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.

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