ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The U.S. Attorney’s Office and investigators with the Bureau of Land Management returned an ancient clay jar to its rightful owners Wednesday, nearly three years after two men tried to steal it from an archaeological site in western New Mexico.
Dignitaries of Acoma Pueblo accepted the jar, called an olla, during a brief ceremony.
“This pot that sits before us today has a lot of meaning behind it,” Acoma Pueblo Gov. Chandler Sanchez said. “It’s a part of our ancestors. It’s a part of who we are as Acoma people. We certainly with open arms accept it back.”
The jar was made sometime between 900 and 1250 A.D. Archeologists believe it may have originally served as a vessel for food left for travelers along the Zuni-Acoma trail.
An Acoma conservation officer, Norman Torivio, spotted a suspicious vehicle near the El Malpais area south of Grants in April 2006. After scanning the badlands with binoculars, he spotted two men walking in the distance. One carried something.
The officer eventually caught up with the men — who had been trying to hide — but they were no longer carrying anything.
“All of a sudden one of them blurted out, ‘All right, we have a pot,”’ U.S. Attorney Greg Fouratt said, telling the story for a small crowd. “The officer found the pot and the pot is here today.”
Dino Harrison and John Darby, both New Mexico residents, were arrested and charged with violating the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. Harrison, whose grandmother is Acoma, is serving five years’ probation and Darby is awaiting trial.
Fouratt said Harrison had asked his grandmother to show him a location where certain artifacts, like the Acoma pot, could be found.
Sanchez applauded Torivio for spotting the men and BLM officials for helping investigate the case, saying the pot could have been lost forever had the two men gotten away.
Acoma is famous for its hand-coiled pottery. The more modern versions are usually thinly walled pots decorated with intricate black geometric shapes.
The earthen colored olla, about the diameter of a basketball but taller, is covered with a simple woven design.
American Indian cultural artifacts have come to be widely collected, with modern souvenirs going for a few dollars to the best pottery examples being sold for up to $250,000, said Allan Hayes, a self-described pottery addict who has written books on the subject.
While most pots on the market have been legally collected or made especially for trade or sale, he said buyers still need to be cautious. His advice for those just starting out: “Buy small, buy cheap and buy it from a reputable dealer.”
Authorities said Harrison and Darby took the Acoma pot from land managed by the BLM.
James Moriarty, the BLM’s special agent-in-charge in New Mexico, said the looting of cultural sites nationwide is a problem for all federal land management agencies.
“We’re charged with the preservation and protection of cultural as well as natural resources,” he said. “This is just one portion of a larger spectrum of issues that the law enforcement folks have to deal with. It’s an ongoing problem.”
In New Mexico, Moriarty said one full-time agent is dedicated to working cases like that of the Acoma pot. The agency handles up to six cases in the state each year.