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February 9, 2012

The Sliding Scale of Looting: Some Definitions

by Meg Lambert, Bennington College

The tricky thing about studying the illicit trafficking of art and antiquities as an undergraduate is that after a certain point, there aren’t many people who know too much more than you do. As a field of study, it’s just a little older than I am and only slightly more mature, which means that even though all the experts may have more experience with the issues, they still haven’t found definitive answers to the decades-old questions you’ve been asking as well. Funnily enough, some of those questions still involve how to define the issues that we’re studying.

In the two or so years that I’ve had my head stuck in the art crime sand, I have found that there is no one standard set of definitions for the myriad of ways one can get an artifact from ground to collector. “Looting” has been used as a catchall term for something that is actually much more complex and multifaceted than its verb implies. In the media, it is used to describe anything from what mythical pirates do to what happened at the Iraq Museum in 2003. In academia, it is used to describe anything from commercial salvaging to recreational pot hunting. And among the public, there is often little understanding of the differences between real archaeology and commercial salvaging, or between the glorified lore of treasure hunting and the dangerous reality of artifact trafficking. The truth is that in between all of these blurred lines and misconceptions, there is a sliding scale of what we call “looting” that differs depending on who is doing it, where it’s happening, and when in history it’s occurring. Because definitions are so important in establishing understanding, I have identified three different types of what is often collectively referred to as “looting”: pot hunting, looting, and commercial salvaging.

Pot Hunting:

“Pot hunting” is best used to describe the recreational activity performed by people searching for old odds and ends in shallow ground. These artifacts don’t just include pots, but any sort of small, portable antiquity like coins or arrowheads. Often, the artifacts found are more for the finder’s own personal enjoyment and collection than for commercial gain. However, some do sell their finds on websites like eBay. When these odds and ends are documented by the people finding them, it is sometimes called amateur or avocational archaeology. However, there is a definite distinction between pot hunting and true amateur archaeology. Dr. Siobhan Hart describes, “Avocationals are archaeologists in that they see sites as resources requiring documentation and protection, and not as a source of artifacts for profit or prestige, as characteristic of private collectors, pothunters, and looters. Yet avocationals are distinct from professionals in that they have not received the extensive training in fieldwork, laboratory analysis, methods, and theory that professionals obtain, though they often have a significant amount of informal training and accumulated knowledge.” (Hart, Siobhan M., "High stakes: A poly-communal archaeology of the Pocumtuck Fort, Deerfield, Massachusetts" (2009). Open Access Dissertations. Paper 11.

The biggest challenge found in this type of artifact hunting is getting the public to understand that the best way to enjoy history is to preserve the context of archaeological finds, thus preserving the stories that artifacts have to tell. A perilous combination of too-cool-but-not-very-professional Indiana Jones and a lack of education on these issues in school systems has allowed for a lot of misinformation to run rampant, making it very difficult to replace the popularity of pot hunting with the not-so-sexy alternative of professional archaeology.


As messy and all-encompassing as this term can sound, broken down it’s really quite simple. Sort of. Within this type, there are two other types that define “looting” as we know it: historical looting and modern looting.

Historical looting refers to the kind of pillaging and stealing that took place before the trafficking of art and artifacts became mechanized, structured, and favored by organized crime syndicates in the 1960s. This type covers pre-contemporary war-time looting and grave robbing, such as that inflicted by Western countries, such as France and England, upon colonized or war-torn countries, like Egypt and Greece, in the 18th and 19th centuries. The backlash from these years of Western colonialism are found in modern repatriation controversies. For example, Greece has repeatedly called for the return of the Parthenon Marbles, which were taken by the British Earl of Elgin, Thomas Bruce, throughout 1801 to 1804, and have been owned by the British Museum since 1816. However, Britain refuses to return them because, technically speaking, they were legally acquired and are now officially a part of Britain’s patrimony. The challenges in addressing this kind of looting lies in dilemma of modern nationalism versus cultural heritage and the changing nature of international law.

Modern looting is the illegal digging of artifacts for sale on the international market. This is the largest and most complex issue on this scale. The who, how, and why of modern looting varies but can be found in almost every region in the world. At its least extreme, it can involve farmers or fishermen selling objects they come across in their day-to-day. Somewhere in the middle, it can involve individuals banding together on occasion to find and empty tombs. At its most extreme, it involves the aggressive and methodological looting of sites by teams who report to individuals within organized crime syndicates. In the more extreme cases, looters do carry automatic weapons. Where objects end up depend on their commercial value and what is currently in fashion. For example, when Peruvian artifacts were first introduced to the market, ceramics were a favored item. However, trends have shifted and the last I heard, tapestries preserved by arid conditions were in vogue. Lesser-valued items are often sold to tourists or even used by those who found them, whereas the most prized artifacts are sold by middlemen to dealers, then by dealers to collectors.

The challenges in addressing modern looting are numerous and vary by region. Overall, it is incredibly difficult to tackle a trade that is as large, pervasive, and dangerous an issue as the illegal trafficking of drugs or arms. At an international level, many countries need to do more to create and enforce national laws to prevent and punish the illegal excavation and sale of cultural property. At an economic level, it is a whole issue in itself to address the poverty that drives many looters to sell what they can in order to provide for their families. Similarly, it is hard to dissuade dealers from engaging in such a profitable trade or to persuade collectors to channel their money into a less destructive hobby. And at a cultural and educational level, it is incredibly difficult to change the minds of millions who see art and artifacts primarily for their commercial and aesthetic value instead of their historical and cultural worth. In a post-industrial age where almost anything can be commercialized and sold en masse, the concept of a non-renewable resource is hard for many to fathom.

Commercial salvaging:

Commercial salvaging is the legal excavation of artifacts for a profit. This type of “looting” is most common in harvesting underwater cultural heritage. Commercial salvagers can obtain legal permits to dig artifacts that they are then allowed to sell. They are not required to hold up any particular standard of excavation, and so in the process of obtaining their merchandise, destroy the site without obtaining or recording any scientific information in the process, effectively erasing history. Additionally, searching for a profitable site often ruins other, less commercially-exploitable sites, leaving a trail of state-sanctioned destruction and lost opportunities.

The challenges in addressing commercial salvaging are an interesting blend of the challenges associated with pot hunting and modern looting as well. The biggest obstacle, of course, is that commercial salvaging is legal. The obstacles behind state support include the economic factors found in modern looting and the cultural misconceptions about archaeology found in pot hunting and looting.

These definitions may not be official, but they do offer some functioning terms to distinguish between a variety of related but ultimately very different sides of the same coin.

Meg Lambert, an undergraduate at Bennington College, is also author of the blog, Things You Can't Take Back.


Great article meg. A sub component to your Modern Looting category has some historical looting overtones and is what has occurred in Iraq as the result of this conflict. Collecting war souvenirs is a practice as old as combat itself. Roman armor, Spartan shields and other spoils of war from conflicts past have been collected and displayed as war booty or trophies from time eternal. And while the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War prohibits looting of civilian property and requires that anything identified as such be moved to the custody of the Custodian of Enemy Property, enforcing that rule and determining what constitutes property (a Tabasco bottle of Iraqi sand, a Bulgarian-made rifle taken off an enemy or a third dynasty tablet looted from Umma) depends in fact upon the methodology of enforcement. While there are strict rules written regarding how these items are to be handled until they are return to their owner, enforcement at the field soldier level is often self regulated and doesn't always happen. The result is artifacts are taken from their contexts and the relics from modern-day battles have and will continue to find their way, undocumented, into quarterdecks and living rooms. Even when they are discovered, the objects have often passed through so many hands, it is difficult to identify where they originate from or where the chain of looting, organized, casual or desperate, began.