Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Glasgow Takes a Comparative Look at Looters

The Glasgow-based "trafficking culture" project is announcing that among its ongoing projects is going to be one called: "Looters: a comparative study" looking, it said, at "different types of looters across Europe". Suzie Thomas describes her ongoing research in the following terms:
Around the world, there are a number of terms used for people who loot archaeological and cultural material: pothunters (South West USA); tombaroli (Italy), Raubgräber (Germany and Austria), nighthawks (UK and Ireland), huaqueros (Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia). These different terms usually reflect the local language, and sometimes also refer to the nature of the looting taking place (for example a nighthawk always uses a metal detector). However, there are other, sometimes less obvious distinctions, not only between the terms, but around the nature of looting itself in specific contexts. This research project aims to investigate the nature and drivers of looting archaeological material in a selection of countries. This takes into account the typical profile of the looters (for example is it a hobby that has strayed into illegal behaviour on occasion, one of several criminal activities carried out by the looter, or part of a more organised system?). Focussing on Europe, the economic, legislative and cultural contexts of selected case studies will be analysed to assess their impact on the nature and prevalence of looting. The nature, prevalence and financial desirability of archaeological material from different countries is also taken into account, as is the degree of engagement between treasure hunting communities and heritage professionals. The overall aim of this project is to provide reliable cross-country data on types of and motivations for looting, in order to support the informed analysis of current and proposed legal and policy responses to the problem. An in-depth understanding of the social practice of looting, whether as a hobby or as a career, is an important baseline of knowledge from which to analyse regulatory responses to the issue. The range of such contemporary regulatory responses will be reviewed as part of this project, and recommendations will emerge on what works in controlling looting in its different forms.
I think it is going to be very difficult collecting information on the aspects discussed, I really cannot imagine Ms Thomas walking into a "tombaroli club" and asking one of the them: "tell me, Luigi, how did you start this, was it just a hobby which has strayed into illegal behaviour on occasion?". It seems to me that this young British researcher forgets that in most of the countries she mentions, the activity discussed has been illegal from the outset. It is in very few countries that one can go out looting recreationally as a "hobby", and the fact that Britain is one of them seems here to be colouring the proposed research agenda. It seems to me rather odd to consider pothunters and ignore arrowhead collectors, in the same way in Britain to concentrate on so-called "nighthawks" and (apparently) ignore lithics collectors, mudlarks, dump diggers, aeroplane crash site searchers and wreck divers. I look forward to seeing her presentation of "The nature, prevalence and financial desirability of archaeological material from different countries" as there has been very little work of this type done in the past and regional differences in this seem worth exploring. Also the social background to the phenomenon that it will be useful to have more information on, if the researcher can get it. the problem is that the activity is by nature a clandestine one, and the sources of information not so varied (police reports, court documents mostly) and accessible. Still, we wish her luck.

But I hope that before she publishes the results she can step back from that PAS-mentality betrayed by the mention of ascertaining "the degree of engagement between treasure hunting communities and heritage professionals". In many cases, however much supporters of collecting may regret it,  the only "engagement" there can be is through jailcell bars. If the activity is illegal (in order to protect the finite and fragile archaeological resource) why should heritage professionals "engage" with those that wilfully ignore those laws to destroy archaeological evidence and sites and monuments? 


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