Wednesday, October 26, 2016

U.S. Senators are pushing for Native American Artifact legislation -- but will it do any good?

Here's a news story on the proposed legislation. Two pieces, count-'em two! Well, one is just a resolution. The other, STOP, stands for the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act. So far as I can tell, the main things the legislation does are two: to double the jailtime it is possible to get on conviction for a second offense, and require the Comptroller General to submit a report estimating number of artifacts trafficked and number of prosecutions, "after collecting information from the Attorney General, the Secretary of the Interior, and the Secretary of State, and meeting, as appropriate, with Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations". 

Unfortunately, none of those entities, so far as I know, has the capacity or interest or wherewithal to provide estimates of the extent of the illicit market. As to the doubling of penalties, the theory of deterrence requires that the risk of actually being prosecuted be factored into the deterrent effect. Saddam introduced the death penalty for looting when he lost control, with no discernible impact. So long as the risk of prosecution remains low -- which it will absent some increased incentives to prosecute, increased provision of financial resources to prosecutors, requirements to expand prosecutions, or changes in the burden of proof to make prosecutions cheaper and easier -- there's not likely to be much impact. Nice acronym, though.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Libya: Cultural Racketeering by the Actual Mafia and What it Tells Us about How It Should Be Fought

Informative piece on Libya's struggle to protect its archaeological sites in the absence of a strong centralized government. Several points to note:

  • international trafficking of antiquities is, as Deborah Lehr and the Antiquities Coalition have emphasized, racketeering in which the smugglers are mafia-like organizations -- or in this instance, the actual Mafia!
  • high-end artifacts are being proffered, not just cheap pots.  It may well be the case that there are distinct smuggling channels, with the more violent ones operating at the higher end where the profit margin is the highest. This is at least a hypothesis to be tested.
  • Given the cost of weapons, and the apparently direct trade of weapons to terrorists in exchange for antiquities to the mafia, it makes sense for higher-end artifacts to be favored currency.
  • securing sites in the absence of central authority requires not SPI-style economic development projects aimed at gaining local buy-in, valuable as such projects are in peacetime situations in countries at peace, but rather the arming of local groups backed by rebel authorities.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Parcak's Peru Project: What about the looters?

First things first. Sarah Parcak's project is awesome. So is Larry Coben's Sustainable Preservation Initiative. And the possibilities for Peru laid out in this TED talk are fantastic.

That said, I am still anxious about how the discovery of myriad previously unidentified unexcavated sites is going to be handled in a way that doesn't lead to massive looting. Statements like this one, meant to be reassuring, instead give me pause:
So many sites in Peru are threatened, but the great part is that all of this data is going to be shared with archaeologists on the front lines of protecting these sites. 
Okay, but how are archaeologists on the front lines going to deal with looters absent much more robust sustained funding to pay for all the site guards that are going to be needed to guard these sites as they are being excavated? I can see how once they are excavated SPI might take over, to some extent, winning hearts and minds of locals by giving them an economic incentive to protect sites, or at least those sites that generate tourist revenue. But that's going to happen later if at all. The major danger lies in the period after the discovery is made, before and during excavations, especially on massive sites where archaeologists will perforce be digging only on a tiny fraction.  

The "front lines" is not just a metaphor. Guys with guns are going to come, following the archaeologists (or perhaps hacking the crowd-sourced data, though I have been assured this is not going to be doable). Archaeologists doing the digging on the front lines are going to need help from people who know how to guard sites. How is the Peruvian government going to find the money to pay for guards and police to stop them? Does the TED prize provide funding for that? National Geographic? The archaeologists being given the data? Is the money going to be raised from the thousands of volunteers helping GlobalExplorer?

Financing of site security and archaeological policing is the missing piece of the puzzle. Without it, I worry that this project may end up inadvertently causing the destruction of much of what it discovers.