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A flood of thoughts entered Craig Childs' head long before he wrote page one of his new book about archaeological plunder and preservation.
Memories of hunting for rocks in the Four Corners area with his then-3-year-old son were foremost among them.
"Whenever we found some potsherds, he learned very quickly that the colored ones were very cool," Childs said. "Those were the ones I had to tug out of his hands. He would always tug back."
There's something childish at the center of those who plunder ancient American Indian burial mounds for personal gain or pleasure, Childs thought. That much was obvious. Yet there was also something undeniable, even primal, about the search and discovery of objects that re-create lost time, history and culture.
That the award-winning naturalist would also cross narrative paths with flak-jacket-clad federal agents, witches of Navajo folklore who haunt black-market antiquities dealers, austere archaeologists, arrogant looters and collectors, plus the bodies of three suicides, never occurred to him.
Like stray paths branching off a rocky dirt road that rattles the tires, the story-line behind Childs' latest book, Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession, amassed so many varied philosophical angles and gathered so much extra weight along the way that even a writer of his stature was tempted to start over or stop altogether.
"I did not have fun writing this book," said Childs during a telephone interview from his home in Crawford, Colo. "It was like wearing an anchor around my neck. I felt I was faced with an impossible task of defining something that has no right or wrong, but had shades."
It's first-hand comments of that sort that add heft to one of the most shocking sentences in the book's introduction: "In no other field of research have I encountered so many people who have wanted the other party dead."
Childs' efforts, accumulated over more than 2 1/2 years' research and piecemeal writing, experienced a massive working over in June 2009. That's when FBI and Bureau of Land Management agents arrested two dozen people on charges of digging up, transporting and sometimes selling more than 250 ancient objects taken from Puebloan burial mounds in the Four Corners Area.
The Four Corners Raid, as it later became known, sent shock waves through the Southwest, where digging up American Indian artifacts is often seen as a harmless hobby at worst, or even a defiant stand in the ongoing conflict over federal control of Western land. Reaction reached into the nation's capital. Speaking during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Sen. Orrin Hatch demanded that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder be held accountable for a raid he said was "unnecessary and brutal."
A Blanding physician, a man from Santa Fe and even the prosecutor's undercover source in the raid ended up committing suicide in the aftermath. Six perpetrators have received probationary sentences in a case that continues to work its way through federal court.
Childs, who made his name with earlier books about wildlife encounters (The Animal Dialogues) and desert water and desert ecology (The Secret Knowledge of Water), decided to take the long, deep view. Ultimately, he admits, he comes down on the side of the professional archaeologist who plays by the rules of preservation and respect for ancient American Indian civilizations.
Like his young son, however, he too picked up the occasional potsherd during a childhood he spent in south-central Arizona. His father's family background was "New Mexico redneck" in a community of "guns and trucks."
More central to the book's delicate balancing act than family heritage, though, is the tactile thrill that hunting for ancient antiquities brings, legal or not. Connection to the past, whether through a museum or arrowhead collection someone keeps in a shoebox in the closet, matters. It's a sensation and idea Childs clearly empathizes with. In one arresting opening sentence, he describes looking into the design of an ancient pot as if "it were an eye opening in my hand."
Along the way, Childs gives readers a rogues' gallery of archaeologists ranging from the unabashedly criminal, who have the heads ripped off child mummies only to have the bodies buried in the backyard, to a charming private collector who scoffs at the notion of preservation. "Save the past for the future?" says one character, throwing down the gauntlet. "When is the future? Give me a date."
Childs, the sound of wind chimes echoing through the phone line, described Finders Keepers as an exercise in undercutting some of his most prized notions and ideas. The more he wrote, the more he became surprised at how often he defended people others might consider villains. What happened during the summer of 2009, he said, was just a distillation of what happens when you dig up the dead whether for science, for your own keeping or to sell for thousands of dollars to a European collector.
"It's the deep wound of people having such different ideas of what should happen to these things," Childs said. "It comes from taking ownership over something that belongs to no one. The question, it seems, is, 'How do we get this mysterious connection we yearn for without ownership?' The wound that's been left after this raid is quite messy."
Childs said he's already heard from some archaeologists who don't appreciate the book's sometimes philosophical view. It's what he expected. A judgmental, didactic book wasn't his intent. An attempt at mutual understanding was.
Don Montoya, curator at the Anasazi State Park Musuem in Boulder, Utah, said searching for empathetic angles in the wake of the Four Corners Raid may be premature. Laws against archaeological looting on tribal and public lands may look intimidating from afar, but punishments all too often amount to a slap on the wrist, he said.
The only aspect of amateur archaeology Montoya appreciates takes place when someone brings into his museum a collection of artifacts that once belonged to a deceased family member. "The collection that museums have is much less than what's in private collections," Montoya said.
For Childs, the story of archaeological plunder in the American Southwest reflects its subject matter a little too much. Some undiscovered find waits silent in the ground to weave new charms and complications.
"Hopefully someone will continue this story," he said. "Because it's not over."
Naturalist author Craig Childs in Utah
When • Wednesday, Sept. 29, 7 p.m.
Where • 126 Lion Blvd., Canyon Community Center
Info • Free. Call 435-772-3400 for more information, or visit http://www.sundancerbooks.com
Salt Lake City
When • Friday, Oct. 1, 7 p.m.; Saturday, Oct. 2, workshop with author Amy Irvine, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Where • 268 S. 200 East, Ken Sanders Rare Books; workshop will be in room 143 of Carolyn Tanner Irish Building on University of Utah campus
Info • Ken Sanders reading is free; workshop fee is $75 with registration required. Call 801-521-3819 for more information, or visit http://www.kensandersbooks.com.
When • Oct. 21
Where • 111 E. 100 North, Confluence Literary Festival
Info • Individual workshops range from free to $75. Call 435-259-6272 or visit http://www.moabconfluence.org for more information.