An Archeologist Explains Why Looters Are Stealing More Than You Think

Illustration for article titled An Archeologist Explains Why Looters Are Stealing More Than You Think

Pilfered artifacts are a problem for archeologists, but the problem can go much deeper than just the loss of the items.

After reading this post on the problems of the fossil black market, commenter and archeologist trudibell_ chimed in to tell us that the pain was shared across archeological digs as well — and not just because of the loss of the artifacts. It's also losing the chance to look at those artifacts in the right context:

Looting is a serious problem for us too, obviously. Professional "pot hunters" or the like ruin stratigraphic contexts making it impossible to reconstruct the past. Simply put, underneath our feet the earth provides us with a timeline of events, those that are buried deeper occurred earlier while those shallower occurred much more recently. When a lot of hobbyists grab their shovels, very rarely do they record all of the nuances in the soil and other artifacts that are uncovered during your standard looting. In this way, there's nothing science can actually say about an object other than "neat."

This is one of the main reasons why supporting any sort of private-profit motivated digging process is so dangerous, as you put it, fossils are a precious, limited resource and without proper excavation once they are removed from the ground there is no way to attempt to reconstruct the surrounding environment, rendering the object nothing more than a potentially expensive curiosity and we learn nothing.

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As another archaeologist, I agree wholeheartedly with trudibell_'s statement! One of the first things archaeologists are taught is that context is extremely important, somewhat to the point of cliche.

I'd only like to add that even as archaeologists hone their analytical techniques to get more and more information out of the tiniest pieces that we find (refinements in radiocarbon dating, stable isotopic analysis, neutron activation analysis of pottery sherds, etc.), literally EVERYTHING a researcher does is based on a solid understanding of an item's context.

With a proper understanding of contextual differences, archaeologists can model different past behaviors related to trade networks, land tenure, specialization, and many other aspects of past society that are actually interesting!

Without a good understanding of the contexts from which our artifacts were found, we might as well be stamp collecting. But even the value of stamps are based on what we know about when and where that type of stamp was used. So we might as well just be digging holes.