against the theft & traffic
In poor, but archaeologically rich countries,
looting has been a way of life for years. Income from selling antiquities often
makes a vital contribution to the family budget. But the looters receive very little
in return for destroying their own history, getting on average less than 1% of the final
sale price of an item. Middlemen and dealers pocket the other 99%.
In more affluent areas like northern Europe and
North America, treasure hunting is more of a leisure time activity. Treasure hunters
spend large sums of money on the latest equipment and finds are sometimes compared with
During times of war or civil unrest
archaeological sites and museums are amongst the first targets for looters - they are a
ready and defenceless source of 'treasure'. And disposing of the objects in them is
a quick way to destroy an important part of a country's heritage.
The plunder of Africa's past started in colonial times.
It has now grown to such proportions that it has been called cultural genocide.
Mali in western Africa was, 1,000 years ago, the homeland of a
great trading society. Yet, like many ancient societies it left us no writing.
We can work out its history only through archaeology. Mali has more
archaeological sites than anywhere in Africa, outside Egypt, but few have been properly
investigated. Meanwhile the others are being looted at such a rate that the
country's history is, quite literally, disappearing from under the feet of its
inhabitants. In this respect Mali is by no means unique.
Photograph (© Michel Brent): A Malian villager
might dig for the price of a day's food, yet the antiquities discovered may fetch up to
$100,000 in the salerooms of Europe and North America.
Antiquities from war-torn Cambodia, usually smuggled through
Thailand, appear regularly in Western salerooms. They are in great demand. To
supply this demand ancient monuments are mutilated and destroyed.
Recent thefts-to-order for rich dealers have brought the 12th
century temple of Banteay Chhmar to the brink of collapse. Teams of looters used
heavy machinery to carve out large sections of the walls.
Cambodian and Thai authorities have vowed to work together to
stop this destruction, but have few resources.
Photograph: Destruction at the remote temple of
Banteay Srei, described as 'a jewel of Khmer art'. Looters have hacked the faces
from many of the outstanding carvings.
During the past decade of turmoil in Afghanistan, Kabul Museum
has been virtually emptied and in other areas of the country sites have been
plundered. All to provide money for arms. Afghanistan's rich history has now
been smuggled out of the country and dispersed through collections all over the world.
Photograph (© B. Neubacher): War damage to the
entrance of Kabul Museum, once home to one of the world's great archaeological
First posted June 2001; Page
design updated September 2006