This blog covers a range of cultural heritage issues, but is most concerned with the issue of looting. Looting, the illegal digging and trafficking of unscientifically excavated and commercially exploited cultural artifacts, is as old as civilization itself. But in the last century, it has become an increasingly widespread and industrialized business as the demand for beautiful antiquities has risen. Now, countless archaeological sites around the world are destroyed in part or in whole every day as looters blow through layers of valuable archaeological context to reach the finest, most expensive pieces.
|The looted site of Umma Al Akrab in 2003.|
Modern-day looting is destructive not only to the pieces themselves, but to
- The archaeological context of the site: archaeologists rely on the stratification of the soil, fragile organic materials, and the placement of artifacts to reconstruct the context of the site they excavate. When this context is disturbed or destroyed and the artifacts are disrupted or removed entirely, the history of the site is erased and precious information about our human past is lost forever.
- The communities who live near these sites: many artifacts on the black market often come from impoverished areas, where communities see looting as a means to feed their families. Though it may feed them temporarily, mining this nonrenewable resource both drains the resource and deprives the community of the opportunity to capitalize on this resource in more sustainable and economical ways.
- The safety of our society: art crime, which includes looting, forgery, and theft of known works, is the third highest grossing criminal enterprise in the world behind drugs and arms trafficking. Just how much money it brings in annually is debated, but the trafficking system for cultural artifacts is very similar to and often intersects with drugs and arms trafficking.
This system through which artifacts are trafficked is an international structure that looks (very simplistically) something like this:
Looters are often blue collar or impoverished workers from “origin” countries that dig for valuable objects, often in organized groups. Just how organized these groups are varies from small, less formal groups that do not loot regularly but often stumble across pieces through farming or herding, to regionally organized troops that loot on a nightly basis and have working relationships with certain high-profile dealers. Looters typically loot at night, but in more war-torn or less populous areas, they loot uninhibited in the daytime as well. Looters sell their discoveries for just a fraction of what they are ultimately sold for by dealers, thereby benefiting very little from the larger market.
|Famous dealer Giacomo Medici|
Dealers, in very simple terms, are individuals that buy artifacts from looters and sell them to buyers. The scale on which they operate varies from regional to international, and there are often multiple dealers involved in the journey of an object from the ground to an auction house.
Buyers of looted artifacts can be just about anyone from tourists buying “trinkets” to auction houses to major collectors of art to museums to interior decorators. Some of these customers buy these artifacts in ignorance of their origins, some buy them to “rescue” them from the market, and others buy them solely for their aesthetic beauty without caring about their source. The reasons vary, but all continue to contribute to the market.
In between all of these stages are many other players, from the truck drivers that must be bribed to carry these artifacts across state lines, to the forgers of provenance histories, to the corrupt authorities that are often in on the trade itself.
|Polaroid of a looted statue|
In short, the illicit trafficking of antiquities harms everyone involved, from the looters who sell out the opportunity to capitalize on their region’s cultural heritage in a sustainable and safe way, to the rest of us, who lose out on countless parts of our human past so the 1% can use it to decorate their coffee tables. The archaeological sites that inform our understanding of our world history are a nonrenewable resource, and their continued destruction will mean the loss of our humanity’s history.
Studying and combatting the illicit antiquities trade is an interdisciplinary affair that seeks not only to save evidence of our human past, but to build capacity in origin communities to preserve and profit from cultural sites, which helps to prevent violent and nonviolent crime associated with the trade, which bolsters local, regional, and, ultimately, global economies.