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Colorado, Montezuma County, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. The Great Kiva at Lowry Pueblo. Source: Dominic / Adobe Stock

Canyons of the Ancients Artifacts Thief Goes to Jail


Canyons of the Ancients, in southwestern Colorado state, is the Holy Grail of American archaeology with the largest number of archaeological sites dating back over 10,000 years. This week, The Journal reported that the American Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is honoring the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument's 20-year anniversary. However, CBS has also reported this week that a Colorado man, Lonnie Winbourn, 57, from Cortez Colorado, has been sentenced to over a year in prison for stealing artifacts from the site.

Canyons of the Ancients: Ancient Archaeology Treasure Chest

Situated in the Four Corners area of southwestern Colorado, about 45 miles west of Durango, near Cortez and Mesa Verde National Park, the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument contains more than 30,000 well-preserved native American sites. The Southwest Colorado Canyons Alliance website says the “76,000-acre monument” was designated on June 9, 2000 by Presidential Proclamation to protect cultural and natural resources on a landscape scale,” but according to the BLM it belongs to a “32 million acre” archaeological zone.

The ancient monument area has been inhabited by humans, including the Northern Ancestral Puebloan culture, for at least 10,000 years, and this timeworn landscape is still used by humans today for hunting, livestock grazing and energy development. More than 20,000 sites have been identified. At least 6,000 distinct structures have been found in the national monument and the vast majority of stone structures are from the Ancient Puebloans era. From building basic pit style structures, the Puebloans evolved to building villages with cliff dwellings including sweat lodges, kivas and shrines covered in petroglyphs and pictographs.

Puebloan cliff dwelling at the Canyons of the Ancients (Bureau of Land Management / Public domain)

Puebloan cliff dwelling at the Canyons of the Ancients (Bureau of Land Management / Public domain)

Together, this massive ancient archaeology zone offers highly textured information about how indigenous groups interacted with the environment and with each other. Marvin Lalo, from the Hopi Tribe, told CBS, “We know that there is still a presence here” and that when the ancients moved, “they left the buildings for a purpose.”

Treasure-hunting Thief Arrested in the Monument Area in 2017

Lonnie Winbourn was arrested on June 4, 2017 by a BLM ranger. Initially, the ranger found stolen pottery shards in Winbourn’s pocket. Then the now-convicted thief admitted to the ranger that he had more ancient artifacts stashed in his backpack. In total, “64 items” from the Ancestral Puebloan Period were found in his possession including “jewelry, an axe head, and other tools.”

Kiva, a religious and ceremonial room of Puebloans, in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, USA (By Natalia Bratslavsky / Adobe Stock)

Winbourn made several treasure hunting trips to the Canyons of the Ancients in May and June 2017 where he “located an Ancestral Puebloan ceremonial site with a large dance plaza, a likely subterranean kiva, and multiple human burials,” according to CBS.  The investigators said Winbourn illegally “excavated, removed, damaged, and altered the site,” and U.S. Attorney Jason Dunn said, “Anyone who seeks to destroy or profit off of these resources will face prosecution and serious consequences.”

Assistant special agent-in-charge, Randall Carpenter, from the BLM Office of Law Enforcement said, “we as a society must recognize the importance of respecting all cultures; including those artifacts representing cultural resources of Native Americans”. He also added that archaeologists have now restored the original items and curated the stolen objects from the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.

Vandalism and theft at ancient archaeological sites like the Monument are not new or uncommon. In 2017, I wrote an Ancient Origins article about a U.S. archaeologist who claimed Arizona State Parks and Trails officials “deliberately destroyed Native American antiquity sites” during construction activity at Lake Havasu State Park”. New restroom facilities and a dozen beachfront cabins were estimated to bring in around 500,000 visitors per year. However, according to former Parks and Trails compliance officer and tribal liaison Will Russell, who resigned from the agency in protest, the agency “proceeded with construction, without consulting the tribes”.

Archaeological Site Developments Are Really National Crimes

According to Will Russell, ancestral Native American antiquities existed in the Havasu region before the construction of Parker Dam in 1938, and native trails still exist along Havasu s present waterline. Moreover, the entire landscape is peppered with geoglyphs and stone blocks once used by natives to make tools, and these were among the antiquities damaged in the state park s commercial construction projects.

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in Colorado (Bureau  of Land Management / Public domain)

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in Colorado (Bureau  of Land Management / Public domain)

The agency’s core mission, according to archaeologist Russell, is to protect and preserve natural and cultural resources,” but he says they “aren't doing any of that” and that what’s really important at the site is the building of cabins to “make money.” According to an article in the Arizona Central, under Parks Director Sue Black s direction, the agency has “destroyed several archaeological sites”. According to an agency memo Russell wrote, “two ancient stone tools were disregarded at a 12,000-year-old archaeological site causing irreversible damage.”

These sites are especially important to Native American culture, Russell said, and Parks Director Susan Black “was hiding them.” And while Lonnie Winbourn was rightfully sentenced to a year behind bars, the same cannot be said for Susan Black, who after this incident was given a 9 percent pay rise to $175,000 per annum, while her predecessor was paid $136,000.

Top Image: Colorado, Montezuma County, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. The Great Kiva at Lowry Pueblo. Source: Dominic / Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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