pot-hunters is extremely difficult because of the vast area and thousands of sites that have to be protected in the rugged canyon terrain.
The Bureau of Land Management has only three rangers in San Juan County, and all are assigned to protect one canyon -- the Grand Gulch primitive area. The U.S. Forest Service has no regular law enforcement personnel in San Juan County, and the county sheriff has only one deputy in the field at a time.
"It's just about impossible to catch these people in the act, and that's what we have to do. There's just so many places they can go. It's like looking for a needle in a haystack," said Gene Nodine, manager of the Bureau of Land Management office that covers San Juan County.
Mesa Verde Park Superintendent Heyder said the frenzied search for artifacts has resulted in the destruction of important clues about the Anasazi people and the way they lived.
"It's very important we know that people lived here in the past," he said. "They came and went, and why they left we don't know. Are we doing the same thing on a larger scale today?"