‘Looting” isn’t a word that crops up very often in local news coverage, so it caused a degree of consternation last month when it was applied to a theft inside Lewis and Clark National Historical Park.

Thefts from recognized and unrecognized archaeological sites are, however, a pressing concern all around the world — one that deserves local attention.

Most humans are acquisitive creatures, and some activities that professional archaeologists might define as looting are regarded in a far more benign light by participants. Many who live in more arid areas of the West look for Indian arrowheads and other stone artifacts with no ill intent, even though picking them up on federal property is almost always a violation of the law. Depending on individual state laws, even collecting artifacts on private property may be legally problematic.

Looting archaeological objects for profit is an even more serious problem worldwide, with the spread of metal detectors — along with lax enforcement — opening many sites to commercial exploitation. The spoils often end up being sold online. Even in the U.S., there is an ongoing crisis relating to thefts from ancient Indian sites, along with fossils from widespread paleontological sites in the West.

Why is any of this a problem? For one thing, “finders, keepers” is not a valid legal doctrine. The theft of objects from public property is a theft from all of us, and robs the future of opportunities to better understand the past. Theft of Native American objects is a particular insult, as tribal members properly regard such things as important links to ancestors and cultural patrimony.

From a scientific perspective, removing an object from the context in which it was located robs it of much of its value. A particular kind of stone projectile found in a specific soil stratum might tell an important story about a previously unknown past, while it becomes merely a pretty piece of rock once removed without careful study of where it was. In a real-world example of this, an archaeological dig at one of the national park’s sites on the Washington shore of the Columbia found humble beads, broken pottery and other objects that revealed it to be the likely home of legendary Chinook Chief Comcomly, and one of the original international trade marts on what we now call the Pacific Rim.

The looting at Fort Clatsop apparently did not involve Indian material, or far less Lewis and Clark items, which are vanishingly rare. But it could have told some other notable story about our forebears here in the Columbia-Pacific region. So little attention used to be paid to the lives of ordinary working people that an archaeological site associated with them might tell us some meaningful story about life here a century or more ago.

As this area becomes ever more densely populated, it’s crucial that we all bear these issues in mind. Metal detecting is fun and legitimate. But when it comes to serious artifacts and potential archaeological sites, the real fun stems from calling in the professionals to see what they can learn and share about this area’s fascinating past.

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