Treasure Hunting in the 21st Century

Treasure Hunting in the 21st Century

. 7 min read

In the early 20th century, Frederic Putnam, the curator of the Peabody Museum, made a proposal to his former student, a young Peruvian by the name of Julio Tello who had recently graduated with a masters degree in archaeology from Harvard. The Peabody Museum would retain Tello as an archaeologist and award him a stipend in exchange for “specimens” from Peru, which had inherited a rich cultural heritage from sprawling pre-Columbian civilizations like the Inca. Back then, and even now, excavating could be as simple as digging off the side of a road. Tello recovered cartloads of artifacts, sometimes without an extraction permit, and shipped them out of Peru directly to the Peabody Museum.

The story of the Peabody Museum and Tello raises some obvious concerns. If a trained archaeologist—and not just any archaeologist, as Tello eventually became the “father of Peruvian archaeology”—could so easily maneuver around the law, what about robbers and traffickers? In the artifact trade, Peru, like many Latin American countries, is a treasure hunter’s paradise for everyone, from bureaucrats to curators, auctioneers, smugglers, and even terrorists. The participation of legitimate institutions like the Peabody Museum in the artifact trade raises another question: Who rightfully owns the artifacts of earlier cultures? Is it the archaeologist who makes the discovery? Or is it the home country? Because of the complex network of interests, markets, and actors, there are no clear answers.

A Global Scheme

Even a century later, the blatant pilfering from the treasure-hunting frenzy a century ago continues. It has simply evolved into a more subtle tradecraft today. This is mainly due to a concerted international effort in formally condemning artifact appropriation practices. In 1970, the UN and UNESCO banned the illegal sale of items with cultural heritage significance. Interpol and the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement have also joined the fight against the illegal artifact trade, systematically enforcing the UN convention on the illegal antiquities trade by cracking down on border security checks and auction houses. Nonetheless, despite the increased engagement of international parties in cracking down on the artifact trade, the situation has not, in reality, improved significantly since Tello’s expeditions. In fact, in recent years, countries in Latin America—including Mexico, Guatemala, and Peru, located over culturally rich pre-Columbian civilizations of the Aztecs, Mayans, and Incas, respectively—are facing an uptick in antiquities trafficking.

The seemingly obvious reason behind the lack of tangible change in the anti-trafficking landscape is the highly lucrative nature of the artifact smuggling industry, which turns over about US$6 billion annually. The promise of profit is a critical motivator, but it is not enough to explain why trafficking is so prolific in Latin America by itself. Indeed, it is critically dependent on a lack of accountability: antiquities traffickers are rarely caught and prosecuted, and trafficking is not a capital crime in most countries. In fact, it is easier to catch a drug lord than an artifact trafficker in Latin America.

The sheer amount of cultural artifacts makes it easier for traffickers to slip through protective measures in place. Undiscovered treasure troves litter the countryside. Discovered excavation sites are plentiful, well-marked, and most importantly, unguarded. Furthermore, recovered artifacts placed in museum and church collections available for public viewing are often unregistered; records, when they exist, are inaccurate, incomplete, or outdated. Just to illustrate how easy it is to steal artifacts, in 2010, trash bags of valuable pre-Columbian documents from the National Library of Peru were discovered on the roof of the building. As it turned out, traffickers had been using the garbage disposal system to smuggle artifacts out of the library. Hidden in plain sight, unsuspecting custodians would unceremoniously dump these carefully wrapped artifacts down the trash chute, and smugglers would arrive on the scene to claim their prize.

Furthermore, the permissive nature of the current enforcement and market system poses a great challenge to those seeking to protect cultural heritage. Understanding the international market system involved in the exchange of illegal artifacts is critical. Artifacts from Latin American countries are stolen and primarily sold internationally, especially to the US and parts of Europe. Since artifacts are so widely distributed, no robust internal data collection system exists to track these objects. Interpol manages a publicly accessible international database, but it is subject to inaccurate and outdated entries, and it is lacking in scope. Commercial databases such as the Art Loss Register (ALR) create more problems than they solve by charging expensive rates for queries of the database, which limits and discourages auction houses and other legitimate institutions from rigorously sourcing newly acquired artifacts.

Domestically, internal databases are, once again, underwhelming. Various bureaucratic branches keep track of artifact records that often overlap. The decentralized nature of these records distributed across local and national branches lends great difficulty to tracking down information on these objects. Even worse, owners rarely register their collections. The Catholic Church in many Latin American countries is especially guilty of this. The Church possesses many valuable cultural artifacts from the pre-Columbian and colonial era, but its legal status exempts it from Freedom of Information inquiries and requirements to register their collections.

The problem with inaccurate and inaccessible data is that it, albeit indirectly, propagates the artifact trade. In 2010, a Belgium auction house received pre-Columbian artifacts that were put on alert as potentially illegally sourced items. In compliance with the United Nations’ 1970 mandate on illegally sourced artifacts, the Belgian foreign office agreed to hold off the auction if the foreign embassies could provide documentation proving ownership, but they only gave the embassies three days to do so. Because the existing data system was so difficult to navigate, the embassies were unable to locate the necessary documentation in time, so the auction proceeded. Beyond insufficient data systems, an international attitude of apathy and overall lack of motivation to crack down on the antiquities trade subverts formal contracts and institutions geared towards combating artifact trafficking.

The role of powerful institutions and individuals in driving the illegal artifact trade cannot be stressed enough. For example, the organization that owns ALR—the commercial database system—is facing legal charges for providing false certification for dealers. Ironically, the double-sided businesses of this organization perfectly mirrors the current protective measures around the artifact trade. Perhaps more surprisingly, even public institutions exacerbate the problem: items from the Lima Art Museum on loan to the Peruvian Presidency of the Council of Ministers were never returned, for example. Drug lords, terrorists, politicians, and diplomats all take advantage of the permissiveness of the government, and corruption in government contributes to the fluidity of Central American borders that facilitates the trade of stolen artifacts.

Perhaps the most concerning of these institutional actors are the legitimate institutions like museums that implicitly sponsor the illegal antiquities trade. The trophy-hunting aims of museums like the Peabody Museum a century ago have resolved to a more academic nature in fueling demand for exotic artifacts to add to existing collections. But ill intent is not required to precipitate participation in the illegal artifact trade. In 2012, for example, Dumbarton Oaks, a legitimate research library owned by Harvard, purchased an illegally acquired pre-Columbian document and unwittingly became a patron of the antiquities trade.

The last and arguably most important participants are the individual artifact hunters, the foundational base for this global profit scheme. It’s important to understand that most of the people who do the brute work of looting are not part of the criminal network. These looters, huaqueros, are mainly poor farmers looking to subsidize their earnings by excavating the remote countryside. To access these valuable trinkets, though, huaqueros often destroy or deface cultural heritage sites. In Peru, for example, huaqueros have thoroughly stripped hundreds of thousands of unearthed Moche tombs, and they’ve even diverted rivers to wash away the decayed walls of ancient sites to get treasures inside. Surprisingly, despite the destructive capacity of these individuals, they are critical to a long-term solution for combating the illegal antiquities trade.

Moving Forward: Combating the Antiquities Trade

To discourage looting, governments can address huaqueros’ motivations: poverty and desperation. Currently in Peru, tourism to Machu Picchu—a mountain fortress whose design testifies the ingenuity of the Incas—earns the government millions of US dollars annually. One possible solution lies in an improved allocation of government revenue derived from tourism. A much greater share of this revenue should, and could, go into not just protecting archaeological sites, but also supporting the locals, the very huaqueros who have contributed to their destruction.

Material support, however, is only one, temporary aspect of the solution. Professor William Fash of Harvard University has done extensive work in archaeological sites in Central America and has worked closely with locals from these countries. He suggests that outreach opportunities stressing the importance of cultural heritage preservation are critical. Perhaps governments could engage with locals to expand the cultural tourism industry, diverting mass populations of tourists away from overcrowded, well-known sites to equally important but less well-known locations. Establishing new markets for tourism in poor, isolated sectors of that country could give locals a stake in protecting these sites of significant cultural and economic value.

To address the question of whether institutions like museums, libraries, research centers, and private collectors have a right to these artifacts, first consider their motives and intent. These institutions are tasked with gathering and making knowledge available to the general public. In truth, however, the Peabody Museum displays less than one percent of its collection: hundreds of thousands of beautiful artifacts, from vases to stone murals, are perpetually held in storage in a remote location. The Peabody Museum is not alone in this. Many institutions like to advertise the size of their inventory as a mark of prestige, but the public will never see, appreciate, or even know of most of the collection. It’s ironic that institutions collect artifacts in service of the public when in fact the very act of collecting becomes hoarding, and serves instead to hide knowledge from the public.

If, instead, locals were given control over these artifacts, perhaps they would be able to provide greater insights into the life history of the items. Costa Rica has already adopted this progressive approach, entrusting artifacts locals who manage these local, regional, and national museums. Locally staffed and curated museums would better be able to fulfill large institutions’ mission of sharing knowledge and memorializing the past: these artifacts would no longer sit on a shelf in waiting, they would finally, permanently, be on display. Most importantly, the critical role of locals in this curation system could aid in fostering greater cultural pride and responsibility, and thus mobilize them to spearhead protective measures of antiquities when all other systems—domestic and international—fall short.