Stopping the Archaeological Plunder

By Zach Zorich|Thursday, February 19, 2004

Last spring, an armed Guatemalan gang brutalized a woman to make her give up the location of a valuable Mayan monument in the Petén rain forest so they could steal it. Then something remarkable happened. A group of local elders reported the crime to Arthur Demarest, an archaeology professor at Vanderbilt University, who alerted Guatemala’s federal police, the Servícios de Investigación Criminal. Six months later, government agents arrested 10 members of the gang, many with suspected connections to organized crime, and returned the monument to its home in Cancuén, which thrived during the Mayan Classic Period. “The S.I.C. agents and the Q´eqchi´ people are risking their lives to protect that site,” Demarest says.

In the face of widespread archaeological theft around the world, the events in Guatemala point to part of the solution: getting local citizens involved. To help do this, Demarest has partnered with the National Geographic Society to help make tourism at Cancuén an integral part of the economy. He has also enlisted a Washington, D.C.–based humanitarian organization, Counterpart International, to set up medical clinics and provide clean water, solar energy, and legal help. As a result, the Q´eqchi´ Mayans have become protective of their archaeological heritage.

Demarest recognizes that such partnerships are not the only answer. To stop large-scale looting of the kind that occurred in Iraq and Central America means cutting down on demand. “People just shouldn’t buy ancient artifacts,” he says. “Collectors need to realize that these things have blood on them—people are killed to get them.”

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