Archaeologists call for action against looting and climate change

An article discussing the effects of looting and climate change on Mongolian cultural heritage per an event by the American Center for Mongolian Studies. Original can be found here.

Looting and climate change have always posed problems to preservation of Mongolian cultural heritage, but recent years have seen an increased impact on both.

Dr. Julia Clark, cultural heritage coordinator for the American Center of Mongolian Studies, adjunct lecturer at Flinders University in Australia and founder of NOMAD Science Mongolia, gave a talk at the American Corner on June 5 discussing this issue. To solve the problem, she called for further research, monitoring, education, building local support, and expanding awareness of cultural identity through entertainment and tourism.

According to Dr. Clark, looting occurs primarily in burial sites of the Mongol Empire era as opposed to villages and campsites. Items include deels, gold objects, and pottery.

Items that cannot be sold such as human bones or textile fragments are usually left behind. “Sometimes you have an object that is not valuable money-wise, but is very valuable for information,” said Clark. “Those items which have a lot of information but no monetary value — what we find — are just left on the surface of the ground.”

Climate change has also exacerbated difficulties with cultural conservation. Mongolia sits on the edge of the continuous permafrost zone. Many artifacts are thus trapped within ice.

According to N.Sharkhuu from the Institute of Geography and Geoecology from the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, permafrost degradation has occurred since 2003 due to human activities such as forest fires and mining operations. Trapped artifacts have been thawing from the ice, then rapidly decaying.

In 2014, the government adopted the Law on Protection of Cultural Heritage to regulate research, possession, and distribution of archaeological items.

According to Article 13 of this Law, the government exercises the power “to conduct inspection and inventory of cultural heritage, and to approve the procedures for border crossing of absolutely invaluable historical and cultural heritage.”

However, economic circumstances make enforcement difficult.

“The law is good. It’s out there. It’s got fines and penalties and jail time for breaking the law,” said Clark. “But… Mongolia is a very large country, of course, […] with limited infrastructure and limited budgets to put towards enforcing the law.”

There are more complications: heritage, the rural/urban divide, and academic snobbery. Non-Mongolian archaeologists ultimately do not have jurisdiction over the enactment of preventative measures; it must be done by Mongolian archaeologists. Individuals in metropolises tend to be well-informed on looting, but cannot act as effectively to prevent it as those who reside in the rural countryside might. Additionally, academics with degrees should also not discount the valuable input of others who may not necessarily have degrees.

In attempting to enforce the law, straight criminalization of looters is also not an option. Most individuals live in poor, rural areas and loot in order to sustain their families.

“We get people who, because of economically hard times, may turn to looting to supplement their work,” said Clark.

Looters are likely bribed to take from sites by a black market network.

There are also “inadvertent looters” and “curious looters.” Inadvertent looters stumble across items scattered on the ground and take them without obtaining prior approval. Curious looters might be conducting independent research or simply wish to explore their own culture, but still do not have prior approval.

Clark worries that archaeologists might be inciting the looting inadvertently. Furthermore, buyers of looted objects are sometimes museums, thus creating a market for looting to continue.

Despite these difficulties, Clark’s team at NOMAD Science Mongolia is determined to stop looting. They are currently developing a mobile application to help travelers mark GPS coordinates of looted sites.

“At present, our digital archaeologist on staff, a man named Nicholas Case, has been working to get our paper based forms into a digital format,” said Clark. “He will not be able to do it completely, but we are working now with a prototype that will allow us to put in more competitive funding applications. Ultimately, the timing will depend on the success of these funding bids, and then the time that a more professional technical person or firm would need to work with us.”

Additionally, starting June 17, they will be embarking on a five week program designed to combat looting of ancient burial sites in Northern Mongolia near the Darkhad Depression. They intend to create an educational booklet, conduct interviews with locals about looting, collect data and discarded artifacts from the sites, analyze data using advanced technology, and create a cultural heritage management plan with park rangers.

If a looter is ever encountered, Clark firstly advises non-confrontation if you are in danger of getting seriously injured or killed. Take note of the GPS coordinates of your location and report it to the local authorities.

Clark believes that all individuals, be it locals or tourists, can participate in the anti-looting initiative. She hopes that public outreach will help inspire people to action.

“Archaeologists are concerned because looting permanently destroys our ability to continue answering research questions for the benefit of humankind,” says the NOMAD Science website. “These archaeological sites are non-renewable – there will never be another Neolithic site made in the world – and contain an enormous amount of information that might help us to understand our human past, adaptation to climate change and economic shifts, the origins of complex political and social organization, and so much more. Archaeologists must work hard to study not only the lives of ancient peoples, but also how they impact people today in order to prevent looting.”

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