Aerial View of Slack Farm Shortly After the Looting was Halted.
December 19, 1987 was not only my 36th birthday, but it also was the day I first set foot on the Slack Farm site (15Un28) in Union County, Kentucky. I was then into my fifth year as a staff archaeologist with the Kentucky Heritage Council. Sergeant Miles Hart of the Kentucky State Police met Dr. David Wolf, the state forensic anthropologist, and I at the Henderson County airport and we drove out to the site. It was a cold, dreary, windy day. It was one of the few times in my life that I have welcomed a cup of hot coffee.
As we wandered from hole to hole, the scale of destruction and the number of graves the looters had desecrated really hit me. I had visited and documented looted sites before, but I had never seen looting of this scale and intensity. There were human remains everywhere. Skulls sat on top of backdirt piles, and the remains of infants and children were scattered about the surface. I recall one of the state police officers saying “even if looting graves in Kentucky is not against the law, it certainly is immoral.”
Eventually, we turned to the work at hand, doing our best to conduct a preliminary damage assessment, taking photographs and collecting evidence. At the end of our visit, we had sufficient evidence to charge the looters with 34 counts of grave desecration.
In 1988, it was only a misdemeanor to disturb graves in Kentucky. But at least in Kentucky, a grave was considered any place where someone was buried — marked or unmarked, regardless of biological or ethnic affiliation, it didn’t matter. In neighboring states, in the late 1980s, it was not illegal to disturb unmarked graves. And in some states, even if marked, graves older than a certain date that were not located in a perpetual-care cemetery deserved no protection. The sobering truth was that in 1987, across the Ohio River in nearby Indiana and Illinois, and in most other states, what the looters did at Slack Farm would not have been illegal.
Because of Slack Farm, in 1988, Governor Wilkinson and the Kentucky Legislature strengthened Kentucky’s laws dealing with the protection of cemeteries. It is now a felony to loot or disturb human remains.
Other states soon followed Kentucky’s lead. The scale of destruction, the publicity, and the Native American outcry raised peoples’ awareness of the looting of Indian burial grounds and archaeological sites — in Henderson and Union counties and across the river in Evansville, Indiana; throughout the Ohio Valley; and across the nation. Indiana, in particular, passed legislation that not only made it illegal to desecrate historic and Native American graves, but protected archaeological sites on private property. Unfortunately, similar efforts in Kentucky to protect archaeological sites were not as successful.
I believe that the publicity and public outcry surrounding Slack Farm contributed to the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990. Controversial at the outset, NAGPRA has opened channels of communication between archaeologists and Native peoples on an unprecedented scale.
With the looters formally charged, Slack Farm was now a crime scene. The State needed to collect additional evidence from the site to continue with criminal proceedings against the looters. Specifically, it needed to determine how many Native American graves had been desecrated. By February of 1988, working with Cheryl Ann Munson of Indiana University and David Morgan, the State Historic Preservation Officer, we formulated a plan of how to proceed.
As capable as our crew of five professional archaeologists was, however, we recognized that if they were going to document more 450 looter holes and associated back dirtpiles in less than three months, they would need help. So the call went out for volunteers. Fortunately for us, some 500 people (the general public and professional archaeologists) responded. Others helped in the University of Kentucky Archaeology Laboratory. And so was born “Wednesday Wash Nights.” For more than four years, a dedicated groups of volunteers helped process the hundreds of thousands of artifacts recovered from Slack Farm
Archaeologists and Volunteers Documenting Looter Holes.
There are those who think that Slack Farm has been totally destroyed. Though the looters did severely impact the cemeteries, much of the village remains. I would estimate that about ninety present of the site is still intact, and hopefully, some day, the site will be acquired by The Archaeological Conservancy and preserved for future generations.
Ceramics and Animal Bone Discarded by the Looters.
Stay Tuned for next year to read more on what we learned!
By: David Pollack
Director, Kentucky Archaeological Survey