At some point, I had already planned on composing a post discussing the topic of looting (and its more abstract companion, cultural appropriation) when I came across an article in an issue of Archaeology magazine called The Looters Next Door. It’s a conversation with Utah-native archaeologist Winston Hurst, a staunch advocate of archaeological preservation, regarding his hometown’s notable local culture of pot hunting.
What struck me most about this particular article was this quote “Some archaeologists think this bust (referring to a recent arrest on charges of looting) is going to make the looting problem worse, that it’s like hitting a beehive. Do you feel that way? A certain segment of the population will use it as another excuse to justify their collecting. I grew up in this town. Collecting artifacts is in the water here.” (Archaeology, September/October 2009 pg. 16)
Collecting. That’s the word that trips us up. It’s because the real issue comes down, not just to obfuscating the problem in linguistic chicanery, but to a question of ownership. Who owns those bits and bobs scattered on the back lawn or in the field down the road? We, as products of a Western way of thinking about property, have trouble with conceptualizing the archaeological record as a public record. The big picture in this sense tends to escape us and it seems insignificant that we would walk home with that arrowhead or this pot sherd. But if we were to see the world around us as museum or even as a book, full of stratigraphy pages, artifact words, and soil and pebble letters; perhaps it might make it much harder to tear out the sections we like and put them on our shelf.
In some ways, it’s a natural reaction to being told that ‘you too can own your own little piece of history.’ Throughout our lives we are encouraged to collect. The ‘buy this, buy that’ mentality of retail culture admonishes us to collect everything from rocks to art, but it also has the consequence of fueling black market demand for artifacts and that, in turn, drives looting.
The reverse of this is, in some sense, the drive towards cultural preservation. Unfortunately, while swinging widely to the other side of the spectrum, for many the internal drive to parse, partition, and accumulate has remained. In Mustang District, Nepal (where my own ethnographic focus lies) for example, it is not unheard of for European, American, or even South Asian NGOs or other organizations to swoop in on ancient sites or temple complexes, close them off in the name of “cultural preservation,” and lay claim to a mission of “saving” the culture in question through the protection of places and things. Aside from the critique that this assumes culture to be a bounded object frozen in time or that culture exists within objects and not through the actions of those who produce them, this has also had the effect of alienating the actual peoples who built and continue to use these sites from their own material cultural existence. In other words, preservationists have tended to throw out the local peoples right along with the foreign tourists; endemic babies in the sight-seeing bathwater. The irony then is that there are more indigenous Himalayan communities appearing in urban centers (such as Kathmandu) as there are in the actual lands such peoples currently live in. Things were taken, they just weren’t moved. If you’re curious, Sienna Craig’s “A Tale of Two-Temples: Culture, Capital, and Community in Mustang, Nepal” discusses this issue at some length.
However, I don’t believe that the solution lies in laws and law enforcement. Chains, handcuffs, and public humiliation will not curb the cultural desire to collect. Education is, while the slowest solution, the better solution. It’s about reaching the hearts and minds of people, in showing them the value in the human history they encounter each day. When everyday people can look at the relics, artifacts, and ruins around them and then walk away, happy that the next generation will do as they have done, then the victory of “preservation” will have been won. Truly this is a challenge. We tend not to collect experiences. We collect dust.