For decades, searching for artifacts was considered fair game regardless of where they were located. Treasure hunting was an innocent past time and enthusiasts thought nothing of happily rooting through the terrain with pick axes and shovels, and eventually metal detectors. Boy Scouts earned badges for their arrowhead collections. Some ambitious collectors procured maps of varying legitimacy hoping to track down lost caches of gold or silver. In fact, it was the rumor of lost gold that led to a substantial amount of damage at the ruins of Fort Craig. For decades, the fort had been subjected to regular digging by artifact collectors. As late as the 1970s, before Fort Craig was again turned over to government custodianship, it wasn’t unusual for families to make weekend outings there to scrounge for whatever they could dig up or shake loose.

Protecting cultural resources has long been a concern worldwide. But in the past twenty years, countries everywhere have seen a dramatic increase in the plundering and trading of archaeological artifacts.

In most recent years, much of this increase can be attributed to an online black market in artifacts. In the United States anti-looting laws have been on the books since the late 19th century, but legislation with more teeth was enacted in 1979 when Congress passed the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. The ARPA laws include heavy penalties for the theft, damage, possession, and sale of archaeological properties. Of course having a law on the books is only half the job. Government agencies have long been aware of a general permissiveness regarding the treatment of archaeological sites and artifacts. The finders-keepers mentality has not only cost the public much of its archaeological and historic treasure, it has resulted in lost history. Without these artifacts and/or without the information as to their origins, it is impossible to make the links between physical items and historical records. In other words, the “context” of looted artifacts is lost forever.

The Fort Craig case underscored that point as government archaeologists and investigators discovered the evidence of Dee Brecheisen’s voluminous cache of prehistoric and historic artifacts, but no documentation as to their origins. The partial remains of Private Thomas Smith would be further salt in the wound as Brecheisen not only looted the young soldier’s grave, he nearly obliterated Pvt. Smith’s past.

The intent of the Bureau of Reclamation along with the filmmakers of “Helluva Way to Treat a Soldier” is to raise the public consciousness regarding archaeological and historic sites and artifacts. Authorities realize that full protection of these often remote sites will require a public vigilance working in tandem with government efforts.

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