a note on digging antiquities under economic duress

Yesterday, a Nigerian newspaper, Vanguard, published Antiquities Trade in Nigeria: Looting in the Midst of Crisis, which was a partial reprint of my review of the Nigerian antiquities trade. (While I’m very happy that they did that, they did it without my knowledge; and they haven’t yet replied to my tweet or my e-mail; so I don’t know why they only published part of it, if they will publish the rest of it, etc.)

Paul Barford was kind enough to pick it up, but (with his emphasis) he was ‘not sure about this bit though’:

African nations’ cultural objects have been harvested by foreign powers; attacked by religious movements and political factions; and, sometimes under duress, reduced to commodities and sacrificed for subsistence or survival […] In addition to these activities, communities have been gouged by economic forces; they have been forced to tear their archaeological heritage out of the ground and sell it in order to subsist.

So why looting and not prostitution, nicking cellphones or selling kidneys? I do not think anyone is “forced” to sell knocked-off Nok heads or dugup pots, it surely is a choice.

Citing a Nigerian professor of archaeology and anthropology, Caleb Adebayo Folorunso, Barford observed that ‘[w]e too easily impose our own ideas of “heritage” on [other] people’; while I would note that many antiquities diggers accord the objects cultural as well as economic value, but prioritise economic over cultural value, I do agree with him/them.

Regardless, Nigerian antiquities diggers probably survive on less than $1.25 a day, possibly survive on as little as 50c a day, and often need to support malnourished children. They may well have a choice between antiquities digging and those alternatives that Barford listed; but they do not normally have a choice between looting and relatively secure, sufficient employment. I believe that constitutes economic duress and removes any practical meaning from the “choice” to dig or not.

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