Saturday, February 28, 2009

Site Looting Down Dramatically in Italy

Italy has demonstrated that it is possible to dramatically reduce the looting of archaeological sites, according to a new story in Scotland's Sunday Herald. What lies behind this success? Here's the money quote:

A three-pronged strategy from the government has made life increasingly difficult for Italy's would-be Indiana Joneses. Increased monitoring of archaeological sites means they are more likely to be caught; tougher penalties are in the parliamentary pipeline; and aggressive prosecution of museum curators and middlemen who trade in illegally excavated antiquities is drying up the market for their goods.
Last year, the carabinieri art squad discovered just 37 illegal digs, a tiny figure compared with the 1000 or so regularly found in the 1990s.

Assuming that the astonishing decline is not due to the carabinieri having cut back radically on site monitoring, the message here is clear: if the appropriate policies are put in place and -- crucially -- backed by adequate policing and enforcement resources, looting can be stopped. Dealers and collectors who suggest that the only feasible solution is to legalize the illicit market are wrong, as are archaeologists who put great stock in raising cultural awareness.

Of the three causes mentioned, it seems least likely that tougher penalties alone are responsible, since the decline has preceded the passage of stronger laws (though it may well be that even before the new laws have been passed, looters are being deterred by media attention). Nor is it likely that the high-profile prosecution of a small number of curators and middlemen -- really, only the Medici network -- could have done the trick by itself. While the Getty's buying spree surely poured oil on the fire, the demand for antiquities is primarily driven not by American museums but by the continued avidity of wealthy collectors worldwide; and the takedown of the Medici network must have left others intact.

That leaves increased monitoring of archaeological sites. The article provides no figures or additional information about how monitoring has improved, but whatever the specific measures -- better technology, additional personnel, information-sharing, etc -- they must have cost something. Those who are interested in assisting other countries where looting is out of control should focus on targeting their assistance on measures to improve the capacity for site monitoring. It is a lot less sexy than restoring a world heritage site or sponsoring archaeological digs, but much more cost-effective in preserving the past.


David Gill said...

This is hardly a new story and draws on material from 2007. The clue lies in the mention of 'culture minister Francesco Rutelli' - or to be more accurate in 2009, 'the former culture minister ...' Casasanta's interview with AP was with Ariel David: see Looting Matters.

Larry Rothfield said...

David is right about the material being pulled from 2007, though I had not myself known of a story that specified the number of sites so precisely. The key point, however, is that the decline in looting should be analyzed and learned from. Monitoring of sites is a key component of effective deterrence. Ideally, one would also like to see the antiquities market monitored through regulations that required dealers and buyers to report all sales along with provenance for items, at the very least.

Cultural Property Observer said...

It is nice to see that Gill is far more polite to a fellow academic than he was to me when I cited a story that appeared on the internet as new, but which actually was rehashed news which in reality was a bit dated.

In any event, as to the substance of your post, isn't it also possible that increased economic development in S. Italy and Sicily has also played some role in the decline of tomb robbing? After all, people are not so poor there anymore and there certainly is some correlation between poverty and desparate people despartely looking for anything salable to make ends meet.


Peter Tompa

Larry Rothfield said...

There is no doubt that there are other factors that also need to be tracked to determine how much of a role they may have played, including unemployment rates, though it is difficult to believe that such a precipitous decline could be primarily driven by economic development.