A grand challenge for archaeology (and criminology): systematic review of trafficking evidence

Doug Rocks-Macqueen is (or has been) running a #blogarch blogging carnival on the grand challenges for (your) archaeology. This may or may not have been the deadline that I thought I had for the 31st of January (as it was technically for the 1st of February). Happily for everyone, this isn’t going to be one of my tl;dr posts.

In an (overwhelmingly American but) international survey to identify the 25 grand challenges for archaeology (in 2012, which inspired Doug’s query), no archaeologists mentioned destruction, looting, pillaging, plundering, trafficking, smuggling, illicit dealing or illicit collecting… perhaps because they were not ‘fundamental problems’ in archaeology as a science.

Nonetheless, ‘disciplinary challenges’ to archaeology as a practice were explicitly excluded and still constituted 40% of responses, so there’s no reason that archaeologists would have withheld other answers as “irrelevant”.

One popular complaint was ‘inadequate access to data’, but it was directed at publication of data and analyses, so still no-one addressed destruction and deprivation of knowledge through looting (or iconoclasm). Perhaps they were resigned to the illicit trade being a chronic problem.

Inadequate access to data is certainly a grand problem for research into the illicit antiquities trade, too. However, perhaps the greatest manageable challenges for those who struggle against cultural property crime are: the interpretation and use of “known” evidence, as it is ever more exploited in political programmes (though I am optimistic that fact-checking may finally be becoming more systematic); and the collection and processing of “unknown” (or unused) evidence.

When I talk about the difficulty in collecting “unused” data and the potential of using it, I don’t mean (or care about) big data (or not-big data) or even more theoretical dazzling. Yet there is a lot of data. While “the plural of anecdote is not data” if too few comparable cases are inadequately assessed or explained, “the plural of anecdote is data”, insomuch as each report is a piece of data. The challenge is to use it.

Despite inadequate access to more or less closed data, if we collect sufficient open data sufficiently methodically, we will be able to conduct systematic reviews of that evidence and answer big questions, confirm facts and expose myths about antiquities trafficking, which will enable us to fight it more effectively, wherever it ravages.

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