Monday, 28 March 2011

Looters Strip Latin America of Cultural Heritage

In the Past Horizons Magazine there is an interesting coverage of a recent report ("Saving our Vanishing Heritage") by the Global Heritage Fund in San Francisco. This alarms that a looting epidemic in Latin American countries, notably Peru and Guatemala is rapidly leading to the destruction of the region’s archaeological heritage. It identified nearly 200 “at risk” sites in developing nations, with South and Central America prominent.

Mirador, the cradle of Mayan civilisation in Guatemala, was being devastated, it said. “The entire Peten region has been sacked in the past 20 years and every year hundreds of archaeological sites are being destroyed by organised looting crews seeking Maya antiquities for sale on the international market.”

Northern Peru, home to the Moche civilisation which flourished from AD100-800, had been reduced to a “lunar landscape” by looter trenches across hundreds of miles. “An estimated 100,000 tombs – over half the country’s known sites – have been looted,” the report said.

The sight breaks the heart of archaeologists and historians piecing together the story of a society which built canals and monumental pyramid-type structures, called huacas, and made intricate ceramics and jewellery.[...] In the absence of written records, archaeology must shed light on what happened. In villages such as Galindo that is becoming all but impossible. Crude tunnels and caves make Moche ruins resemble rabbit warrens. Deep gashes cut into walls expose the brickwork below. Millennia-old adobe bricks are torn from the ground and scattered as though in a builder’s yard.

Most huaqueros are farmers supplementing meagre incomes. Montes de Oca, one of three police officers tasked with environmental protection in a region of a million people, said he was overwhelmed. “I’ve been doing this for 28 years. There are three of us and one truck. It’s insufficient but we do everything possible.”

Ten miles away Huaca del Sol, one of the largest pyramids in pre-Columbus America, is an eroded, plundered shell. Here the culprits were not impoverished farmers but Spanish colonial authorities who authorised companies to mine for treasure, said Ricardo Gamarra, director of a 20-year-old conservation project. “They diverted the river to wash away two-thirds of the huaca and reveal its insides,” he said. “They mined through the walls and caused it to collapse in various places. It’s impossible to guess how much was taken because we don’t know how much was there.”

Donations from businesses and foundations have helped Gamarra’s team protect what is left, drawing 120,000 visitors each year, but of 250 other sites in the region just five have been protected. “In the mountains it’s the same. It is full with archaeological sites, almost all of them have been destroyed,” said Gamarra.

What the article does not say explicitly is that - commercial treasure-hunting exploits excepted - the day-to-day looting is going on to find collectables for the international market (see Roger Atwood's classic book Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World, 2004 ). This is how locals are able to use digging up potsherds, bones, textiles and bits of carved stone to "supplement income". It is the no-questions-asked antiquities market that is driving this illegal digging and smuggling. Look in any internet shop selling so-called "Pre-Columbian art" (ie dug up archaeological artefacts) and see just how many of them offer any documentation to prove the items were taken out of the source country in accordance with their laws, or were exported prior to international agreements coming into force. It will be observed that very few of them do so, and yet collectors continue to patronise them.

This makes the criticism of dealers and collectors that "source countries do not do enough to guard the sites". How to guard hundreds of sites scattered in the jungles of Guatamala, or in the mountain valleys of Peru? Who pays for it and to what benefit? Certainly not the collectors who advocate that doing this is what dozens of developing countries should be spending vast sums of money on - when all that is needed to put a stop to the market in dodgy antiquities is for collectors to walk away from potentially dodgy deals. It costs them nothing. The only people who lose out are the dealers in dodgy artefacts.

There have been suggestions (like those from Jeff Morgan, executive director of the Global Heritage Fund reported in the article), to funnel tourists away from major tourist attractions to lesser known sites "which could then earn revenue to protect their heritage". Morgan says

“one of the biggest problems is the disconnect between local communities and management of the sites. We think locals should get at least 30% of revenues.” Only then, said Morgan, would cultural treasures from the Moche and other civilisations be saved.
Nice words, nice sentiments. How does it work in practice? How do you actually "funnel" the average foreign tourist on a two-week whistlestop tour of a region away from major sites with the tourist infrastructure in place to scattered minor sites where there is not? To make it pay you would have to be catering for the mass tourist market, not the odd backpacker. To do that, you need to invest heavily in the infrastructure, roads, hotels, car parks, toilets, litter bins, maintenance of vegetation and then marketing. As we see in Egypt currently simply having the sites and infrastructure there is not enough, people have to actually turn up. How secure is the tourist market in any given country in the long-term, twenty, thirty years? Are millions of people going to be packing onto fuel-guzzling and fume-producing jet aircraft in the future to spend a few days in foreign climes to the same degree as many of us do with gay abandon today? Is investment in developing more and more tourist destinations sustainable in the long term, is it indeed always going to be the high-return investment that it has been up till now? I am minded of the mountain regions of southern Poland which during the past decade has seen huge investment in tourism, farmland being turned into car parks and ski-slopes. At the beginning all was well, people continued building bigger and better guest rooms onto their farmhouses, hotels, shops for the tourists. Tourists who are now preferring a few hours extra in the car to go to Austria or Italy. We see the same economic crisis in Egypt as huge numbers of people whose income relies on tourism in one way or another are suddenly facing weeks or months with virtually no income at all. These locals have been benefitting from the revenues the local monuments bring in, but to what extent is there actually a "connection" between these people and the "management of sites"? I think the question is more complex than the manner in which this is presented.

It seems to me that the "archaeology promotes tourism" argument is too simplistic. Not all that we do and call archaeology has any impact on tourism at all, in fact I would say most of what we do and call archaeology has none. Excepting a few percent, tourists have limited amounts of time (and that time is costing them money) and want to see something worth seeing. These days that means something that makes a good photograph, nobody looks these days, just snaps. So Stonehenge, Carnac, Karnak, Angkor Wat, Tower of London, are on their list. Palaeolithic kill sites and a Roman kiln site under a ploughed field, or an Early Bronze Age settlement (lovely storage pits) about to vanish under an office product supplier's warehouse are not on their list of 'must see' and I think we may reasonably predict never will be.

What archaeology actually does for tourists is produce unearthed ruins with a romantic story or appearance (Troy, Knossos, Karnak - not forgetting the recent unearthing of its Sphinx avenue, Silchester/Wroxeter etc) which can be 'visited'. We imagine that the public listen with bated breath as the archaeological 'expert' reveals the story ("how it was [here] in the past"), but in fact if we talk to that public at those sites, they do not. The average tourist could not care less whether the excavation of the ruins was done by you or me over a period of a decade to remove a few tens of superimposed pebble floors and worn areas, or whether it was Thomas Wright and his merry men in the 1850s . Or whether the gold hoard shining in its display case was found in archaeological context, or hoiked out of the ground by Bazza Boggins the Brummy plumber with his metal detector. What difference does it make, as long as its in a case to show the kids before you buy them an ice cream and a Roman-soldier-pencil-and-eraser and plastic dinosaur in the museum giftshop? I doubt whether very few would even look at the excavation report produced as an expensive monograph even if it was on the shelves of the giftshop, let alone fork out the money to buy it. They might buy the popular version written by the archaeologist if there is one. An equal (?) number are more likely to go for the one written by a local enthusiast who claims that Vortigern was buried here, and that at night you can see lights dancing on the hilltop which legend has it was haunted and has an unusually high frequency of UFO sightings, or somesuch "information".

To what extent does tourism, even so-called "cultural tourism", actually "need" archaeology, proper archaeology? In what way is archaeology superior for the needs of this tourism (its actual state today, not what we'd like it to be) to mere artefact hunting ("Treasure" hunting)? Given that "partnership" with artefact hunters is in Britain, for example (to take a bad example), is all-too-publicly promoted as "archaeological outreach", and artefact collecting is presented as a means of the public "doing archaeology" ("engaging with archaeology/their past" - not the same thing at all), then this question becomes one of fundamental importance. Public perceptions (and not just in Britain) of what archaeology is are altering because of the mode of outreach adopted through the PAS. The results of the sustained effort of decades of archaeologists trying to get over the idea why archaeology is important and relevant have been shattered by the stream of press releases of how this or that treasure-hunter has made an important discovery and made a lot of money out of it at the same time, and achieved more than the experts who can only congratulate him and be thankful he showed it to them. Not a mention is made anywhere of how the archaeological record is being eroded by this activity when so many of these finds are being made and removed without any kind of archaeological involvement or followup. It depicts archaeology as an uncontrolled artefact hunt and uncontrolled story-telling about individual and on the whole contextless items. This gives totally the wrong idea of what archaeology is (supposed to be) about. But then, I suspect that in Britain, many archaeologists who support the PAS have lost sight of that too. I ask them, how they would see the future of their discipline and its relationship with its public developing over the next few decades? What actually does British archaeology - in the form it exists today - actually have to offer anyone apart from archaeologists and a portion of the population (part of the one that actually reads books with big words in them)?

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