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.




The Drastic Harm of Undetected Biases

Archaeology techniques are constantly being changed in order to better represent human society. The most complicated process archaeologists struggle with is trying to discover what people were thinking and how that impacted their social norms. The presence of undetected biases can damage the interpretation of any culture. Nowadays, with such ingrained social norms as gender roles, it’s hard to interpret social hierarchy without bringing certain assumptions into play—we even forget cultures without these gender norms exist today.

Pictures that can be found of early hunting societies only include men.

In contrast, women are only depicted in nonviolent imagery.

Surprisingly, gender roles were really only established in Chiefdoms and States because specific roles would organize the community so that there wouldn’t be chaos. Smaller groups wouldn’t need to organize their society because there weren’t enough people to have unique roles.

To disprove these previous biases, archaeologists went to the origin of this assumption: our animal predecessors. Scientists previously used gender distinction as evidence for our biological differences, specifically male sexual aggression in baboons. However, as the author of Ungendering Civilization: Reinterpreting the Archaeological Record Pyburn explained, if one were to look deeper they would find that male dominance in the animal world is actually as complicated as the past gender roles that they were looking to understand. The problem was people would only ask questions that gave them the desired answers rather than looking further. Smuts (1987) said that “[baboon] females create and participate in social hierarchies and political scenarios”, a fact that painted a very different picture of our predecessors. Further, archaeologists looked into another previously assumed fact relating to the fatality rate of men vs women. Since nowadays that statistic is (somewhat) related to political dominance, it was assumed to be the same with baboons. In reality, archaeologists concluded that if it was about political dominance, it wasn’t the isolated variable.

Now regarding archaeological sites, feminist archaeologists looked to disproving assumptions before jumping to new conclusions so that these mistakes weren’t repeated. The three specific categories of archaeology made it easier for archaeologists to point out the issues with previous conclusions. They first attacked issues within ‘Cultural History’ and the chronology they used at the time which only dealt with the order of events and not social constructs. Instead of leaving that out however, archaeologists used to create a completely assumed social hierarchy. After expressing those errors, archaeologists looked at Processual archaeology which had a better approach but in their attempt to be explanatory, they did not fully understand the difference between social norms and biology—the social differences between male and female was still considered biology. Finally, Post-processual focused on the need for new ideas i.e old ideas we didn’t think existed. For example, difference between gender and sex, sexual orientation, and warfare are different depending on the culture. Although these are part of all cultures, it’s the assumption of unanimity that has slipped up archaeologists for hundreds of years.



Pyburn, K.A. Engendering Civilization: Reinterpreting the Archaeological Record.  Routledge: London, 2004.

Ardren, Traci. Studies of Gender in Prehispanic America. Published online: 9 September 2007. Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2007.

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn. Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, Practice. Thames & Hudson, 2015.

Image Sources

Further Reading

Rautman, Alison E. “Reading the Body: Representations and Remains in the Archaeological Record. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000. p 283

Fulkerson, Tiffany J. Endangering the Past: The Status of Gender and Feminist Approaches to Archaeology in the Pacific Northwest and Future Directions.” Journal of Northwest Anthropology, 2017.