A Tourist’s Role in Archaeological Ethics
Remember the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan? This was in spring of 2001, before most people had heard of the Taliban. We remember it well and were horrified watching video of these incredibly amazing and larger-than-life sculptures that had stood for centuries being blown up by tanks and anti-aircraft weapons. This is an extreme example of the unethical treatment of archaeological artifacts that are important pieces of our collective human history and culture.
There are less severe but still serious activities related to antiquities and artifacts that every mindful tourist should be aware of, namely looting and selling.
We know about this first-hand as we were witness to the secret selling of Aymara Indian artifacts in the well-known Witches’ Market in La Paz, Bolivia. While most people with stalls in the market are selling their own handicrafts, there are others who will approach tourists, ask you to follow them to a secluded spot, and open up a blanket with piles of little pots and other ceramics.
Back in 1992, we actually bought two of these artifacts, being young and naïve enough to not understand what we were doing. We haven’t put them through carbon-dating but we are quite sure the pots were looted from nearby fields, current/future archaeological sites.
Some tourists think that since the artifacts have already been looted, what’s the harm in buying them? Sure, that’s a way to convince yourself it’s okay but you’re just feeding the beast, leading to more looting. It’s important that the native cultures retain these items and decide what to do with them. Museums that attract socially conscious tourists and showcase the culture or even archaeological tours are ideal ways of using these artifacts to help the local community while preserving history and past cultures. As socially conscious tourists, we should be buying locally-made replicas of these types of items, but not the real thing.
Back during our time at Indiana University (go, hoosiers!) we were fortunate enough to take an archaeological ethics class with KD Vitelli, a wonderful teacher and expert on Greek pottery. Including case studies developed by our class, Dr. Vitelli edited this book (now in its second edition) on archaeological and anthropological ethics, including looting, the development of archaeological sites for tourism, and faking biblical history, among other interesting reads.