Looters Plunder African Antiquities as Demand Soars

Article excerpt

Those of us who are not trained in the field of archaeology but are concerned with the preservation of ancestral origins cannot help expressing outrage at the atrocities being committed today on the African continent and by extension on all of us. Illegal excavation of archaeological sites throughout Africa and the illicit trafficking of her cultural treasures is wounding the African soul, severing present and future generations from their ancestral ties. The destruction or some such devastation of a people's cultural heritage by plundering sites of ancient civilizations and looting precious relics is not just about creating wealth, making a quick dollar, or trading antiquities for the basic needs of food and shelter, it is also a question of power. The power that comes from possession and wealth and the powerlessness of living a meager existence continue to drive a wave of smuggling activity of Africa's cultural treasures at the expense of higher universal values of cultural pride, beauty, and spiritual connections to the past.

Private collectors, art dealers and galleries, museums, and auctioning houses around the world-including such notables as the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, and the Museum of Natural History, Sotheby's, and Christie's in New York-have been direct or indirect parties to the growing demand for African antiquities, sparking a run on Africa's ancestral connections. Those with wealth and power or the means to cash in on the profits are banking on Africa's wide expanses of archaeological virgin lands to create a steady investment stream of inflation-proof material. Africans seeking to cash in on the trade, and those without sufficient means to feed their families are also banking on continued interest in the archaeological riches of their land. And what is lost in the process of this supply and demand cycle? Often, the spiritual essence of our ancestors is lost, including the objects representing their religious, social, political, and economic thoughts. What a horror to think that so much of this has been lost already and that all of it could be lost forever.

Seeking material gain at the expense of spiritual gain is not a new phenomenon, neither in the political and economic history of the world, nor in the field of archaeology. In the 1980s, archaeological projects revealed destruction and looting of the Feathered Serpent Pyramid in Teotihuacan, Mexico, dated back to preColumbian time. In the nineteenth century, Ethiopian artifacts were taken from the country at the direction of the British Museum by British soldiers following a military raid. Just recently, a stockpile of at least 30,000 Native American artifacts were discovered in the home of an Oregon couple. The artifacts were identified as part of a burial ground along the Columbia River. When ancestral sites are pillaged, this not only means artifacts are stolen, but also the archaeological integrity of the sites is destroyed, limiting the study of a people's cultural heritage in the context in which the remains are discovered.

Public awareness and international embarrassment have been important steps over the last several decades and have produced some gains in the eradication of these atrocities. The African situation was addressed by the UNESCO conventions in 1970, setting in motion numerous attempts at national and international levels to stem the tide of clandestine plundering of sites and looting of priceless cultural artifacts in African countries. In 1971, Zaire passed a law banning exportation of cultural property. Mali followed in 1985 with similar laws and a successful request to the United States to ban the importation of cultural objects illegally taken from its borders. In 1990, the International Committee of Museums (ICOM) published a Code of Ethics to serve as a guide for directors of museums when they consider buying artifacts of unknown sources. A year later, the AFRICOM Programme continued to articulate the spirit of the ICOM Code of Ethics through a group of projects implemented by museums in Africa between 1993 and 1998. …