Let’s talk about looting

It’s been 12 years since the Pixar film UP was released. I felt like watching a re-run of it on my day off and one particular line from the film caught my attention.

When Charles Muntz the explorer meets and welcomes Carl and Russell to his home, he shows off his private collection of artefacts/skeletons, and says:

“Most of the collection is housed in the world’s top museums; New York, Munich, London. Of course, I kept the best for myself.”

I now know from reading around that this line is majorly full of major red flags!


The private collection of discovered items which belong in museums is seen as a no-no.

There is a distinct correlation between private collecting and archaeological looting, which is when people go to historical sites and essentially just take things. (If you buy ‘em, they’ll supply ‘em.) This feeds the illegal trade, and if the item is not documented correctly at the time of removal, it becomes nearly worthless without its historical context.

The knock-on effect is that this deprives groups of people from studying their cultural heritage and being connected to their roots. The story of that very item is lost to all future generations and history.

So what’s the big deal? Shouldn’t historical items be finders’ keepers? Well no. This is where the study of Humanities is important. It’s somewhat analogous to the difference between, say, taking your dog to the vet who trained at university, instead of that dodgy guy up the road who ‘studied’ by dissecting animals in his own garage and without oversight or ethics approval.

Some other fun and dire facts about collecting and looting I have learnt:

• When people do illegal archaeological looting, they leave distinctive holes in the ground, like pock marks. This is looked out for by archaeologists via satellite when they are surveying sites.

Holes made by cowboys, in the non-horse-riding sense of the word. Image credit: wikimedia commons

• eBay was initially feared to be the place where an illegal trade of artefacts would boom – but it has, surprisingly, had a protective effect, and has offset archaeological looting. This is because naughty people have decided they make more money creating forgeries of items than they would pillaging historical sites.

• According to this article, if you look for antiques on eBay, it is estimated that 5% are definitely genuine, 30% are definitely forgeries, and the last two thirds lie somewhere in the middle, needing specialist attention to determine if it’s the real deal.


Out of curiosity, I did a quick search on eBay using the keyword ‘antique’ and this turned 990,000+ results. I tried to narrow this down, and did a search for ‘antique artefact’, which turned with much fewer, 141 results. Some of them looked suspicious, but several just resembled souvenirs.

Then suddenly, all these sponsored advertisements started appearing! The links lead to artefacts that did indeed look like they belonged in a museum. Eep. Hopefully that wasn’t a genuine pot with Egyptian/Roman origins being sold online.


“Can you keep what you find?” Is a question that is often pitched at archaeologists. In summary, the answer is no. I guess those of us with magpie-like tendencies that need to be satisfied would do less detriment hoarding other things, and leaving cultural heritage items alone.

In some uplifting (dated) news, a charitable foundation once won the auction where some sacred Native American masks were being sold, and donated them back to the Hopi tribe. Read about it here.


8 thoughts on “Let’s talk about looting

  1. Wow, you remind me of the movie about tomb raiders that I watched long ago. Wish there are more interesting books about this topic since in many places with a history and stuff to dig, this kind of activities are usually flourishing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I grew up (and and still reside) in the Four Corners area of the southwest US (Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico), an area rife with Native American archaeological sites. This means, sadly, there is an abundance of “pot-hunters,” folks who desecrate sacred burial sites and ruins and steal and sell artifacts on the black-market. Since this area is so rural, many people have no qualms about stealing artifacts from these sacred sites. There have been several instances of FBI raids on prominent local citizens’ homes to retrieve illegal artifacts and to arrest those who stole and purchased them. A few years ago, a prominent small-town doctor was busted in this manner and he ended up committing suicide to avoid prison. Another instance had two Navajo tribal police officers gunned down by pot-hunters who were equipped with automatic weapons. This sort of illegal pot-hunting is rampant on the local Navajo and Ute reservations. It’s a horrible practice that does irreparable damage to not only sacred burial sites and other archaeological sites (Mesa Verde National Park, Hovenweep National Monument, Chaco Canyon National Historic Park, etc.) but to the cultures involved as well. Thanks for bringing awareness to this issue. I hope things change at some point and people will begin snowing respect for the dead and their cultures instead of trying to profit from them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for this informative comment Mike! I definitely learnt some new things. And wow – the community stories must be the ones that shake the small towns. With information becoming more instant, I also hope people become more educated and hold kinder attitudes about items that are held sacred.

      Liked by 1 person

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