Stolen & Looted: $5-6 Billion in Stolen Artifacts?

This is part of an on-going series dealing with the theft, sale, and trade of artifacts and archaeological finds that are abruptly removed from their contexts, destroying valuable data that can be gleaned and sold to the highest bidder for profit at the expense of ever improving our understanding of cultural heritage and history.

reporter for (Macon, GA) writes a fascinating article on the stolen artifacts market that suggests that the monetary gain of trafficking in illegal artifacts is significantly higher than even I would have thought.

She begins by describing the efforts of a a special investigator for the Georgia state Department of Natural Resources who was dealing in illegal goods. Initially, the investigation was about illegal wildlife products but it eventually encompassed guns and drugs then ancient human remains.

Duncan’s article is worth reading, particularly if you’ve never considered the impact looters have on cultural resources in the United States.

She discusses the legal issues of looting in the state of Georgia:

With written permission from the landowner, it’s legal to search for artifacts on private land in Georgia. But digging archaeological sites without permission, or on state and federal land, is illegal. On federal land, such as the Ocmulgee National Monument or Oconee National Forest, it can be prosecuted as a felony. And the penalties only get worse if burials are involved.

And a sidebar to the article goes into detail with regard to Georgia state and federal laws.

Another interesting part of her article reveals the damage looters have done to several mound sites in Georgia, including the nation’s only spiral mound, where looters have broken through fences and dug holes in the mounds to remove artifacts for subsequent sale.

Duncan cites Rick Kanaski, a regional archaeologist and historic preservation officer for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service who points out that there are three types of looters:

  1. Solo diggers collecting for themselves
  2. history buffs involved in larger trading networks, and
  3. those involved in criminal networks, who may cash in artifacts for drug money

Apparently the third type is a significant player in the trade of stolen artifacts. “I can’t tell you how many calls I’ve gotten from sheriff’s departments asking why they find what they call ‘Indian rocks’ when they bust meth labs,” said Charles Louke of the Dept. of Homeland Security. This, it would seem, is why he claims stolen artifacts trade amounts to between $5-6 billion industry.

Further Reading:

Tomb raiding: illegal artifacts trafficking is a $5 billion to $6 billion business. []

About Carl Feagans 398 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

1 Comment

  1. It is a concern of mine and many of my colleagues that artifacts are disappearing from Federal agencies and/or their contractors while supposedly in a secure facility. Most recently I observed a case where the Bureau of Reclamation “lost” all of the whole ceramic vessels from a site.

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