Monday, 12 October 2009

Prison time and felony charges rare for archaeological looters in US

In an article by Associated Press writer Mike Stark a few days ago ("Prison time, felony charges rare for relic looters") it was pointed out that the comparatively lenient sentence received by two members of the Redd family (probation, a fine equivalent to the value of just one item in their collection of 180 BOXES of ancient artefacts and human remains confiscated), was typical in the USA.

Despite high-profile arrests and indictments, most people convicted of illegally digging up, collecting and cashing in on artefacts in the United States don't go to prison, and for those that do, most are in for a year or less. This was according to a 10-year analysis of prosecutions under the 1979 Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 carried out by Robert Palmer published in 2007 (“Into the mind of looters”. Yearbook of Cultural Property Law 2007). Palmer found that of the 83 people found guilty of offences under the Act, 20 went to prison and 13 of those received sentences of a year or less. Palmer also found that while prosecutors were successful in the cases they took on, they turned away about a third of the cases they got, mostly because of weak evidence or a lack of clear criminal intent. (That sounds familiar to anyone familiar with the fate of cases of illegal artefact hunting in the UK.)

According to Palmer, the failures of the US legal system to deal with those breaking the law, together with a lack of manpower and other priorities for investigators, are the reason why in the US "we are witnessing the wholesale stripping and selling off for scrap our collective American heritage".

Apparently in the US, on average, 840 looting cases (so about two per day) of looting of archaeological sites are reported each year across federal land managed by the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. There are certainly more cases that are either never discovered or never reported, he said. "Lord knows what the scope of the problem actually is", BLM officer Todd Swain said. "But clearly the numbers we do have are seriously under what's going on". Of the reported cases in the past decade, only about 14 percent ever get solved and some 94 percent of violators walk away with misdemeanor tickets. Todd Swain is the Park Service's lone investigator on cultural crimes and these figures appear in his 2007 analysis of the situation (“Cultural resource damage on public lands: what the statistics show", Yearbook of Cultural Property Law 2007).

Despite a push in recent decades to get tougher on artifact looters, there are no significant signs that prosecutions or punishments are having any major effect on looting, especially those that steal for commercial purposes. It would seem that alongside trying to catch the diggers red-handed, a more effective means of controlling the problem would be closer supervision and accountability of the market.

Of course the collectors have an answer to this, one “N2theancient” (apparently a collector) comments on the Stark article:
“Until law enforcement decides to work with us (Law abiding dealers and collectors) within the LEGAL antique market instead of against us i.e.. continually targeting the good guys, ridiculous propaganda, scrutinizing us all as criminals, etc than they are contributing to the crime. They, by perpetuating resentment and distrust, pave the way for looting by disconnecting the most important element to disabling the crime. That element is a system of co-operation and interaction between the dealers and the department of the interior. Until you archaeologists and agents get it, we will all be on this silly little merry-go-round until the end of time”.
Sound familiar? Of course law enforcement in the US or anywhere else are not concerned with the “LEGAL antique market” (sic) or “targeting the good guys”. I fail to understand in what way scrutinizing the market, even if it is “perpetuating resentment and distrust” (of whom by whom?) can “pave the way for looting”. What does that is the no-questions-asked market and those that perpetuate and patronise it. So if instead of fighting commercial and other exploitation of archaeological sites and assemblages as mines for collectables, archaeologists and law enforcement agencies decide to “work with” the artefact hunters, there would be no problem with looting. Call it by another name, and you solve the problem, easy ! So, yes, let collectors and dealers work with law enforcement agencies to clean up once and for all the sewer that is the no-questions-asked market in portable antiquities.

1 comment:

John Muccigrosso said...

Not really a comment, but a heads-up:

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