ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 54, August 2000


Loot no more

Every day sites are wrecked to supply the art market, writes Simon Denison

I can vividly remember the first time I witnessed pilfering from an archaeological site. I was travelling as a student in Peru, where for a couple of dollars a taxi would take you from a nearby town to the huge Nazca cemeteries spread over the country's remote, rainless western desert.

The arid ground was thick with material eroding out of 1,200-year-old graves - scraps of textile, ceramics, mummified bodies in shrouds whose withered brown skin clung to the bone like gristle on the end of a chicken drumstick. Under a scorching sun and surrounded by a ring of mountains, the place was both gruesome and intensely compelling.

The culprit was a beautiful Berber girl from Morocco, a fellow traveller about my age studying to be an interpreter for tourists in her own country. Something caught her eye half-buried in the sand - a multicoloured woven rope belt with a decorative loop at the front. She stooped, picked it up, and immediately began threading it through her black shorts. I don't know if I was more shocked by the idea of robbing the dead or simply of her despoiling this extraordinary place. Either way, my feeble protests were brushed aside.

Later, in a café in Nazca town I met an Italian with fistfuls of the stuff, urging other travellers to go and help themselves. It was clearly open season on the graves. But I only learned the full story when I spoke to a curator at the local museum.

Picked clean

You have seen nothing, she told me. The looting began in earnest in 1913, when an American excavation alerted locals to the possibility of treasure. Within a few years everything of `value' had been dug out and dispersed mainly to dealers in the United States. Today's souvenir hunters were just picking at the scraps, like scavengers after the hunting pack has eaten its fill and moved on.

All this took place 16 years ago, and for all I know the Nazca cemeteries are now picked clean, devoid of remains, a memory only. Yet they are just one of many hundreds of sites around the world that have been - and continue to be - wrecked by looters with little sign of any easing up in the rate of destruction.

The whole sorry tale is told in an engrossing report, Stealing History, published last month by Cambridge University's McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. Here we read about ranks of JCBs tearing up pre-Roman cemeteries in southern Italy, bulldozers ploughing through 500-yearold barrow fields in Kentucky, Cambodian temples systematically stripped of statuary by looters using chainsaws, and similar tales from every other part of the world.

Why does it matter? Aside from the destruction of the spirit of numinous ancient places there is also the simple fact of artistic vandalism. Most of the loot is sold to `art lovers' in the West, yet how much less valuable as art is the hacked-off face of a Buddha or a mangled Byzantine mosaic, than the great architectural masterpiece of a temple or church from which they have been so roughly stolen?

Lost stories

There is also the loss of information. This may sound like a dry academic point - but it is not. A few telling facts may make a merely beautiful object infinitely more valuable and moving. Bronze bowls from the reign of King Midas in the 8th century BC, for example, properly excavated from central Turkey, taught us not only about the site where they were found but also the society in which they were made. They were found to contain residues of a spicy meal of mutton washed down with barley beer, wine and mead. A looted bowl, by contrast, scrubbed clean for the trade, would possess no such added value.

This is all a problem for Britain since much of the international trade passes through London's antiquities market. Exports alone from Britain are thought to amount to £50m a year, and between 65%-90% of antiquities for sale are unprovenanced - ie, probably looted. The Stealing History report places the ultimate blame for looting squarely on the shoulders of dealers and collectors unconcerned by an object's origins. These people may buy their treasures but their motivation is no different from that of my tomb-robbing friend from Morocco.

The report also shows, with penetrating clarity, how there can be no legal or other justification for the UK Government's continued refusal to sign either the UNESCO or UNIDROIT conventions on cultural property, which would hamper the international trade by enabling the recovery of looted or stolen artefacts. Pressure is now mounting on the Government to act (see Update). Let us hope that it does so this year.

`Stealing History', by Neil Brodie, Jenny Doole and Peter Watson is available from the Museums Association, 42 Clerkenwell Close, London EC1R 0PA, for £7.99.

Simon Denison is the Editor of British Archaeology

Return to the British Archaeology homepage

Return to the CBA homepage

© Council for British Archaeology, 2000