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Stolen from US history: its artifacts

Looters are taking mementos and other valuable relics at the rate of $500 million a year.

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In Italy, they are called tombaroli - tomb raiders - and punished with decade-long jail sentences and million-dollar fines.

In America, they plunder virtually unnoticed, stripping parks and historical sites of their cultural bounty without fear of getting caught.

Indeed, US officials say the brazen looting of ancient native-American artifacts, Civil War mementos, and other valuable relics is reaching epidemic proportions. In any given year, cultural thieves make off with $500 million in relics, the FBI estimates. On National Park Service land alone, they strike on average once a day.

"This is on a scale where it's radically affecting our ability to understand the past," says Martin McAllister, an independent archaeologist who has investigated over 200 damaged sites for state and federal departments. "We're talking a multimillion-dollar criminal enterprise here."

Victories against theft

Now, federal agencies, including the FBI's Art Crime Team, are beginning to score some victories against cultural theft.

Last year, a dozen cases were successfully prosecuted under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, a 1979 law that bans the removal and sale of artifacts from public land. In Georgia, a judge sentenced Terry Crawford to 21 months in prison for stealing Civil War bullets from Chickamauga Battlefield. In Colorado, Robert Hanson, was sentenced to 24 months in prison for receiving and transporting Pueblo artifacts dating from 1200, including funeral objects, bowls, and tools.

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