Virtues Impracticable and Extremely Difficult: The Human Rights of Subsistence Diggers

Part of the Ethical Archaeologies: The Politics of Social Justice book series (ETHARCHAEOL, volume 2)


This chapter reviews how chronic and acute environmental and humanitarian problems, and economic and health insecurity drive the looting of archaeological sites, and how political and legal weaknesses enable and are perpetuated by illicit trading. It considers the logic and effectiveness of shoot-to-kill policing of theft of cultural property, the deterrent effect of armed guarding of cultural heritage sites, and the potential for sustainable cultural economies and community education to reduce cultural destruction non-violently. In the light of evidence concerning the socioeconomic profiles of illicit antiquities diggers in Iraq, Mali, Palestine, Jordan and Niger, this chapter queries the argument that there are never sufficient moral grounds for antiquities digging. It concludes that it is immoral and counter-productive to criminalise subsistence digging when there is no viable economic alternative.


Human rights Illicit antiquities Iraq Looting Mali Policing Poverty Sustainable economies 

In the bloody and destructive aftermath of the U.S.-led Coalition’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, cultural heritage workers debated how to prevent or suppress the looting of museums and archaeological sites. At the Fifth World Archaeological Congress (WAC5), which was held in Washington, DC 3 months after the invasion, the destruction and looting of Iraqi cultural property, and the ethical responsibilities of archaeologists, were central concerns. Troubled by the explicit statements of some archaeologists and the implicit tone of others, I submitted Proposition 15. It cited the human right to “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family [sic], including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services” (UN 1948:Art. 25, Para. 1); and it concluded that WAC5 should recognise that “[s]o long as a standard of living adequate for health and well-being is not [otherwise] accessible… [a] person has a moral right to ‘loot’” (Hardy 2003). It was not passed by the Congress Business Plenary. In subsequent discussion some archaeologists and other cultural heritage workers labelled the proposition “irresponsible” and a misapplication or misappropriation of human rights—for a more detailed, theoretical exploration of the conflicts between economic and cultural rights see Hardy (2004).

In this chapter I will review the immediate and long-term causes of illicit digging; assess the logic and value of cultural heritage professionals’ calls to use violence in order to protect cultural heritage sites from plunder; argue that there is a morally defensible and practically effective alternative to violence; and query cultural heritage workers’ and law enforcement agents’ categorisation and treatment of subsistence diggers. I contend that it is illogical to categorise subsistence diggers alongside entrepreneurial and organised criminal looters, and that it is unjust to treat subsistence digging as a criminal activity.

The Causes of Illicit Digging

Apart from the sheer profit motive for entrepreneurial and organised looting, there are certain underlying, social and economic problems that perpetuate illicit digging and smuggling, many of which were explicitly identified years ago by the then National Director of Arts and Culture in Mali, Téréba Togola (2002). They comprise environmental factors; humanitarian crises; health insecurity; lack of education; corruption; lack of political will or law enforcement; and (consequent) economic insecurity. Environmental factors include gradual climate change and desertification, abrupt natural disasters, and multifactor crises like droughts and famines; victims of droughts in rural Mali “sometimes tur[n] to looting as a way to survive” (Sidibé 2001:27). Those and other humanitarian crises, like conflicts, worsen existing insecurity, as the Tuareg rebellions have done in Mali (Insoll 1993:631). Furthermore, they create acute needs in local communities and displaced populations; even if communities can manage their own problems, they will often be pushed into chronic debt, as they have been in Niger (Harding 2012). Health insecurity, through exposure to disease and/or lack of access to healthcare, can cause or contribute to individuals’ and communities’ economic insecurity. Lack of education may contribute to an individual’s lack of job options; and it may lead to a lack of awareness of the possibility of sustainable cultural tourism, so that a community with two otherwise equally poor short-term options may choose to dig (and thus harm a long-term option). Corruption, and lack of political will or law enforcement, both undermine alternative economic options, and underpin a flourishing illicit antiquities trade.

Economic insecurity—whether in the form of widespread, chronic, deep poverty or in the form of a general precarity of existence—makes illicit digging either efficient or essential. And the illicit antiquities trade itself can cause economic insecurity and undermine basic elements of developing countries’ economies: for example, in Nigeria, farmers who had previously survived on half-a-dollar a day “let their crops rot because they were too busy digging for terracotta” because it could fund 2 months’ subsistence per piece (Labi and Robinson 2001). Having established the generic causes of illicit digging, it is now possible to examine proposals to suppress illegal excavations by killing looters and/or by arming cultural heritage site guards.

Stopping Looting: Shooting Looters in Iraq

Between 1990 and 2003 the United Nations’ sanctions, combined with the Ba’athist regime’s first non-cooperation then manipulation, devastated Iraqi society. There was a “lack of some essential goods, and inadequate or inefficient use of existing essential goods,” primarily clean water, food and medicine (Garfield 1999:1); that problem caused the deaths of “at least several hundred thousand” infants (Rieff 2003) and an equal number of older children and adults; and that measurable outcome was “the tip of the iceberg among damages” (Garfield 1999:34). A clinical professor of public health, David Garfield (1999:37), concluded that the “humanitarian disaster far… exceed[ed]… any reasonable level of acceptable damages;” and that, had the sanctions been imposed as part of a military occupation, the “den[ial of]… adequate access to food and medicine” to more than twenty million civilians would have constituted a war crime. Despite facing the death penalty, “impoverished,” “desperate” Iraqis, without “basic necessities” and with “nothing left to sell,” were driven to digging up and selling off antiquities (Russell 1996). Furthermore, the sanctions caused cultural budget cuts within Iraq and blocked cultural aid from outside, thus removing sources of protection for archaeological sites and sources of income for local communities.

After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 localised looting became nationwide mining. It was suspected that the “same international gang” targeted both the National Museum (in Baghdad) and Mosul Museum (Mosul Museum director Bernadette Hanna-Metti, cited in Atwood 2003a); the gang took “what they wanted,” then locals took “whatever they could” (Mosul Museum curator Saba al-Omari, cited in Atwood 2003a). Outside urban centres tribally supported, politically protected “[h]eavily armed” antiquities dealers established control of archaeological sites, then “hundreds of farmers” moved in and dug for antiquities, earning money piece by piece (Farchakh Bajjaly 2008:136). Zainab Bahrani (2003) stated that “all of us [archaeologists had] said the top priority [for the Coalition] was the immediate placement of security guards at all museums and archaeological sites;” yet at least some archaeologists agreed with Lieutenant Colonel Richard Long, who had identified the responsibility to preserve archaeology as the last piece in a “mosaic of ensuring food, water, electricity [and] sewage” (Andrews 2003).

Archaeologist Elizabeth Stone had visited Iraq and learned that Coalition soldiers were “reluctant” to confront looters “because” if they intervened “people were going to get killed” (cited in Bennett 2003). A fortnight after WAC5 Stone said either that she “would like to see helicopters flying over there shooting bullets so that people know there is a real price to looting this stuff” (cited in Bennett 2003) or that she “would like to see some helicopters flying over these sites, and some bullets fired at the looters” (cited in Kennedy 2003). Either way her wish was clear as Stone insisted that “you have got to kill some people to stop this” (cited in MacLeod 2003). The World Archaeological Congress (WAC 2003) did condemn these calls to arms as “intolerable” but it was clear that a number of its members did not agree. At the same time, the then Director General of the National Museum of Iraq, Donny George Youkhana, had judged that “if they steal from mankind… it is fair they should be shot” (Lovell 2003). It was also clear that, even if archaeologists did not think looters ought to be shot, many considered any illicit digging of antiquities to be a kind of crime against humanity, a “crime against culture,” a wilful destruction of cultural property, prohibited under customary international law (Francioni and Lenzerini 2006:36–37). At WAC5 at least one archaeologist had defined the digging as “genocide.”

In fact, the Coalition was “flying helicopters low over archaeological sites, firing warning shots to shoo away looters” and had been for nearly 2 months when Stone and Youkhana made their interventions (Atwood 2003b). Moreover, at least “several looters” had been killed, shot to death at an unnamed archaeological site; and, even if “rarely enforced,” some antiquities looters were still given the death penalty (Salman 2008).1 A US Army captain commented to Mother Jones “[t]hat’s all they [the relevant Coalition units] can do right now.... After one or two incidents like that, maybe looters will start to get the message” (cited in Atwood 2003b). For a variety of reasons, diggers and looters did not get that message.

Deterring Looting: Armed Guards Around the World

Aside from advocacy for killing suspected looters without trial, there have been more reasonable and reasoned arguments for armed guards for cultural heritage sites. Cultural policy scholar Lawrence Rothfield encouraged the arming of site and museum guards (around the world) to enable them to do the “brutal policing job required to prevent looters and professional art thieves from carrying away items” (cited in Hooper 2011). Responding to others’ reporting of his views Rothfield (2011b) clarified that “no one is encouraging guards to shoot subsistence diggers” and that the guards would be armed in order to “deter.... mafia-like-organized looting gangs” who would be “much less likely to attack if they knew the guards were armed” and supported. While it is true that they would be less likely to attack sites and museums with armed guards they might not simply abandon the business entirely. In Peru, a few famous sites like Sipan have twenty-four-hour armed guards but the rest have none (Nash 1993); so those guards displace rather than prevent pillage per se, as looters just hit other, unguarded sites instead.

In fact, Iraqi and Egyptian guards were armed, but they were “driven off [site]” by attacks or “threatened with harm to themselves and to their families;” Rothfield’s (2011a) answer was that they “need[ed] more guns” and/or automatic rifles instead of handguns. Rothfield (2011a) acknowledged that it was a “stopgap.... [i]n the absence of police;” but the presence of police is no guarantee of safety. When nine Afghan police officers confronted an antiquities-looting warlord’s militia at Kharwar, four of the police officers were killed (Rothfield 2009:25; see also Abdul Samad Haidari, 1st June 2011, cited in la Piscopia 2011). Furthermore, as Italian Army heritage specialist Patrizia la Piscopia (2011) recognised, any time when police could not function would be a time when armed guards could not function either; armed guards would have the same concerns for their own and their families’ security and subsistence as police officers.

In theory, in Iraq, archaeological site and museum guards were able to do more—they had automatic rifles—but in practice they were “afraid to kill” because they “fear[ed tribal] reprisals” against their families (U.S. Army Major Eric Holliday, cited in and paraphrased by Atwood 2003a). Even without taking lives in the course of duty, officials’ own lives were in danger: when Iraqi customs agents arrested a few antiquities dealers and confiscated the dealers’ hundreds of objects the agents’ convoy was intercepted and eight of the agents were killed (Farchakh Bajjaly 2008:138). Regardless of the number and power of the weapons an empty threat is no deterrent—arms will only function as a deterrent if they are used (sometimes). The Director of the Norwegian National Museum of Art, Sune Nordgren, refused to arm its guards because that “would only result in thieves outgunning them” (paraphrased by AP 2004). As the French Musée d’Orsay fatalistically accepted “‘not a lot… can be done” to stop machine-gun-toting gangs (cited in AP 2004).2 At best, armed guards could be somewhat effective in deterring opportunistic thieves or (very cynically) minimising harm by redirecting thieves’ targets from the most valuable cultural heritage to the least. At worst, they could be practically ineffective in fending off organised criminal endeavours and they could put themselves and others at great risk (as, by being armed, they would constitute a credible threat to any armed robbers; thus, they would increase the risk of the robbers using violence). At the same time, the split and clash in local community interests could create resentment against cultural security personnel, which would undermine the community’s support for cultural security and the police’s efforts to gather information on serious organised crime. It would also create an association of cultural heritage sites and staff with state authorities rather than local communities, which could make them political targets in future violence. Therefore, even if guards only ever used their arms in self-defence, there would still be serious concerns about the practical effectiveness of armed guards at cultural heritage sites. States might be better advised to invest in technology to disrupt criminal activity and generate forensic evidence, and in intelligence-led policing to capture and prosecute criminals with the minimum risk possible.

It is undeniable that looting has been facilitated or encouraged by weaknesses in the system for the protection of cultural property from a lack of documentation or a lack of computerisation of paper documents; to a lack of infrastructure for communication and action; to understaffing—1,200 guards for 10,000 sites (Salman 2008)—and under-equipping of existing staff; to personnel’s own financial and physical insecurity, and thus the ease of their corruption or intimidation. It is also undeniable that looting has been (greatly) exacerbated by organised crime groups, paramilitaries and terrorists, which profited from or funded their activities by smuggling and trading antiquities (Bogdanos and Patrick 2005:249). Nonetheless, looting has also been driven by poverty and a lack of alternatives. Still, the scale of looting has been incomparable to the problem before 1990. Demonstrably, war has played an essential role in the increase in the systematic looting of sites.

Reducing Illicit Digging in Mali

According to the United Nations Development Programme, in Mali, 51.4 % of the population survive on less than $1.25 a day (UNDP 2011); and, according to the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), 86.6 % endure multidimensional poverty (Alkire et al. 2011). Locals “concerned only with problems of survival” engage in subsistence digging (Sanogo 1999).3 Exploiting that situation, antiquities dealers employ “[w]hole villages” and even “encampments of immigrant workers” to strip-mine archaeological sites (Shyllon 2011:139). The villagers and labourers commonly earn the most meagre wages humanly possible, survival wages, a day’s work for “the price of a day’s food” (IARC 2001).

It is possible that 45 % (Brodie et al. 2000:20), 75 % (Robinson and Labi 2001), or even 80–90 % (ICOM 2000:11) of Malian archaeological sites have been plundered. Illicit diggers have struck all four of Mali’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Tomb of Askia in Gao (Insoll 1993); the Cliff of Bandiagara in the Land of the Dogons (Hammer 2009; Labi and Robinson 2001); the Old Towns of Djenné (ICOM 2000:10–11) and Timbuktu, where they looted “thousands of objects” every year (Duval 1998:8A; see also Brodie 1998). One team of archaeologists has called it “a true cultural genocide [un vrai génocide culturel]” (Bedaux et al. 2005:1).

There is some hope: a combination of economic development, community education, political commitment and law enforcement has had remarkable success in reducing illicit digging. Communities have established local museums, and thus protected their cultural patrimony, built community pride and local education, and provided the infrastructure for a sustainable economy of cultural tourism. By earning locals’ trust—and thus getting volunteer site guards (Sidibé 2001:27)—and by recruiting “informants” in villages and running effective investigations of their tip-offs, Malian authorities have achieved a 75 % reduction in the illicit export of cultural property (Labi and Robinson 2001); Jenne-Jeno is “no longer looted” (Sidibé 2001:26). This demonstrates that, sometimes, it is possible to reduce illicit digging even in very challenging environments. However, the current political crisis in Mali threatens to undo all of this good work and elsewhere communities without such an alternative have continued and will continue to dig to subsist.

The Human Rights of Subsistence Diggers

UNESCO’s Director of Cultural Heritage, Lyndel Prott, stated in the UNESCO Courier that “[a]s soon as the local population is convinced of the importance of cultural heritage they become a site’s best curators” (Prott and Bessières 2001:21). And when UNESCO rhetorically asked “what entitle[d] archaeologists to prevent poverty-stricken farmers from looting their ancestors’ graves if that enable[d] them to feed their families” it simply answered that “[l]ooting does not feed the looters.... On the contrary, maintaining a site constitutes an economic resource for local populations” (Prott and Bessières 2001:20). An archaeological site may constitute an economic resource for a local community, and maintaining an archaeological site may produce a local economy, if the state directly employs locals as custodians, archaeologists employ locals as custodians or workers, and/or tourists bring money into the local economy. When that happens, then locals will naturally become a site’s curators. However, until that happens, those locals will still need a source of subsistence; if locals are digging up and selling off artefacts in order to subsist, that suggests that, so far, the state has been unable or unwilling to provide or support a sustainable subsistence; and sometimes “looting” is the only thing that does feed the “looters.”

Perhaps in Belize and Ukraine, looting operations are largely side-interests of international drug gangs and mafia (Government of Belize Department of Archaeology 1979:54/114, cited in Gilgan 2001:77; the Scotsman2002); and in southern Italy, looting is largely the preserve of mafia-like specialist gangs that pay mafia clans for permission to loot (Nistri 2011:185–187), while smuggling is largely the preserve of mafia clans themselves (Melillo 2009: 90). Perhaps in Peru, even during crises that leave 70 % in poverty, poor villagers still only “supplemen[t]” their incomes with looting (Wilford 1994, emphasis added; see also Nash 1993), rather than subsist on digging. Yet in Palestine, where 43 % live in poverty, and “looting grows at the same rate as unemployment,” most illicit excavators “dig as a way of surviving poverty” (Yahya 2010:97–98). In Jordan, villagers dig archaeological sites in “a desperate effort to feed their families” (Politis 1994:15; see also Bisheh 2001:115). In Niger, where many sites have suffered 50–90 % destruction by illicit digging, the “guilty” are “the poorest population in the world at the limit of [their] daily survival” (Gado 2001:58).

In Iraq, “all these people [antiquity-diggers]” live on “well below” $1.25-a-day; and “[m]ost of them are not starving” (Farchakh-Bajjaly 2007:51, emphasis added), i.e. some of them are. Assyriologist Benjamin Foster, Ancient Near Eastern art scholar Karen Foster and cultural property lawyer Patty Gerstenblith explicitly stated “The money is urgently needed by the extended families of the diggers for basic living expenses and medical supplies. Without it, the mortality rate, especially for infants and children, would climb even higher in Iraq” (Foster et al. 2005:220).

Some archaeologists recognise that “in the current situation,” without a viable economic alternative such as agriculture, “forbidding people from looting archaeological sites would mean condemning them to starvation” (Farchakh-Bajjaly 2007:52). Nonetheless, during the discussion of Proposition 15 certain archaeologists asserted that while (other) people “should” have access to their basic human rights when they had to choose between accessing those basic human rights (through subsistence digging) and refraining from damaging cultural heritage sites “‘sometimes the right [choices were] not the easy ones.” Other archaeologists who acknowledge subsistence diggers’ struggle for existence still insist that we “should… reject any excuses presented by the diggers… to justify their actions” (e.g. Yahya 2010:99).

I contend that it is illogical to put these subsistence diggers in the same category as entrepreneurial and organised looters. Unlike commercial looters, subsistence diggers would stop excavating illicitly if they had an economic alternative. Furthermore, I contend that it is immoral: given the evidence for the necessity of subsistence digging in Iraq and elsewhere, and given the evidence of a moral, effective alternative to imprisonment or violence in Mali, I argue that it is unjust to treat subsistence digging as a criminal activity when and so long as there is no viable alternative economic means for subsistence diggers to access their human rights to clean water, food and medicine.

Ethical Implications

In Ricardo Elia’s (1993:69) oft-quoted words “collectors are the real looters.” Individuals and institutions that purchase illicit material create and maintain a market for looted material; they either directly fund or indirectly underwrite looting. However, even ethical archaeological projects, galleries and museums, which would neither directly nor indirectly finance the illicit antiquities trade, must be mindful that they may create trends in collecting culture and thus the antiquities market; they may expose archaeological deposits to the risk of commodification. In general, ethical codes require professionals to conserve excavated materials and sites, and to respect communities’ cultural rights in their work: see, for instance, the (British) Institute for Archaeologists’ Code of Conduct (IfA 2012), the European Association of Archaeologists’ Code of Practice (EAA 2009) and the World Archaeological Congress’s First Code of Ethics (WAC 1990). However, they do not require professionals to establish local, sustainable preservation programmes, or to support vulnerable local communities’ economic rights. (For example, it would be ethical to import a team, dig down to bedrock, then deposit the finds in a central national museum store). This creates two tied problems: first, cultural property is preserved without regard to local communities’ economic needs, which breeds a feeling of resentment rather than a sense of stewardship; and second, simultaneously, surrounding and connected places’ cultural property is exposed to the attentions of the antiquities market, which creates an opportunity for unethical collectors to exploit still-vulnerable communities’ struggle for subsistence. Thus, an archaeological project may save a site but lose a landscape.

Adapting existing principles of archaeological practice to address archaeological work in extremely economically vulnerable areas, ethical codes should expect cultural heritage professionals: to assess the economic as well as social and environmental implications of their work for local communities; to minimise any likely detrimental effects of their work on the economic conditions of vulnerable local communities; to recognise their obligation to employ and/or train economically vulnerable local communities on their projects; and to conserve archaeological sites and material in vulnerable areas as sustainable economic resources for the community.


  1. 1.

    Similarly, despite China’s application of the death penalty, the supply of looted Chinese material has gone from a “trickle” to a “flood,” “especially because” a farmer can get a year’s income for one night shift on an illicit excavation, or for one (good) find (Time Asia 2003).

  2. 2.

    For example, the Head of Security at the Swedish National Museum refused to install ‘automatic metal bars that would close to keep thieves inside the museum because thieves “may take a hostage”’ (cited in AP 2004).

  3. 3.

    There is some evidence of committees of village elders selling their communities’ cultural property in order to fund basic infrastructure (e.g., Hammer 2009).


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.UCL Centre for Applied ArchaeologyEast SussexUK

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