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The National Parks' Artifacts Cop

Todd Swain protects the cultural artifacts found in our nation's parklands.

Todd Swain, National Parks' artifacts cop, image
Photo credit
Photo: Todd Bigelow Photography
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Todd Swain stays anonymous to bust artifact thieves in our national parks.

Every year, thieves turn our national parks into crime scenes, looting them of ancient arrowheads and spear points, shards of shattered pottery, pictographs and petroglyphs, and other irreplaceable treasures. Todd Swain, the park service’s only full-time cultural artifacts cop, is the man whose job it is to stop them.

Q Is it tough to catch a thief ? A In the national parks, we’re talking roughly one ranger for every 56,000 acres of land. Throw in all the other tasks they have, from responding to accidents to conducting searches, and the odds of catching someone in the act are very slim.

Q Just how big a problem is this? A Since 1996, there have been more than 6,300 documented incidents of looting on park service land. That comes to something like one a day.

Q Why protect an arrowhead? A These are nonrenewable resources. Archaeologists study the relationship of that projectile point or that pictograph to the entirety of the site to get a more complete picture of a culture. Once those objects are taken, that jigsaw puzzle they’re trying to piece together is destroyed.

Q Is it common to find artifacts? A What we call the United States has been populated for at least 15,000 years. A lot of people have come and gone, and physical evidence of those people is still out there. The objects are considered extremely sacred, and yet every year people mess with them. That’s a bad thing to do, karmically, and to the Native Americans in particular.

Q If I find an arrowhead or shard? A Just leave it alone. If an artifact is certain to be destroyed or damaged where it is, you could consider moving it, just out of harm’s way.

Q Don’t some people take them? A In our parks, you can’t take rocks or dirt or feathers—those belong to all of us. Some folks justify taking an item on those grounds, but they’re depriving others of the chance to see that thing in its place.

This article was first published in July 2013. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.