It is in the nature of research to take one in unexpected directions; what I was not prepared for was a single, simple idea that struck to the heart of a major problem of art crime. I was working on a post recently on how to recognise and protect archaeological sites for the general public; especially in North America, sites can be very hard to detect on the surface and artefacts hard to identify. Sometimes sites are damaged by people who don’t even realise they are on top of archaeology. Trying to develop a simple explanation of what sites and artefacts might look like, I realised I had a deeper question: what might be the consequences if I did?
Ideally, raising awareness of the importance of preserving heritage sites would help protect their often fragile evidence; in reality, showing the interested public how to identify an archaeological site would also mean telling looters how to find and destroy one. The more I worked on the question, the more demanding it became: without public interest in safeguarding history, there is no motivation for saving cultural sites, but nearly anything taught to a conscientious audience can be exploited by looters. Whether they consider themselves treasure hunters, pot hunters, metal detector enthusiasts, or the occasional well-meaning amateur, the result is the same—intact sites are ransacked and all the small, delicate traces and their knowledge are tossed aside.
Some of the anecdotes are astonishing— in one case, a remarkably intact 19th century historical site on the East coast was being excavated, and the archaeologists working at the site talked enthusiastically about the dig’s success with interested passersby. Some of the eager public turned out to be looters— they took note of valuable potential for marketable artefacts, returned on the weekend, ripped everything intact out of the dig and sold it. Adding insult to injury, they got away with it by telling visitors that they were the official archaeological team. In other cases, people will volunteer at a national or state park site long enough to learn the terrain and artefacts, then plunder sites and disappear.
I realised I was facing one of the profound conflicts of interdisciplinary solutions in this field: knowledge and scholarship depend on broad, open access to information; law enforcement and security depend on controlling it.
To be continued.