Battle of the Ethics: Subsistence Looting

“Some of the 700 Iraqi antiquities…recovered from smugglers along the Syrian-Iraqi borders. Antiquities were looted from Iraq amid the chaos of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.” AFP PHOTO/LOUAI BESHARA

In a previous post, I talk about precarity.

My affair with Anthropology post-dates my commitment to Ancient World Studies – the one subject in high school that really interested me. Yet, for me, the most compelling part of the textbook wasn’t actually about the ancient past itself, but the politics of its afterlife: archaeological ethics, repatriation, conservation, 3D-printing and other technologies used in reproduction. The events of 2015 in Palmyra, Syria, including the grievous iconoclasm – that is, the destruction of monuments for religious or political purposes – and Khaled al-Asaad’s refusal to give up the location of ancient artefacts at the cost of his life, cemented my aspirations in becoming an archaeologist and helping safeguard the relics of the past from similar atrocities.

So, when I was speaking to an Ancient World Studies PhD student earlier this year about my interest in anthropology and archaeological ethics, she suggested taking a free online course called Antiquities Trafficking and Art Crime, developed by Dr. Donna Yates at the University of Glasgow. It’s four weeks long, requires no existing knowledge on the topic, and is truly fascinating. I don’t think it’s entirely without fault, but it has some great (mysterious! unresolved!) case studies and encourages active engagement with your instructors and fellow learners, just like an actual class. Overall, I would highly recommend it as an entry point to learning about the theft, trafficking and forgery of art and antiquities.

What I found really interesting about the course was that it offered a distinctly anthropological perspective on looting that I’d previously never considered. When archaeology students learn about the practice of looting, we’re told one thing: the context of the artefact is lost forever, which means we’ll never know how the artefact relates to the site, period, or assemblage, and, consequently, the complete reconstruction of the archaeological record becomes impossible. As Cannon-Brookes (1994, p. 350) argues, artefacts without context are “cultural orphans…virtually useless for scholarly purposes”. With such unequivocally negative representations of looting, it’s difficult to re-imagine how else this narrative can be told.

But if there’s anything anthropology has taught me, it’s that there’s always another side to the story, a side that’s underrepresented or silenced by a more dominant voice. As Dr. Yates (2019) contends, the idea of looters as grave robbers and tomb raiders is far too simplistic. Many of the countries which harbour prolific black markets “have rich archaeological pasts but are economically poor” (Yates 2019) – an effect largely borne by colonialism and conflict, the historic and current imbalances of which continue to perpetuate chronic poverty, health insecurity, and political corruption and instability. These all contribute to an environment characterised by precarity, which forces those living in poverty to turn to “last resorts” like the illicit antiquities trade. A perspective that can provide more emic insights is evidently required by this multifaceted phenomena, and it’s a conversation that anthropology is positioned to initiate.

The pockmarks of looted sites are often compared to the craters of the moon. Source.

People who engage in illicit excavation for “saleable cultural objects due to extreme poverty” are known as “subsistence looters” (Yates 2012, emphasis added; Hollowell 2006). “Subsistence” here implies that the individual is economically disenfranchised: “they are looting for survival, not profit” (Yates 2012). Indeed, profit is almost inconceivable, as Borodkin reports, with looters receiving less than 1% of the final selling price (1995, p. 378). That’s not the only loss looters face: a destroyed site loses its potential for archaeological tourism. The antiquities black market therefore exploits the looters’ precarity, cyclically robbing them of the possibility to invest in a longer-term economically stable future.

Now, I’m not condoning the looting and trafficking of antiquities, but it no longer seems so straightforward to blame looters for putting their basic needs before the preservation of the archaeological record, nor does it seem fair to view looters as the sole perpetrators of the practice. If anything, as Renfrew and Elia (1993) argue, antiquities collectors are accountable for the demand that looters respond to – a demand that originates in the imperialist practices of 17th- and 18th-century Europe.

The sentiments of the academic, authoritative archaeologist have been the most vocal in the vilification of looting. Whilst this has taught student archaeologists that looting is bad and that we shouldn’t do it, this representation hasn’t helped the humanisation of looters nor the prevention of looting. This issue invites a dialogue on ethics between anthropologists and archaeologists to devise a collaborative solution.

Elia (Renfrew and Elia 1993, p. 17) asserts that “the only way to make a dent in the looting problem is to reduce the demand for antiquities by bringing about a change in social attitude whereby collecting is no longer considered socially acceptable.” I think this is true, but it’s still an archaeologist-centric view. Hardy (2012), on the other hand, has found that community-based practices such as education on the value of heritage and the founding of local museums for cultural tourism have been effective in reducing illicit antiquities trafficking in Mali. I would also imagine long-term solutions to economically support subsistence looters and the concurrent prohibition of museums from acquiring artefacts without context would deter the practice as well (a policy that some, but not all, museums have adopted): an artefact with zero value provides no incentive for looting, but it’s imperative that alternative economic opportunities are made available.

Ultimately, there needs to be a reconsideration of looting as a one-dimensional practice, with anthropology playing an important role in diverting focus toward what causes people to resort to subsistence looting in the first place, rather than fixating on its effects on the archaeological record.


References:

Borodkin, LJ 1995, ‘The Economics of Antiquities Looting and a Proposed Legal Alternative’, Columbia Law Review, vol. 95, no. 2, pp. 377-417.

Cannon-Brookes, P 1994, ‘Antiquities in the market-place: Placing a price on documentation’, Antiquity, vol. 68, no. 295, pp. 349–50.

Hardy, SA 2012, ‘looting, the subsistence digging economy in Mali; and stemming the flow of looted antiquities from Mali to the USA’, weblog post 3 April, WordPress, viewed 14 May 2019, < https://conflictantiquities.wordpress.com/2012/04/03/mali-looting-export-usa-import/>

Hollowell, J 2006, ‘Moral arguments on subsistence digging’, in C Scarre & G Scarre (eds), The Ethics of Archaeology: Philosophical Perspectives on Archaeological Practice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press., pp. 69-94.

Renfrew, C & Elia, R 1993, ‘Collectors are the Real Looters’, Archaeology, vol. 46, no. 3, pp. 16-17.

Yates, D 2012, Subsistence Digging, viewed 14 May 2019, <https://traffickingculture.org/encyclopedia/terminology/subsistence-digging/>.

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