Looting Antiquities

Looting antiquities is bad, right? That’s what you hear all the time, anyway. And that’s the perspective of the article in the Smithsonian magazine on the looting of antiquities in Mali. I’m not sure I agree. Now, it is illegal to sell Malian antiquities. That law has been on the books since the 1970s. Malian officials are very frustrated.

“These [antiquities dealers] are like narcotraffickers in Mexico,” says Ali Kampo, a cultural official in Mopti, a trading town in the Inland Niger Delta. “They’re running illegal networks from the poorest villages to the European buyers, and we don’t have the resources to stop them.”

And when it comes from a mosque, I agree, that’s terrible.

About a decade ago, according to unconfirmed reports, thieves made off with the central door of the Great Mosque of Djenné, a market town in the Inland Niger Delta. The centuries-old wooden door, inlaid with gold, allegedly disappeared while it was being replaced with a facsimile to thwart a plot to steal it. The door, which may well have fetched millions of dollars, was likely smuggled out of the country overland, across the porous border with Burkina Faso.

But honestly, I think that when poor villagers sell what their ancestors buried, then it’s not much worse than someone in the U.S. getting a little money by selling Grandmother’s tea set.

“When you tear these objects out of the ground, that’s the end of any story we can reconstruct about that site in the past, what it was used for, who used it,” says Susan Keech McIntosh, an archaeologist at Rice University in Houston and a leading authority on ancient West African civilizations. “It’s a great loss.”

A great loss to whom? White archaeologists? Yes, it does tell a story of who was there and what they did, but I think the here and now is more important. If archaeologists want the people to keep the artifacts in the ground, then they need to figure out a way to make the objects in the ground just as valuable as the objects out of the ground. It’s not about cash payments, necessarily. Perhaps it’s about tourism or about the jobs an archaeological expedition would bring. But you can’t expect people who desperately need money to leave something of value in the ground.

I will concede that the smugglers themselves are in the wrong. But again, there is supply and there is demand. (“The pillaging feeds an insatiable overseas market for Malian antiquities, considered by European, American and Japanese art collectors to be among the finest in Africa.”) So what do you expect? Perhaps there should be a campaign among collectors to explain the irreplaceability of these artifacts.

I suppose this article could be considered a part of such a campaign, but it comes across with such a preachy tone that I find myself more irritated than educated.

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