Land Use, Looting, and Archaeology in Chihuahua, Mexico: A Speculative History

Article excerpt

The present state of archaeological resources forms the baseline for thinking about the past. Archaeologists tend to think in terms of what they encounter on or ha the ground, or in collections. The way in which archaeological resources reached their current state is also worthy of consideration (Schiffler 2009), so we have learned to modify our thinking to include "formation processes" (Schiffer 1987), meaning alterations leading to the archaeological record as we know it. This essay focuses on a specific formation process (or, more accurately, a deformation process), looting, and seeks to understand historical forces that shaped it. As the first attempt to understand the sociology of looting in northwest Mexico, our essay is necessarily sketchy and fraught with untested statements.

Our particular concern is the part of Chihuahua in which the Proyecto Arqueologico Chihuahua (PAC) (1) has worked (figure 1). In recent decades, a triple whammy--looting, land alteration using heavy equipment, and a scarcity of professional archaeologists working in Chihuahua--has meant that many local sites have disappeared, or will soon disappear, without the most basic archaeological information being recorded. As we will show, however, the impacts are not confined to the recent past. Instead, the destruction of Chihuahua's archaeological resources has a long and tangled history.

Of course, looting is not unique to Chihuahua. It is essentially a global problem that varies in its particulars and raisons de etre: selection of what is to be looted; who does the looting and who buys; market values; motivations; timing of the looting; and procedures of extraction, transport, and marketing. Looting can be done out of sheer curiosity, as a form of amusement that is preferable to other possible activities in terms of keeping young people off the streets, for building private and museum collections, and for profit. Not infrequently, looting is done by the poorest of society for most basic of economic reasons and benefits the economically more advantaged (figures 2a and 2b).


If looting precluded practicing good archaeology, archaeology would have a much smaller data base than exists. One has only to think of documentation of the past from continuously occupied urban centers like London, Jerusalem, Paris, or Rome to appreciate both the impact of disturbance of archaeological deposits through urban development or looting and the gems of discovery that have come from even such thoroughly worked-over landscapes.

Chihuahua shares with the adjacent American Southwest the impact of museum collection-building, and there has been no shortage of looting north of the border. However, the different landholding systems have exerted interesting differences on looting patterns on each side of the border. Large landholdings on the scale of Chihuahuan haciendas were not part of the historical development of the American Southwest, nor were their accompanying social, economic, and political systems. The Southwest became more economically diversified after 1847 when the United States took over the northern half of Mexico.

Another enormous difference between the state of archaeological resources in the two adjacent areas concerns the development of the discipline of archaeology. In the United States, archaeology developed more or less in parallel with looting. While both pursuits suffered from the era in which museums and private individuals built collections, one might say that the developing state of archaeology in the United States more or less kept pace with looting in terms of background knowledge of looted sites, ever more precise attributions of looted materials by area or region, and, most importantly, the growth of background archaeological knowledge and the application of good archaeological methods in the hands of trained archaeologists. It is the lack of an ongoing development of archaeology in parallel with looting that most noticeably distinguishes Chihuahuan archaeology and its history of looting from that north of the international border. …