Sunday, November 18, 2012

Antiquities Looting: An American Phenonemon

It is salutary to be reminded that antiquities looting is not a function of ignorance on the part of uneducated people, nor of poverty. It occurs not just in those countries that collectors love to blame for the fact that their archaeological heritage is being pillaged for sale to those same collectors, but also right here where those collectors live.

Petroglyphs have been stolen from a sacred site in California. The looters were not acting on a whim:

The theft required extraordinary effort: Ladders, electric generators and power saws had to be driven into the remote and arid high desert site near Bishop. Thieves gouged holes in the rock and sheared off slabs that were up to 15 feet above ground and 2 feet high and wide.
All this effort, despite the fact that according to authorities, "the petroglyphs aren't worth a great deal on the illicit market, probably $500 to $1,500 each."

A few thousand dollars in value is more than enough to get a gang to organize a well-planned, lengthy operation.

What is to be done?
...desecration of the site, which Native Americans still use in spiritual ceremonies, has forced reservation officials and U.S. authorities to come together and ask a tough question: Can further vandalism be prevented?
"How do we manage fragile resources that have survived as much as 10,000 years but can be destroyed in an instant?" asked archaeologist David Whitley, who in 2000 wrote the nomination that succeeded in getting the site listed on the National Register of Historic Places. "Do we keep them secret in hopes that no one vandalizes them? Or, do we open them to the public so that visitors can serve as stewards of the resources?"
The easy answer is to police the site and others listed under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. But that's not possible given the condition of cash-strapped federal lands agencies, authorities said.
Forget about Greece -- the US is too poor (or to be accurate, too cheap) to afford to police its own heritage.

What then can be done? One answer is given in the article:
The site is one of dozens of such locations managed by the BLM office in Bishop. A small army of volunteers has stepped up surveillance of the area.
 Enlisting citizens to help keep an eye on sites has to be on the agenda for all future cultural heritage protection planning, whether here or in other countries. But, as I have argued repeatedly, the key to solving the problem has to be some new funding mechanism to beef up cash-strapped agencies' capacities to watch over sites and deter looters.

No comments: