SALT LAKE CITY — Tangible remnants of ancient Native American lifestyles sit stashed in a nondescript, tightly secured Salt Lake warehouse.
From the showiest piece of pottery to the most utilitarian tool, the antiquities help tell the story of the Ansazi, Ancestral Puebloans, Apaches, Utes and Navajos who lived in the Southwest centuries ago.
There are yucca fiber sandals, grinding stones, and primitively painted ceramic bowls and mugs. There are baby carriers, buffalo shields and prayer sticks. And countless arrowheads and spearheads, shell bracelets and bead necklaces.
The more sacred and culturally significant artifacts — those ceremonial, patrimonial or funereal in nature — are stored in a separate room.
In that room — which some tribal leaders who have toured the warehouse refuse to enter, while others went in to offer a blessing — the bones of an ancient juvenile are laid out on a table. Pot-hunters found the remains in an illegal dig in southeastern Utah and dumped them into a hole, said Dan Love, U.S. Bureau of Land Management special agent in charge in Salt Lake City.
Tens of thousands of items stored in the climate-controlled, camera-monitored building were seized in Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico as part of the largest Native American artifacts trafficking case in the country.
"My goal from the beginning of the investigation was to return those artifacts where they needed to be and to disrupt the illegal sale, trafficking and excavation of those artifacts from the Four Corners region," said Love, the lead BLM investigator.
With law enforcement's work now nearly complete, the painstaking task of photographing, cataloging, preserving and packaging each item has begun. The BLM isn't in the museum business, but it has hired a curator and others to safeguard the precious antiquities.
Instead of adorning living rooms or being tucked away in closets, the ancient artifacts will eventually be turned over to Indian tribes or area museums.
"We're all aware it will take time," said Emily Palus, BLM Heritage Resources Division deputy chief in Washington, D.C.
For now, everything is stored according to museum standards, she said. Artifacts are kept in acid-free boxes. Perishable relics made of wood or leather are frozen to help preserve them before being packed up. Pest-control traps are scattered around the warehouse floor, while UV filtered lights hang overhead.
The BLM hired former University of Utah Museum of Natural History registrar Kara Hurst to work as the collections' curator. She estimates some artifacts date back as far as 100 A.D.
"In one regard this is a dream job because these collections are amazing. On the other hand, this is a nightmare because these collections were looted from public land so we've lost some of that heritage," she said.
The items housed separately are or might be subject to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Palus said the BLM has started consulting with the 16 to 24 tribes that could lay claim to artifacts, some of which only tribal leaders have the expertise to identify. Sorting out where things belong can be complicated, she said.
Antiquities that aren't returned to a tribe will remain federal property and be moved to public museums or universities as close as possible to their origin, she said.
Some have described the seized artifacts as "trinkets and trash." Palus and Hurst don't see it that way.
"It's definitely far more than that," Palus said. "There are some incredibly unique objects in the collection."
Said Hurst, "Every artifact truly has value and can tell the story of past lifeways."
And, Palus said, they have meaning for people today.
"These cultural resources are the tangible evidence of the human experience in North America," Palus said. Putting them on public display, she said, connects people to another time and place.
"There's much to learn from the past."
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