What is at stake for Guatemala?

Maya tone vessel looted in Guatemala
Stephen L. Alvarez, National Geographic
Maya Stone Vessel Looted in Guatemala

The looting of archaeological sites for artifacts, in Guatemala and around the world, has exploded in recent years. Fueled by international demand, the multi-billion dollar black market antiquities trade strips known and unknown archaeological sites of their artifacts, architectural elements, and an incalculable amount of scientific context and history.

Looting and the antiquities trade have particularly damaged Guatemala’s deep pre-Columbian archaeological past. The Maya civilization stretched throughout Northern Central America, and its written language, monumental architecture, and beautiful, expressive art and sculpture made it an attractive target for looters. Most at risk was the rich Petén region in the Northern Guatemala lowlands. There, a thick jungle cover had hidden a phenomenal wealth of Maya archaeological sites for centuries, and looters are free to cut stone sculptures from larger monuments, and tear jade artifacts and polychrome-pained pottery vessels from plundered tombs. These artifacts are then sold for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars each, Robert Sharer, a University of Pennsylvania anthropologist testified to the Department of State in 2002, but their scientific loss is inestimable.

“Since far more sites have been destroyed by looting than scientifically excavated, we have already lost a huge amount of unique information that could have given us a far better understanding of Maya civilization. Now we will never know what has already been destroyed,” Sharer told National Geographic magazine a year later.

Christopher Heaney, journalist and SAFE volunteer. Additional research: Elizabeth Gilgan, Elvira Giraldez, Matthew Piscitelli.