In 2013 while a doctoral student at Vanderbilt University Beth Scaffidi received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on “Networks of Violence: Bioarchaeology of Structural Violence and Imperial Articulation in Middle Horizon Arequipa, Peru,” supervised by Dr. Tiffiny Tung. In 2016 Dr. Scaffidi received an Engaged Anthropology Grant to aid engaged activities on “Pathways to Preservation: Understanding Archaeological Looting in Arequipa, Peru Through a Cloud-based Collaborative Database and Public Outreach Film”.
During my dissertation excavation in the Majes Valley, in the Department of Arequipa in Southern Peru, our team encountered evidence of severe tomb robbing at our site—we spent considerable time excavating soil probes, shovels, and cleaning looter refuse, even at the bottom of 2-meter deep excavation trenches. The looting at my site is typical for preservation throughout the valley; practically none of the previously documented archaeological sites in the valley are intact. The extensive looting prompted this project, which sought to discussions with stakeholder communities about the role of artifact provenience in the construction of scientific knowledge.
Many of the conversations about looting among archaeologists and cultural heritage professionals have debated themes like economic motivations for looting, site conservation, and international law enforcement efforts. In contrast, this project explored specific ways that the disruption of archaeological contexts in Peru has impacted the capacity of archaeologists, bioarchaeologists, and archaeological chemists to interpret data from looted sites. The project aimed to engage stakeholder communities throughout Peru in two ways: first, developing a crowd-sourced database for documenting the extent of site damage, and second, by distributing a short film explaining how looting impacts archaeological knowledge.
Wenner-Gren funding supported travel with a professional film crew to Lima and Arequipa, Peru to interview North American researchers. So far, we have recorded over six hours of interview footage and four hours of B-roll. First, we travelled to the World Mummy Congress in Lima, in August of 2016, and interviewed mummy scholars. We learned that many of the mummies in museum collections throughout Peru are from looted sites. With recent advancements in isotopic and molecular analysis methods, our ability to extract useful data from looted human or animal tissues has improved, but in many cases looting leads to contamination that precludes successful laboratory analysis.
We then traveled to Arequipa to meet with researchers excavating a looted settlement in the nearby Siguas Valley. Those interviews illuminated the complex ways that archaeological knowledge is constructed; in this case, through two periods of scientific excavation (in the 1940’s, and then again in 2014-2017), punctuated by looting episodes. This continued pillaging undermined interpretation of architectural features, in both excavations. We also met with a Majes Valley TV station director and arranged for local distribution of the final piece. During my time at my field site, Peruvian members of my team helped me to distribute hard drives full of artifact photographs to two local high schools for use in their curriculum.
Back in the US, we turned to the Curator of Archaeology at the Denver Museum of Art for a museum perspective on looting. She discussed the impact of fakes and looted objects on or understanding of material culture. More interviews are planned during the coming year in the US. We plan on distributing the final 20-minute version, subtitled in Spanish, to Peruvian media organizations and cultural heritage non-profits early next summer.
From our filming efforts, I learned about some of the challenges and benefits of integrating digital media into research. Anthropologists getting started with film in the field can benefit from some of our mistakes. Be aware that, even with a one-person crew using a light-weight kit, luggage can be bulky and expensive. The streets of South American cities and crowded combis pose challenges in transporting bulky film gear to a site. Also, multiple takes are often required—2-3 hours is a minimal requirement to set up, interview, and break down—for only a minute or two of usable footage. The more footage a team acquires, the longer the editing process will take, from backing up and pre-processing data, to laying out complex timelines and compressing files for final distribution. Finally, ethics codes of our professional organizations and IRB processes limit who can be interviewed. Nonetheless, film and digital media are excellent tools for conveying complex information quickly to audiences of various ages, as well as those who cannot access or consume print media.
Wenner-Gren funding also permitted me to field test the crowd-sourced looting database with the ArcMap Collector app for IOS and Android devices. The field tests of the database showed immense promise: anyone with a cell phone or Ipad and an institutional license to ESRI products (commonly used in archaeological fieldwork) can download the database, collect looted site GPS coordinates, collect attribute data on the nature and extent of looting at the site, and upload that data to a constantly-updating cloud-based group map. The need for an expensive license, however, is restrictive, and I am continuing to test free and open-source apps that would allow the public and Peruvian colleagues to contribute to the database. Furthermore, in the coming year, I will be looking for input from archaeologists throughout the country to better understand what additional observation fields should be included in the database. I am eager to invite archaeologists working in Peru to begin collecting these data soon.
The efforts of US researchers and professionals to educate the public and prevent archaeological site looting face significant challenges in the current political climate. While the US Department of State and the Peruvian government recently renewed their 1997 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to restrict importation and repatriate archaeological and historical objects into the US, the plan to withdraw from UNESCO jeopardizes future international cooperation and potentially, the legality of current MOU’s. Because the burden of documenting the extent of looting may soon shift entirely to researchers and stakeholder communities, empowering these communities to understand and document site damage is more important than ever. These pilot projects are just the beginning of comprehensive outreach and research endeavors. The database and film will be the centerpieces of future training workshops in Peru, and they can serve as models for similar cultural preservation efforts in other countries. Researchers interested in participating in the Peruvian Archaeological Site Tampering (PAST) database, or in receiving the final film for outreach or teaching purposes can contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.