Monday, June 14, 2010

Stop looting via Google

This is a good news story that began with some exceedingly grim news.

This grim news came to light in the late spring of 2003, after the dust had begun settling from the invasion of Iraq and archaeologists began taking stock of the country’s looted archaeological sites. To measure the severity of the problem and determine when most of it had occurred, Elizabeth Stone, an archaeologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, purchased a series of high-resolution commercial satellite images taken of southern Iraq just before and after the invasion. Stone pored over them, examining known sites and measuring the extent of looters’ pits over time. These scars on the landscape can be seen from space.

Much of looting, Stone discovered, occurred just before and just after the invasion. And the total area pillaged, she noted in a 2007 paper in Antiquity, “was many times greater than all the archaeological investigations ever conducted in southern Iraq and must have yielded tablets, coins, cylinder seals, statues, terracottas, bronzes and other objects in the hundreds of thousands.”

It was a grave situation, one requiring intervention from Iraq’s new government, and Stone let everyone know what she had learned. At one point, she flew out to California to give a lecture on the subject at Stanford University, and as sometimes happens, her talk galvanized a young post-doc, Daniel Contreras. Contreras had put in several field seasons as an archaeologist in Peru: he had found the scale of looting there staggering. “You can’t drive down the Panamerican highway without seeing looters’ pits,” he says. “So looting is really never off the radar there.”

Contreras wanted to start quantifying looting in Peru, à la Stone. But satellite photos are pricey, and Contreras couldn’t afford to buy them. So he and Stanford colleague, Neil Brodie, an archaeologist who specializes in looting issues, started casting around for something much cheaper. What they discovered is that Google Earth photos work just fine. So in the current issue of Antiquity, Contreras publishes the results* of his Google Earth study of looting in Peru’s Vir’u Valley, concluding that a whopping 116 acres of sites in this relatively small valley show intensive damage.

Ok, I know, this still doesn’t sound like good news. But I thought Contrera’s study was ingenious, so I called him up this week to talk about it. Just before hanging up, I asked him whether this might be the beginning of a much larger project, one that enlists the sharp eyes of the Google Earth community and anyone else with an interest in archaeology to keep an eye on the world’s looting hotspots. Could archaeologists crowdsource the monitoring of the our collective archaeological heritage?

“Definitely,” he said, without a moment of hesitation. In fact, he’s now thinking of how to go about doing just that. The technology is all there, he said, it’s just a question of how to administer it. “And I think this would make people a little more aware of the problem of looting, as well as providing a tangible source of documentation for archaeologists.”

Facts and figures of this type are exactly what archaeologists need the next time they press for stricter laws on the looting and sale of antiquites. And I think this new Google Earth study is very good news.

Volume: 84 Number: 324 Page: 544–555
Huaqueros and remote sensing imagery: assessing looting damage in the Virú Valley, Peru
Daniel A. Contreras*

*Archaeology Center, Stanford University, P.O. Box 20446, Stanford, CA 94309, USA (Email:
This article presents a new initiative in combating looting from the air, building on previous work in Iraq and Jordan. Looted sites in the Virú Valley, Peru, are visible as pit clusters on dated versions of Google Earth. Compare these with earlier air photographs and Gordon Willey's famous survey of the 1940s, and we have a dated chronicle of looting events. This makes it possible to demonstrate that modern looting is certainly taking place and linked to an upsurge in the antiquities trade. As well as being a new instrument for managing heritage, the author shows that the looting survey offers an important research dividend: the location of cemeteries not previously systematicalldocumented, with potential for more thorough investigation even of already looted areas.

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