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The Theft of Our Heritage

by Murray Lundberg

Dateline: August 28, 1998

      This feature was originally prompted by the announcement that an important archaeological site in the southern Yukon was systematically looted in 1998. The Yukon Heritage Branch got extensive local media coverage on the situation, with radio interviews, and articles in both newspapers, the Whitehorse Star and the Yukon News.

      Despite the fact that its a huge world-wide problem, there is surprisingly little on the Net about the theft of archaeological and other culturally significant material - Hugh Jarvis provided the best general access to the subject, primarily through an extensive bibliography of written resources, but that page is now (2019) gone and I haven't yet found a replacement.

"Casual, haphazard, or unsystematic digging or surface collecting of an archeological site is wrong. You can easily destroy clues to the past by removing an object from its context without very careful recording, followed by analysis and interpretation. You should never do archeology without training and professional support."

U.S. National Park Service

The Market for Artifacts

      Since Europeans first arrived in the North, plundering graves has been common. I've talked to people locally who say that it was still going on in the Yukon in the 1950s. The Athapaskan peoples' construction of spirit houses over the graves made 'collecting' by Euro-Americans very easy.

      The theft of art and artifacts is primarily driven by 2 factors: the huge market for such objects, and by what is often referred to as the cultural aspect - the concept that humans in general are born collectors. Both of these factors are themselves often driven by fads - the massive increase in interest in Inuit art in the 1960s, and the current interest in Russian material being excellent examples. On the Chilkoot Trail, there are few artifacts left which will fit in a pack. Over the past 150 years in particular, museums and galleries have provided a huge market for plundered artifacts from aboriginal cultures. Only in the past 2 decades has there been an outcry from both professionals and the public at large, about this implicit encouragement of cultural theft.

      To a large degree, education is the key to minimizing the problem of cultural theft. Much of this theft is done innocently, by people who have no idea that what they are doing is considered immoral and/or illegal. Two years ago, a tourist walked into the offices of the Yukon Heritage Branch to give them some of the arrowheads and other artifacts he had dug up in Kluane National Park! He was shocked and offended at the government's reaction, but none of the artifacts left the country. Some guidebooks are now discussing how to avoid problems while shopping for art and antiques in foreign countries, and discussions about collecting artifacts (from an archaeologists's perspective) are even more common.

      In 2001, artifact theft is being driven by a factor not often seen. In Afghanistan, the Taliban, the Islamic militia which rules the country, is destroying thousands of artifacts dating back over 1,000 years. This has prompted museums and collectors to offer huge sums to save some of them, and this, of course, also drives an illicit trade in such artifacts.

The Vulnerable North

      In archaeological terms, the Arctic and subarctic regions are virtually defenceless against wilful desecration of sites. Of the 11,026 archaeological sites in the Northwest Territories, only a handful have any supervision. There are undoubtedly many more sites in the vastness of the Arctic that haven't even been discovered yet, and Parks Canada encourages wilderness travelers to report any sites that they may come across. There has been a great deal of discussion among archaeologists about the likelihood that cataloguing sites actually encourages looters by bringing attention to the sites. As in the American Southwest, where possibly 80% of sites have been robbed, artifacts in the North are generally buried by very little material, or are actually on the surface, making 'collecting' relatively easy.

      When nobody is watching, a historian or collector who, in a public forum, will vigorously defend the concept of site protection, may assume a somewhat different persona, using some of the same arguments as the people who are universally called thieves or looters:

  • It's just going to rot away here.
  • I found it - nobody else knew it was here.
  • It's my heritage, I can do what I want with it.
  • There's lots of this stuff around.
  • I need this material to continue my research on... [pick a topic]
  • This material deserves to be displayed and respected.
  • If I don't take it, someone else will.
  • etc, etc, etc...
This is not a holier-than-thou declaration - over the past 35 years or so, I've collected artifacts of various kinds whose origin may be questioned by current laws and ethical standards. But can I rationalize each and every acquisition? Of course!

      And there lies the root of the problem - this is not a black-and-white issue. If a person can prove that an item would have been destroyed if it hadn't been removed, does that make it's removal morally correct, even if clearly illegal? (for a 1999 example of that, see this article) If you buy a house and discover important documents that have obviously been misappropriated, are they yours? If a midden is discovered on your property, is it yours as long as you don't tell anyone about it?

Regulatory Actions

      Education about the damage that removal of a people's heritage can cause will solve part of the problem - for the rest, the necessary option has been the establishment of a legal framework which allows for vigorous enforcement of a ban in the traffic in artifacts at all levels, local, national and international.

      A rapidly-growing number of organizations for both collectors and wilderness travelers are developing their own guidelines to educate members as to what is considered proper and what isn't - the Sierra Club policy is a good example.

      Although archaeological sites in the United States are protected by the Archeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA), the weakness of state laws often makes enforcement very difficult. The economic situation in Russia probably makes it the hardest-hit of Northern countries in terms of cultural theft right now, and their battle to beat art thieves is highly visible, with singer Michael Jackson having had a sword which he received as a gift seized at the border.

      UNESCO, recognizing "that the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property is an obstacle to that understanding between nations which it is part of Unesco's mission to promote," drafted a Convention in 1970, aimed at "prohibiting and preventing the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property." None of the Scandinavian countries are among the 69 signatories to the Convention.

      The penalties for cultural theft are fairly steadily being made more and more severe around the world. Under the Yukon Historic Resources Act, conviction carries a maximum sentence of either a $50,000 fine, or 6 months in prison. That caribou-antler amulet may be beautiful, and a fantastic souvenir of your trip to Herchel Island, but you could not only lose it, but also the mantel you had planned to put it on.