Everyday, somewhere in the world, looters are busy destroying archaeological sites and ancient monuments large and small, both famous and undiscovered, in search of marketable artifacts that are smuggled from their country of origin so they can be purchased by antiquities dealers, private collectors and museums.
The problem is most acute in countries rich in undiscovered cultural treasures but poor in financial resources and least able to protect their cultural resources. Known as source countries, nations in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East are often the primary targets for this illicit activity. Still, looting of archaeological sites is not confined to the developing world. The integrity of archaeological sites all over the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada is also under serious threat. According to a 1988 Congressional report on vandalism and looting in the Four Corners region of the United States (where New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado intersect), up to 90% of known Native American archaeological sites in the area are believed to have been vandalized. (See the Trade and Environment Database Case Studies, American University, Case number: 216.) The recent global economic shift away from the West—traditionally market countries where the plundered objects are traded—to emerging economies means that some source countries are also becoming market countries.
Still, in SAFE’s view, the issue is not who owns cultural property and where it can be traded, but what we are able to learn from these relics of our shared global heritage—and what we are willing to do to protect it. Whether antiquities are bought and sold in or out of their countries of origin, information is irreparably destroyed if they are looted.
The plunder of the world cultural heritage is a growing, global concern. As Dr. Simon Mackenzie who leads the team at Glasgow University study the illegal trade in antiquities: “Nowhere is safe.“