Decades’ worth of loot

Officials find thousands of artifacts thought to have been illegally excavated from Lake Oroville

Aaron Wright, a State Parks superintendent overseeing Lake Oroville, stands on site with tools confiscated from a looter.

Aaron Wright, a State Parks superintendent overseeing Lake Oroville, stands on site with tools confiscated from a looter.

CN&R File photo by meredith J. Graham

When it comes to archaeological history, Lake Oroville is full of it. And despite the influx of rain lately, the water level has been exceptionally low this year, exposing acres of sensitive sites that are difficult to patrol and protect from looters.

That became apparent last week, when California State Parks rangers and the Butte County District Attorney’s Office served a search warrant on a Feather Falls-area home and found thousands of artifacts believed to have been gathered from Lake Oroville over a period of 20 years. They allegedly caught the man in the act of looting in late November and built a case around evidence obtained at that time, according to a State Parks press release.

“We know these cases are out there, but this is one of the larger ones I’ve seen in forever,” said Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey. “There were a number of rather nice pieces of history and we can’t have those pieces of history, of tribal culture, being stolen from the public and from the local tribal folks.”

Among the artifacts seized during the search were a large number of Native American arrowheads. When Lake Oroville was created in the 1960s, it took over a landscape rich in Native American and early settler history. Many sites of cultural significance lie under water most years, and when the water recedes they become vulnerable. One of the main problems with taking archaeological or historical items from such sites is that it takes them out of context, eliminating the ability to study or appreciate them as they were left.

Officials found thousands of artifacts in a Feather Falls man’s home. Among them were a large number of arrowheads, including these.

photo courtesy of State Parks

“It will … help protect and deter others from taking these resources, preserving them for all Californians and future generations, to experience seeing these types of items in their natural setting,” Aaron Wright, a State Parks superintendent overseeing Lake Oroville, said in an email. “It will allow archeologists to study these artifacts in context, which will allow better understanding and meaning of the cultures that put them there.”

The alleged looter, who has yet to be identified because of the ongoing investigation, was cited by State Parks rangers when he was caught in November, Ramsey confirmed. The suspect will face criminal charges as well, he said, but he wasn’t able to give further information as of press time. He did indicate that the man was being “extraordinarily cooperative,” going so far as to offer up additional artifacts not being kept in his home. Ramsey said the man also told investigators when and where he’d found the items.

“He indicated to the rangers that he started to feel as if a burden was being lifted from his shoulders,” Ramsey said.

The California penal code has several provisions prohibiting the disturbance of sensitive sites. One states that, “No person shall remove, injure, disfigure, deface, or destroy any object of archaeological, or historical interest or value.” The charges are misdemeanors and can result in a fine of up to $10,000 and a year in jail.

Unfortunately, Wright said, he rarely sees people actually prosecuted for these so-called “resource crimes.” Ramsey countered that his office prosecutes these types of crimes “every time we have evidence.”

The seized artifacts are currently being held pending the outcome of the investigation and charges. Ultimately, they likely will be turned over to the Department of Water Resources, Ramsey said, before being returned to local tribes.

“It’s a cultural and resource crime,” Ramsey said. “I consider it a crime against history.”