There has been some disapproval in collecting circles of opinions supporting the epigram "collectors are the real looters" ([wrongly] attributed by them to Colin Renfrew). Indeed a whole discussion list has recently been set up by a dealer "to prove or disprove the Ren[f]rew Hypothesis (sic PMB) on Looting"... so far without too many collectors wanting to argue the point in detail.
This is not surprising. Most normal people need little convincing that the inception of the disasterous digging into archaeological sites in places like Nigeria dates from the period when dealers started to express an interest in buying the fragments of terracotta figurines (as objects of fashionable "tribal art") which such digging provides. In Jiroft in Iran, locals expressed little interest in quarrying the ancient site until dealers began appearing there eager to buy the bits of old stone and pottery and looting then began in earnest. Such cases may be multiplied. Though dealers and collectors try to explain individual cases away by specious arguments, the overall picture seems pretty clear to most of the rest of us.
On a collectors' forum yesterday there appeared the following announcement: "I can supply a large lot of neolithic arrowheads.
Original items! Good quality no complete broken or junk points!
I am selling this arrowheads for only $ 1 each + shipping costs.
Minimum to take is 100 pieces [...] Nico sahara-arrowheads."
The dealers' website is here and there are close up pictures of a box-full of the offered goods here and here. These are obviously the cherry-picked items from a larger assemblage of surface finds probably garnered from a wide region and cultural range - all mixed up in a box somewhere in a Dutch portable antiquity dealer's premises. Where have these items come from? How did they get to the Netherlands? It would seem from the way the dealer signs his message to English-speaking unprovenanced arrowhead collectors that he is saying that they have been picked up somewhere in and around the Sahara desert.
As we know the region now occupied by the Sahara desert has not always been as arid as today. In the past much of the area was savanna and even forested and supported a rich fauna. As such many ancient human communities exploited the area and left traces of their activities. The archaeological remains of the area have a rich story to tell of the history of mankind, and also the response of these communities to serious climatic change (perhaps not a message without meaning today). A number of archaeological expeditions in this region - both of national institutions as well as collaborative international scholarly expeditions - have gathered substantial bodies of evidence from surface survey and detailed investigation of some sites. This information cannot however be obtained if the sites have been looted. In other words if groups of people have gone over them and removed or otherwise disturbed the distribution and other patterns of the artefacts they contain without record.
This is what we have here. It seems most likely that the source of these items is Bedouin who go out into the desert and fill up their saddle-bags with the "stones" lying out in the sands. They go back to sites they know produce these items, they find new ones (unknown to science). They take whatever they can sell. They then take them to certain towns (sometimes crossing national borders) where there are dealers who have contacts with other dealers who form part of the chain to the western collectors' markets.
It seems pretty obvious to most normal people that the main impetus for searchers to go deep into the desert to look for these "stones" and haul them acrss the vast expanses of sands is because someone somewhere will pay them a little money for them. These middlemen can only do this because at the other end of the chain of distribution are those willing to buy unprovenanced gee-gaws for their collection without asking any questions about where they came from. It seems undeniable that the carefree collector of such items (which are being supplied along with beads and bangles, Palaeolithic handaxes, polished Neolitic axeheads and other "collectables") without even a thought to what happens to the archaeological site - the only source of our knowledge of a community part of a great human culture - when these items were grabbed up and transported to a distant souk in a bag of thousands of others.
I expect the collector will counter that the Bedouin's family and camels were fed with the money generated by this looting of archaeological sites and that probably they had no other source of income. Maybe. They may claim that the laws many of the countries concerned are "unreasonable and unjust" (prevent "private enterprise") and in any case "do not prevent looting" (that's rich coming from the collectors and dealers that finance the looting by ignoring their existence). This does not however change the fact that these laws DO exist, and that by ignoring them, dealers buying illicitly-obtained material which is in many cases seems to be illicitly exported from the source country, are financing illgal operations and putting money into the pockets of criminals.
Collectors of course, and still less dealers in portable antiquities, do not see it this way.