Does Looting Fund Organized Crime and Terrorist Organizations?

This recent article published by the National Geographic seems to indicate that the answer to this question is a resounding yes. The article on the National Geographic’s website is a summary and analysis of an article printed in the June 2014 edition of the British Journal of Criminology by Scott MacKenzie and Tess Davis titled Temple Looting In Cambodia: Anatomy of a Statue Trafficking Network. The article on National Geographic and the paper it is reporting on describe the infamous looting of the notable temple site of Banteay Chhmar in Cambodia in 1998, and the paper by MacKenzie and Davis goes on to describe other similar looting events, revealing the inner workings of the looters’ organization and how their supply chain eventually reaches wealthy antiquities collectors. The article goes on to provide similar incidents in other war-torn and otherwise unstable government situations in Egypt, Afghanistan, Cambodia, and other places where instability has left important sites unguarded and vulnerable to looting. Looting is extremely common in the previously mentioned areas because it is a reliable source of income in otherwise volatile locales where other methods of earning income are disrupted. The real revelation of the paper is that although it was widely assumed, this paper provided some of the first and most well-documented proof of organized crime looting sites to fund criminal enterprises.

This paper and the National Geographic post written about it are extremely relevant to current events which further illustrate the main point of both that looting and crime are closely intertwined. While the National Geographic should be considered by no stretch of the imagination to be an equal to an academic, peer-reviewed article such as the paper it is reporting on, in this case it is surprisingly well-sourced and backs up the premise of the paper with further elaboration on the Cambodian example as well as similar cases in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt and elsewhere which show that similar networks of looters are involved in these locations as well. The article touches on methods of the looters as well, bringing up an interesting tangent regarding the relative ease of finding archaeological features using satellite imagery of services like Google Earth. In this case, digital resources and open access to the public can be good for amateur researchers trying to locate new sites, but also harmful because the same information is available to people like looters whose motives are much more harmful to the archaeological record.

Overall, the article and the paper are both very useful for spreading awareness of the increasing issue of looting and illegal sales of artifacts. These issues are important for museums to consider in that it has become evident that there exists ways of forging provenance and laundering looted items to make them appear legitimate. As such, even though museums usually aren’t the prime targets for looted artifact sales, institutions should be wary of acquiring objects from high risk areas like those previously mentioned in order to collect artifacts in an ethical manner. Obtaining objects ethically is becoming more of a challenge for museums as looting is on the rise with new ways of disguising looted objects with ethically collected ones.

Recent unrest in Syria and Iraq caused by ISIS once again is proving that there is a link between looting and terrorist activity, showing that looting is a trend that will continue in areas of instability and conflict. Another article, also by the National Geographic explains how, like al Qaeda before them, ISIS is now utilizing the illicit taxing of the rights to dig for artifacts as well as the sale of the items themselves as a large source of funding in addition to the sale of oil in the Middle East. Their process of cashing in on these objects is less organized than the examples in Cambodia and elsewhere in the previous article, but because of this much more damage is being done by a larger number of people with varying degrees of affiliation with ISIS. The following descriptions and images are from:

Apamea as seen on Google Earth July 19, 2011.

The ancient city of Apamea, in Syria—founded by one of Alexander the Great’s generals and nominated in 1999 as a UNESCO World Heritage site—as seen on Google Earth on July 19, 2011.
Apamea as seen on Google Earth April 3, 2012.

Less than a year later, the same area at Apamea—seen here on Google Earth April 3, 2012—is covered with looting holes and clearly shows the massive destruction of the war. ISIS is believed to be using the proceeds from such plunder to help finance their insurgency.

The Online Presence of the British Museum

The British Museum is widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost research institutions. The extensive online collection is a well-organized and useful tool for accessing one of the largest digital collections available from any museum. The collection contains 2,149,655 records which commonly include a high resolution image, archaeological provenience, acquisition information and a basic description of the object often with some additional history and cultural context. This wealth of resources represents a multitude of groups and time periods. Additionally, the search engine for the online collection allows for a high degree of specificity including a date range, geographical and cultural categories that would make this database ideal for a more research-oriented site visitor to find a specific object or limited set of comparable objects.

Drawing from these online collections are dozens of online tours, which focus on specific groups of objects from the online collection that are brought together to tell a story. As opposed to the database which might serve a more scholarly audience that already knows what object they want to see, the section linked above for online tours provides dozens of these tours with a more general audience in mind, showcasing the cultural relevance of selected pieces from the museum’s online collection. While some museums certainly have flashier displays and virtual walking tours of their exhibit halls, the British Museum focuses on providing valuable content rather than making an aesthetically pleasing or innovative online experience. It certainly provides an area of possible future improvement to take their online presence to the next level.

The online resources from The British Museum are typical for what can be expected from digital collections of many museums, but what sets the online presence of The British Museum apart from other museums is the scope of the digitization of its collection. There are 2,149,655 records which represent approximately 3,500,000 objects, and while this is still only a small portion of the total physical collection of the museum, it is far above average size for a digital collection. As museums continue the process of digitization, we can look forward to seeing more expansive online collections on par with this one, but for now in terms of the number of objects available and the information available about them, The British Museum stands out in the area of museum digitization and open access.