On Looting and Relic Hunting

A friend of mine recently posted an article on my Facebook wall talking about the issues of relic hunting.  It was an opinion piece in the New York Times written by an archaeologist and was well worth the read.

The main take-away message is that relic hunting is bad for everyone (except the relic hunter, maybe), because it rips historic artifacts from the context of the site and destroys huge swaths of data and information that we as archaeologists could use to understand and inform others of our own history.  The same is often said of looting.

Relic hunting is a process in which a person or group of people enter an archaeological site and dig up artifacts generally in order to sell them.  Looting is a more general term that basically covers any unsystematic removal of archaeological evidence from the ground.

And here’s the thing: I don’t know where I stand on the matter.  I would say I dislike relic hunting the most, but I can’t sit here and say that it’s completely and utterly wrong.  Looting is an even greyer area that often causes me to spend hours contemplating the motivations behind it.

Many archaeologists will disagree with me on this, but I’m not so certain looting is necessarily bad.

Let me explain my reasoning here.

1) We can’t preserve everything.

We want to try, as archaeologists, to preserve as much as possible.  But if we did that, then where would the people of today live? How could they live if all of their history had to be preserved? I dislike the destruction of ancient sites and artifacts as much as every archaeologist out there, but I also acknowledge that it is impossible to preserve everything.  And so, when it comes to looting, I categorize that under the same uncontrollable destructive forces as erosion, soil acidity, development, and war.  Do I like it? Absolutely not. Can I stop it? No, and even if I could, I have no real right to do so.

2) Looting is relative.

This is a big one for me, and I can only explain it with a few examples.  One of the digs I worked on collaborated with a group of men who had been recovering artifacts from cave sites for roughly five years.  Most archaeologists would call them looters and be upset at what they had done.

Yet, they only took the artifacts because relic hunters from the capital (a 12 hour drive from there) had heard of the riches contained in the caves and were coming to dig up the artifacts, take them back to the capital, and sell them for a high price to foreign tourists and diplomats.  The group of local men we were working with had only begun digging up artifacts so that they could keep these historical pieces of their own culture in their own territory.  They wanted to preserve their culture just as much as we did.  One of them even got a degree in archaeology and was trying to teach the others about systematic excavation.  Since none of them had ever been on a dig before, it was still far below typical archaeological standards.

I wouldn’t call those men looters.  I wouldn’t condemn their actions.  They were trying to preserve their history in the best way they knew how, and it was a valiant and impressive feat.

I have also worked on a dig in which we as an archaeological team excavated, cataloged everything, and brought everything back to the capital city to be housed in a museum.  We never explained to the community what we were doing or what we had found, and the community most likely will never see the artifacts again.

From their perspective, a group of foreigners came, dug up their land, took much of the tangible evidence of their history as a peoples, and left without any explanation or hope of seeing those pieces again.  The chances of that community learning about their own history as it pertained to those artifacts is slim.

Who’s looting now?

So looting, in my mind, is relative.  I can see very good reasons for it (as in my first example) and I can see ways in which people would view archaeologists as not much better (as in my second example).

3) Much looting is done for profit, but much of it is done by curious people wanting to explore lost worlds in the only way they know how.

The group of men in my first example were only trying to preserve their own past, their own culture.  Many people go searching for artifacts not because they want to sell them, but because they want to connect to the past just as much as archaeologists do.  Many “looters” are connecting with the past in the best way they know how.

This will lead to a whole other discussion of the duty of archaeology to be more public about their work, but that is for another blog post.

The point is that many people take artifacts because they are just as curious and just as fascinated by the past as those trained in archaeology.  They just don’t have a more systematic, scientific way of connecting to that past.

4) There are many “looters” who are, in fact, “looting” their own culture and their own history.

When looters take artifacts from their own history and bring them into their homes or schools or libraries or what have you, I really don’t see the issue.  Yes, we’ve lost information that could help us understand that past culture more.  Yet, who gets to decide how we study that culture?  Shouldn’t it be the descendents of that culture?  If they decide that they would like to dig up artifacts and put them in their community for others to explore, then who are we to get angry at them?  Aren’t they the real “owners” of those objects?

(This also gets into another issue of who owns the past, which I will also get to in a later post)

5) If given the choice, I would prefer artifacts and other archaeological finds be seen and enjoyed by the largest number of people.

Education about the past is useless if only a few people ever know about it.  One of the main purposes of archaeology, in my mind, is to bring our knowledge of the past to the rest of the world.  If we never share what we find or we only share it amongst ourselves, then we have failed as a discipline.  If we only ever learned about the past just to learn about the past, then a number of very good friends and professors of mine would say, “What’s the big so what?” “Why?” “What’s the point?”

The point of studying the past, in my mind, is to use that information in the present and future.  There are countless things we could use it for, but the point is to use the information.  In order to do that, we must share it.

Most museums only have about 1% of their collection on display at any given time.  I have spent many hours in many museums and I must say that I play favorites.  Honestly, the absolute best museum I have been in was the Muzium Negara in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  I won’t tell you the worst.

In a well organized museum, like the Muzium Negara, many people come to interact with history and the museum finds different way to encourage that interaction.  They have demonstrations, films, hands-on activities, dioramas, 3D hologram displays (I kid you not), interactive maps, and games for children.  But all of those act as supplemental materials to the real stars of the show, which are the objects and descriptions from the time period.

In a poorly organized museum, people may come to interact with history, but all they see are disintegrating objects sitting on dusty shelves in a display that hasn’t changed in 20 years.  The display tags only say “Eastern Europe, Iron Age, stone,” which is hardly information to go on.  Walking through the museum, you wonder how much preservation it’s actually doing and where they’re funding is really going.

Well organized museums both preserve artifacts and share the information with the rest of the world so people can benefit.  Poorly organized museums arguably do neither. I am definitely in favor of well organized museums.  I am not at all in favor of poorly organized museums.

Of course, where museums actually get all their items for display is yet another issue that will be addressed in yet another post later on.

6) If archaeologists want looting to stop, then we should be more open to amateur archaeology.

Within archaeology, there is such a stigma against people not trained in archaeology digging up artifacts.  Here’s the thing.  We can’t stop people from being curious about the past, and even if we could, we don’t want to.  If we really want people to be more systematic in their search for history, then we should be more open about what our methods are.  We should teach people what to do, give amateur archaeologists a little more credit in the excavation department, and offer advice on ways to dig and record information that help archaeologists get the most out of the material.

And if you are an amateur archaeologist or hobby archaeologist, check out the Archaeology 101 posts and some of the field work opportunities to learn more about how we do things.

So in the end, I don’t condone looting or relic hunting.  I want us as humans to benefit as much as possible from historical data and information and I want that information preserved.  But I see looting as more a problem with archaeology and the manner in which it interacts with the rest of society rather than a problem with non-archaeologists.  If we really want it to stop, then we should work even harder to show the rest of the world what we really do and train those who wish in how to do it well.  We can’t stop looting, but we can steer honest, curious people in a direction that benefits everyone.

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About Heather Christie

Heather is an archaeologist, photographer, and writer whose research focuses on beads and bead trade, particularly in a maritime sense. She's currently working working on a PhD in Digital Design (focusing on heritage visualisation) at the Glasgow School of Art.
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2 Responses to On Looting and Relic Hunting

  1. Mike H. says:

    Huzzah! Well said!

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