Saturday, 28 February 2009

Italian Public opinion turning against ‘tombaroli’

In Italy, reports Philip Willan ('Art hit squad takes on tomb raiders after relics looted ') “robbing tombs and other buried archaeological sites has long been a popular rural pastime. Like tax evasion, it was known to be illegal but not particularly frowned upon. The homes of wealthy professionals often contained a secret hoard of archaeological treasures and many felt they might just as well be in private hands as gathering dust in a museum storeroom. In recent times, attitudes have changed and there is a growing awareness that the unscientific excavations of the tombaroli are stealing the country's history, as well as an assortment of its antiquities.”

This change in public attitude has resulted from a persistent application of strategies adopted by the Italian government which has made life increasingly difficult for the looter. Firstly there is more open discussion of the problem in the media, there is also closer monitoring of archaeological sites, effective prosecution of offenders, with tougher penalties planned, and especially the aggressive prosecution of museum curators and middlemen who trade no-questions-asked in illegally excavated antiquities which is drying up the market for their goods.

This seems to be reducing the number of illegal excavations. In the 1990s, the carabinieri art squad responsible for dealing with this problem would discover about 1000 illegal digs annually. Recently it was down to just 37. Of course it may well be that part of the reasons for this may be that the looters had already destroyed most of the accessible part of the resource they were so mercilessly despoiling - it is after all finite.

An important element in the fight against these exploitive culture criminals is that the psychological climate had changed and Italian public is more aware of the problem and efects of looting. Maria Bonmassar, a spokeswoman for the Italian culture ministry. said: "In the past, if people found antiquities while digging the foundations of a house they would try to conceal them. Now, there is an awareness that this is a part of our cultural patrimony."

It seems to me there is a lesson here for the supporters of the PAS of England and Wales as the "only possible" approach to cutting down the exploitation of archaeological sites as a source of collectables. Becoming "partners" with the tomborolli and artefact hunters and thus misleading public debate about the nature and effects of the activity they are doing archaeology a disservice. The reduction in looting postulated (though hardly demonstrated) by the recent "Nighthawking" report in the UK pales into insignificance besides the Italian achievement.

Willan's article suggests that a key element was cutting through the network of dealers selling to foreign markets and prosecuting those at the no-questions-asked receiving end. It is heartening to see that the UK might be considering the first steps towards such a regulation of its own markets.

As a matter of accuracy, while reported as current news, Willan's article is largely a rehash of an earlier article Anguillara Sabazia 'Italy's crackdown on art looting keeps plunderers in check, for now' (The Associated Press, e.g. Herald Tribune July 5, 2007 ).
Photo: Sicilian Carabineri doing their job, obviously here after arresting a metal detector using plunderer.

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