March 13, 2021

Lives in Looting

You spend days, maybe weeks trying to write the perfect turn of phrase to sum up what your book is about for interviewers, and then … someone reads the book and does it effortlessly, and better.

That’s what the podcast host Jordan Harbinger and his terrific team have done for Stealing History. “Contrary to popular depiction, illicit antiquities traders aren’t marginalized hustlers scrambling to put food on the table, but savvy businesspeople following the demand that leads to a hefty payday,” wrote Jordan in the notes to this just-posted interview with me. Couldn’t have said it better myself, and in fact I didn’t.

One underlying point of Stealing History is that the illicit antiquities racket — traffickers, collectors, some museums — uses all kinds of ruses and self-serving justifications to stay in the business of consuming heritage, and one of the most pernicious of them has been that looters are poor, helpless people struggling to make a living. These filthy, marginalized people would be destitute, you see, if we didn’t pay them to destroy ancient sites. You often hear this bogus and condescending argument, or variations on it, from dealers, acquisitions directors, and even some well-meaning if casual observers of the problem.

Sure, rural people with few opportunities dig up a pot now and then. Maybe they sell it. But the really profitable looting — the kind that brings valuable antiquities to market — is done by professional grave robbers. They know what the market wants, and at ancient sites from the Andes to the Mediterranean, they destroy archaeological remains to get it. They are in constant contact with antiquities dealers who rely on them to supply their clients. At the most profitable sites, looters post guards and work in trained, efficient teams. In Iraq, and at a few sites in Peru, I saw a phenomenon that was not so much looting as systematic, industrial-scale leaching.

It’s true that professional looters are at the bottom, sometimes literally, of a criminal, extractive industry. Like Robin, Rigoberto, and the other tomb raiders I followed around in Peru, they assume the most risk and obtain the least reward. I sympathized with them when I was researching the book, and I still do. Why would I sympathize with people who dig up graves for a living? Because I knew — and deep down, I think they knew — that they were being exploited by the traffickers and collectors who profited from their work. But they were professionals, in it for the money, and they were extremely good at it. The skills they brought to looting could be put to use in plenty of other lines of work. And yet they continued to loot.