Digging for dollars: the link between artifact looting and drugs - KATV - Breaking News, Weather and Razorback Sports

Digging for dollars: the link between artifact looting and drugs

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Each year, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of ancient artifacts are looted from National Parks. 

To archaeologists and scientists, these items are priceless.

Here in Arkansas, it's a growing problem in National and State Parks, as well as on private land.

And the problem runs deeper.

There is a disturbing connection between illegally obtained artifacts and the drug trade in Arkansas. 

In the woods along the Buffalo National River, caves and bluffs were once shelters for Native Americans. 

Now, many are illegal dig sites.

"They're digging for dollars, and they're converting those dollars or directly exchanging the artifacts for drugs," explained archaeologist Dr. Caven Clark.

Clark has worked for the National Park Service since the 1980's. He's seen damage from looting first hand and agreed to take us to a remote area where looters have stripped pieces of history from the ground.

Early tools, weapons and pottery are just some of the items that can be found in Arkansas, left behind by Native Americans and early settlers.

Before it was a National Park, much of the land here was privately owned, and people collected artifacts as a hobby.

"They would come out with their families, they would dig after church on Sundays," Clark said.

The park was created in 1972, bringing with it laws against digging for artifacts on federal land. 

And Clark said after digging for artifacts on federal, state and private land was made illegal, the motivation for finding artifacts moved from the acquisition to using them to buy drugs.

"There hasn't been a looting case in the park that I'm aware of, at least in the ten years I've been here, that did not have a drug nexus or a felony firearm 
nexus and one of them in fact led us into child pornography so you really never know what you're going to find," Clark recalled. Bad guys are bad guys and they usually give you a package deal."

"They're very secretive, and they do covert stuff like wearing camouflage and coming in at night," Clark explained. "You get cracked up on the stuff and you just have all this energy to burn and especially if you can make some money in the process."

Items could sell for just a few dollars all the way to several hundred dollars. 

Who's buying them? Clark said a network of dealers and sites like arrowheads.com and even Ebay.com make it very difficult to track the trade.

And it's not just federal and state land affected.

"Private land owners are really disturbed by the fact people are coming on their property without permission and digging their sites," Clark said. 

We spoke with one private land owner who has been dealing with looters for years. Although he did not want to be identified, he said the ordeal has been frustrating and at times made him concerned for his own safety.

"If you are any place and you see people digging, the best thing you can do is quietly back out because you just don't know what you're getting into because of the nexus between looting and felony firearm and drugs," Clark said. "It's potentially a dangerous situation."

As the National Park Service and local law enforcement crack down, arrests are being made. Clark said of the suspects he's made contact with, he's never lost a case, costing the suspect a fine and even years of jail time. 

But it's an uphill battle and while they track the looters, the looters are destroying Arkansas history.

"[The artifacts] are scientifically worthless because they were just taken out of the ground with no recording, no location, no associations, nothing," Caven said. "It's a real tragedy."