Score one for the clever archaeologists and zero for the evil antiquities smugglers. A few weeks back, news broke that a joint Peruvian/Polish team had discovered an intact, unlooted temple dating back at least 1,200 years to the Wari, Latin America’s first empire, who ruled the central Andes before the Incas. (National Geographic has a good summary of the Wari and the discovery here.) A King Tut-like discovery in the Americas would be news itself, but this story had an additional wrinkle: The archaeologists had sat on the discovery for months, fearing that if word got out, tomb raiders would come and strip the find to nothing.
Restraint on a discovery of this scale shows just how aggressive the modern artifacts market can be. We don’t know much about the Wari, and the findings from the dig are likely to be discipline-altering for archaeology, and career-making for the scholars involved. The nearly pristine silver and gold artifacts found in the millennia-old tombs will be priceless. From the National Geographic breakdown of the Wari:
Their Andean capital, Huari, became one of the world’s great cities. At its zenith, Huari boasted a population conservatively estimated at about 40,000 people. Paris, by comparison, had just 25,000 residents at the time. Just how the Wari forged this empire, whether by conquest or persuasion, is a long-standing archaeological mystery.
How common is tomb raiding? It turns out the archaeologists on the Wari site were right to keep their mouths shut about their discovery. A University of Glasgow project, “Trafficking Culture,” has attempted to document the market for antiquities stolen from archaeological digs. The numbers are huge. Here’s a typical entry from an air-based survey of looting patterns, in this case from sites in the Sahara:
Between 1989 and 1992, for example, a survey of the Djenné area of the Inner Niger Delta area of Mali (Project Togué) discovered 834 archaeological sites, but by the time of discovery 375 sites (45 percent) had already been damaged by illegal digging, 142 badly. Two sites had been completely destroyed. In 1996, eighty-three sites in two parts of the surveyed area were revisited and the number looted had increased from 16 (19 percent) to 49 (59 percent). Similar results were obtained in 2002 by a survey of 81 sites in another area of Mali, around the town of Dia, which discovered that 42 sites (52 percent) showed evidence of illegal digging, 30 had been badly damaged and one completely destroyed (Panella et al. 2005: 18 table 1.3.2).
Peru, seat of several well-understood pre-Columbian sites, is a particularly common target. In March 2009, a well-coordinated robbery at the Chiribaya Museum of Pre-Incan Archaeology in Ilo, Peru, resulted in the disappearance of at least 19 artifacts, most clay pots and textiles. The robbery is still unsolved.