Grave robbing—or tomb raiding, or pot hunting, or fucking around with archaeological sites—occupies a strange corner of our culture. Part Tomb Raider, part cartoon horror punk, traditionally it's been the territory of savvy locals who've wanted to make a quick, immoral buck selling historical trinkets on the black market. But more recently, digging up dead bodies to steal their shit has attracted a different breed of asshole, as keyed-up meth-heads have been lured out into the sticks to spend nights on end searching for ancient loot they can flog to fund their habits.
To get more of an insight into the kind of people who dig up the graves of the deceased and rifle through their stuff, I spoke to the archaeologist Delfin Weis, who has worked on digs across the country.
VICE: Hi Delfin. It seems like grave robbing goes on quite a lot. When did it start up?
Delfin Weis: General grave robbing has been happening forever, but meth-fuelled looting started in the late 1990s and got really big in the early 2000s. Archaeologists started noticing it in the field around then.
How would they notice that? They’d show up at a dig and see it had been looted?
Yeah, either that, or they’d see tweakers at the site, or find that tweakers were following them to the site. Of course, on meth, you have to do something, so these guys have nearly limitless energy and time, giving them the ability to dig holes all through the day and night. They can also keep surveying the site until they find something worth taking. They have the time, they have the energy, and they have a drug addiction that they need to fund.
So the meth gives them the energy to fund their habit?
Yeah. There are areas where pot hunting goes on without meth, but this is just another dimension. Meth addicts who grow up near burial grounds and other archaeological sites know the area and know they can make money from it.
Where exactly does this happen?
It’s pretty much all over. The big cases are in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Georgia. Out west, it’s in the Four Corners region and across the Southwest.
Is it mainly Native American sites?
Yeah, although out east it’s also civil war sites, but the Native Americans are particularly upset given that some of their sites are still in use.
Is there much contact between archaeologists and tweakers?
In the field, yeah. I’ve had a case where we’ve gone on a survey and come across a meth lab. That’s one of the problems with doing archaeology—you’re out in the middle of nowhere, often because that’s where the product is. So you’ll be on BLM land—Bureau of Land management—and it might be 30 miles by 30 miles and you go in there and they haven’t seen anyone there for years. That’s when you’ll stumble across a meth lab.
And that’ll be a trailer?
A trailer, a modified house... you name it. It’ll be out there and you’ll smell it from miles away.
And what do you do in that situation? What did you do?
You stop. You get out of there and you call the police. You don’t want to mess around with guys running a meth lab. That one was in east Texas. We called the police and they came and shut the lab down. There are other archaeologists who have come across meth looters in the field, but more often than not you’ll just see the after-effects or you’ll see them following you.
So when you go on a dig, is meth looting something you prepare for?
If it comes up, it comes up. Normally if you see looting, it’s just normal looting—someone trying to find some pots or some arrowheads. There are certain areas where there's a higher prevalence of meth usage. That’s when your company will tell you to watch out. In Utah, we had some guys following us but they disappeared. We heard some pretty gruesome stories in Oklahoma, as well. Apparently they’d set up booby traps around the meth lab. They’d put fishhooks around the site at eye level, so if anyone came through there they’d be hooked. Six months before, they’d chased down a little girl and shot her because she’d seen what they were doing.
Jesus. How does the grave robbing itself work? People find out about sites and just dig relentlessly?
Out east, they dig. Out west, a lot of it is on the surface—in caves, for example. If it’s pot hunting, they might try and dig a little bit, but a lot of the stuff they’re getting is stuff you’d find on the surface: arrow heads and so on.
Where's it sold?
They sell it either to their meth dealer, who is usually the middleman, or to a known black market dealer of Native American goods. At that point, it’s distributed across the US or on eBay.
How much do the police care about it?
That’s sort of the problem. In the US, if you have archaeological material from federal land it basically doesn’t really count until it's above $500 in value, at which point there’s a moderate fine and up to two years in prison. If a tweaker or a producer is caught, they won’t be charged on those federal crimes, they'll be brought in on drug charges or gun charges. There are several meth dealers who have been busted in previous federal investigations and there are FBI agents who are tasked with meth looting specifically.
Are there any looters who fit into the sort of amateur historian category?
Yeah. One of our main problems at the moment is that television channels like National Geographic and Discovery are basically advocating looting. There are these shows, like American Diggers, where people go out to, say, revolutionary war sites, and they basically film guys digging holes to recover artefacts that they then sell on the market. Archaeologists are pretty angry about it.
So, on the one hand you’ve got twitching meth-heads digging all night and on the other you’ve got Mom 'n' Pop historians packing a thermos and heading out to do some “history.”
Exactly. And these shows encourage you and show you how to sell the stuff you find.
As I understand it, a lot of archaeology is done under the auspices of energy companies of various types. How does that work?
An energy company will have a contract to conduct a seismic survey to determine the best area for, say, natural gas. Before they do that, they have to hire archaeologists to create an inventory of what’s there. We're meant to be the good guys here but we meet a lot of resistance. You’ll go to a site on someone’s property and the owner of that property, who can’t get onto it because of a temporary restraining order, will be standing on the edge of the site with a gun, just looking at you.
Shit. You should stick to the meth looters, buddy.
Haha. Thanks Oscar!
Follow Oscar on Twitter: @oscarrickettnow
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