“The Bodies in the Cave” by Rachel Monroe (Contributing writer at The New Yorker covering Texas and the Southwest) from the Magazine, The New Yorker, October 10, 2022 Issue
By Frank Lukes, Editor of The Atlatl
This article follows Byron Schroeder, Head of the Center for Big Bend Studies, a research institute focused on archaeology and history (the Center is affiliated with Sul Ross State University in Texas). Schroeder notes, “In Texas (unlike in Wyoming, where he grew up, and in Montana where he got a Ph.D. in archaeology)– if you have permission to dig on someone’s land, you don’t really have to do any permits or anything. Here, you can’t tell landowners not to do stuff. This is Texas goddammit!”.
Schroeder befriended a rancher owning a 60,000 acre ranch in an area on the easternmost region of Southwestern Pueblan culture. Schroeder was taken to a cave known as Spirit Eye. A previous owner had operated a pay-to-dig operation which had resulted in removing almost everything of archaeological value. Schroeder would sometime refer to this type of activity as “looting”, but it was also likely legal. As noted by the article “In the U.S., landowners own pretty much anything found on their property”.
The article goes on to describe Schroeder’s quest to find out more about the site by determining who had dug there. He hoped to discover what had been removed to learn the history of Spirit Eye’s prehistoric occupants. Schroeder’s research revealed that human remains had been removed from Spirit Eye in addition to the artifacts. The article explores the problems that occur when nonprofessionals “dig” in a site such as this. The ethics of removing the remains of prehistoric Native Americans from this and similar sites is discussed. In addition, the history and enforcement of Federal laws designed to protect the preservation of Native American culture are outlined.
I found the story of the discovery and removal of a woman’s body from the cave and its journey from Texas to California and back to Texas to be heartbreaking. The lack of respect for these remains should give all of us pause for reflection. Schroeder is upset by much of the “collecting” described in the article. He describes part of the extensive collection of Ken Novak, a barber in his eighties from Alpine, Texas.
The author describes the collection as follows, “The Novaks led us to the garage, where most of Ken’s collection was stored. I’d already heard Schroeder grouse about it. ‘There are about sixty known atlatls in North America,” he’d said on the car ride over, “and he’s got three pieces just sitting in the house.’ Sure enough, the wall above the Corvette was hung with a dozen framed arrangements of arrowheads and other artifacts. Schroeder asked if he could take one of the framed sets back to Alpine for a few days—he wanted to X-ray an atlatl foreshaft, and to consult a botanist about the plant material in an unusual bracelet. Ken seemed amenable, but Betty (Ken’s spouse) objected. When Ken ultimately overruled her, she took out her phone and photographed Schroeder taking the framed set down from the wall—evidence in case he failed to return it, she said, only half joking.”
I found this article provided a very interesting overview of the practice, problems, and legalities of “artifact collection”. As described above, the removal and display of human remains is particularly troubling. There are several examples cited in the article. I would recommend this article to anyone interested in the archaeological and ethical implications of artifact collection.