Stealing the Past from under Our Feet

By Doole, Jenny | UNESCO Courier, April 2001 | Go to article overview

Stealing the Past from under Our Feet


Doole, Jenny, UNESCO Courier


Driven by an insatiable demand for artefacts, looters are all too often beating archaeologists to ancient sites and snatching our only chance to understand bygone cultures

Because archaeologists don't know where it lies, a major Mayan city in the jungle of Guatemala has simply been nicknamed "Site Q." The site obviously exists, since sections of wall carvings from its temple pyramids have been recognized in private collections and museums around the world. But such pieces are not enough to reconstruct a culture. In those that left no written traces, like the trading society that flourished in Mali some 1,000 years ago, the loss is all the more acute, since archaeology offers our only chance to understand the past (see p. 26). According to estimates, nearly half of Mali's ancient sites have been looted for their beautiful terracotta statues: history is literally disappearing from beneath the people's feet.

Since ancient times, tombs have been robbed and cultural heritage destroyed by treasure hunters. In recent decades, however, demand for collectable and saleable artefacts has become insatiable, and looting of the world's archaeological record has reached epidemic proportions. Developments in technology and communication, combined with sophisticated smuggling networks, have made modern looting an awesomely efficient, global industry. Whole sites are destroyed to recover select items that fetch vast sums in the West, where they may be valued as objects of art, financial investments or interior design.

But antiquities are worth more than this: when properly excavated they offer a window on history. Archaeological sites are a non-renewable resource: they can only be dug once, and the opportunity must be wisely used. When an object is looted, irreplaceable details of its provenance (where it was found) and context (what it was found with) are lost. Such details are crucial if we are to glean information about times past. Looters in South America have described throwing dozens of ancient mummies over cliffs when cutting them open reveals no silver or gold. In doing so, they discard important sources of historical information, like quipu, the knotted strings which the Inca used to record official accounts. Many other materials deemed worthless by looters, such as bones, broken pottery, perishable organic remains and the soil itself, offer invaluable clues on entire cultures. Constantly improving scientific techniques are further enhancing our understanding. Analysis of ancient teeth, for instance, can tell us where individuals spent their childhood, while other human remains can reveal the ingredients of their diets. Shattered skulls can be reconstructed so that we can look into the faces of our ancestors, while DNA studies can establish their relationships with each other and ourselves. Analysis of residues on apparently unremarkable pots proves what and how people were cooking, brewing or manufacturing. With access to undisturbed contexts, archaeologists also gain insights into broader questions relevant to our past, such as when humans first settled down to cultivate the land. Shadows of shard marks have been uncovered in carefully excavated soils from very early contexts, complemented by studies of ancient plant remains. Such details might also be relevant to our future: in England, studies of marine remains in the River Ouse, for instance, have tracked pollution levels over the past 1,900 years.

When we only have unprovenanced material to study, our understanding of ancient peoples is limited and distorted: Peru's pre-Inca Moche culture is a case in point. For decades, scholars struggled to comprehend this advanced civilization on the basis of "art" objects which appeared on the market, orphaned from their past. Then, in 1987, looters broke into a tomb in a massive mud-brick pyramid at Sipan. Archaeologists were alerted and, for the first time, were able to examine an undisturbed royal Moche burial site. …

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