Monday, February 11, 2013

Economics of Looting: The Costs of Production

A fascinating story about antiquities looting in Sri Lanka, which appears to be on the upswing, provides some useful information about what a shift from "subsistence" to "industrialized" looting involves:

We didn’t catch the wrongdoers. But we did find the laser gun and a generator. Inside the cave there was a pit 55-feet deep. We were informed that 50 people had been digging for three months, for payment of Rs 1,000 a day.”
Police are investigating the activities of several gangs. Many more are yet to be identified, let alone investigated. One network of hunters, recently busted, was implicated in three illegal excavations in Wellawaya, Haputale and Buttala.
A telephone number scribbled on a wall calendar in the home of a member, led to the discovery that the gang had agents islandwide. One of its main organisers was a security forces deserter from Ruwanwella, who was pretending to be the bodyguard of an influential minister’s wife. Another was a timekeeper from Wellawaya, who was residing in Buttala, as an employee of the Uva Provincial Council. He masqueraded as an officer of the Archaeological Dept.The husband of an Avissawella-based lawyer was involved in all three incidents. The chief financier was found to be the husband of a bank manager in Colombo. 

1,000 rupees is about $8. So for this dig alone, the labor cost is $36,000 (50 people digging for three months at $8). Add in the costs of a laser gun or generator, and it is clear that someone must be willing to pay quite a lot for the artifacts being stolen in order for this kind of operation to yield profits. 
The story offers one additional detail worth pondering: 
Before each excavation, a “kattadiya” (exorcist) performed ceremonies.
This gives us a peek into the psychology of the locals who have been enlisted to do the work of digging up artifacts that they know have something sacred about them. Too bad such superstition could not be harnessed to keep sites safe. (As I note in Rape of Mesopotamia, the first archaeologist to excavate in Iraq, Layard, wrote that his diggers steered clear of the stone figures they were uncovering because they feared there were spirits trapped in them, and this made it unnecessary to hire site guards.)

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