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The importance of context

What is archaeological context? Who should we blame for looting and destruction? Dr Donna Yates explains why context matters in understanding the past
Archaeological context is key to our understanding of the ancient past. When an antiquity is looted. that context is destroyed. As you’ve read in the case, the Buenavista vase, when a looted artefact appears on the market without context, we can only make broad guesses about where it came from, what it was used for, and how it relates to the greater span of human history. Those guesses are almost certainly incorrect in most cases. Yet when context is preserved and, when antiquities are properly excavated by professionals, our knowledge of the past grows exponentially. Because the Buenavista vase was discovered by archaeologists and not by looters, we know much more about the Maya political landscape during the time when conflict rocked the region.
We can also reconstruct a tender scene of a royal family mourning the loss of their son. It would be easy in this situation to condemn the looters for destroying our collective past and indeed, many people do. They call them grave robbers, tomb raiders, despoilers, and thieves. But I feel that this is unfair. It’s far, far too simple a view. It ignores the historic and current imbalances between developed and developing countries, the pressures of globalisation and neoliberalism, the lingering effects of colonialism, and most of all, the fundamental insecurity felt by people in poverty. In 1993, the acclaimed archaeologist Lord Colin Renfrew asserted in the pages of Archeology Magazine that collectors are the real looters.
We’ll come back to his thesis later on, but it’s worth exploring this idea now. If collectors are the real looters, then perhaps developing world looters aren’t the real looters. Perhaps they’re just responding to market demand because they have few other options. We use the term source countries to refer to the nations or states in which antiquities are commonly looted, usually for an international market. By and large, these are countries in the developing world. They have rich archaeological pasts but are economically poor. Many of them are, or have recently been, in conflict situations. They often have to deal with all sorts of other serious crime issues with underfunded policing units, overburdened in justice departments, and ineffectual or corrupt governments and authorities.
Put yourself in the shoes of a family living a marginalised existence in the poorest part of an already poor conflict- riddled country. If looting an archaeological site means feeding your family for a night, it’s hard to argue for the protection of the world’s, heritage. However, looters are very much taken advantage of in this system. They usually only get a fraction of the final sale price of a looted antiquity, 0.1% in a famous recent case in India. The local looters are taking the most risk and making the biggest sacrifice for the least amount of profit. Selling antiquities might put food on the table for one night, but it won’t save them from poverty.
Furthermore, once an archaeological site is destroyed, the long-term economic possibilities associated with archaeological tourism are gone. The international antiquities market is taking advantage of these people’s desperation and leaving them without the tools needed to develop a stable economic future.
There are no easy answers here, and I look forward to our discussion of this complicated topic. The supply side of the antiquities chain demonstrates a classic imbalance between rich and poor, developed and developing, stable and unstable. One thing is sure, archaeological resources are finite. Once a site is looted, that meagre income stream is gone, along with the information the site contained, and these so-called subsistent diggers are left with less than nothing.

What is archaeological context, and why can’t looted objects speak for themselves? Dr Donna Yates explains why context matters in understanding the past, what we lose without it, and why we shouldn’t be so hasty to blame looters for destruction.

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Antiquities Trafficking and Art Crime

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