SCRAP Reading Group, Week 33: Looting

This week’s reading group topic of discussion was the issue of looting and the related actions and inactions of archaeologists. Thanks to all who attended from Belize, Canada, and the US. It was an important and honest discussion, and we reflected on many perspectives and experiences. Summary and questions below.

Looter’s trench with rejected/discarded vessels placed to the side, Naachtun, Guatemala. (M. Peuramaki-Brown, 2005)

Bowman Balestrieri, Blythe Alison. “Field Archaeologists as Eyewitnesses to Site Looting.” Arts, 7, no. 48 (2018):


In this study, the author addresses the issue of archaeological site looting and the role of field archaeologists as eyewitnesses to such activities. The author is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at Virginia Commonwealth University, with a Ph.D. in criminal justice, a B.A. and M.A. in anthropology, and a B.A. in classics (with experience in classical archaeology). They ask why and how field archaeologists choose specific actions (internal or external)—or inactions—in response to witnessed looting activity? They also ask what responsibility, if any, belongs to field archaeologists in curbing looting activity? The author has couched the study within a criminological framework considered alongside archaeological ethics. The study is based on survey results of field archaeologists from around the world regarding their personal encounters with archaeological looting. Results included field archaeologists’ confessed actions or inactions and justifications for each. The author ends the article with a consideration of the culpability of archaeologists in witnessing (either directly or indirectly) looting activities.

Possible Discussion Questions:

  1. What have been your experiences with looting and looters? How have you acted, and for what reasons? Can you relate to any of the survey responses presented in the article? Has your approach to the subject changed over time?
  2. Terminologies: Is the dichotomy of “source” and “demand” countries a false one? Is the distinction between “art theft” and “looted antiquity” legitimate, given that many “identifiable object[s] owned by someone” were originally looted? What do you think of the term “subsistence digging” in relation to the author’s characterization of looting and archaeology as “appropriative practices”?
  3. How does the language of archaeology contribute to the problems of looting and the valuation of ancient belongings? For example, we love using the terms “first,” “earliest,” “oldest,” “unique” in public forums. What about our tendency to showcase items like jades and other “precious” materials?
  4. How does this statement by the author make you feel? “…[I]f archaeologists choose to distinguish illicit diggers who are ‘victims’ of exploitation from illicit diggers who are ‘criminals’ doing the exploitation, then by their own reasoning, archaeologists who encounter looting are now witnesses to both crime and victimization. In this sense, an archaeologist’s inaction now becomes a matter of both non-reporting of crimes and non-intervention with victims. To soapbox on the criminal culpability of traffickers and collectors, decry the criminal victimization of looters who dig out of desperation and abject poverty, and still choose not to report or intervene in looting is bystander apathy of the ugliest sort.”
  5. What other conflicts exist between archaeological ethics and archaeologists’ actions or inactions in the face of looting? (Link to SAA Principles of Archaeological Ethics: )
  6. How can community-based archaeology work to dissuade looting? How can governments support such initiatives with this in mind?