Thursday, May 16, 2013

Ancient Maya cities are being destroyed

Maya pyramid being destroyed in Belize
A Maya pyramid (well, an ex-pyramid) at the ancient Maya city of Nohmul in Belize, Central America, is in the news this week. It seems that a local road builder decided the pyramid was the most convenient place to get road fill, so he went along merrily destroying the ancient pyramid. The main story is here; you can also check out a slightly earlier news story from Belize.

Unfortunately, this kind of thing goes on all the time. Hundreds of sites are seriously damaged, and even destroyed, every year. It turns out that most of the areas with the richest record of ancient urban sites happen to be some of the poorest countries in the world today. Belize has thousands of Maya ruins, but the country only has the resources to protect a small number of them. Mexico is a far richer country, with a far larger government archaeological agency to protect sites. But Mexico is also a very large country, with many tens of thousands of sites. There is no way that any of these countries can actively protect even a small part of their archaeological heritage.

Maya polychrome vase
Why should sites need protection? While the Maya site apparently was destroyed for the convenience of a local company, most of the sites are destroyed for international commercial interests. Looters find valuable artifacts, which they sell to antiquities traffickers, who in turn sell the objects to private galleries, mostly in the U.S., Europe, and Japan. If you can get a Maya polychrome vase to New York, Sotehby's can auction it off for anywhere from $10,000 to $300,000. Make that an Egyptian statue, for sale in London or Tokyo, and you are talking millions of dollars. Now the rich art collectors aren't the ones out there looting sites in the jungle. Big bucks are dangled in front of poor local people, who are happy to destroy a site or two for the boost in income it brings.
Egyptian statue

In Columbia, the big targets are deep tombs (called "shaft tombs") whose offerings contain many objects of gold. There is a recognized occupation of tomb robber in the country; they are called "huaqueros" ("huaca" means shrine or tomb). The huaqueros are better at locating tombs than are archaeologists.

Huaquero at work, looting a tomb in Colombia
 Even though looting sites and tombs is illegal in most countries (but NOT in the U.S !!!), their governments cannot protect all the sites. If sites are going to survive, it is up to local people to protect them. Many governments, schools, and other organizations sponsor public education programs to enlist people in the task of appreciating and protecting their local archaeological heritage. I directed excavations in Yautepec, Mexico, an Aztec city that was located under a modern city. We gave lots of lectures at the local schools, and we participated in a program where 6th grade classes visited our
I'm talking to school kids in Yautepec
excavations every Friday to learn what we were doing and why the site is important. We excavated Aztec houses in two schoolyards in Yautepec, and hundreds of kids got a close-up view of how we were uncovering the city built by their ancestors. I'm talking to some elementary-school kids in the photo, and a U.S. undergraduate (Nili Badanowski) is screening dirt in the background.

Many people got the message: the ruins in and around town were built by the ancestors of the people of Yautepec. This is their history, their heritage, and they need to protect it. There are few written documents, so archaeology is the only way to learn about the city's past. In Yautepec, the local equivalent of the YMCA (actually, a government health and recreation center, IMSS) put up an exhibit of artifacts from the excavations, where everyone in town got a chance to see them (and, my daughters, Heather and April, went to summer camp there!).
Looters at a site in the United States

Looted site in Iraq

There is information about Yautepec on this website, or see my book, The Aztecs (3rd edition, 2012, Blackwell Publishers). For looting and the antiquities trade, check out some of these books:

Atwood, Roger
2004    Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World. St. Martin's Press, New York.

Brodie, Neil and Kathryn Walker Tubb (editors)
2002    Illicit Antiquities: The Theft of Culture and the Extinction of Archaeology. Routledge, New York.

Renfrew, Colin
2000    Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership: The Ethical Crisis in Archaeology. Duckworth, London.