Dem Bones, Dem Bones

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Reader David Brunberg sends in this interesting story about what happens when a privately held archaeological site becomes a federally run "national treasure." A Utah rancher tended his secret find for years before handing it over to the Trust for Public Land, and now the secret is out. Brunberg comments:

Advocates of public ownership may argue that these finds, with their great historical and scientific significance, belong to all people and that all should be able to visit and benefit. On the other side, it may be that private owners would be better equipped to maintain (or not, as may be appropriate) and protect these sites, while still allowing access to archaeologists and anthropologists, filmmakers and the occasional, well-paying, and thus…respectful visitor.

NEXT: Protesting Without Permission

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  1. "well-paying, and thus, respectful visitor"

    C'mon, that's wrong. Some people who could easily afford 10 Gs to visit would feel they were entitled to take a souvenir or two. Some (mental image: Richard Gere) would trip on the spiritual nature and would consider taking artifacts the equivalent of slaughtering puppies.

    Some poor people would bring the kids and the kids would want souvenirs. Some poor people would fit more in the Richard Gere category.

    The guy was old and it needed to be transferred to someone.

    Filmmakers should not be allowed on these sites under any circumstances. Get real.

    "belong to all people and that all should be able to visit and benefit"

    Unfortunately, you need to give a wee bit of thought to the logistics of that. How do you herd all those people through there? Do you just let them do it at will? Obviously, they won't work. Do you lead tours? That might work, except for the fact that these sites are pristine and contain items that could be easily grabbed while the ranger isn't looking. Do you build a fence of some kind? That again would probably disturb the pristine state of these sites.

    If he hadn't allowed access and he was able and intent on continued ownership, you could argue over what should happen.

    If you want a market solution, I'd suggest waiting for the Disneyland recreation of these sites.

  2. Also, a visit to Hueco Tanks State Park outside El Paso might convert you into an ardent statist. There are ancient pictographs on the rocks there. Unfortunately, many of them have been obliterated by more modern graffitti. Some of that is from the stagecoach days, but some is more modern. Some might argue that the stagecoach or even the modern stuff has or will have historical interest, but the fact remains that older pictographs were obliterated.

    Now, many areas of HTSP are in the control of the Evil State and hopefully those pictographs remaining will be preserved.

  3. "C'mon, that's wrong."

    I don't think that's "wrong" at all. If you value something like this enough to pay good money to see it, chances are you're going to have a level of respect for it not matched if you could go see it for free.

    "Filmmakers should not be allowed on these sites under any circumstances. Get real."

    Documentary filmmakers, perhaps? National Geographic special? Nova? What the hell are you thinking? I'm not suggesting that they film Die Hard VIII there.

    ""belong to all people and that all should be able to visit and benefit"

    Unfortunately, you need to give a wee bit of thought to the logistics of that. How do you herd all those people through there?" etc., ad nauseam.

    Um, my point exactly. The idea is that private stewardship under a strict contract would guarantee that this place would not become another Old Faithful.

    "If you want a market solution, I'd suggest waiting for the Disneyland recreation of these sites."

    The point is to avoid that while staying within the bounds of private ownership. Many popular National Park Service sites are diminished by the enormous crowds that visit them.

    Wilcox only sold the land because he was guaranteed that it'd be protected, but even he didn't have a lot of faith that the gov't would protect it in the long term.

  4. "C'mon, that's wrong."

    I don't think that's "wrong" at all. If you value something like this enough to pay good money to see it, chances are you're going to have a level of respect for it not matched if you could go see it for free.

    "Filmmakers should not be allowed on these sites under any circumstances. Get real."

    Documentary filmmakers, perhaps? National Geographic special? Nova? What the hell are you thinking? I'm not suggesting that they film Die Hard VIII there.

    ""belong to all people and that all should be able to visit and benefit"

    Unfortunately, you need to give a wee bit of thought to the logistics of that. How do you herd all those people through there?" etc., ad nauseam.

    Um, my point exactly. The idea is that private stewardship under a strict contract would guarantee that this place would not become another Old Faithful.

    "If you want a market solution, I'd suggest waiting for the Disneyland recreation of these sites."

    The point is to avoid that while staying within the bounds of private ownership. Many popular National Park Service sites are diminished by the enormous crowds that visit them.

    Wilcox only sold the land because he was guaranteed that it'd be protected, but even he didn't have a lot of faith that the gov't would protect it in the long term.

  5. I'm only going to respond to your second comment, not the first.

    If you value something like this enough to pay good money to see it

    If a rich person posted a bond equivalent to an amount they really really did not want to lose, and they were searched afterwards, I guess it would be OK.

    I can see a drunken Paris Hilton leading an entourage of her also drunk society bims on a tour of this educational site. On the other hand, I get the feeling Paris might have some sense of responsibility.

    Many rich people are, how do I say this, baboons. They would do this because it was the thing to do. In the process they'd smash something or fall down a well or something.

    Documentary filmmakers, perhaps?

    Recall the ijits who got or wanted to get press credentials to go to Iraq. In reality they were filming an action flick and they thought they could get action footage on the cheap.

    National Geographic could be trusted, but as soon as you start working down the food chain someone would have to say no.

    "The idea is that private stewardship under a strict contract would guarantee that this place would not become another Old Faithful."

    "Strict contract" = "thousands to enter." Just make people jump through hopes regardless of money or connections. See Mt. Whitney permits.

  6. Lonewacko,

    Do you know where this place is? It's easy to find the _exact_ location, if you have the right software. It is _way_ out in the boonies. If a private owner, like the one who held it for 50 years, still had it, it's likely you or I would never have heard of it, except through a National Geographic special. The location was secret until the University of Utah representative held a press conference, noting that it's

    a) within 130 miles of Salt Lake City,
    b) in a canyon through which "Range Creek" flows,
    and c) formerly owned by a man named "Wilcox," whose name conveniently shows up on some topographical maps of certain parts of Utah.

    Now that it's in the news, it took me all of three minutes to pinpoint the exact latitude and longitude of the site. How's that for protecting a public treasure?

    As to your arguments that evil, degenerate plutocrats would travel miles out into mountainous terrain to go on a drunken rampage at the site, well, you sure set that one up and knocked it down, didn't you? I never said that well-paying meant "$10,000" and I never suggested that the site be used as a profit vehicle. You sure are sensitive about this stuff, aren't you?

    And get this: the University of Utah hired a "seasonal" caretaker and students to work the site this summer. That'll sure end any fears of looting.

  7. oh, and by the way,

    "'The idea is that private stewardship under a strict contract would guarantee that this place would not become another Old Faithful.'

    'Strict contract' = 'thousands to enter.' Just make people jump through hopes regardless of money or connections. See Mt. Whitney permits."

    "strict contract" refers to a contract between Mr. Wilcox and a new private owner, perhaps a conservation organization, which striclty lays out the terms under which the site should be protected. I'm beginning to see that you automatically assume that "private" means "untrustworthy."

    "government stewardship" = "next Old Faithful"

    I can play the game too, even though it's really no fun.

  8. As someone with a background in archaeology who has written much about the subject (including papers on private vs. public stewardship of sites), I can't help but weigh in:

    Generally I am optimistic about private stewardship like that displayed by Mr. Wilcox, though there are certainly examples to the contrary (such as the Slack Farm site, where the landowner charged people to come onto his land and dig up pots as souvenirs). Anecdotally, when I hear stories of private residential landowners who find archaeological remains on their land, usually they take steps to preserve them, though this can sometimes be a task beyond their financial and physical means.

    I tend to distrust public entities, which either lack proper funds to care for sites (e.g., last summer, four public heritage sites in CT were endangered when they became pawns in Hartford budget games), or allow sites to deteriorate through bureaucratic incompetence and apathy. Case in point: a particular Native American site in NJ on the land of a private utility company is routinely looted even though its protection is expressly defined in the company's charter with the state, and neither the company nor the state officials in charge of enforcement seem too bothered by the looting (in fact, this site has spurred a current attempt at protection legislation in the state). The main problem I've encountered with public sites is a lack of means or willpower to enforce protection.

    That being said, I think the best solution is ownership by nonprofit groups like local historical societies or the Archaeological Conservancy. The AC buys sites to hold as private land or sometimes, if near or adjacent to national or state parks, to donate them to those parks. You get the best of both worlds: the protections of private property; the funding (granted, always tenuous); and the access by researchers. Of course, this does not eliminate the danger of looting. But many important sites in the US are owned by private groups, like Mount Vernon, and do fine. The wealth generated via casinos has allowed some Indian groups to enact responsible stewardship, at least here in CT.

    The WashPost article scares the hell out of me because I know looters are going to be on that place like flies on hot garbage. I hope UT can protect it adequately. The "seasonal" caretaker and student groups do not fill me with the warm fuzzies.

  9. Lonewacko:

    "I'm a (still-beginning-after-a-few-years) *highpointer*, fr' chrisakes. I'm not going into details, but see cohp.org. Those who are really serious and in better shape (Surgent, etc.) go to great lengths to get access to private property. I myself have tried to gain access to places in AZ and TX; in TX I was given permission by the Nature Conservancy to get this usually inaccessible county highpoint."

    This is completely beside the point. To want to go somewhere, you typically have to be aware of its existence. It's an established fact that the prior, private ownership succeeded in keeping this site a secret for at least 50 years. Contrast this with the public stewards who blabbed it (and the vital information needed to pinpoint its location) to the national press in short order.

  10. i think it's a very quaint trait to treat the wealthy like some sort of modern breed of philosopher king. (as opposed to just being people with money)

    this comes from people who have never done fundraising or development work.

  11. If a private owner, like the one who held it for 50 years, still had it, it's likely you or I would never have heard of it, except through a National Geographic special.

    I'm a (still-beginning-after-a-few-years) *highpointer*, fr' chrisakes. I'm not going into details, but see cohp.org. Those who are really serious and in better shape (Surgent, etc.) go to great lengths to get access to private property. I myself have tried to gain access to places in AZ and TX; in TX I was given permission by the Nature Conservancy to get this usually inaccessible county highpoint.

    As to your arguments that evil, degenerate plutocrats would travel miles out into mountainous terrain to go on a drunken rampage at the site, well, you sure set that one up and knocked it down, didn't you? I never said that well-paying meant "$10,000" and I never suggested that the site be used as a profit vehicle. You sure are sensitive about this stuff, aren't you?

    If I'm touchy it's because I've seen the paint can and the damage done.

    If someone wants access to sites like this, I would certainly hope that they're doing it for the right reasons, or they know how to behave. How much money someone has or is willing to spend is not the determinitive factor in whether someone knows how to behave. Their knowing how to behave should be judged by means other than the market.

    "strict contract" refers to a contract between Mr. Wilcox and a new private owner, perhaps a conservation organization, which striclty lays out the terms under which the site should be protected.

    Despite the WaPo's articles, I'm sure most of the people at the Nature Conservancy mean well. I wouldn't necessarily feel bad if they were the new owners. However, whoever owns this should perhaps be required to do so in the greater public interest.

    The market helped us - for instance - kill almost all the buffalos. There have been too many cases of short-sighted behavior that has spoiled things for future generations. Someone has to think ahead and for the greater good, and in that capacity the market is usually something that needs to be restrained rather than allowed to bloom.

  12. "I can see a drunken Paris Hilton leading an entourage of her also drunk society bims on a tour of this educational site. On the other hand, I get the feeling Paris might have some sense of responsibility."

    This vision is entertaining but highly inaccurate. The girls would be coked up.

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