To report or not to report? A shocking majority of archaeologists had an experience connected to the looting of archaeological sites during their fieldwork career. Yet, while the vast majority of them proceed with taking action, the rest provide ethical and authority issues to justify their reluctance to doing “the right thing”. But how possible is actually doing so?
The above formed the subject of an impressive Live Debate by The Antiquities Coalition. The debate took place on April 29, 2020, and is now available on YouTube. The discussion’s moderator was Deborah Lehr (Antiquities Coalition Founder and Chair of the Board of Directors); the panel consisting of Prof. Blythe Balestrieri (archaeologist-criminologist), Prof. Luis Jaime Castillo (archaeologist, ex-Minister of Culture in Peru), Prof. Ramadan Badry Hussein (ex-Chief of Staff to the Ministry of Antiquities in Egypt, now Director of the Saqqara Saite Tombs Project) and Justice Luigi Marini (Italian High Court, an adviser to the Permanent Mission of Italy to the U.N. specializing in cultural heritage preservation).
The discussion was prompted by a research project by Prof. Balestrieri whose results were published in The Antiquity Coalition’s Policy Brief No. 6 (March 2020) under the title “Do Archaeologists Have an Ethical Obligation to Report Looting? Protecting Antiquities and an Ethical Double Standard”.
Balestrieri’s research had been based on the results of an online survey and follow-up interviews. Since 2007, 2,400 archaeologists from around the world responded to the survey and follow up interviews reached the number of 662. Responses showed that 80% or archaeologists asked had a personal experience with looting (evidence on the site, approached or interacted with a looter, etc) on more than one occasion. But in the question regarding their’ reaction to the experience, the archaeologists’ answers varied from taking some action to not doing anything at all. The latter consist a whopping 24% of the participants.
According to Prof. Balestrieri’s research, many of the archaeologists who chose to remain inactive justified their position as sympathizing with the looters’ attempt to fight extreme poverty and hardship. Others stated the fear to alienate the local community and having trouble with working in the future, while, in other cases, remote looting events are part of the action of large criminal networks, and archaeologists choose not to intervene out of fear for their lives. The panel also raised the subject of distrust to the authorities; Prof. Hussein, discussed in length as he had faced it in his days as Chief of Staff to the Ministry of Antiquities.
Can then such reasons be compelling enough to justify an archaeologists’ reluctance on taking action against looting happening in front of their eyes. And this, especially when archaeologists see themselves as stewards of cultural heritage?
When one could easily respond with a straight “No”, things might not be black and white but rather grey, as several of the online discussion’s expert panelists stated. In Lehr’s question on whether an archaeologist should be held criminally responsible if they do not report illegal archaeological activity, the panel answers “it depends”. Factors taken in the account include: particular details in the case witnessed, the state of the country the event is taking place, the social condition of the looters, etc.
The panel chose to prefer the grouping of archaeologists between local civil servants (to whom reporting is a legal obligation) and members of foreign missions (with no legal duty before the country hosting them) as key in justifying potential responses to the phenomenon. Finally, the panel discusses policies that would help to educate archaeologists on the looting matters faced in their country of research and local communities understand that they could profit more from protecting and promoting their antiquities rather than by contributing to their looting.
For the whole discussion and recommendations from the audience click here.