Plundering the Past: The Looting of Antiquities Has a History as Old as the Antiquities Themselves, but Political Instability and Rising Prices Have Seen a Surge in Thefts in Recent Years. until Now, Efforts Have Focused on Stopping the Trade, but Now Archaeogist Are Borrowing Ideas from the Wildlife Conservation Movement in an Attempt to Get to the Root of the Problem

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With an estimated 30,000 religious and historic monuments stretching back thousands of years. S ri Lanka has one of the world's richest records of cultural heritage. Most glorious among these is the ancient Sinhalese city of Anuradhapura, the island's capital from the fourth century BC to the 11th century AD. Among its palaces, monasteries, stupas and statues were some of the greatest buildings of the ancient world. Even today, its Jetavanaramaya dagoba, built in the third century AD, remains the world's tallest brick building.

Having prospered for almost 1,500 years, the city was abandoned in 1017 when it was overrun by Chela forces from South India. It was subsequently hidden away in dense jungle for hundreds of years, until renovations and excavations began during the 19th century.

Now, however, Anuradhapura is under attack once more. A recent survey byl archaelogists from the universities of Durham and Kelaniva has recorded an outbreak of looting around the city. Ancient Buddhist material has become fashionable on the international antiquities market, it seems, and the value of such items has gone through the roof. All over Sri Lanka, ancient religious monuments are under threat. And not even the country's most treasured historic site is being spared.

From the Ark of the Covenant to the Elgin Marbles, the theft of antiquities is one of history's oldest controversies, During the past 50 years, however, the level of looting and illegal excavations of archaeological sites has increased sharply. Demand in the West from museums and private collectors has seen prices soar, even more so since such items have become fashionable in interior design.

For those in search of a quick buck, digging an old tomb or backing the head off a statue is an easy way to a small fortune, particularly now that mechanical bulldozers, diggers, chainsaws and dynamite have replaced the shovel and the pickaxe in many parts of the world. The trade in antiquities has become so lucrative that there is now a well-organised network of smugglers and dealers who traffic this material around the world, often alongside drugs, arms and people.

Recently, the campaign against the illegal trade in antiquities has won a number of significant battles. In Italy, one of the world's best known dealers has been convicted of trafficking hi stolen archaeological material, while in the USA, one of the world's most prominent art museums has been forced to return two of its most prized artefacts. All over the world, emboldened governments are expected to launch claims against what they perceive to be the theft of their countries' national heritage.

Yet, despite such developments, at source, the scale of looting continues to grow. Indeed, the situation is now so desperate that there the fears that we may soon lose forever the opportunity to learn about some of the world's inert important cultures and civilisations.

There may still be hope, however. In a few isolated cases, archaeologists have been able to significantly reduce levels of looting by adopting a strategy inspired by wildlife conservation. Indeed, so successful has this been that several prominent archaeologists are now calling for their fellow professionals to re-evaluate the concept of conservation and for institutions such as the World Bank and the EU to recognise that the theft is not only destroying cultural heritage but threatening the future economic security of many of the world's poorest nations.

Condemned to obscurity

Few cultures have escaped the plunder. Although there is little accurate information, it's clear that a taste for exotic material in the West has caused looting to spread since the Second World War from its traditional bases in Egypt, Greece, Italy and Turkey to Africa, Asia and South America.

The ongoing looting has led to increasingly fractious debate among governments, museums, archaeologists and antiquities dealers. …