The Archaeological Enemy Unresolved

Looting has been an obstacle archaeologists have had to deal with worldwide from the very start of archaeological research. Although in a number of countries looters have been arrested and artifacts returned, the overall problem has not decreased.

Costa Rican artifacts taken sometime between 1871-1921 that have been finally returned in 2011.

Social anthropologists started to look at the bigger picture in order to explain why bootleg archaeology has been such an unresolved issue. Instead of just focusing on the looters, they drew their attention to the consumers; as long as there would be a demand for artifacts, there would be looting. Most of the people excavating the sites were doing so in order to create a sustainable income not otherwise available.

In Costa Rica, 4,400 people make at least half of their income from looting, which doesn’t begin to account for all the people involved (Heath, 1973). The huaqueros (people who illegally excavate artifacts from sites) believe the artifacts buried on their soil belong to them and thus believe these are theirs to be exploited. Even while this trade is illegal, border permits are incredibly easy to forge and 95 percent of the trade can still be smuggled (Heath, 1973). This unfortunate situation seems to be because of the lack of archaeology being done and the inclusion of local peoples in the early years of ‘proper’ excavation.

These artifacts were taken in 1896 from one of the only sites excavated in Costa Rica, and were then displayed in a U.S. museum without consent from the locals.

Most sites were not found because of Costa Rica’s tropical forest which covers most surface artifacts. The only people that could potentially identify sites were the locals who did not have a strong connection to their past since most of the population was wiped out during colonial domination. These factors made the possibility of beneficial education on these issues scarce in later years.

Even with all of this in mind, the law still specifically targets the huaqueros although we now know the vast number of people who participate in this trade; police, border patrol, museum curators and many more jobs are involved in the shipment of these artifacts. This group does not even include the consumers who are mostly from the U.S. willing to pay big money for rare artifacts to illegally display in their house or a museum. Continuing to blame the looters will not solve the problem because the threat of jail does not deter someone whose livelihood is based on this trade. In order to eliminate the problem, the demand must be eradicated in some way and the income must be created through a different outlet so that the people involved are not forced into another illegal trade.


Heath, Dwight B. “Bootleg Archaeology in Costa Rica.” Archaeology, Vol. 26, No. 3, 1973, pp. 217-219.

Snarskis, Michael Jay. The Archaeology of The Central Atlantic Watershed of Costa Rica. Columbia University, 1978.

Pictures (in order):


Further Reading:
Proulx, Blythe Bowman. “Site Looting in “Glocal” Perspective: Nature, Scope, and Frequency.” American Journal of Archaeology, Vol 117, No. 1, 2013, pp. 111-125.
Heath, Dwight B. “Economic Aspects of Commercial Archaeology in Costa Rica.” American Antiquity, Vol. 38, No. 3, 1973, pp. 259-265.




2 thoughts on “The Archaeological Enemy Unresolved

  1. Has there been any work on collaborative efforts between archaeologists and the huaqueros to learn more about the importance of cultural resources? Are there any artifacts that Huaquero’s think are important to them and won’t sell?

    • Each artifact that someone would not want to sell in Costa Rica was specific to that one person or a few people. This brings me to believe that people individually give meaning to certain artifacts maybe because of familial or local beliefs.

      I couldn’t seem to find evidence that there have been any collaborative efforts between archaeologists and huaqueros because huaqueros see no reason to, and the Costa Rican government seems much more interested in disrupting the illegal trade instead of working with them. In order to obstruct illegal trade, the government with the help of UNESCO has applied stricter regulations on authorized diggings. Before, illegally sold artifacts would not just come from illegal digs, but also from people who were authorized to dig with the intention to make money. Now, researchers need more specific identification and authorization. Further, policemen and custom officers have been given the right to detain any suspicious artifacts and then call the National Archaeological Museum. Also, the artifacts no longer need export certificates but an official letter instead which is more difficult to forge. The government and UNESCO reported that these changes (along with a few others) have caused a decrease in national and international smuggling. In decreasing the illegal trade of artifacts, huaqueros might be more open to collaboration, however, it could also lead them into another field of illegal trade.

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