Notes on Baby Mummy Cave and a strange overlap between ethics, archaeology and policing

Partial and unfinished thoughts on a raid, a legal case and a folktale 11 years on.

In 2009, federal and state officials descended on the small town of Blanding in remote southern Utah and arrested 23 residents for allegedly trading in looted Native American artifacts from the area, which is the site of major archaeological research on the Anasazi (now often referred to as the Ancestral Puebloans).

All told, three people related to the raid committed suicide, including the government informant who led to the raid. The BLM agent who led the raid was removed after an investigation showed numerous improprieties including mishandling evidence and extorting free passes to Burning Man for his friends. No one served any jail time following the raid.

I’m totally fascinated by the case for a lot of overlapping reasons, but mainly I’m caught by how the case has lived on in informal retellings of the story I’ve heard here in Moab, 75 miles north of Blanding.

Many of the people arrested in the Blanding raids were members of old Mormon families and respectable members of their community who grew up “pothunting,” scouring the local canyons for relics of Native American inhabitants. While the community certainly knew that that activity was illegal on public lands (there was a previous federal raid on similar charges in 1986), clearly many in this group believed that their behaviour was excusable. Documentation suggests that the government informant pressured the arrestees into selling items from their private collections in order to secure felony charges.

It’s also obvious that the government raids were ill-considered, unnecessarily violent and humiliating, and incredibly counterproductive if the intent was to change the culture of the town.

Still, in many retellings of this story that I’ve heard in Moab (some by government employees), the storytellers emphasize the behaviour of the San Juan County residents as totally unforgivable and gloss over the grey areas of the story. Which is where, I’ve noticed, the baby mummies come in.

In multiple tellings of the story I’ve heard around town, details about the collection of Native American artifacts collected by the prosecuted residents are offered as evidence of moral turpitude, like the image of driveways lined with ancient looted metate stones. The choice of details often seeks to emphasize the disrespect for Native Americans that the looters showed, perhaps as a rejoinder to supporters of the pothunters citing an exaggerated (and undeniably colonialist) love and respect for the culture. Indeed, supporters point to that affection as the reason many of the prosecuted collected these items at all.

This feeling is echoed by auction houses and appraisers who sell Native American artifacts to private collectors instead of repatriating them to their tribe of origin. In 2009, the Deseret News quoted a spokesperson for the Antique Tribal Art Dealers Association, who said such items are “our collective heritage,” rather than the property of tribal authorities and that private collectors are “caretakers” of such property, rather than profiteers.

I think this disagreement rattles people who are telling the story of the Blanding raids. That part of the conflict is over subjective values complicates the story, which can then only be re-simplified as a moral parable with the use of a primal taboo: the rumored possession of human remains, in particular a skull or, even more salaciously, a baby mummy.

I’ve heard this claim multiple times, and it well may be true. But there’s something in the over-the-top nature of the baby mummy claim that I just can’t let go of. It just makes a complicated story so simple: monsters who have a dead baby as decoration.

There is an archaeological site in San Juan County called “Baby Mummy Cave,” which is mentioned by at least two of the targets of the 2009 sting operation. One man sold a pair of woven sandals that he allegedly took from the site, and Jeannie Redd, whose husband later committed suicide over the arrests, mentioned seeing a skull on the site on an undercover video.

I’m having a hard time tracking down the details of the cave,

There is a “Baby Mummy Cave” in northern Arizona, also part of the Comb Ridge area, named by University of Arizona professor Byron Cummings when he took part in an organized archeological dig at the site. I haven’t been able to find an accurate date on when the discovery of the mummies and therefore the naming of this site took place, but Cummings died in 1954 so it was likely in the early 20th century. Is this the same site or is the “Baby Mummy Cave” mentioned by Blanding residents a nickname for a more local site? If it refers to the Arizona site, were these mummies still in place after over fifty years? Or was the name of the location so evocative that it spurred storytellers to embellish the tale of pothunters by adding a ghoulish detail?

While I don’t have any of the official records from the sting (yet), I haven’t been able to find that detail in any published account of the raids (nor the detail about a driveway lined with metates). Absence isn’t evidence, but maaaan wouldn’t you put a baby mummy in your headline if you could?

In accounts I’ve read, the idea of looting human remains is certainly danced up to: in Craig Childs’ book Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession, he states that while the government informant and looters definitely disturbed burial sites and human remains (itself a grave and troubling insult to human dignity), they replaced and reburied the remains. Pots, jewelry and other attractive items were the desire: not (at least solely or consciously) the crass ownership of body parts. Other accounts repeat variations on this story: uncovering a burial site looking for valuables, then recovering the remains.

Childs’ book recounts the most specific anecdote about the cave and an actual baby mummy. He reports that he spoke with Blanding-area archaeologist Winston Hurst near the “Baby Mummy Cave,” and that Hurst said that he had personally handled the mummified remains of an infant that had been scattered by scavengers after looters desecrated the area. Hurst said that he reburied the body on site.

This desecration would seem like a serious enough crime, but storytellers the world around know how to spice up a tale. Or maybe it’s true, and the detail was not recorded because it was legally unproven or even that other authors were too squeamish to repeat such a travesty.

I’d like to find out the truth about this one piece of the story. I don’t think it will resolve any of the questions surrounding the raid or the complicated ethics of archaeology but, I suppose, it plays into my curiosity about how people build stories and folklore.

Did someone have a baby mummy on their coffee table? Would that make them morally worse than me, who has a human femur from a medical skeleton (such skeletons being largely that of impoverished men and women from India). Or worse than museum collections that hold human remains looted from Egypt during colonial times? Or the Smithsonian, which stores thousands of ancient Native American bodies against the wishes of tribal authorities?

There’s also a whole philosophical realm that lies at the heart of the case, about the nature of history and ownership and physical relics themselves. There are some complicated presumptions of value on each side, including two kind of nigh-religious beliefs: some pothunters seem to believe that a sense of personal connection to the region and ancient peoples somehow excuses their behavior. Some archaeologists also have a deep faith in the archaeological record and how science should come first: looting and removing artifacts without archaeological study and technique is said to destroy their scientific value. I should also mention that, for the most part, actual living Native Americans are not a part of either belief system.

I’m also fascinated by how concerns about militarized policing, over-prosecution and government overreach are more commonly related to liberal politics, but I feel like those concerns are somewhat ignored or minimized here by some storytellers who are unsympathetic to the arrested folks due to the nature of their crime, and also likely due to their position in society as (largely) privileged white folks. It is definitely worth noting that, while we can compare the overbearing methods of policing here to other instances of repression: none of these defendants was sentenced to time, unlike legions of people of color caught up in the justice system. But, yet, does that make the nature of the police sting any less objectionable? Personally, I can feel my emotions and my logic being gently tugged in different directions when I think about it.

Also tangentially related is famous militiaman Ammon Bundy voicing support for Black Lives Matter movement and advocating for the defunding of police departments, saying ““It was the law enforcement who took my family to prison for two years and lied about almost everything, and it will be the law enforcement that strips this people of their unalienable rights.”

Bundy filmed a video in August 2020, telling his supporters that “you must have a problem in your mind if you believe that Black Lives Matter is more dangerous than the police,” he said.

What to make of this overlap? Is it real or an illusion? Is it a political space that could yield solidarity across race? BUT WAIT WHAT ABOUT THE BABY MUMMIES.

It’s interesting. It’s distracting. There’s plenty to research here: it all adds up to a good story.

Since the first thing I do whenever I research anything is a good Googling, here’s a smattering of news reports. Who’s got an academic database password to loan me??

LA Times, “A Sting in the Desert,” by Joe Mozingo, Sept. 2014

Washington Post, “Pilfered artifacts, three suicides and the struggle over federal land in Utah,” by Kyle Swenson, Dec. 2017

Salt Lake Tribune, “A trove of looted artifacts, five years after BLM raids in Utah,” by Brian Maffley, June 2014

Salt Lake Tribune, “FBI charges 24 in American Indian artifact looting case,” Patty Henetz, June 2009

LA Times, “Federal artifact raids trigger fury in Utah,” by Nicholas Riccardi, June 2009

St. George Spectrum, “Perspectives: What would it take to stir our sense of injustice?” by Bryan Hyde, June 2018

Aspen Times/Associated Press, “A Utah town’s love of Indian artifacts backfires,” Helen O’Neill, Oct. 2009

What a title: The Guardian, “Native American artefacts bring curse of suicides and FBI raids,” Chris McGreal, April 2010

Deseret News, “Blanding artifacts raid raises questions, criticism years later,” Amy Joi O’Donoghue, May 2018

Deseret News, “Report: BLM agent handed out confiscated Moqui marbles ‘like candy’,” Amy Joi O’Donoghue, Aug. 2017

E&E News, “BLM removes top law enforcement official,” Scott Streater, June 2019

Other relevant research links

Apparently Byron Cummings himself was known for the “crudeness of his field methods,” according to this apologia

A really interesting conversation with Winston Hurst, both an archaeologist who opposed pothunting and a Blanding resident who knew many of the arrested people

Record that seems to show a “Baby Mummy Cave” was explored and named by Byron Cummings in or around 1935

Description of archaeology of the Comb Ridge area, which runs from Arizona to Blanding, including a brief mention of a “Baby Mummy Cave”

NPS article on how to assess damage to archaeological resources in legal cases

Some dude’s master’s thesis entitled “Hearts and Minds: Collaborative Approaches to Archaeological Site Preservation”

“Use of the Archaeological Damage Assessment Methodology as an Application of Forensic Archaeology in Criminal and Civil Prosecutions” which I can’t get to grrrrr argh.

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