I have found that the vast majority of fellow students in my master’s course tend to hold a defeatist attitude towards the illicit looting of cultural property—that is, it is inherently negative and harmful; it is “bad.” In cultural heritage studies, looting is universally understood as “illegal digging.” It is unofficial, unsystematic excavation and collection of archaeological and cultural artifacts, typically by people with no proper archaeological skills or know-how other than the ability to locate objects in the ground. Looters are not concerned with identifying their finds, but rather are concerned with their quality in terms of a perceived market value.
From the narrow viewpoint of purist archaeologists, looters are seen as doing illegal things. Looters are the antithesis of self-conscious archaeologists, whom regard themselves as the standard bearers of all archaeological excavation, seeking truth and knowledge from the material remnants of the past. To their credit, looting does in fact destroy the context of a find and thus any likelihood of understanding how an object fits into the archaeological record. Worse still, looters sell off their finds before any educated persons can properly study them. Archaeological science is trumped by the desire to profit from the material past, and for this looters are considered villains to archaeology. In the opinion of these noble, self-righteous academics, looters are motivated solely by ignorance, moral decay, and greed. “How can these people so blatantly disturb science,” archaeologists wonder, “and how can they offend their own history with such disregard?”
In most cases, though, the term “looters” can be replaced with “subsistence diggers.” Subsistence digging is when “unofficially excavated” archaeological and cultural material is sold and the profit used to supplement an already meager income. Subsistence diggers often use clandestine digging practices, such as operating at night or in concert with others, to supplement traditional socioeconomic life ways, which do not provide year-round economic stability. In Belize, for example, subsistence diggers (called “huecheros”) excavate and sell artifacts part-time during agricultural off-seasons.
The reality is that subsistence digging is most often carried out by refugees from civil violence and victims of economic despair. In developing countries especially, subsistence digging becomes a viable socioeconomic alternative to starvation for the rural poor. Their livelihoods sadly are hampered by land speculation and abuse (by corrupt political and military regimes), extra-local commerce, and a distinct lack of any political voice. The few dollars subsistence diggers receive from the sale of an artifact could easily buy their families such necessities as food, clothing, medicine, and security (not to mention is several times more than archaeologists are willing to pay them as day laborers on their sites).
Additionally, many indigenous groups—in Latin America and elsewhere—see themselves as the legitimate heirs to archaeological and cultural artifacts pulled from their land. They view these treasures as gifts from their ancestors, deposited in the ground by real or mythological patrons, to be harvested by later generations. The Belizean huecheros call their finds “semilla,” or seeds—planted by their ancestors to dig up and sell for money or for actual corn seed. These finds also provide subsistence diggers with a veritable link to the past, a link that is otherwise entirely ignored during archaeological excavation. In a way, archaeologists will treat the past with reverence but treat the descendants of that past like ignorant peasants, as if locals are better off not knowing their connection to the objects being pulled from the ground.
Subsistence diggers, by and large, are disturbed by foreign archaeologists coming to their land and defiling it in the name of science. In the natives’ view, archaeologists are waging a type of class warfare, wherein locals are paid next to nothing to dig up their history and hand it over, never to see the artifacts again. Archaeologists bring their money, people, and equipment, and they see the artifacts as more research money and greater power.
However, archaeologists working in developing countries then have an intellectual and economic obligation to the native population. For archaeologists who are passionate about their science and who consequently would like to see an end to the unsystematic excavation of archaeological sites, the question should be: How do we get locals to care about the history of these objects? How do we get our hosts to see that clay pot as more than just a dollar sign?
The answer, I think, depends on sustainable cultural tourism. The improvement of conditions for indigenous peoples must be a part of all funded excavation work. This means that not only should natives be afforded further responsibilities beyond merely hauling buckets of dirt, but also that a portion of the grant money used to fund their research should be injected back into the local economy. As educated individuals themselves, archaeologists could donate funding towards building and maintaining local schools, museums, hospitals, etc. On a similar note, local museums should be founded which display artifacts excavated from local sites, catering mainly to the natives to whom this history belongs and whom will be the museum’s most frequent patrons. Local peoples as well can be employed in these museums as a form of sustainable employment; they can till their fields in the daytime and by night can serve as security guards, tour guides, or workers in a new cultural center. In this way, public participation can be an effective solution to rampant, “ignorant” looting.
Lastly, and most important, archaeologists can no longer ignore the living history that links ancestors to current generations. Subsistence diggers are largely fearful that if they do not take advantage of the treasures of their past then the undeserving archaeologists certainly will. Part of the archaeologists’ intellectual obligation is to inform locals what and why they are doing their science at a particular site. If locals can observe archaeology in practice, and then enjoy the economic benefits of said practice, perhaps they would be less inclined to resort to subsistence digging.
Of course, no solution to this issue can be so straightforward, and I am afraid there is no happy medium between strict archaeology and a legal market for antiquities trading. However, the suggestions I have made provide opportunities for the most vulnerable peoples—indigenous communities—to receive employment, educational outreach, and humanitarian support, and everyone should agree that these essentials absolutely cannot be denied in the name of science.