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Artifact Looting in Archaeology

Looting and smuggling of illegally obtained artifacts have become a major problem for various branches. In terms of archaeology, this tendency prevents experts from examining the items, hiding important findings from professionals. In addition, looting receives the attention of the world’s governmental services, as it is criminal activity related to the global black market. The purpose of this essay is to examine artifact looting and smuggling as the key ethical question in the field of contemporary archaeology.

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Archaeological procedures are established to maintain the integrity of the process, but looters disrupt them, adding an unaccounted variable to the equation. Kelly and Thomas (2017) write that artifact looting in the United States has reached the level of an epidemic. In the vast majority of cases, it is done with the sole purpose of personal profits. Looters bypass the necessary protocols, simply excavating items and selling them illegally. Consequently, excavations are done without due diligence, as looters are unlikely to follow the screening, dating, and retrieval procedures. As a result, artifacts are damaged and even lost, leaving experts without a potentially important piece of knowledge.

Another detrimental aspect of looting is related to the fact that it is virtually the illegal exploitation of the cultural heritage done for profits. The tendencies have been particularly alarming in unstable regions with a rich history. For example, the contemporary Syrian conflict has had an immense impact on the archaeological potential of the area. Not only does the warfare damage and destroy valuable artifacts, all that remains often become the target for looters, some of whom are affiliated with terrorist groups. Cox (2015) reports numerous instances of illegal artifact reselling in the markets of the Middle East. Merchants create a smokescreen, which makes most of their items appear fake, but the right people know that some of them are genuine artifacts that were stolen from the expert community. The border between Syria and Lebanon has become particularly notorious in this regard, as looters from one side actively cooperate with smugglers from the other.

On the other hand, despite the emerging concerns, the concept of archaeological looting is not a recent one. Kelly and Thomas (2017) recount the story of the most famous artifact, the Rosetta Stone, which was virtually looted by Napoleon’s soldiers during the Egyptian Campaign. This fact represents an ethical dilemma for archaeologists, as the item was retrieved illegally, but its examination by a French expert has made an immense contribution to the scientific community. Since the early 20th century, the United States government has been enacting legislation preventing the destruction of cultural heritage. The Rosetta Stone is a representative example, but it is possible to theorize that a similarly positive scientific outcome can be achieved through international treaties and procedures aimed at the optimal examination of findings.

Ultimately, modern looting is nothing like the Rosetta Stone, and its scientific potential is dismal. As suggested by the Middle Eastern artifact market accounts, looters only pursue profits when smuggling artifacts. As a result, the archaeological community lacks an immense amount of items, which could have provided additional cultural insight into the history of humanity. This problem is to be addressed on various levels, as its impact extends beyond the field of archaeology. Therefore, combined efforts of archaeologists, governments, and international organizations are required to confront the destructive wave of looting.


Kelly, R. L., & Thomas, D. H. (2017). Archaeology (7th ed.). Cengage.

Cox, S. (2015). The men who smuggle the loot that funds IS. BBC.

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