Yankees and Red Sox. Superman and Lex Luthor. Hatfields and McCoys. Archaeologists and looters? Sworn enemies constantly at battle, fighting as if their very existence depended on it. The war on looting is an unending struggle, but is it just an example of a”First World Problem”?
First of all, I would like to mention that I DO NOT SUPPORT, IN ANY WAY, THE SENSELESS DESTRUCTION OF CULTURAL HERITAGE. However, I do not feel it is necessarily right for archaeologists, particularly foreigners, to chastise local communities for bulldozing an ancient site in order to build a road or to construct additional housing. Archaeology is a discipline facilitated by a lifestyle of luxury. In other words, the relative wealth of First World countries allows us to travel to far away places to investigate and conserve the past of others for the sake of all. Communities here in Peru, for example, have not been afforded that luxury to be able to visit other nations in order to warn them about the perils of looting. Therefore, doesn’t it seem as though arguing about the boundaries of an archaeological site is trivial when a few potsherds stand in the way of progress? What will have more of a positive impact on a community: a hospital or a ceremonial mound?
The situation is of course more complicated than it is laid out here. Economics, ideology, power, and religion are just a few factors that impact why people loot archaeological sites and why some are opposed to it. Think of the recent media hoopla over Yale University’s recent return of the Machu Picchu materials to Peru (which were mostly study collections and not museum pieces by the way) or the decades long back-and-forth over the Elgin Marbles. Having worked here in Peru for over 5 years now I have been privy to looting. The impact is readily apparent to those who study such things, but I often ask local people why do they not stop the looting if they’re aware that it’s going on. Often, they just don’t care. In a country with a rich history of colonization like Peru, individuals sometimes obtain a degree of status by distancing themselves from the ancient, “indigenous” history (conveniently ignoring the fact that they all probably have some “native” ancestry). Thus it seems to me that if I am the only who cares, then maybe looting is a First World Problem.
Journalists such as Roger Atwood have talked about what steps can be taken to prevent looting and organizations are actively trying to Save Antiquities for Everyone (SAFE). Closer to home there has been considerable backlash over the Spike TV program “American Diggers.” But perhaps rather than just saying “no” we should perhaps try to make archaeology possible. Educate communities about the importance of history, their history, and attempt to bridge that gap between the Third and First Worlds in order to make archaeology a possibility and looting unprofitable. In fact, the only individuals who profit from the sale of looted antiquities are the art dealers in the United States and Europe anyway!
Nevertheless, I think that people will continue to dig holes in the middle of the night trying to strike it rich. Communities will continue to make under the table deals to mining companies allowing them to dig up sites for construction material. All the while I will continue to stick my nose up at them. Or maybe, just maybe, what I am doing is a form of “pseudo-looting,” dictating to others how their history should be explored, preserved, and shared. Well, I wouldn’t be too opposed to being that type of “looter.” After all, that’s all he ever did!