Study Reveals Looting of Archaeological Sites as Massive Global Problem

Archaeologists report the issue of looting as widespread and frequent

Published on 4 January 2013

Author(s): Pop[ular Archaeology

Type:   No December 2012

Based on the results of a recently conducted global survey, pervasive looting at archaeological sites is broad based and frequent. The numbers suggest serious implications for the preservation of the world's cultural heritage and in understanding or rediscovering human history.

The survey, conducted by Blythe Bowman Proulx, assistant professor of criminal justice in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, collected information through a structured questionnaire sent electronically to more than 14,400 field archaeologists throughout the world. The survey was designed to collect information about their personal experiences with looting at archaeological sites, with the objective of developing a picture of the nature, geographic scope, and frequency of looting and site destruction within local and global contexts. 

"Field archaeologists are in a position to observe looting firsthand," writes Proulx in her report, "whether the focus of their work is archaeological survey, excavation, post-excavation analysis, or site conservation and management. This alone makes them a significant source of information on looting and site destruction".[1] According to archaeologists and historians, the looting of archaeological sites is significant not so much for the loss of the artifacts themselves, but for the loss of information about the civilizations or human settlements they represent, as the real value of the looted items actually rests with what they say about the context, or ancient site, in which they were found.
Proulx received responses from 2,358 archaeologists around the world. Based on their feedback, looting activity occurred in 87% of the 118 countries that were reported as primary locations for archaeological fieldwork. Most respondents (97.9%) reported that looting was occurring in the general area or country where they conducted fieldwork, and "78.5% reported having had personal on-site experience with looting at some point during their careers". [1]
The looting and destruction of archaeological sites, particularly as a means to feed the illicit international trade and sale of antiquities, has been known to exist for centuries and has been the subject of numerous reports, books and articles for decades. The fact that it has been occurring is therefore no revelation to scholars and the public alike. Until now, however, a carefully designed measurement of its scope and frequency on a local and global scale has not been determined based on the experiences and observations of the people perhaps best positioned to inform -- the archaeologists.
Writes Proulx: "While there may be nothing especially groundbreaking about asking archaeologists to share their personal experiences with and opinions about archaeological site looting, this study’s design and sample make it innovative in its global scope, aim, and execution. Simply put, this study lends empirical support to the claim that looting is an iterative problem that is both globally and temporally pervasive, not confined to certain areas of the world or particular types of archaeological resources.........Looting—and, consequently, the role it may play in the antiquities trade—can no longer be dismissed as simply exaggerated, nor can concerns about looting be cast off as the mere products of scaremongering archaeologists with over-blown imaginations and thinly veiled preservationist agendas." [1]
The report, entitled Archaeological Site Looting in "Glocal" Perspective: Nature, Scope and Frequency, is published in the January 2013 issue of the American Journal of Archaeology as an open access forum article. As a continuation of the article, members of the public are invited to complete a similar survey about the looting of archaeological sites.

[1] Proulx, Blythe Bowman, Archaeological Site Looting in "Glocal" Perspective: Nature, Scope and Frequency, American Journal of Archaeology, January 2013 (117.1)

Back to previous page