History and Looting in Costa Rica

guayabofromabove.jpgMaggie Koerth-Baker has a terrific two-part series on the ancient Chibchan culture in Costa Rica at BoingBoing.  The ancient CAribbean shares many characteristics with the ancient Mediterranean, in which a number of cultures traded and impacted each other.  Yet Costa Rica receives relatively little attention:

Despite a scarcity of giant tourist-attracting monuments, ancient Costa Rica was a pretty hopping place—a nexus of trade where the cultures of Mexico and Central America met those of northern South America, and elements of both were incorporated into the unique and diverse Chibchan culture. Gold ornaments, jade carvings and pottery are literally just below the surface, uncovered by modern construction—or even just poking around in the backyard. So why the low profile? Blame the combined forces of local climate, indigenous tragedy and looting as national pastime.

She talks with Michael Snarskis, an archaeologist examining ancient Costa Rican cultures.  The series does a terrific job documenting the damage done by looting, something archaeologists must account for in nearly every excavation in Costa Rica and elsewhere.  Are there any archaeological sites not at risk from looters?

Ancient Costa Rica Part I: Lost history in the land of the crossroads
Ancient Costa Rica Part II: The narrow road to Guayabo

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Making up for Looting with Art

Artist Andy Holden visited the Great Pyramid of Giza when he was 12, and took home an illegal souvenir.  He “broke off a lump of stone from the side”.  He says that when his parents discovered his theft “they were furious and it ended up becoming this terrible guilt object”.

Now, in an effort to make amends Holden has created a colossal knitted replica of the small rock at Tate Britain.  he also has a video piece in which he is shown climbing the Pyramid and returning the rock to the place from which it was stolen.  This was a theft, one wonders if Holden approached the Egyptians about his installation and return.  He’s doing the right thing now, though now he is profiting off of the theft, in a slightly more palatable way.  The display now reveals the ease with which ancient monuments can be damaged, and perhaps will serve as a reminder for the next set of parents to keep a closer watch on their little looters at important monuments.

    Roya Nikkah, Tate Show reveals artist’s pyramid theft, The Telegraph, Jan. 10, 2010.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Italy Recovers 1,700 Looted Antiquities

The AP is reporting that Italian authorities have uncovered a looting network which raided tombs outside Naples and Venice.  The objects were then illegally exported to market nations like the United States.

During more than a year of investigations, authorities recovered nearly 1,700 statues, vases and other artifacts dating from pre-Roman times to the heyday of the empire. Police flagged 19 people for possible investigation by prosecutors.  The artifacts were mainly dug out from tombs in the areas around Naples and Venice and included a bronze bust of the emperor Augustus, customs police in Rome said.  Part of the loot had been smuggled to the United States to be sold to collectors, they said.  The Italians said they worked with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in New Haven, Connecticut, to recover 47 ceramic and bronze statutes that had been looted from a tomb in southern Italy dating between the 6th and 5th centuries B.C.

  1. The Associated Press: Italian police recover hoard of looted artifacts, Associated Press, December 11, 2009.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Roger Atwood on the "Mass Pillage" in Iraq

Roger Atwood has an Op-Ed in yesterday’s New York Times arguing Iraq could learn from the approach of Peru and Mali in protecting their archaeological resources.  Both nations have used civilian patrols to protect sites, and apprehend looters:

This kind of grassroots organizing — where local officials, police officers and archaeologists join forces with local residents — is the best way to combat looting and protect sites from being swallowed up by the illicit antiquities trade. A similar strategy has proved effective in Mali, a country that has little in common with Peru besides a rich archaeological heritage. It would work in Iraq and elsewhere.

Surprisingly, though, relatively few governments have focused on getting rural people involved in protecting threatened sites. Most spend their energy pressing museums in the United States or Europe to repatriate looted artifacts, instead of focusing on safeguarding the archaeological riches still in the ground. Repatriation is a valuable goal, but an immense amount of historical information is lost whenever looting occurs and sites are damaged, even if the objects are later recovered. The government’s time would be better spent expanding the patrols to prevent looting in the first place.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Turkey Plagued by Illicit Antiquities Trade

An interesting piece this Sunday on the problem of looting of sites in Turkey and the smuggling of objects from war-torn nations like Afghanistan and Iraq through Turkey:

According to the “Cultural and Natural Assets Smuggling Report” prepared by the Culture and Tourism Ministry based on figures provided by the Anti-smuggling and Organized Crime Bureau (KOM) of the police department, Turkey sees higher statistics related to the smuggling of historical artifacts every year.  In 2003 security authorities seized 3,255 historical artifacts that smugglers were attempting to take abroad. With a steady rise over years, this figure rose to 17,936 in 2007. And another new high came in 2008, when authorities seized 42,073 historical artifacts and detained 4,077 suspects in 1,576 operations.  Coins are the favorite of smugglers as they are relatively easy to take abroad without detection. The number of coins seized by security authorities rose from 20,461 in 2007 to 55,613 in 2008. . . .


The report also maintains that conflicts and wars tend to create a suitable atmosphere for the smuggling of historical artifacts, as seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the ongoing wars allow smugglers to operate freely. The majority of historical artifacts smuggled out of these countries are sent to Western countries via Turkey. This route of smuggling implies that these historical artifacts are purchased by collectors in rich Western countries. The US, the UK, Switzerland and Japan are the favorite destinations for these items.  The report cites lack of sufficient security measures against theft in museums as the major reason for the high number of smuggling cases. Tourism is the most widely used venue for smuggling historical artifacts.Furthermore, Turkey lacks a sufficient and clear inventory of historical artifacts in the country, and Turkey does not have statistics about existing historical artifacts and about already smuggled items.

Ercan Yavuz, Turkey a magnet for smugglers of historical artifact [Today’s Zaman, Sep.  27, 2009]

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Arkansas Couple Sentenced for Looting Federal Sites

An Arkansas couple has been sentenced in federal court for looting stone tools, arrowheads and other objects from sites near the Buffalo National River national park.  After a plea agreement, William Graves was sentenced to six months in federal prison, with one year of probation for a felony count of violating the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979; his wife was sentenced to a year of probation for a misdemeanor violation.  They must also pay $4,613 in restitution.  Why does looting continue?  These are not particularly stiff penatlties, particularly when compared to other kinds of theft, and the monetary value placed on these objects is not really high, nor is there enough attention paid to the archaeological record which is distorted when these objects are removed. 

From the Springfield News-Leader:

The couple, William A. Graves and Misty Graves, were caught near the site in January, after park rangers were alerted to recent looting at a well-known archeological site in the upper district of the park, according to a news release from the National Park Service.

At the time of the arrest, William Graves was carrying digging tools and wearing boots that matched impressions found near the looting site, the park service said, while his wife was found with their vehicle at the trailhead in possession of several artifacts and a pick.

A search warrant at the Graves’ home turned up additional tools and evidence, the release said. After a six-month investigation, the Graves were indicted in federal court. William Graves, who subsequently admitted digging in the park, also turned in “71 stone tools, projectile points, or other artifacts” he said came from the site, authorities said.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Another Suicide in the Wake of the Federal Looting Investigation

Steven Shrader, one of the 24 individuals indicted for dealing in looted antiquities killed himself Thursday night. This comes after the suicide of another man in connection with the case. The sad news should increase the criticism by two Utah senators who have asked for a Congressional investigation into the tactics used by Federal Authorities.

The Salt Lake Tribune reports:


News of a second death in the antiquities crackdown surprised southeastern Utahns . . . . “That’s tragic — if it’s the result of his concerns over his case,” said Phil Mueller, a Blanding resident and Redd family friend. “I don’t know — I don’t know [Shrader]. But to hear the news is certainly very tragic.” Mueller added that he doesn’t accept federal authorities’ explanation that they needed a show of force in the raid because they believed most of the suspects could be armed. “You could walk up to any house in San Juan County,” he said, “and they’d probably have a gun.”of a second death in the antiquities crackdown surprised southeastern Utahns, although those contacted said they had not heard of Shrader.

These suicides are certainly tragic, and though some blame may be placed on the tactics used by federal agents, the simple truth is when you violate federal law, you are running the risk of arrest and prosecution. Digging up Native American remains is not an innocent activity one accidentally does it seems to me. And as more of the search-warrant affidavits are made public, there is more and more allegations of clear wrongdoing on the part of the indicted individuals. Patty Henetz for the SLT summarizes the recent affidavit released by federal court:
On a brisk morning last September, three men — including a federal undercover operative — carried shovels and rakes to an ancient Puebloan mound on public land in San Juan County. As they piled dirt onto a blue plastic tarp, out popped a skull.

The discovery, recorded in real time and detailed in recently released federal court papers, didn’t seem to slow the men much.

Richard Bourret picked up the skull and put it back in the hole, the documents say, then he, Vern Crites and the operative, whom federal authorities call the “Source,” folded the tarp and funneled the dirt back into the hole. There wasn’t quite enough to cover the damage.

Crites lamented a lost opportunity, saying he “wished that fella had still been intact, the skeleton, I mean.”

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

24 Indicted for Looting in the 4 Corners

A staggering 24 indictments are being announced as we speak for looting Native American sites in the Southwest. From the Salt Lake Tribune:

An ongoing federal investigation of archaeological-site looting in the West has moved into Utah, where federal authorities are expected to visit later today to announce a slew of criminal charges.


Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Bureau of Indian Affairs boss Larry EchoHawk, U.S. Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman and officials from the FBI and Justice Department plan an afternoon news conference in Salt Lake City to detail the charges netted after a two-year undercover probe in southeastern Utah.


The charges stem from the theft of cultural and historical artifacts from American Indian lands and federal tracts in the Four Corners area, according to the Interior Department.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Subway Excavations Spur Looting in Phillipines

A very interesting story this morning from Jobers Bersales of the Cebu Daily News on the looting which took place when subway excavations under Cebu’s Plaza Independencia resulted in looting of ceramic and other objects uncovered by the digging. 

The tragedy of Plaza Independencia was compounded somewhat because of the failure of the National Museum to send a monitoring team to observe the subway project, a recommendation made by the private archaeological firm that was hired to conduct pre-project archaeological assessment of the plaza in 2006. It was only when this columnist came out in August last year to report the looting that the National Museum immediately and without haste came over to begin the monitoring process! That report was triggered by the same online heritage forum where a member mentioned the golden treasures that were taken out of the construction site with regularity.

The looting was compounded further by the fact that Kajima Construction, which actually reported to the National Museum about the looting way back in June but got no response, had some sub-contracted workers coming from their former infrastructure project in Butuan province – workers who had experienced looting burial sites in artifact-rich Butuan. The looting had so alarmed Kajima that it ordered an investigation way, way before the looting was reported, fired the workers, and requested the sub-contracting firm to order the return of the gold bracelets, armlets, earrings and untold number of jars, plates and other ceramics that were carted away by an antiques buyer posing just outside the walls of the construction site, a gray-haired man who carried thousands in a clutch bag.

For more, see here, a series of blog posts with photos from Cebu. 

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Looting of Native American Sites in South Dakota

Josh Verges of the ArgusLeader had a good detailed story about the indictment of three men in South Dakota for trafficking in Native American artifacts:

The federal indictments of three men accused of trafficking in Native American artifacts reveal a lucrative trade centered on the illegal harvesting of a culture’s buried history.

U.S. Attorney Marty Jackley said the indictments – the first of their kind in his two and a half years on the job – are partly a response to his conversations with tribal members.”When I travel to Cheyenne River and Standing Rock … this is very important to their culture and their tradition,” he said.

Jackley said the investigation continues with the possibility of more indictments, and those already filed involve a “significant number of artifacts.”

Brian Ekrem, 28, of Selby and Richard Geffre, 49, of Pierre allegedly sold three copper arm bands in violation of the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act and were involved in the collection of many other artifacts, including beads, arrowheads and bone tools.  Scott Matteson, 60, of Fort Pierre is accused of buying red stone discs, arrowheads and a sandstone scraping tool, all of which had been removed from public and Indian lands.

Each man pleaded not guilty earlier this month in Pierre and was released without bond until his next court appearance. In each case, court records do not specify how the items were obtained or to which tribe they probably belonged.  Matteson said last week that he bought the items from an artifacts dealer and he did not know their origins. He said that transaction of less than $300 has resulted in what he hopes is only a temporary loss of his artifact museum.

He said federal agents recently confiscated his 38-foot trailer filled with Native American arrowheads, pots and other relics, which he has collected during the past 50 years.

Verges and the two other men were most likely looting sites and burial grounds.  Policing these violations is difficult given the vast geographical area federal agents and prosecutors are tasked with safeguarding.  That’s why its particularly disturbing that President Bush has decided to pardon David Lane Woolsey (via) of St. George Utah, who violated the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. 

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com