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Archaeologists Test Satellite Monitoring Technology to Combat Looting at Ancient Sites

Cindy Carpien

Part of what protects many ancient archaeological sites from looting and vandalism, is that their locations often aren’t widely known. But social media is changing that, easily publicizing sensitive areas with a tweet of Facebook post. In the Verde Valley, archaeologists are part of a pilot program to test a new monitoring system they hope will safeguard the area’s more than 2,500 known Sinagua and Yavapai-Apache sites. Arizona Public Radio’s Ryan Heinsius reports.

Looters can be brazen. Ken Zoll knows that. Last year he saw it firsthand when he led a hike to an archaeological site near Oak Creek.

“Somebody came here with shovels, they started digging up right to the edge of the ruin and hoping to find pottery bits and burial goods,” Zoll says. 

Credit Cindy Carpien
A large hole dug by looters on the east side of a cliff that was a Sinagua gravesite in the Verde Valley.

Zoll is the director of the Verde Valley Archaeological Center. He doesn’t know if the vandals took anything because much of what’s there is buried. It’s a Sinagua gravesite dating back more than 1,500 years.

“A lot of times they would bury people on the eastern side to meet the sun as it rose every day. That’s what most pottery hunters are looking for, things that were buried with the bodies,” Zoll says.

Credit Cindy Carpien
Visitors to the site have collected potsherds over the years. Archaeologists say this makes it very difficult to study the artifacts.

The international black market for looted objects is big. In 2009, federal agents seized more than 40,000 stolen artifacts in southern Utah. Sacred Hopi and Navajo items have somehow made it to the auction block in Paris. And a single tweet or Facebook post can easily reveal an arch site. That’s why Zoll and his colleague Scott Newth are installing a high-tech satellite security system at a site in the Verde Valley.

Credit Cindy Carpien
Ken Zoll holds a potsherd likely from the inhabitants of the area who left more than 1,000 years ago.

“Technology has made preservation of these sites even tougher with the Internet. We see things on YouTube and Facebook all the time. Well, here were are taking advantage of technology to help protect these sites,” Newth says.

Credit Cindy Carpien
Verde Valley Archaeological Center Director Ken Zoll (left) and Scott Newth, assistant regional coordinator for the Arizona Site Steward Program, prepare to install the first satellite monitoring system in the Verde Valley. It's part of a pilot project partially funded by a grant from the National Park Service.

The system is based on a design originally created to catch snow leopard poachers in Siberia. It uses concealed metal detectors and motion sensors that send signals to a satellite network when triggered. Newth and Zoll are installing it as a pilot project co-funded by the National Park Service.

Credit Cindy Carpien
The compact system uses a metal detector (housed in the white tube) and a break-beam motion sensor. It sends signals to a satellite network when triggered, which then sends emails or text message alerts to authorities.

“We have the rocks here which are nice to cover the cables without digging,” Newth says.

Right,” Zoll says.

“We’ve got a line of sight to the satellite and this will be a good place for the beam sensor,” Newth says.

They bury a metal detector along a narrow cliff side near an undisclosed site, and make me promise not to reveal the location. The equipment can pick up the motion of a vehicle, a shovel, or even a rifle within 10 feet of where it’s buried

Credit Cindy Carpien
Newth holds a break-beam motion sensor. When activated it sends out an alert in real time that someone, or something, has passed through the area.

The system connects to a satellite. If everything works, Zoll should be able to track movement at the site from his office computer and even his cell phone. He logs on at the Archaeological Center in Camp Verde.

“So, it’s blinking, bouncing. It’s just saying look at me, look at me, look at me!” says Zoll.

A map pops up with an icon in the exact spot where he and Newth just installed the equipment. The launch is successful.

“Wow, it’s really telling us exactly where this thing is. There’s the road right there and then we walked up there. It’s a test, it’s part of a pilot. See what works and what doesn’t work,” Zoll says.

Depending on the outcome of the program, the technology could be used to monitor sites in other places including national parks. It may just give archaeologists and authorities enough of an edge to thwart would-be looters.

Ryan Heinsius was named interim news director and managing editor in January 2024. He joined KNAU's newsroom as an executive producer in 2013. He covers a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a Public Media Journalists Association Award winner, and a frequent contributor to NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and national newscast.
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