The Elephant in The Anthropological Room

In the ‘Anthropological Room’ (or space), there are multiple peer-reviewed journals publishing new and upcoming anthropological research with various aims from ‘what it is to be human’, ‘ethnology’ to ‘critical analysis’. Had I known of these resources in my first year of anthropology, I would have been able to peruse through multiple journal volumes and discover my love for the anthropology of nature much sooner – because if we’re being honest, I was never entirely sure what the scope of ‘anthropology’ really covered.

Recently, I was introduced to a new academic journal that I hadn’t come across before when I was discussing colonialism with my supervisor. It is named, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory. This is an international, peer-reviewed anthropology journal that seeks to situate ethnographic material “at the forefront of conceptual developments in the discipline” (HAU Journal 2017, p.1). To the novice anthropologist, such as myself, it sounds like a fine and dandy resource to keep up to date with emerging anthropological research! But wow, on further investigation it sure does have some problematic practices and colonial underpinnings.

On the home page, the journal explains its name as:

Source

In Mauss’ classic work, The Gift, he included the Māori example of the ‘the hau of the gift’. He interpreted the ‘hau’ as the spiritual force of the giver in the gift, which demanded to be returned (Mauss 1925). However, his interpretation of ‘hau’ completely excluded Māori voices. His work is an explicit illustration of the Eurocentric appropriation of Indigenous knowledges and cultural belief systems that have, for so long, been a dark feature (or the elephant in the room) of anthropology.

On June 18th, 2018, a group of Māori anthropology scholars wrote an open letter to HAU. They asserted that the lack of acknowledgement for the term Hau – being taken from Māori culture – exhibited “an absence of ethics of care, respect, inclusiveness and openness within HAU’s leadership” (Mahi Tahi 2018, p.1). The scholars further questioned whether the journal upheld the spirit, understandings and ethos of the Hau concept in their practices. The journal responded, providing a justification for their appropriation of the term:

“Although this Maori concept has become anthropologist’s common parlance, HAUshould have consulted you before using it” (Ibid).

HAU’s unethical practices are unsurprising given the wider controversy surrounding the journal, involving issues with the practices of the journal’s management and their lack of response to public critiques. However, this was an extremely disappointing moment for the anthropology world, particularly as it undermined all decolonial efforts that many scholars had been engaging in. HAU have merely extended the appropriation and colonisation of Indigenous knowledges that Mauss established in his work by further misappropriating it as a marketing, and thus economic, tool for the popularisation of the journal.

The cultural appropriation practices of HAU spark broader concerns about how we can continue shifting the colonial patterning of anthropology. For many students just entering and exploring the anthropology discipline, this can be a daunting task. 

I believe it is our responsibility – particularly those self-locating as white settlers – to engage consciously and directly with Indigenous peoples. We must continually learn what practices can be integrated to best rectify the harm that continues to be inflicted against their communities in academia.

I am no expert in what decolonisation should look like or how it should be engaged with; but Indigenous scholars, Jeff Corntassel, Rita Dhamon and Zoe Todd, have suggested practical ways we can work towards this in academia. To monitor your personal ethics as beginner anthropologists, I would recommend actively incorporating at least two of their points into your work:

  • Self-location: We must self-locate to the conceptions of “settler” and settler colonialism (Snelgrove, Dhamoon and Corntassel 2014). This involves articulating (in your research, essays and day-to-day lives) how you situate yourself and your awareness of the colonial occupations of Indigenous lands (see my bio for an example).
  • Centring Indigenous scholars: As stated by Zoe Todd (2017), it is our responsibility as anthropologists to centre Indigenous scholars to “disrupt the privileging of euro-colonial thinking over Indigenous praxis”. We must not conceptualise Indigenous thought through a euro-colonial and philosophical lens. Instead, we must incorporate and centre Indigenous thinkers in our academic work to de-stabilise the Euro-American anthropologists that have been conventionally relied upon for the understanding of Indigenous philosophies.

*side note: the journal still has not, one year later, revised the description of their name on the website to recognise the Māori origins of the Hau concept (yikes…).*.


References:

Davis, H. and Todd, Z 2017, ‘On the Importance of a Date, or Decolonizing the Anthropocene’, ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, vol. 16, no.4.

Mahi Tahi 2018, ‘An Open Letter to the Hau Journal’s Board of Trustees’, accessed 5 June 2019, <https://www.asaanz.org/blog/2018/6/18/an-open-letter-to-the-hau-journals-board-of-trustees>.

Mauss, M 1925, The gift: The form and reason for exchange in archaic societies. Routledge.

Snelgrove, C., Dhamoon, R.K. and Corntassel, J 2014, ‘Unsettling settler colonialism: The discourse and politics of settlers, and solidarity with Indigenous nations’, Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, vol.3, no.2.

See Also: Imo’s A few lessons learned from Anthropology’s past; Lani’s Cultural Appropriation & Cake? A Bittersweet Analogy; Rob’s Acknowledgement of Country; Dyan’s “Go Back To Where You Came From!”: An Anthropological Look at Linnaeus, Taxonomy and Classification

See also:

My favourite anthropology journals:

American Anthropologist

Critique of Anthropology

Cultural Anthropology

Current Anthropology

Journal of Ecological Anthropology

Imagining Notre Dame: A Global Perspective

On the 15th April, the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, France became engulfed in flames underneath the structure of the roof, leading to the collapse of the centuries-old Spire. As the Cathedral continued to burn with flames lighting up the sky, Parisians, tourists and international residents were seen gathering across the Seine River to pray and sing hymns together. It was a pivotal moment in history that pierced the national consciousness of France, a piercing that was felt in communities around the world as an iconic, international masterpiece began to fall.

For centuries, the Notre-Dame Cathedral has been the centrepiece of local and international societies; as an exemplar of French Gothic architecture, for the coronation of Napoleon Bonaparate, the blessing of Joan of Arc and as the sacred meeting place for millions of Catholics around the globe. From the religious perspective of many individuals, the Notre-Dame is a Catholic icon that inspired many to engage in larger devotional lives. As one onlooker to the Cathedral’s fire described:

“It (Notre-Dame) represents our ability as human beings to unite for a higher purpose” (Patel and Yuhas 2019, p.1).

Even more so, the Cathedral is a symbol that reinforces how influential Christianity was in structuring Western civilization and European culture, providing it with its morality, virtues and understanding of the cosmos. Over time, the significance of Notre-Dame has expanded beyond the boundaries of France, and it now includes an international community of Catholics that admire its religious symbology in the practice of their faith. When images and reports of the burning Cathedral flashed across televisions, newspapers and social media around the world, the international Catholic community united to donate to its reconstruction.

“New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan announces a fundraising effort from St. Patrick’s Cathedral April 18, 2019 to help support the restoration and rebuilding of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.”
New York

I argue that this collective effort to save and rebuild Notre-Dame emerges from the importance of having the Cathedral as a unifying symbol of Catholic faith. Why is this so important? Well, it reinforces imaginings of an international Catholic community. This collective imagining, according to Benedict Anderson (1983), is facilitated through the distribution of cultural materials that seek to construct and represent social cohesion. The significance of these cultural materials is then reinforced by the collective imagining.

It is the cultural force of the Notre-Dame Cathedral that Anderson (1983) argues promotes the strength of the Catholic community. The Cathedral is a cultural symbol that reflects the Catholic community back to themselves, which creates a unified imagining of the religious beliefs that rule their community.

While this is an effective way of analysing the importance of Notre-Dame as an international Catholic symbol, I’m not convinced that Benedict Anderson would be too pleased with me applying his theoretical assumptions from Imagined Communities (1983) in this context. Sorry Benny, but you laid excellent theoretical groundwork here that was too good not to build upon!

In Anderson’s original text, he asserted the “imagined community” is created by our collective imagining of the spaces we inhabit – spaces that are locally and geographically bounded. He limited the scope of the imagined community to the nation. Anderson (1983) focused on how the collective identity of the nation was spread through print capitalism (newspapers, language, literature, material maps, museums and census’), which strengthened the shared culture and nationalism that reinforced the boundaries of the nation. However, this is a major flaw in Anderson’s theory. He thought that the nation (aka community) had to emerge from a “local” group that differentiated itself from other communities and societies. He further neglected to question and understand the different forms of “community” and how these were not always bounded to one place in space and time.

It pains me to limit Anderson’s analysis locally, and I think his theory is just as effective in a global framework! I, similar to other scholars, have taken inspiration from Anderson’s ideas and used them to understand the transnational context of Notre-Dame and the Catholic community. Surely Benny would be pretty impressed with how far-reaching his original theories now are!

Let’s look again to Notre-Dame. Catholics around the world saw representations of the Cathedral burning and the devastated reactions of Catholic (and non-Catholic) Parisians on television, social media and in newspapers. These representations reinforced their imagining of Notre Dame as an iconic Catholic monument, which re-stablished their collective knowing of its sacred importance to Catholics around the world. As one facebook user described:

Facebook

As a result, this collective ‘knowing’ reassured them – whether they were in Brazil, the Philippines, the United States, Ireland or wherever – that they were part of an international Catholic community devastated by this destruction. And… to try and please Benny, this global community does still consist of what he required must be “outsiders” – who in this case could be viewed as people in different religious groups.

The importance of Notre-Dame to the international Catholic community is a prime example of how it is possible to be part of a community that expands beyond the borders of France, Europe and the West; a global community that is imagined across multiple cultures, identities and languages.


References:

Anderson, B 1983, Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, pp.427-449

Patel and Yuhas 2019, ‘Fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral Leads to Expressions of Heartbreak Across the World’, viewed 3 June 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/15/world/europe/paris-cathedral-fire.html

See Also: Maddie’s article on Subtle Diasporic Traits; and Rita’s article Battle of the Ethics: Subsistence Looting

Anthropology and Mediumship: Should anthropologists access spaces beyond the Earth realm?

Pictured above is the “Arthur Findlay College” located in Stansted, the UK. The college is a spiritualist residential centre where some of the best mediums and psychics from around the world gather to study and deepen their natural abilities.
Arthur Findlay

Elderly couples sat in the rows behind me, all dispersed throughout the back rows. A few elderly gentlemen were scattered in between. I, sitting eagerly in the front row, was accompanied by an elderly woman – who I later discovered had been attending the church for close to fifty years. The whispers and chatter of others in the audience slowly began to fade away as my mum stood forth for platform and began to connect with spirit. Directing her attention to an elderly gentleman in the crowd, she began to bring evidence through and asked for confirmation of a little boy in the spirit world, with long white socks and sandy hair, that she could see running excitedly around her in circles. She continued on to describe and confirm his cause of death to the gentleman and brought through the little boy’s message…

What I have described above is a common ritual practice amongst spiritualist communities both in Australia and around the world. Often on a Sunday afternoon or evening, the community gathers for a ‘church’ service that often includes a philosophical talk on spiritualism, a meditation, singing and a demonstration of mediumship (‘platform’). During the demonstration of mediumship, the medium is connecting to the spirit world and may either bring through evidence of deceased loved ones – now ‘spirits’ in the ‘spirit world’ – or channel a philosophical message from a spirit, entity or other consciousness.

For the members of this community (including myself), our loved ones and the spirit world are always accessible to us and always present in our day-to-day lives. This world, in many respects, forms part of what Deborah Dixon (2007) termed ‘extra-geographies’ – spaces of experience that we do not necessarily see with our physical eyes or truly understand, yet have a significant influence on the ways we experience the world. Many individuals attending the services will come to hear from their loved ones in the spirit world; many may speak of their ‘spirit guides’ who in meditation provide them with wisdom for their problems. Some may even ask their angels to reserve a parking spot for them in an otherwise packed carpark. For me and many others in this community, these are the ‘normal’ day-to-day practices of our lives. However, I imagine that the multiple aspects of this ‘spirit world’ may prompt many ‘outsiders’ to wonder where on earth it is and how do you access it?

Asking a spiritual medium (my mum) to locate the spirit world, she described:

“This spirit world is all around us. Most people can’t see it and generally we can’t see it with our real eyes. To me, it’s like walking through an invisible door and there’s the spirit world (some people call it heaven). It’s a different dimension, if you like. It’s all around us…the spirit world is a form of energy, so it’s everywhere. It’s not like heaven is up in the sky like Catholics are taught – it can be in your heart, it can be in your aura, it can be anywhere and everywhere.”

The spirit world is, therefore, part of our modern social landscape. It is a world, a space and a ‘cultural site’ existing in the everyday lives of many individuals. If this world is so real for so many people, in all its physical, spiritual and mental domains, why does it remain such as under-investigated ‘field’ in anthropology? Why aren’t ethnographers venturing into this space? From an anthropological perspective, should exploring the cultural and symbolic complexities within these unearthly worlds be “off limits”?

If you were engaging with more traditional ethnographers, perhaps the answer would be ‘yes’. From a historical perspective, the ‘field’ in anthropology has been described as a physical location that includes a specific group of people, language and culture that are bounded to one area (e.g. think Margaret Mead’s research in Samoa). As a result, ethnographic material has often been retrieved from participant observation that relies heavily on information from the ethnographer’s five senses: taste, touch, sight, sound, smell. This grounded evidence is what has often made anthropology unique from other disciplines, enabling many anthropologists to claim ‘authority’ from their personal experiences within a cultural field.

This old-hat way of approaching ethnographic research restrains our ability to explore ideological (e.g. ideas of spirituality) and phenomenological (e.g. experiences of a subject/object) fields, which consequently limits the “philosophical scope of anthropology”. Zygmunt Bauman (2000) briefly touches on this in his conceptualisation of ‘fluid modernity’, whereby individuals around the world now engage in constantly changing locations, relationships, identities and cultures. As Bauman (2000) describes, our understandings and sensations of space are now rapidly changing and becoming irrelevant in a world where our socio-cultural relations are being experienced in virtual realities, online interactive spaces and multi-located cultures. In many ways, we have already moved beyond material places and into a domain where the ‘field’ is defined by communities of shared interests and ‘virtual’ or ‘imagined’ worlds (e.g. World of Warcraft or the Spiritual World).

Maybe it’s time now for us, as young anthropologists, to start dipping our toes in these unfamiliar worlds that transcend the earthy realms we have become so comfortable within!


References:

Baumann, Z 2007, Liquid times: Living in an age of uncertainty, Polity, Cambridge, Cambridge: Polity.

Dixon, D 2007, ‘A benevolent and sceptical inquiry: exploring Fortean Geographies’ with the Mothman, Cultural geographies, vol. 4, no., pp.189-210.

See Also (for more on spirituality and religion): Lionel’s article Tio Gong Tao: Using Witchcraft to Rationalise Sexual Objectification in Singapore; Lani’s article Do you believe in ‘Magic’?; and Sarah’s article Ursula Le Guin and the ethnography of future worlds

A few lessons learned from Anthropology’s past

This history of anthropology as a discipline is rife with unethical and dehumanising intentions and methodologies. I think it’s important as student anthropologists to learn from this history—but not to let it get us down too much about the possibilities of the discipline! I know I have had my doubts and felt sheepish to say I was studying anthropology when entering Indigenous studies classes for example, knowing full well how anthropologist’s have been complicit as agents of colonial exploitation and of the genocide of many Indigenous peoples. There are reasons why it has been said that anthropology is the ‘handmaiden’ and ‘child’ of Western imperialism (Gough 1967).

Napoleon Chagnon, is an infamous anthropologist known for his study on the Yanomami people from the Amazon on the border of Brazil and Venezuela, and his book The Fierce People (1968) which falsely described the Yanomami as an essentially violent people (Tierney 2000, p.52). Chagnon’s case is a perfect example an anthropologist who sets out into the field with a ‘scientific’ theory they want to prove (in this case that there is natural selection towards violence in humans), and as a consequence causes insurmountable harm to the subjects of the research and also causes far-reaching, political consequences (Geertz 2001, pp.129-130). His methods to prove this theory were equally as unethical as his intentions. Namely, Chagnon bribed individuals with machetes and axes in exchange for their ‘tribal secrets’ or in exchange for violating their ‘tribal taboos’ (Tierney 2000, p.55), and staged fights between Yanomami for documentary purposes, which then became real fights and but he touted that the whole thing was ‘real’ (Tierney 2000, p.59; Geertz 2001, p.126). Chagnon wanted to confine the Yanomami in a nature reserve where only the only interaction they would have with the outside world would be with scientists who treated them like lab rats (Tierney 2000, p.60).  With the help of Dr. James Neel, Chagnon tested live measles vaccines. When an epidemic broke out that killed large numbers of Yanomami people, Chagnon was quoted saying: ‘That’s not our problem. We didn’t come here to save the Indians. We came here to study them.’ (Tierney 2000, p.60).

Here are also two examples of Yanomami people speaking back: (1) Davi Kopenawa Yanomami (2) Yanomami ask for their blood back (video below)

Is it really worth studying a group of people if you are not doing anything to improve their quality of life or help them make changes in their world that they want to make? I don’t think so.

And this has happened closer to home too. Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer, who has a building named after him at the University of Melbourne, was one of the first anthropologists to study Indigenous Australians in the late 19th century. While his work on their genealogies is still being used today to help in Central Australian land claims, he carried out his anthropological work with a eugenicist mindset (Dobbin 2015). He believed that Indigenous Australians were a race that was ‘doomed to die a slow death to make way for a new super white race’ (Dobbin 2015) and his recommendations to remove Indigenous children from their families at an early age directly influenced the Australian government’s genocidal policies of forced child removals between 1910-1970, which caused the Stolen Generations (Cummings, Blockland & La Forgia 1997, pp. 25-27).

Aims for a better anthropology:

  1. Avoid ethnocentrism, but remember that anthropology is not an ‘objective’ science (if such thing exists), and so every anthropologist much be self-reflexive about the position in which they inhabit and that positions relationship to power.
  2. I would say generally avoid deductive research methods–top-down research approaches that attempt to confirm a pre-formed theory i.e. what Chagnon did. Instead, inductive research methods–bottom-up research approaches that go from observation to broader generalisations of theory can be more useful and ethical. Besides, anthropology is all about being surprised by what you find. You can’t be really surprised if you go in with a theory to prove.
  3. Let’s all work to decolonise this discipline – remember and make others aware its deeply imperial, colonial, racist, genocidal past – and move forward to actually work with the people we study particularly if they are Indigenous peoples or other marginalised groups.

Resources:

Cummings, B, Blockland, J, La Forgia R 1997, ‘Lessons from the Stolen Generations Litigation’, Adelaide Law Review, vol. 19, pp. 25-44.

Dobbin, M 2015, ‘Heart of darkness: Melbourne University’s racist professors’, The Age, 27 November, <https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/heart-of-darkness-melbourne-universitys-racist-professors-20151127-gl9whm.html&gt;

Geertz, C 2001, ‘Live among the Anthros’, The New York Review, vol. 48, no. 2, pp. 18-22.

Gough, K 1967, Anthropology and imperialism, Ann Arbor: Radical Education Project.

Tierney, P 2000, ‘The Fierce Anthropologist’, The New Yorker, 9 October.

See also:

Ferguson, B 2015, ‘History, explanation, and war among the Yanomami: A response to Chagnon’s Noble Savages’, Anthropological Theory, vol. 15, no. 4, p. 377-406.

Margaret Mead – Someone you should definitely remember as an Anthro major!

Margaret Mead is best known for her book ‘Coming of Age in Samoa’ which she wrote when she was just 27. She wanted to investigate whether adolescence was a stressful process due to biology or cultural context. How could you analyze this phenomenon within the discipline of psychology? According to Mead you would need to raise a child ‘cultureless’ in order to determine the effects of biology which is virtually impossible. That’s why Mead argued that anthropology could step in and solve problems beyond the field of psychology. In order to understand the role that American culture had on adolescences; she chose to look at a distinctly different culture. In Mead’s eyes Samoa ‘set the stage’ for the perfect experiment. Over the course of 9 months she observed and interviewed 50 Samoan girls aged 9 – 20.  

What were her conclusions?  

In 1928 when Mead’s work was published her conclusions were seen as pretty revolutionary. Her findings challenged the previous belief in the ‘biologically superior’ individual. Instead an individual’s ability to thrive or succumb to stress during adolescence was seen as the result of cultural forces. Mead surmised that the ‘simplistic’ and ‘laidback’ attitude of Samoan culture made adolescence a ‘simple’ matter. In contrast, the overwhelming amount of choice and freedom in American contributed to a great deal of stress and uncertainty for American adolescences. It is important to keep in mind that Mead did not suggest America become more like Samoa in order to solve this issue, but rather that comparison between cultures can illuminate the effect that culture has on an individual.  

“One girl’s life was so much like another’s, in an uncomplex, uniform culture like Samoa, I feel justified in generalizing although I studied only 50 girls in three small neighboring villages.” P. 16 

Image result for margaret mead

Criticism 

Now this is where it gets really intriguing (and just a ‘bit’ unethical) …Since its publication, Coming of Age in Samoa has been met with a number of allegations. There is one section where Mead describes teenage boys masturbating in groups, but it is unclear whether she observed this herself. It is also unclear whether Mead sought parental consent (probs not) from the children’s parents before asking questions about their sexual experiences.  

“There were only three little girls in my group who did not masturbate.” P. 113 

Perhaps most notably is that the girls Mead interviewed are believed to have lied and told her what they thought she wanted to hear. While Mead’s work was revolutionary at the time because it challenged the popular theories in Evolutionary Anthropology (such as the idea that some people’s genes are more superior than others), Mead portrayed America as culturally advanced. 

“Our society shows a greater development of personal.” P. 166  

Why is this important?  

While Mead’s actual findings have been proven flawed for countless reasons, her work is still a valuable source for future anthropological inquiry. At the time Mead’s work was seen as progressive confronting and so it’s important to not fall into the trap of judging her methods by today’s standards. What we can learn from past ethnographies is how the discipline has evolved over time. In addition, we can see how some of the assumptions made in early ethnographies have influenced future works, including our own. For example, Mead attempted to portray the totality of Samoa after the short 9 months she lived there. She also did not disclose her own positionality nor think critically about her own biases and how this impacted the research. Personally, reading Mead’s work has reminded me of the danger when trying to represent the entirety of a situation and to keep in mind that each ethnography is like a limited snapshot of the researcher’s interaction with their subjects. Despite the limitations, the insights are nonetheless valuable as long as we think critically and reflexively about the processes involved.   


References:

Mead, M 1928, Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilisation, Blue Ribbon Books, New York.

Want to know more about anthropology’s unethical past? See also:

Imo’s article https://anthrozine.home.blog/2019/05/26/a-few-lessons-learned-from-anthropologys-past/

Dyan’s article https://anthrozine.home.blog/2019/06/10/go-back-to-where-you-came-from-an-anthropological-look-at-linnaeus-taxonomy-and-classification/

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/>.