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Allison Smith
Anth/Cla 228
Professor O’Neill
26 May 2016
Topic #4, Option B
While often times looting and destroying cultural heritage occur together, the two ideas,

looting and destroying, are distinct. Proulx defines looting as what happens when

“undocumented, illicitly obtained artifacts are ripped from the ground and sold, often on the legal

market (Proulx 2013, 2). However, looting may not always involve artifacts being “ripped” from

the ground, and the artifacts are not always sold. A less negative definition of “looting” would be

when undocumented, illicitly obtained artifacts are removed from the context in which they are

found. This concept is not the same as “destroying.” Destroying is to remove from existence or

to cause damage to the extent of no repair (“Destroy”). Therefore, looting artifacts is not

synonymous with destroying cultural heritage. Since these two idea are defined differently and

are done with different intentions, the criminal punishments for both actions should not be the


Looting does remove the archaeological context of a find, but it does not remove its

cultural heritage. Once an artifact is removed from its original context, it cannot accurately be

returned; this is why careful documentation and observations of each artifact are made in

archaeological investigations. However, removing a find’s context does not mean the item’s

cultural heritage is taken away. The cultural heritage of the object is still present; however, it is

not as well documented as archaeologists would like. The item still able to provide valuable

information to understanding the society to which it belonged. Proulx states, “looted

archaeological sites and the orphaned objects removed from them provide limited contributions
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to our knowledge about the human past and tell us little about the culture that produced them”

(Proulx 2013, 2). While it may be true that looting causes “limited contributions to our

knowledge” due to a lack of archaeological context, knowledge is still obtained. Actually,

looting has provided knowledge that would be altogether lost.

It is easy to say that looting is wrong, illegal, and should not ever be done; however,

looting has led to positives in archaeology. For example, very little would be known about the

Moche civilization in Peru if it had not been for looters. Looters tunneled under a pyramid of the

Moche civilization at Sipán in 1986. After months of tunneling, the ceiling of the tunnel

collapsed, exposing much of the contents from a tomb of the pyramid to the looters. The looters

gathered artifacts of monetary value, such as gold, silver, and gilded copper items. However, the

looters then got into a dispute, and one went to authorities. The authorities arrested a few of the

looters, but others had already escaped. Because of destruction caused from the looters and in

case of more looting, David Alva set up an excavation of the area. This excavation led to the

discovery of another pyramid, the Lord of Sipán’s tomb and others’, elaborately decorated

pottery, beaded pectorals, and many more artifacts and ecofacts. These findings led to

interpretations and analysis of the Moche civilization that would never have been discovered if

not for the looters who originally discovered the site. While the looters’ ethics may be criticized,

it is important to consider what may have driven the looters to their actions (Price 2006, 34-40).

Many looters around the world take artifacts of monetary value from sites due to their

lack of money to survive. As Price points out with the case of the locals at Sipán, “poverty and

unemployment are powerful incentives to get cash” (Price 2006, 44). When people are in need of

money to survive, to allow their families to have housing, and to provide food for their family,

who can blame them for selling artifacts buried on their homeland? The demand for historical,
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valuable artifacts exists, and people are willing to pay to get them. Therefore, if a person is

watching his or her family starve in front of himself or herself, digging up an old artifact to sell

does not seem like a punishable crime if the family is able to survive another day. Money is not

the only reason for looting, though. While it was previously argued that looting limits knowledge

due to lack of publication and a lack of archaeological context, it also provides knowledge in

some cases.

Take a look at the locals’ situation at St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. At this area in 1990,

51% of household respondents were unemployed and only a mere 22% households held a

member with a full time job. Many of these households were breaking even or in deficit and in a

need of more income. Luckily for the locals, the island was, and is, home to many ivory artifacts

and fragments of ivory artifacts which can be found within permafrost. Because of this

abundance of ivory, families, including children, dug areas in which they worked to uncover

these artifacts. These dig areas were even passed down by kin within families, providing a

traditional aspect to develop for the digging of sites. While money plays one role in this story,

the locals’ general negative attitude towards archaeology plays another. In the past, artifacts

discovered by archaeologists were removed from the island due to a lack of appropriate storage

facilities. This removal of artifacts from the island struck the residents as a cultural and financial

loss for them. Due to this, local diggers felt that they learnt more about their cultural heritage

from digging up artifacts themselves rather than when the archaeologists did. While the locals

may not have kept written documentation of their finds, they were able to see the traditional

craftsmanship and innovations within their findings and share them with their families. Digging

on the island involved many different motivations, including economic, traditional, and

educational purposes. In a technical sense, what these locals were doing is deemed as “looting.”
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The items were removed from their archaeological context, undocumented, and illicitly obtained.

However, the cultural heritage was not “destroyed.” Locals were actually able to discover more

than they felt they had from archaeological excavations of their own cultural heritage. The

cultural heritage of this area was enhanced to the locals through looting. Yet, the locals were

performing an illegal act; therefore, shouldn’t they be punished (Kaiser 1993, 347-354)?

Destruction of cultural heritage can occur at archaeological sites due to looters, but it is

not the looters’ aim. For example, in the case of Sipán, looters had badly damaged the site and

careful excavation was needed not to damage it any further. In spite of the damage done, the site

would have never been discovered if not for the looters. Also, looting provided a means of

subsistence for the looters as shown through Sipán’s and St. Lawrence Island’s cases. Looting is

not done in order to destroy cultural heritage; looting is done in order to obtain money for

survival, or even for educational and traditional purposes in some cases. Looters should not be

charged with the same criminal penalties as those who purposefully destruct cultural heritage

because they do not understand that they are destroying cultural heritage. The locals of St.

Lawrence Island did not believe that they were destroying their cultural heritage by destroying

archaeological context; rather, they believed they were gaining knowledge of their cultural

heritage. Furthermore, at Sipán, once archaeologists opened the excavation site to the looters and

locals and told them about their heritage, their attitudes changed and looting decreased (Price

2006, 44). Criminal penalties should not be identical for looters and those that destroy cultural

heritage because looters do not understand what harm they are causing. Harshly punishing

looters is like putting a child in time out without telling him or her why, and without an

explanation he or she will never learn the problem with his or her actions. Looters need to be

educated on the destruction they cause to cultural heritage before they can be punished for it.
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With this considered, looters also need an alternative means to make money. This is the most

prominent driving force of looters, and even after being educated on the harm looting does,

looters will still need a way to get money. Possibly the easiest and most logical solution is to hire

locals to work at the site. This would allow for educational opportunities not only about the harm

of looting, but also about their own cultural heritage to occur at the same time and the locals

would be making money, decreasing the chances of them turning to looting as a means to make

money. Lastly, it needs to be noted that looters typically only take materials of monetary value.

While this does not help any archaeologists with their research, it does not dismantle their

opportunity to learn about the past. Looters typically leave behind the “simple” artifacts which

can tell more about the daily lives of the past society than the rarer artifacts of higher value.

Therefore, cultural heritage is still present at the site; it simply comes from artifacts of lesser


Looting and destroying are two distinct terms. However, often times looting causes for

some destruction of cultural heritage to occur. Yet, not all cultural heritage is lost, and in many

cases, looters do not understand the destruction they can cause. Throughout time, looters have

caused for the discovery of sites to occur and some have been able to learn about their cultural

heritage through their actions. Looting may be ethically wrong to some, but looters do not

always understand why that is and indirect benefits have occurred from it. Without any other

source of income and a lack of education about the wrongs of looting, many locals will continue

to feel the need to loot in order for them and their families to survive. Looters should not face the

same criminal penalties as those who destroy cultural heritage because their motivations are not

the same. Looters loot for tenable reason(s), and it is not to destroy their cultural heritage.
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“Destroy.” (n.d.). In Merriam-Webster Online. << http://www.merriam->>
Kaiser, T. 1993. “The Antiquities Market.” Journal of Field Archaeology 20.3: 347-355.
Price, T. 2006. Principles of Archaeology. New York, NY: HcGraw-Hill
Proulx, B. 2013. “Archaeological Site Looting in “Glocal” Perspective: Nature, Scope, and
Frequency.” American Journal of Archaeology 117.1: 111-125.

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