German archaeologists looting Nigerian archaeological sites, or rescuing them?

Recently, there have been reports that German archaeologists loot Nigerian artefacts; and that German corporations help.(1) They repeat five claims: first, that German archaeologists run the looting in Nigeria; second, that German corporations fund the looting; third, that corrupt state officials participate in the plunder of the country; fourth, that half of the artefacts in Nigerian museums are fakes; and fifth, that the Nigerian cultural heritage profession is unable to protect the country’s cultural resources.

Here, I will summarise all five claims, but I want to concentrate on the first, most explosive one, that German archaeologists bribe local communities for access to archaeological sites, then loot them. (Hat tip, @looted_heritage and its crowdmap; and @arttheft.)  It appears to be partly a misunderstanding, partly a misrepresentation.

[Update (19th March 2012): the Frankfurt team members of the joint German-Nigerian project have refuted the allegations of bribery, looting and imperialism.]

‘Artefact thieves’ plunder Nigeria

For decades, Nigeria had suffered ‘[m]assive looting on a scale far in excess of the sales and expropriation’ under British colonial rule, conducted ‘with the active collaboration’ of ‘senior’ state officials. But that illicit business was damaged by the development of strict export laws and a forgery industry. If the situation got worse again, that would be bad news.

And recently, the President of the Archaeological Association of Nigeria (AAN), Dr. Zachariya Gundu (2), has protested against ‘artefact thieves‘ conducting ‘large-scale looting’, stealing millions of dollars’ worth of cultural objects every year; he highlighted illicit digging at Sokoto/Karsina/Kwatarkwashi (in Zamfara State), Ife (in Osun State) and elsewhere in the Nok valley (in Kaduna State).

Claim 1: German archaeologists are ‘mainly responsible’ for ‘looting’

Citing a written complaint from the Ham Community Development Association and a verbal complaint from the Kpop Ham Malam (King of the Ham) Dr. Jonathan Danladi Gyet Maude, Gundu alleged that archaeologists of the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG)): were guilty of ‘arrogance’, ‘cultural imperialism’ and ‘unethical archaeological practices’; had ‘joined the rush in the illicit digging of terracotta‘ and, indeed, were ‘mainly responsible’ for it.

[Update (18th March 2012): in another interview, Gundu rightly observed that cultural destruction and political security harmed tourism and (thus) the economy; but he alleged that ‘Germans promise to give money to anyone that brings a Nok piece, so the level of poverty is encouraging people to go out and begin to dig and bring Nok pieces’.]

The English-language report has been reproduced elsewhere without question (for example, on the Archaeology News Network). However, unsurprisingly, there is an alternative point of view in German: ‘someone was not paid enough…. [T]he [G]erman archaeologist transported some artefacts for an exhibition in [Germany]…. [T]hey will go to [N]igeria afterwards…. [T]hey have an agre[e]ment with some officials about this.’

The German archaeologists have themselves lamented how Nok culture ‘became a victim of illegal digging and international art dealers‘. That was one of the reasons for them establishing the archaeological research ‘team of German and Nigerian researchers, students, and even former looters’. (The project’s rehabilitation of looters may have caused the Ham community’s concerns.)

Johann Wolfgang Goethe University Prof. Peter Breunig has explained (in German) that, “in recent years, the appetite of the international art market for early African art has been satisfied by illegal excavations; we must make the scientific relationships more secure, before it’s too late” (3).

Gundu claimed that the German archaeologists had ‘no Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with NCMM [the National Commission of Museums and Monuments]’, and were ‘not collaborating with Nigerian archaeologists’. Yet Johann Wolfgang Goethe University states that it works [with the NCMM] ‘in close cooperation with the University of Maiduguri and the National Commission of Museums and Monuments’.(4)

And a German-language archaeology magazine article has reported that,

The researchers work closely with Nigerian partners; the DFG Project is now the largest employer in the region and enjoys support, ranging from the local population to the traditional authorities.

In addition, the support extends to the political leadership of the country. In 2008, the current Vice-President of Nigeria, at the time also the governor of federal Kaduna State, Namadi Sambo, opened the World Conference of African archeology at the Goethe University.

All of the finds that the Nigerian authorities temporarily lend to Germany for scientific analysis and the Frankfurt [Liebieghaus] exhibition will later go back to Nigeria and be shown in museums there.(5)

So it is scientific excavation; it involves both German and Nigerian archaeologists; it has the support of the local community and the state; and any finds analysed or exhibited in Germany will return to Nigeria.

It is difficult not to conclude that Ahmed Bello University archaeologist Gundu’s real complaint is that the project is collaborating with Maiduguri University [the NCMM], ‘not collaborating with… especially our members at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria’; that it is not collaborating with him.

(Even though I believe this is a misunderstanding, I think it is worth noting, for clarity, that the DFG is not in any way associated with the German Archaeological Institute (Deutsches Archäologisches Institut (DAI)).)

Claim 2: German corporations fund the looting

Gundu also alleged that a German construction company, Julius Berger, ‘funded‘ the looting of ‘more than 50 collections of Nok terracotta worth over 2 million dollars’. (Julius Berger’s Public Relations Officer, Clement Ilobo, denied the allegation; he said that the company was ‘not [even] aware’ of the archaeologists’ activities. And it seems there was nothing wrong to be aware of.)

Claim 3: corrupt Nigerian state officials loot

Gundu also claimed that cultural heritage workers in the (Nigerian) National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) ‘conniv[ed]‘ with the German archaeologists and ‘encourage[d]’ locals’ ‘subsistence and illicit digging‘.

Gundu complained that the ANN had ‘repeatedly‘ protested against DFG and NCMM personnel’s illicit activity, but that the NCMM had shown no sign of challenging it; he blamed ‘vested interests‘ within the NCMM for preventing agreement and action.  That suggests more than negligent inactivity; it suggests complicity in corruption at the highest levels of the cultural heritage profession in Nigeria.

However, his plausible claims of corruption within the NCMM are unreliable because they are connected with his implausible claims against the DFG.

Nigeria’s ‘reputation for chaos, corruption, and expensive visas’ has deterred archaeologists from working there; and the reality of the bureaucracy and corruption has slowed down the work of the archaeologists in Nigeria. If these allegations are false, it will further damage Nigeria’s reputation amongst the international archaeological community; and, thus, it will endanger Nigeria’s archaeology.

Claim 4: 50% of museums’ collections are fake

Gundu stated that corrupt NCMM staff had ‘sold off 50 per cent’ of Nigerian museum collections and replaced them with ‘fake objects‘.

Claim 5: the profession is unable to protect archaeology and cultural heritage

Gundu complained that the Nigerian cultural heritage profession was unable to ‘produce its own historical knowledge…. [or] to preserve and protect our heritage‘. He argued that: first, the archaeology departments of the University of Ibadan, the University of Nigeria and Ahmadu Bello University were inadequately funded; and second, the NCMM was too weak.

1: The most-widely-spread report seems to be that Germans Loot Nigerian Artefacts, which has at least 230+ search results (most of those external links). There is a more detailed but less-well-known report that Archaeologists Accuse Julius Berger of Aiding Illegal Mining of Terracotta, which has 80+ search results (most of those seemingly internal links from elsewhere on the newspaper’s website).

2: His name is also written as Zachary Gundu and Zacharys Gundu.


Der Hunger des internationalen Kunstmarktes nach früher afrikanischer Kunst löst schon seit einigen Jahren Raubgrabungen aus, wir müssen die wissenschaftlichen Zusammenhänge unbedingt weiter sichern, bevor es zu spät ist.”

4: the collaboration between Goethe University and Maiduguri University was a previous project.


Die Forscher arbeiten eng mit nigerianischen Partnern zusammen, das DFG-Projekt ist in dieser Region inzwischen der größte Arbeitgeber und genießt die Unterstützung der lokalen Bevölkerung bis hin zu den traditionellen Autoritäten.

Die Unterstützung reicht darüber hinaus bis zur politischen Spitze des Landes. So eröffnete 2008 der derzeitige Vize-Präsident Nigerias, Namadi Sambo, damals noch als Gouverneur des Bundeslandes Kaduna State, die Weltkonferenz der Afrika-Archäologie an der Goethe-Universität.

Das gesamte Fundmaterial, das die nigerianischen Behörden zur wissenschaftlichen Bearbeitung und für die Frankfurter Ausstellung temporär nach Deutschland ausliehen, geht zurück nach Nigeria und wird anschließend in dortigen Museen gezeigt.

11 Responses to “German archaeologists looting Nigerian archaeological sites, or rescuing them?”

  1. Hi,
    The reply of the Archaeological Association of Nigeria to Peter Breunig is ready. let me have your email so that I can send it to you. You can reach me on


  2. Dr. Sam Hardy,
    I am still waiting for your promise. Only last week, the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria met with the Executive of the Archaeological Association of Nigeria in Abuja(on Friday) at which our concerns for the German Nok Project were fully addressed. It is important for those who ‘jumped’ into the controversy to hear from all sides. Its called ‘fair hearing’.
    Zacharys Anger Gundu(President Archaeological Association of Nigeria.


  3. i want 2know much about acheology



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