looting, the subsistence digging economy in Mali; and stemming the flow of looted antiquities from Mali to the USA

I’d been planning on blogging about looting in Mali later, but Donna Yates asked if I was going to comment on the U.S. State Department’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee’s call for comments on its Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Mali. So, here is a summary of the looting crisis in Mali, and the role of the antiquities market in the U.S. (and elsewhere); here is my comment on the USA-Mali MOU.

[I gave the citations as footnotes; but I left the hyperlinks in the text to make the PDF easier-to-use. US DOS Comment Tracking Number: 80fe7db0 (fn1).]

Comment on the Proposal to Extend Agreement with Republic of Mali: Import Restrictions on Archaeological Material from the Paleolithic Era to Mid-Eighteenth Century

Madame Chairperson and Members of the Committee,

I am a Research Associate, investigating the trade in illicit antiquities and the destruction of cultural property. I wish to express my support for Proposal to Extend Agreement with Republic of Mali: Import Restrictions on Archaeological Material from the Paleolithic Era to Mid-Eighteenth Century. U.S. State Department Cultural Property Advisory Committee, 12th March 2012.

Here, I wish to demonstrate: that pillage of Mali’s archaeological sites threatens its cultural heritage; that Mali strives to protect its cultural heritage; and that U.S. import restrictions significantly contribute to Mali’s cultural protection.

Underlying problems

There are certain underlying, social and economic problems that drive the looting, or support the illicit trading, in Mali (many of which were explicitly identified ten years ago, by Mali’s then National Director of Arts and Culture, Téréba Togola (2002)).

  • Economic insecurity:
    • lack of alternative resources, where it leads to exploitation of archaeological resources;
    • widespread, chronic, deep poverty; and
    • general precarity of existence [which encourages people to generate income whenever possible, and to store resources whenever possible, in order to be less endangered when there is no work or when there are no resources].
  • Health insecurity:
    • exposure to disease; and
    • lack of access to healthcare [both of which contribute to poverty and precarity].
  • Climate change and desertification [both of which contribute to economic insecurity].
  • Natural disasters and other humanitarian crises:
    • Droughts;
    • famines; and
    • conflicts, all of which create acute needs in local communities and displaced populations [and thus contribute to economic and health insecurity (for example, the needs of the ‘at least 200,000 people’ displaced by the Malian military coup and the Tuareg rebellion)], then push those groups into chronic debt (as can currently be seen in Niger).
  • Lack of education [which causes a lack of understanding of the social value of cultural heritage, and of the long-term economic value of cultural property].
  • Corruption, and lack of political will or law enforcement, which allow the illicit business to flourish.

The depth of the plunder

Mali’s archaeological heritage has been pillaged, from every period of its history, and from every region of its territory, since the colonial period. Extensive plunder of Mali’s archaeological heritage began after the uncovering of a Nok statue at a Stone Age-Iron Age transition site in Jenne-Jeno, in the Inland Niger Delta in central Mali, in 1941; then looting spread to south-western Mali to satisfy collectors’ demand for medieval Bankoni artefacts; then it reached Iron Age Méma sites in northern Mali; in the 1970s, it became intensive; and, eventually, it consumed medieval Songhai material, in Gao in eastern Mali.

45%, 75% or possibly even 80-90% of Malian archaeological sites have been plundered. It is ‘a true cultural genocide [un vrai génocide culturel]’.

Looters and thieves have struck all four of Mali’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Tomb of Askia in Gao; the Cliff of Bandiagara in the Land of the Dogons; the Old Towns of Djenné; and Timbuktu, where ‘thousands of objects‘ are looted every year.

The subsistence digging economy

According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP, 2011), in Mali, 51.4% of the population survive on less than $1.25 a day; and, according to the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), 86.6% endure multidimensional poverty.

Dr. Kléna Sanogo (1999) categorised the different types of looting in Mali:

    • subsistence looting, by locals ‘concerned only with problems of survival’,
      • (normally women and children’s) gathering of surface finds, particularly ‘beads and copper objects which are sold in markets at Léré in the lake region and at Gao’;
      • individuals’ collection of (normally) partially-erosion-exposed artefacts and fragments sold to local middlemen and dealers (particularly tumuli in the Niger region, for example the ‘totally destroyed‘ necropolis of Sirakorola); and
    • organised crime networks’ illicit excavation, including
      • family-based gangs (where a family member sells material on weekly regional markets), and
      • dealer-assembled gangs (where the dealers ‘provide the excavation equipment in return for which all the finds are considered theirs by right’),
      • both of which are ‘truly devastating’ and
      • which may involve teams working ‘day and night’ (e.g. at Natamatao, near Thial, in the area of Ténenkou, in 1990, which only stopped after a digger’s death drew the authorities’ attention and they successfully prosecuted a dealer for illicit trading).

Illicit diggers normally get less than 2% or even less than 1% of the final price of an artefact; smugglers, handlers and dealers normally keep more than 98% or even more than 99%. In Mali, antiquities dealers employ ‘[w]hole villages and encampments of immigrant workers’ to strip-mine archaeological sites.

The villagers and labourers commonly earn the most meagre wages humanly possible, survival wages, a day’s work for ‘the price of a day’s food‘. Rural ‘victims of repeated droughts… sometimes turned to looting as a way to survive‘.

And there is some evidence of committees of village elders selling their communities’ cultural property in order to fund basic infrastructure (e.g. Hammer, 2009).

The illicit antiquities trade also undermines other basic elements of developing countries’ economies: for example, in Nigeria, farmers who had previously survived on half-a-dollar a day ‘let their crops rot because they were too busy digging for terracotta’, because it could fund two months’ subsistence per piece.

The Tuareg rebellions make a bad situation even worse: on top of chronic poverty and economic/environmental insecurity, there are periods of acute social and political instability, which force locals to cope with ever-more precarious existences.

Cultural property legislation in Mali

Mali has implemented legislation to protect cultural (and natural) heritage, including a law and a decree on protection and excavation of cultural property (in 1985), and a law and a decree on the cultural property trade and market (in 1986).

However, many officials cannot distinguish between a genuine artefact and a fake object, so dealers sell looted artefacts as replica artefacts or ethnographic objects. (Even if an official can identify a forgery, a dealer can show them a genuine ethnographic piece, then switch objects and sell the collector a looted antiquity.) Also, a lack of public awareness and understanding limits the effectiveness of the legislation.

Considering the concept of due diligence in antiquities trading and collecting, and specifically citing Mali as an example, illicit antiquities trade researcher Neil Brodie (1999) concluded that ‘[o]bjects from areas known to have recently been heavily looted must be treated as suspect‘. Thus, import restrictions on Malian cultural property ensure due diligence without disrupting the licensed trade.

Stemming the flow

As a local cultural official, Ali Kampo, observed, increasingly organised commodity trafficking gangs are smuggling material ‘from the poorest villages to the European buyers, and we don’t have the resources to stop them‘. Indeed, the local antiquities dealers are sure that there is ‘no problem at all with customs’, because the officials are their ‘friends’ (Brent, 1996: 66). National poverty and individual corruption are undermining the community and the state’s good works.

So, U.S. import restrictions contribute significantly to cutting off those gangs from their customers, and thus cutting off the flow of money to those gangs. That hamstringing of the gangs is fundamental to enabling the Malian authorities to implement effective programmes of development, education and local law enforcement.

The region’s museum professionals, police services and customs agencies consider the U.S.-Mali agreement to set an ‘example‘ for the international community. And once they are at less of a disadvantage, they can independently achieve significant change.

By earning locals’ trust (and thus getting volunteer site guards), and by recruiting ‘informants‘ in villages and running effective investigations of their tip-offs, Malian authorities have achieved a 75% reduction in illicit export of cultural property.

Communities have even established local museums, for instance in Nombori in the Jenné-Jeno region, and in Fombori in the Mopti region. Thus, they have protected their cultural patrimony; built community pride and local education; and provided the infrastructure for a sustainable economy of cultural tourism.

Thanks to the combination of U.S. import restrictions, local community education and Malian policing efforts, Jenne-Jeno is ‘no longer looted‘.

In consideration of the above, I respectfully ask that the committee recommend the renewal of the Agreement.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Samuel Andrew Hardy

Research Associate, Centre for Applied Archaeology, Institute of Archaeology, University College London


fn1: I originally posted the comment (80fe7d9b) on the page for submission of comments on the US-Guatemala MOU.


Alkire, S; Roche, J M; Santos, M E and Seth, S. 2011: Mali Country Briefing. Oxford: Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) Country Briefing Series. Available at: http://hdr.undp.org/external/mpi/Mali-OPHI-CountryBrief-2011.pdf

Bedaux, R, MacDonald, K, Person, A, Polet, J, Sanogo, K, Schmidt, A and Sidibé, S. 2005: Introduction. In Bedaux, R, Polet, J, Sanogo, K and Schmidt, A, (Éds). Recherches archéologiques à Dia dans le Delta intérieur du Niger (Mali): bilan des saisons de fouilles 1998-2003, 1-4. Leiden: CNWS Publications. Available at: https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/bitstream/handle/1887/14330/Kopie%20van%20Binnenw_Bedaux_RMV33_00I-116corr.pdf?sequence=12

Brent, M. 1996: “A view inside the illicit trade in African antiquities”. In Schmidt, P R and McIntosh, R J, (Eds.). Plundering Africa’s past, 63-78. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Brodie, N. 1998: “In the news”. Culture Without Context, Number 2. Available at: http://www.mcdonald.cam.ac.uk/projects/iarc/culturewithoutcontext/issue2/news.htm

Brodie, N. 1999: The Concept of Due Dilligence and the Antiquities Trade. Culture Without Context, Number 5. Available at: http://www.mcdonald.cam.ac.uk/projects/iarc/culturewithoutcontext/issue5/brodie.htm

Brodie, N, Doole, J and Watson, P. 2000: Stealing history: The illicit trade in cultural material. Cambridge: the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. Available at: http://www.mcdonald.cam.ac.uk/projects/iarc/research/illicit_trade.pdf

Duval Smith, A. 1998: Treasures of Timbuktu being plundered. Moscow-Pullman Daily News, 25th-26th April, 8A. Available at: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=MookAAAAIBAJ&sjid=ltAFAAAAIBAJ&pg=6513%2C2006331

Hammer, J. 2009: “Looting Mali’s history”. Smithsonian Magazine, November. Available at: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/Looting-Mali.html

Harding, A. 2012: “Niger’s complicated hunger crisis”. BBC News, 26th March. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-17506421

IARC (Illicit Antiquities Research Centre). 2001: “Why loot?” Illicit Antiquities Research Centre. Available at: http://www.mcdonald.cam.ac.uk/projects/iarc/illicit-antiquities/whyloot.htm

ICOM (International Council of Museums). 2000: Red List: The looting of African archaeological objects. Paris: ICOM. Available at: http://icom.museum/uploads/tx_hpoindexbdd/Red_List_Africa2.pdf

Insoll, T. 1993: Looting the antiquities of Mali: the story continues at Gao. Antiquity, Volume 67, Number 256, 628-632. Available at: http://www.insoll.org/Looting.pdf

Labi, A and Robinson, S. 2001: “Looting Africa: Theft, illicit sales, poverty and war are conspiring to rob a continent of its rich artistic heritage”. Time, 6th August. Available at: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2056125,00.html

Robinson, S and Labi, A. 2001: “Endangered art”. Time, 18th June. Available at: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,130100,00.html

Sanogo, K. 1999: “The looting of cultural material in Mali”. (Boyle, K, (Tr.).) Culture Without Context, Number 4. Available at: http://www.mcdonald.cam.ac.uk/projects/iarc/culturewithoutcontext/issue4/sanogo.htm

Shyllon, F. 2011: “Looting and illicit traffic in antiquities in Africa”. In Manacorda, S and Chappell, D, (Eds.). Crime in the art and antiquities world: Illegal trafficking in cultural property, 135-142. London: Springer.

Sidibé, S. 2001: “Mali: when farmers become curators”. UNESCO Courier, Volume 54, Number 4, 26-27. Available at: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0012/001222/122266e.pdf

Togola, T. 2002: “The rape of Mali’s only resource”. In Brodie, N and Tubb, K W, (Eds.). Illicit antiquities: The theft of culture and the extinction of archaeology, 250-256. London: Routledge.

UNDP (United Nations Development Programme). 2011: “International Human Development Indicators: Mali”. United Nations Development Programme. Available at: http://hdrstats.undp.org/en/countries/profiles/MLI.html

UNESCO-ICOM RWITCP (Regional Workshop on the Illicit Traffic of Cultural Property). 1994: “Bamako Appeal”. Appeal declared at the UNESCO-ICOM Workshop on the Illicit Traffic of Cultural Property, Bamako, Mali, 12th-14th October. Available at: http://archives.icom.museum/bamako.html

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26 Responses to “looting, the subsistence digging economy in Mali; and stemming the flow of looted antiquities from Mali to the USA”

  1. I am slow on the blog responses lately: it has been a busy week.

    I am so glad you sent this in. I learned quite a lot just reading it! This is exactly the sort of well written, well referenced, information rich piece that provides some real value for the readers. Most CPAC comments seem to be “I am an archaeologist, looting is bad”. Better than nothing, sure, but I feel it is our duty to provide substance to policy makers. We can’t just cross our fingers, hope for the best, and pout when things go wrong.

    I owe you coffee and a handshake once I’m across the ocean again! All the best!


  2. Such an interesting piece! Thank you 🙂


  3. Dr. Hardy:
    Please see my own paper on the subject in Culture Without Context; Neil Brody’s former newsletter and the comment by two archaeologists, Kersag & Luke and my rebuttal.


  4. Reblogged this on restituodigital and commented:
    I’m now involved in studying a short online course on antique trafficking and art crimes, run by the University of Glasgow. This makes one helluva interesting read..though being in India, it’s a pretty well known system here..this could apply to here too. In fact, I visited a heritage site in New Delhi where ‘restoration’ was going on. I put restoration in quotes because the original tiles were being removed and thrown in a pile to be dumped as trash. The main museum in Chennai has artefacts from B.C days dumped in their garden, overgrown by weeds..unwanted. Security is really lax. What stops anyone from taking them and selling them? It’s easy to jump over the wall at night..and have a few strong men heave the statue over the wall.


  5. Como em tantos outros casos, mais culpados são os que estimulam o comércio, compradores, traficantes, do que os miseráveis fornecedores que saqueiam para sobreviver.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This is an excellent letter. It just about covers every facet of looting . The most difficult aspect to sort out is the morale one. Yes, these sights are often in areas of extreme poverty where no one can expect a destitute person not to make any money they can…..however……the middle men and receivers have a lot to answer for.
    Anything looted from Iraq and brought to Europe will have been a blessing in hindsight. A moral maize.


  7. It is extremely disheartening to actually be made aware of the vastness of the looting problem. I am happy that at least some steps to thwart this practice are making an impact
    I never had thought of the extent of the problem


  8. This is opening my eyes to a huge, huge issue. With so many desperate poor people in all corners of the globe, so many unscrupulous greedy people along the onward chain and then the extremely questionable values of those in the receiving market it is easy to descend into despondency.


  9. Until now, I did not make the connection with subsistence looters, but it makes complete sense. It’s hard to imagine that you could punish these looters just as it would be difficult to punish farmers in poor countries that grow poppies. With the number of sites to be protected, it sounds like there are two main options as Dr. Hardy shares; educate locally and make it socially unacceptable to loot and to investigate the source or demand for the cultural objects. Both tasks are large and I can only imagine how much work has already gone into this and will continue for a long time.


  10. Catch 22 – looting subsidises poorer families who receive less than, at times, 1% of the ‘market’ value which in turn supplies the people who gain to fund more crime. Government Investment into these war torn and poorer countries may help though the socio – environmental behavioural patterns need to be addressed.


    • This is so sad on several levels. The fact that there are people who are so poor that this is a viable option for them. There obviously needs to be other incentives economically. Subsistence is always going to take precedence over something like cultural preservation. They are just trying to survive and in certain parts of the world that changes the value of what they are looting. Live or die are sometimes the only options. What an academic, cultural historian, or administrator sees as one thing is not the vision that someone in desperate circumstances will clearly see in the same way.



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