Wednesday 13 November 2013

The New Golden Age of Looting

There is a text ("The New Golden Age of Archaeology Is Right Now") floating around which seems older than the date attached to them, the earliest were from a week ago about the work of "Sarah Parcak-Space Archaeologist" (sic). Perhaps somebody else can locate the original version of "" and tell us the real date of publication. Much of it is already in the public domain, my interest today is in the bit on looting which seems worth highlighting, and asking, what are we (not "they") doing about this? 
Amid fascinating discoveries, archaeologists also use satellites to track and stop professional looters, who expertly find — and often destroy — unprotected sites and steal important artifacts to sell to collectors and dealers. Within the archaeological community, researchers believe looting is the world's third largest contributor to insurgency and criminal activity, but there are no globally accepted methods to track or curb it.  According to Parcak, looting is especially prevalent in Egypt, Syria and Libya following the Arab Spring in early 2011. But satellite sensing can help. "I started hearing rumors of site looting in late January 2011, and got high resolution imagery in mid-February," she says. "I could see hundreds of looting pits, and that was at just one site. Now, nearly three years on, we’ve counted nearly 10,000 looting pits and seen a nearly 1,000% increase in total looting." The estimated value of the items taken from these pits is between $1 billion and $2 billion. It's easy to identify the looting pits with satellite data, however, since they look nothing like the planned, precise excavation units. Parcak and her colleagues shared their results with Egypt’s antiquities minister, Zahi Hawass, and other members of the Egyptian government to find ways to protect and preserve archaeological sites. This could include crowdsourcing local reports of looting and monitoring sites early on.  "We are losing our past faster than we can map it," Parcak says. "Satellite imagery is the only way we can map the looting patterns effectively."
That high estimate will probably arouse opposition (in any case it'd be at the 'market' end, the collectors' contribution to the process, not what the artefact hunters and diggers get). I'd like to hear Ms Parcak justify it. I think off-the-ceiling comments like that treivialise the real problem, and of course allow the lobbyists for the dealers, to make their nasty comments intended solely to deflect attention from the real issues. My feeling is that 10000 holes for Egypt and Syria is too low a figure. There are single sites like Apamea which have a number of holes that must be (I am not going to count them) a substantial proportion of ten thousand.

Besides which the author who wrote "The New Golden Age of Archaeology Is Right Now" seems not really to have grasped several important things about the current position of archaeology in even just the English-speaking world. Its hard to speak of a "Golden Age" when many local authorities are reducing or scrapping their archaeological capabilities, skimping on museums and all over the world where there are collectable artefacts, sites are being looted for collectable left right and centre.

Vibgnette: it's all about the money...


Detectorbloke said...

Hi Paul

About 10 months I decided to buy a metal detector.

The reasons for doing so are numerous, the main ones being the 'excitement' of not knowing what you are going to dig, the chance to get some fresh air in the peace and quiet and that having done history and ancient history at A level I always had an interest in things past.

Anyhow not having any land I joined the a club and also found a mate who was willing to let me tag a long with him.

I take all the items I find along to the local FLO for them to see what should be recorded on the PAS site.

I read your site with interest and it has got me thinking as to whether or not what I do is 'right'. Whilst I love finding anything really and researching what it is I appreciate that what i have pulled from the ground cannot be put back as such.

Having watched a channel 4 programme last week about looting in Egypt I also appreciate that in some ways what I do isn't perhaps that far removed from such looting and this combined with your blog has got me thinking about what I do.

Having read your blog I was wondering if you think I am benefiting society by finding and recording finds or not as such finds have been removed from their context (although obviously they may never otherwise be found? I ask this question sitting on the fence so to speak as I am just interested.

If the answer is no then in your eyes what if anything can a metal detectorist do to become a value to society or is the only answer not to metal detect.

With thanks


PS i appreciate that my username comes up as Pete I think it's just that I created a google account years ago in a different name when i was blogging and trying to be anonymous!

P2Pinvested said...

Can you post their reply Paul and then post yours tomorrow, I'm intrigued I have not heard of looting pits before and struggle to comprehend thousands of these pits out there. I take it by the fact that they can be seen from satellite that these pits are not small holes either ?

Paul Barford said...

Andy this is the point I am making about all those passionately-interested-in-the-past metal detectorists seeing only one side of this blog. There are a lot of discussions of holes in sites, look up Iraq looting (2003 onwards) look up Archar, a particularly graphic example here:

Paul Barford said...

I've explained why I don't like posting up questions before I have an answer prepared in the "notes to commenters". Your post is now a perfect example of that !

Detectorbloke said...

Hi, my reply wasnt about looting pits it was a broader question about detecting in general. it probably wasn't under the best post but as it was the latest one at the time I just choose that one.

Paul Barford said...

Housingbloke, I am sorry it took me so long to get round to answering. It is a good question and got me thinking (thanks) because this is actually [as far as I recall] the first time in nearly 14 years of doing this that an individual detectorist has asked me that question, which is in itself interesting.

My emphasis is on effecting policy change and not evangelising to individuals so I'd not really given this particular dilemma any consideration.

If you'd asked Nigel Swift, he'd have given you a much more concise answer I am sure (check out the comments here

My reply is too "wordy" for a comment, so I posted it up here:

It's not as satisfactory as I'd like, but I have a sick family member to look after right now and some contractual obligations, so that's the best I can do at the moment. But if you have any further questions, please post them under that post and I will be glad to try and answer them.

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