ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Working in secret, federal archaeologists have dug up the remains of dozens of soldiers and children near a Civil War-era fort after an informant tipped them off about widespread grave-looting.
The exhumations, conducted from August to October, removed 67 skeletons from the parched desert soil around Fort Craig — 39 men, two women and 26 infants and children, according to two federal archaeologists who helped with the dig.
They also found scores of empty graves and determined 20 had been looted.
The government kept its exhumation of the unmarked cemetery near the historic New Mexico fort out of the public's eye for months to prevent more thefts.
The investigation began in 2004 with a tip about an amateur historian who had displayed the mummified remains of a black soldier, draped in a Civil War-era uniform, in his house.
A lack of funding and various federal procedures delayed the excavation until last summer.
Investigators say the historian, Dee Brecheisen, may have been a prolific looter who spotted historical sites from his plane. Brecheisen died in 2004, and although it was not clear whether the looting continued after his death, authorities exhumed the unprotected site to prevent future thefts.
"As an archaeologist, you want to leave a site in place for preservation … but we couldn't do that because it could be looted again," said Jeffery Hanson of the Bureau of Reclamation.
Authorities also found some Civil War and American Indian artifacts in Brecheisen's home, but the display rooms that showcased his collections had already been emptied and auctioned off by his family after his death, Hanson said. It wasn't clear whether Brecheisen sold any items.
The criminal case against Brecheisen was closed upon his death, and there are no plans to investigate his family members.
The remains are being studied by Bureau of Reclamation scientists, who are piecing together information on their identities. They will be reburied at other national cemeteries.