What is at stake for Mali?

Bocoum statuette from Mali
Roderick McIntosh
Example of an object covered by the agreement

The numerous great civilizations of Mali have left behind a rich archaeological record spanning from the Neolithic period to the 18th century. The Niger River Valley hosted a crossroads for culture and commerce based around the trans-Saharan trade, which exchanged gold, ivory, salt, and slaves for products from the Mediterranean and Middle East. Cities such as Gao and Timbuktu rose as great centers of commerce and learning during the medieval period, boasting splendid mosques and Islamic architecture, as well as the tomb complex of the emperor Askia Mohamed. Bamako became an important commercial center later in the 17th century. Settlement at Djenné-Jeno, an important trading center, covered more than 16 centuries. Occupation here has left behind an archaeological mound over five meters thick, which has provided valuable information on the emergence of trade and social complexity at this site.

Unfortunately these rich cultural resources have proven too great a temptation for looters.

Mali has suffered from looting since early colonial officials collected artifacts as souvenirs, but the problem became truly serious starting in the 1970s when a series of droughts drove poor farmers to seek other sources of income. These droughts happened to coincide with the discovery of terracotta figurines at Djenné (Sanogo, Sidibé 1995).   Looting activity increased significantly after this point, so that now estimates place the number of sites looted in the Niger River Valley at between 80 and 90%. The plundering varies from individuals collecting random artifacts exposed at the surface to the mass destruction of entire sites by groups of laborers digging holes and trenches. The archaeological mounds at Kané Boro, Hamma Djam, and Natamatao have all been ransacked by looters who destroyed the sites with trenches and shafts.

Meanwhile, the international antiquities market has taken a keen interest in objects from Mali. Zoomorphic statuettes in terracotta, beads, copper vessels and jewelry, and iron figurines are among some of the items sold regularly in auction houses, at dealer’s galleries, and even online. Thanks to looting, the number of objects flooding the market is large, while our knowledge of Mali’s ancient remains extremely limited.

—Claire Hilmer