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The scourge of looting: trafficking antiquities, from temple to museum

Looting and trafficking of antiquities is a global problem, causing devastation to archaeological sites, especially during conflicts. This illicit trade, which funds insurgent and terrorist groups, threatens historical treasures in countries like Cambodia, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Mali, and Tunisia. Urgent action is necessary to halt this destructive activity. Archaeologist and legal expert Tess Davis (CAS'04) talks about the illicit antiquities trade, and how the looting of archaeological sites in conflict zones goes to fund paramilitary groups and terrorist organizations.

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Video transcript

My friends often accuse me of ruining visits to museums for them. They say that I ruined their visits to museums because if you look closely at the antiquities in museums, you often see things like chisel marks and hacksaw marks. Violent evidence of how those pieces got into a museum to begin with. I came to Boston University specifically to study archaeology, and started learning about the looting of archaeological sites and trafficking of antiquities and what a huge global problem it is. I went to Cambodia as an undergraduate and saw are just how devastating this problem was on the ground. Cambodia's temples, some of them are over a thousand years old. At some of the sites their word dozens freestanding statues. For example, the temple of Koh Ker in the Sotheby's case was described by an early explorer as a historical museum due to the abundant statuary there. When you go to Koh Ker today, there are no freestanding statues. There are just empty pedestals, there are holes in the wall, there are fragments of pieces. These sites have been absolutely devastated, and that devastation was not something that took centuries. The evidence we have shows that the looting happened almost exclusively during the Cambodian Civil War against the Khmer Rouge. When conflict erupts in an archaeological rich country, suddenly the art market is flooded with antiquities from those countries. And it's not just a historical problem either. The illicit antiquities trade is threatening sites around the world, but still going on now in Syria, and Egypt, and Libya, and Mali, and Tunisia, which is why I think the public should know that this is not just a white collar crime, that insurgent groups that terrorist groups are using the antiquities trade to fund their efforts. I do fear that by the time we, we get our act together on this it's going to be too late. Unless we stop the looting of archaeological sites, there really will be nothing left.