Imagine yourself walking in the Petrified Forest National Park (PFNP) in Arizona. Scanning the floor your eyes catch sight of a beautiful piece of petrified wood that would look divine on your writing desk. You pocket it, taking with you a nugget of archaeological information that can now never be returned.
While snatching up a little souvenir might seem like a small act, removing artifacts from their authentic final resting place has a catastrophic effect on their scientific value. This is why national parks like the PFNP fall under legal protections that prohibit people from pocketing their treasures. However, as a recent article published by the National Parks Conservation Association demonstrated, the threat of hefty fines and even prison time isn’t always enough to stop people in the act.
“Once [relics] are removed from their actual location, the amount of archaeological information drops almost to zero,” said ex-PFNP curator Wendy Bustard to Jacob Baynham. “Because provenience has been lost on these items, you can’t just return the material to anywhere in the park.”
So, if the damage is done as soon as the act is committed, what is one to do with some stolen archaeological swag? Many opt to send artifacts back to the National Parks from whence they came, for reasons ranging from remorse, peer pressure, a change of heart, and even the fear of being cursed or bringing about the apocalypse.
“A significant number of visitors specifically mentioned “Indian spirits,” prehistoric people, modern American Indians, people from the past, and/or a perceived sacredness of some of the national parks,” wrote Museum Curator for the Flagstaff Area National Monuments Gwenn Gallenstein in her paper "Remorseful Returns: What to Do With Returned Surface Collected Items From National Park Service Units".
“Wanting a connection to Native Americans and/or feeling a perceived sacredness of the land itself made people take objects and then return them when they felt they had upset spirits.”
Gallenstein has helped process what she terms “remorseful returns” since the early 1990s but it's thought to date back to at least 1935 when the PFNP recorded receiving some stolen fossilized wood posted from India.
You might argue that having shame enough to return the item is in itself a redeeming factor, but at this juncture, the museums find themselves with a new problem: what to do with all the misplaced, now academically useless material without further disrupting the archaeological record of the land? The situation is more complex than simply returning it to the park, as by allocating it an inauthentic final resting place you once again disturb the land's history.
Solutions range from the establishment of remorseful return museums at park sites (Pompeii has a permanent exhibition of returned artifacts), or less glamorous alternatives such as the PNFB’s “conscience pile” — a stack of stolen and returned artifacts that is added to each year by the staff who receive hundreds of items each year, some of which include "conscience letters" explaining the reason for the return.
The takeaway here is that you should never try to take anything away from sites of natural beauty and historic significance, because should you get an attack of remorse years later, or are attempting to break a spell of bad luck you think may be related to your theft, you can't just return items to their natural environment. While we all love a sentimental souvenir, the practice of stealing archaeological artifacts so they can adorn your living room is a damaging one that limits our capacity to learn from the past and preserve cultural landmarks for the future.
And if that’s not enough to convince you, maybe the fine and prison time supported by the Antiquities Act of 1906, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act of 2009 will.