Huaqueros and Remote Sensing Imagery: Assessing Looting Damage in the Viru Valley, Peru

By Contreras, Daniel A. | Antiquity, June 2010 | Go to article overview
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Huaqueros and Remote Sensing Imagery: Assessing Looting Damage in the Viru Valley, Peru

Contreras, Daniel A., Antiquity



Archaeologists, conservationists, and a variety of other stakeholders, now recognise the market-driven looting of archaeological sites as a global problem, but solutions remain elusive and even describing the problem in detail is notoriously difficult (Brodie et al. 2001; Brodie & Renfrew 2005). However, a handful of studies (e.g. Van Ess et al. 2006; Hritz 2008; Stone 2008a & b) have demonstrated that descriptive information about looting damage can be obtained from high-resolution remote sensing imagery, which offers a means of identifying and quantifying site damage without time-consuming and expensive site visits. In a recent application in Jordan, Neil Brodie and I have argued that Google Earth represents a potent new tool, useful for addressing the scale of looting damage to archaeological sites (Contreras & Brodie in press), though problems of coverage, appropriate resolution and surface visibility remain (see Beck 2006; Ur 2006; Scollar & Palmer 2008; Parcak 2009). In the case of Peru, addressed here, I will show that the use of Google Earth imagery to locate and quantify looting damage can both address the difficulty of describing the looting of archaeological sites and contribute to the improved interpretation of archaeological settlement patterns. Using the Viru Valley as a case study, this paper demonstrates that attention to looting is important for archaeologists both as an ethical imperative of stewardship and as a practical imperative of research into past lifeways.

The Viru Valley, on Peru's north coast, entered the archaeological lexicon as a result of the pioneering work of the Viru Valley Survey in 1946-47. Inspired by Julian Steward's vision of research that could encompass cultural adaption to a particular ecological setting over the long term, the members of the project chose the Viru Valley as their analytical unit and divided the investigative responsibilities, focusing primarily but not exclusively on Viru's archaeological aspects. The valley was selected due to its manageable scale for intensive study and existing framework of archaeological research (Willey 1953; Billman & Feinman 1999).

Three key contributions result from revisiting the Viru Valley in the present study. Firstly, the quantification of damage from looting allows the first reliable estimates of the extent of such damage, as well as making the assessment of patterns of looting behaviour possible (e.g. preferential targeting of certain kinds of sites). Secondly, the availability of Peruvian Servicio Aerografico Nacional aerial photographs of much of the Viru Valley, dating to the 1950s and 1990s, makes it possible to estimate the time period in which looting occurred, shedding light on the antiquity and growth of looting behaviour in Viru. Thirdly, the extents and locations of looted areas in Viru provide a valuable comparator for the settlement pattern data generated by the Viru Valley Survey, enabling an analysis of the thoroughness with which the survey was able to locate and describe sites. In addition, they suggest that looting damage may have significant potential as an archaeological research resource as well as a heritage management necessity.


Looting--known locally as huaqueo, after the Quechua term huaca, meaning (loosely) sacred place or object--is a widespread problem in Peru and one which has a long history. Huaqueo has resulted in extensive damage to Peruvian archaeological sites (Shimada 1981; Alva 2001; Church & Morales Gamarra 2004; Atwood 2007) and is clearly tied to the international market in illicit antiquities (Nagin 1990; Elia 1997; Atwood 2003, 2004). Many accounts make it abundantly clear that looting is pervasive in Peru generally (e.g. Nagin 1990; Kirkpatrick 1992; Alva 2001; Silverman 2006; Higueras 2008), and has a long history (e.g. Zevallos Quinones 1994; Ramirez 1996). Looting dates at least as far back as the Spanish colonial grants of mining concessions for exploitation of the precious metals associated with elite burials in coastal huacas and continued throughout the colonial period (Fernandez Villegas 1990; Ramirez 1996:121-51) and up through the twentieth century (Zevallos Quinones 1994).

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Huaqueros and Remote Sensing Imagery: Assessing Looting Damage in the Viru Valley, Peru


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