Monday, December 15, 2014

They Shoot Looters, Don't They?

While the general public probably views looting as no worse than a traffic violation, incredibly they are actually debating in the archaeological blogosphere whether execution is an appropriate sanction for disturbing archaeological context for personal gain.   To be fair, the author is opposed to it and even has sympathy for subsistence diggers, but the fact that some in the archaeological lobby have supported the ultimate sanction in the past should give everyone pause.  The death penalty was imposed selectively in Saddam's Iraq; while those associated with the regime apparently looted with the Dictator's blessing, others without connections forfeited their lives if caught.  The same kind of selective  prosecution also  apparently lives on in today's Iraq, but at least no one is getting executed for looting in areas under government control.  And isn't that a good thing?


Wayne G. Sayles said...

It's ironic that some in the ultra-liberal archaeological community would call for deadly force against looters in places like Iraq and Syria. Even the use of far less draconian force against looters in urban America has led to a pandemonium of liberal protest in the streets. I guess it's all a matter of who the perceived victim is. It's apparently thought less objectionable to loot when the victim is a middle class capitalist enterprise, but a capital crime when it's an archaeological site. Looting, in any case, should be dealt with firmly and penalties should be stiff. But summarily executing looters in one case and virtually ignoring them in another, based purely on ideological and political grounds, is a mockery of justice and a threat to civilization.

Dave Welsh said...

It is interesting to contemplate the rigid and dogmatic mindset that could lead to such a perspective. At a time when ethical thought in liberal and humanitarian circles is hardening toward a view that capital punishment is inherently immoral, one could logically conclude that advocates of imposing the death penalty on looters consider disturbing the archaeological record to be a crime worse than murder.

In this observer's opinion, that is prima facie evidence of an archaeology-centric perspective distressingly out of touch with reality.

I do not expect that civilized society will decide to impose the death penalty on looters of archaeological objects, although that was routinely done in ancient times. It did not then deter looters, and would not now.

It would be a great relief to be able to think that similar realism regarding the relative importance of archaeology to society might extend to questions involving key societal "core values" such as individual liberties, personal property rights, due process of law and freedom of information.

Unfortunately, the archaeological establishment and cultural heritage officialdom seem to be united in considering such societal core values to be less important than preserving "cultural heritage" and the "archaeological record."

It is understandable to find the American Institute for Archaeology holding such an authoritarian and undemocratic perspective. It is however inexcusable to find responsible officials of the U. S. Government sharing and enforcing it.

John H said...

In 1982, archaeologist Ralph Pinder-Wilson, who was at that time Director of the British Institute of Afghan Studies in Kabul, was sentenced to death in Afghanistan for stealing gold coins from an excavation near Kabul.

He was later reprieved and repatriated to England, where he continued to work as an archaeologist until his death in 2008.

Significantly, not a single archaeologist anywhere condemned Pinder-Wilson's thieving activities. Yet, this same silent majority crawls out of the woodwork to condemn non-academic antiquity thieves, and legal collectors with monotonous regularity.

Best wishes

John Howland

Dave Welsh said...

Re: Pinder-Wilson

When has any archaeologist publicly condemned another archaeologist for any illicit, unprofessional or immoral act?

It is never pleasant to to observe a colleague in one's discipline exposed as being guilty of improper or illegal conduct. However, when that happens it is very important that others in the discipline make it clear that such conduct is not acceptable and will not be tolerated in their discipline.

The archaeological blogosphere is now aggressively employing the terms "coin collector" and "coin dealer" in a snide manner suggesting that those described are socially irresponsible, and that their conduct is inherently unethical.

When Dr. William Sheldon, author of "Penny Whimsey" (and the coin grading scale still in use) was exposed as having stolen numerous coins from important collections, he was then (and remains today) execrated by the collecting community for his vile misconduct, as also was convicted pedophile (and prolific numismatic author) Walter Breen.

This difference in how misconduct is regarded within the numismatic and archaeological disciplines certainly does not suggest that numismatists are less responsible or less ethical than archaeologists -- who notoriously remain silent whenever other archaeologists are exposed for sins against accepted standards of professional and/or social conduct.