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Ancient Ohio sites lack state protection from archaeology scavengers

Almost 4,000 years ago, two women and six children were buried in a shallow cave at the base of a cliff in what is now Jackson County.

Ancient Ohio sites lack state protection from archaeology scavengers
Tarps and a hole are evidence that someone has searched this rock shelter in Hocking County for ancient artifacts in 2003 
[Credit: Jarrod Burks/Ohio Valley Archaeology]
Their remains, like their names and community, were lost to time, left untouched in a “rock shelter” burial ground.

That was until Nov. 26, 2012, when three men arrived with shovels in their hands and dollar signs in their eyes, federal prosecutors said. They dug a hole big enough to hold a small car, removed the remains, including entire skeletons, and sold them.

Brothers Brian Skeens, 38, and David Skeens, 39, pleaded guilty last week to trafficking in Native American items in U.S. District Court in Columbus. They face three years of probation when sentenced. The third man has not been charged.

Mark M. Beatty, 56, of Wellston in Jackson County, paid between $4,000 and $4,500 for the artifacts, prosecutors said. Beatty, described as an amateur collector, has pleaded guilty to the same charge and faces the same penalty.

Native American artifacts are popular items at trade shows across the Midwest, according to the Archaeological Resources Protection Act.

The case is important because of the number of remains taken, and it’s one of only a handful criminally prosecuted nationwide under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1998.

It also points to a failing in Ohio law, say advocates for stronger laws to protect cultural artifacts.

The federal offense is only a misdemeanor and forbids only the selling of Native American artifacts, not their possession.

Stealing and selling the artifacts is like “ripping a page out of Ohio’s history book,” said Bradley Lepper, curator of archaeology at the Ohio History Connection. “It is a major problem.”

Trespassing laws protect national and state Indian sites and private property — unless the treasure hunter has the owner’s permission.

“If you’re on your own land or have permission, you can dig up stuff,” Lepper said. “You can put it on the mantel. The problem is when you sell them.”

Ohio law does not specifically protect graves at abandoned cemeteries, those on private land or unmarked burials older than 125 years, including Native American artifacts and remains thousands of years old.

Indiana, however, protects Native American burial sites dating before Dec. 31, 1870. Some offenses are felonies carrying heavy fines.

The Indiana law was spurred by the looting of hundreds of prehistoric graves in the late 1980s at the GE Mound in Posey County, said Amy Johnson, state archaeologist.

“It caused a public outrage,” Johnson said.

Why Ohio doesn’t have stronger cultural artifact laws is difficult to answer, said Jarrod Burks, director of archaeological geophysics for the consulting firm Ohio Valley Archaeology.

It could be that Ohioans don’t feel a tie to the Native Americans who made the area their home long ago, Burks said. Also, there is no federally recognized seat of a tribal government in Ohio to push for change, he said.

“I bet, if people started looting our pioneer cemeteries, folks would have something to say about it,” Burks said. “For a lot of us, it’s not our history we’re trampling on, it’s someone else’s history.”

In September 2014, the Ohio Cemetery Law Task Force recommended that the legislature incorporate the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act’s standards into Ohio’s existing laws.

However, the task force added that because of the time constraints it was under and the tension between property rights and burial-site preservation, it could not reach more-specific recommendations.

Ohio is one of the richer Great Lakes states when it comes to Native American artifacts, Burks said. However, rock shelters aren’t exactly treasure-troves, he said.

“I don’t know of any rock shelters specifically used for burials,” Burks said. “Most rock shelters don’t have anything of interest in them.”

In addition to probation, the defendants in the Jackson County case must pay $1,000 to the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma to rebury the remains at an undisclosed location in Ohio.

The Oklahoma tribe said its mission is to provide respectful and secure burial sites for Native Americans ancestors.

Author: Earl Rinehart | Source: The Columbus Dispatch [January 13, 2016]

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