A practical view from an archaeologist on looting

The Ruins of Gordion
The Ruins of Gordion

The IAL blog has a terrific preview of an upcoming interview with Kathryn Morgan, a PhD candidate and archaeologist who has dug at the ancient site of Gordion in Central Turkey. Nina Nieuhaus asked Morgan what can be done, from an archaeologist’s perspective to stem looting of sites. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Education and economic incentives are probably the two most effective anti-looting “measures,” if they can be called measures. Education, because if people value the past for itself and think that it’s important, they don’t want to loot; and economic incentives, because if they are reliably prosperous without relying on looting, they don’t have to. Alternatively, you can try to foster the idea that an excavation itself and/or the tourism that it brings is a more sustainable long-term alternative source of income than a quick loot-and-sell operation. As far as I understand it, looting often isn’t that profitable a business for the looter: he’s giving whatever he finds to a middle man, who may be giving it to someone else, and him to someone else, until it finds a legitimate seller and a legitimate buyer who hasn’t dirtied his hands with any of the illegal activity. So, for the little guy, it’s dangerous – because looting is of course illegal – and he’s not making that much money off of it; he’s not going to do it unless he has to. If you can foster a good relationship with locals – providing them with employment opportunities, buying food for the project from within the village, some projects get students to teach English or organize pick-up soccer games with the workmen – those personal relationships are key to the long-term success of your project. But that’s kind of a warm and fuzzy answer that doesn’t deal with all of the complicated motivations that real people have in the real world.

Realistically, what do we do? What can we do? The Gordion project employs a site guard year round who checks on the site. We give a map of the area to the local Jandarma, the police force, of the “most sensitive” areas archaeologically, that they need to keep an eye on. Also, in Turkey, sites that are looted or in danger of looting can be eligible for special “salvage excavation” permits. Near Gordion, several tunnels were dug into a large tumulus, looking for the burial chamber, over the past few winters. Last year, the Turkish authorities decided to excavate the tomb themselves, in a careful, scientific fashion with conservators on call – rather than allowing looters to make another attempt. The Gordion project was invited to contribute to the effort, which we did gladly. So, sometimes pre-emptive excavation is a necessary solution.

And there are other interesting insights, so I look forward to reading the whole exchange. Practical change is slow in coming to the antiquities trade.

2 thoughts on “A practical view from an archaeologist on looting”

  1. Derek;

    At the end of your post here you say “Practical change is slow in coming to the antiquities trade.” I think it would be fair to say that change of any kind is slow in coming to the trade. After all, trade is mainly a conservative enterprise driven by supply and demand. But, as a member of the trade for 50 years, I have seen change and would argue that it is coming upon us faster these days than it did 50 years ago. That may not be comforting for some, but it is a reality. I was very encouraged to see a young archaeologist offering practical solutions, or at least initiatives, that would address the core of illegal activity and work to the benefit of all who have an interest in the past.

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