Ohio Archaeological Sites Lack Protection; Open to Scavengers

By Ohio law, abandoned cemeteries, unmarked burial and grave sites over 125 years old, or burial ground that’s located on private property remain unprotected. Anyone with a shovel can dig up remains and artifacts.

While it is against the law to sell these found ancient artifacts (although it’s only classified as a minor misdemeanor) it’s not illegal to possess them or dig them up from these unprotected ancient sites. The remains and artifacts could have potentially important historical significance. They are often thousands of years old, and provide a vital look into both Ohio and human history.

One such incident of grave-robbing occurred in late November of 2012 when two brothers, Brian and David Skeens, and an uncharged third accomplice set out to dismantle a burial ground that had remained undisturbed for over 4,000 years. The three men dug a hole the size of a car through the rock and rubble, and took the remains of the two ancient Native American women and six children that were buried there. They also seized any artifacts that were buried with the Native Ohioans and fled the scene.

They sold what they had taken from the ancient burial site to Mark M. Beatty, 56, of Wellston in Jackson County who was an amateur collector of ancient artifacts. Beatty paid between $4,000 and $4,500 for the artifacts that the Skeens brothers stole from the Native American tomb. All three men were caught, charged with trafficking, and pleaded guilty to the charges in the U.S. District Court in Columbus. The crimes are only considered misdemeanors, so they’ll likely only face three years probation.

The three are also ordered to pay $1,000 to the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma to finance a reburial of the remains of the two Native American women and six children they exhumed. The remains will be reburied in an undisclosed Ohio location.

This case remains significant because it remains only one of just a handful of criminally prosecuted incidences of Native American grave robbery nationwide under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1998. The case has also been pointed to as an example of why Ohio laws protecting archaeological sites need to be strengthened.

According to state archaeologist Amy Johnson, there were similar incidences of prehistoric grave robbing on a much larger scale in Indiana in the 1980s at the GE Mound in Posen County. Hundreds of sites were looted for remains and valuable artifacts. But unlike in Ohio, Johnson said it, “caused public outrage” throughout the state of Indiana.

Jarrod Burks, director of archaeological geophysics for the consulting firm Ohio Valley Archaeology speculates that the lack of concern displayed by many Ohioans may come from a lack of a sense of connection to the state’s Native American founders. There’s also no federally recognized seat of tribal government in the state of Ohio to speak out against the crimes.

“I bet, if people started looting our pioneer cemeteries, folks would have something to say about it. For a lot of us, it’s not our history we’re trampling on, it’s someone else’s history,” said Burks.