Despicable Me and Archaeology: An Unexpected Connection 

Nearly everyone knows the story of Despicable Me and how the villain, Gru, tries to steal the moon. While this is a harmless part of a movie plot, the idea of taking and owning the moon is far from purely fictional. Even though the United States was the first nation to land on the moon, no country as of now owns the moon. In fact, “space activities are for the benefit of all nations, and any country is free to explore orbit and beyond [and] there is no claim for sovereignty in space; no nation can ‘own’ space, the Moon or any other body” (International Space Foundation). 

Meeting where the treaty declaring that the moon is nobody’s property was signed / The Wall Street Journal

The issue of owning the moon is not stagnant, however. In fact, some speculate that the conflict over owning the moon may even be so intense that it could set the moon up “to become the new Wild West… [as the question about who owns the moon] is no longer a rhetorical question but rather one that goes to the heart of a governance deficit that is likely to spur interstellar confrontation” (Manning, 2023). If any one country were to end up owning the moon, it could change the face of space archaeology as people would be able to take control of the moon and its resources. This could have the potential to go a couple ways: one, be positive and potentially increase growth in science and archaeology; or two, be negative by limiting essentially everything about the moon to one country, which would restrict who was able to make advances in science and archaeology. 

A picture taken of a view from space, made possible by improved technology / Literary Hub

But how does owning the moon even relate to archaeology? Well, as “the new space race fires up, scientists have proposed an entirely new field – planetary geoarchaeology – to study the imprints and objects humans leave behind” (Nicitopoulos, 2023). While some may argue that archaeology can’t be relevant in space because space junk and human contact with the moon isn’t old enough and because there is no digging happening on the moon. However, archaeology doesn’t necessarily have to involve those aspects, as archaeology is when humans “study the human past through the physical remains of past human activities” (University of Nevada Reno). This means that space debris and other spacecraft that have returned from the cosmos can be studied in archaeological ways. 

Understanding the moon and space in an archaeological way allows people to better understand what archaeology actually constitutes, and breaks the idea that archaeology has to look like it does in movies with pits and digs. 


Gershman, Jacob. “The Moon is a Huge Potential Resource. But Who Owns It?” The

Wall Street Journal. July 14, 2019.


“International Space Law.” International Space Foundation.

Manning, Robert A. “Who Owns the Moon?” Foreign Policy. May 2, 2023. https://foreign


Nicitopoulos, Theo. “Are We Entering a New Era of Space Archaeology?” Discover.

September 28, 2023.


Parcak, Sarah. “How Space Technology is Revolutionizing Archaeology.” Literary Hub.

July 16, 2019.


“What is Archaeology?” University of Nevada Reno.  about/archaeology

Further Reading:,accorded%20 equal%20rights%20and%20 access.

Ethics and Theft in Forensic Anthropology

Archaeology deals with artifacts and human remains from the past. Forensic anthropology, specifically, is the “special sub-field of physical anthropology… that involves applying skeletal analysis and techniques in archaeology to solving criminal cases” (Smithsonian). While this may seem somewhat straight forward, there are ethical issues that are relevant when it comes to all forms of anthropology and archaeology, but forensic anthropology especially. It’s the “responsibility of all archaeologists to work for the long-term conservation and protection of the archaeological record by practicing and promoting stewardship of the archaeological record” (SAA, 2018). However, this is not always taken seriously as human remains are often dug up, examined, photographed, posted and shared physically and electronically, and in some cases more severe actions occur, such as taking remains to the moon. 

Ethics in anthropology and archaeology are especially vital when it comes to working with remains of non-white people. In 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, also known as NAGPRA, was created with the intention of providing “a process for federal agencies and museums that receive federal funds to repatriate or transfer from their collections certain Native American cultural items…to lineal descendants” (BLM). Any institution that receives federal funding, other than Smithsonian which has its own laws to try to ensure ethicality, must comply. 

Archaeologists examine artifacts while following the requirements of NAGPRA / National Park Service

Furthermore, certain groups, such as the Manhattan district attorney’s office, have created teams to try and restore stolen artifacts that were obtained or kept unethically and put them back closer to where they were found. However, this itself isn’t free of ethical accusations and questions. Recently, a Greek archaeologist by the name of Christos Tsirogiannis accused the aforementioned district attorney’s office’s antiquities trafficking unit of taking his anthropological discoveries after he “has helped the unit recover and repatriate ancient treasures to their respective countries of origin, providing crucial evidence obtained through his own extensive research” (Alberge, 2023). The goal of the program is to reintroduce ethics in a situation where it was taken away, yet in doing so the district attorney’s office failed to notice their own incompetencies. 

One of the artifacts that Tsirogiannis accused the attorney’s office of taking credit for / The Guardian

Another question of ethicality arose when “around 2,000 treasures were reported ‘missing, stolen, or damaged’ over a ‘significant’ period of time” (Glynn, 2023) from the British Museum. While, at face value, this seems like a catastrophic atrocity, there has been public backlash. This is because the stolen artifacts were originally obtained by the museum through thievery as well. Because the artifacts were mostly Greek and Roman gems and jewelry, NAGPRA does not apply. Geoffrey Robertson, a British-Australian restitution expert, author, and human rights lawyer, describes the British Museum as “the world’s greatest receiver of stolen property. Tourists should bear in mind that much of the interesting ethnic stuff that’s on display is, in fact, stolen” (Wilder, 2023). This is vital to remember in order to not erase the past and ensure that people question what they see. 

While seeing artifacts in museums seems exciting and educational, it’s all lost if those artifacts are stolen or obtained unethically.

References :

Alberge, Dalya. “‘Enough is Enough’: US Looted Treasures Unit Faces Accusations Over Credit.” The Guardian. September 26, 2023. sep/26/antiquities-trafficking-unit-archaeologist-christos-tsirogiannis

“Compliance: Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.” National Park Service. January 21, 2021.

“Ethics in Professional Archaeology.” Society for American Archaeology, 2018.

Glynn, Paul. “British Museum Asks Public and Experts to Help Recover Stolen Artefacts.” BBC News. September 26, 2023.

“Native American Graves Protection & Repatriation Act.” Bureau of Land Management.

“What Do Forensic Anthropologists and Detectives Have in Common?” Smithsonian.

Wilder, Charly. “When a Visit to the Museum Becomes an Ethical Dilemma.” The New York Times. February 14, 2023. -stolen-art .html

Further Reading :