Peruvian Archaeology, The Costs of Cultural Property Repatriation, and Satellite Imagery to Combat Looting

Friday, December 16, 2011
While Peru currently pursues its request for an extension of American cultural property import protections under the Cultural Property Implementation Act (see this post for background), PRI’s The World and the BBC reported on yesterday’s repatriation of artifacts to Peru by Yale University.  You can listen or read the news item by clicking on the links.

Naturally, the ongoing problem of archaeological site looting was mentioned in the reports by Mattia Cabitza.  Two observations bear some attention.

First, it is not often that we hear about the specific monetary costs of repatriation.  Blanca Alva of the Peruvian Ministry of Culture is quoted as saying: "The problem is that repatriations are expensive."  "They involve a court case, and you need to pay lawyers, transportation, packing, insurance, laboratory tests, etc.”  Cabitza informs us that “[i]n 2007, the Peruvian government estimated that it spent $625,000 (£400,000) on the repatriation of some 400 antiquities.  Ms Alba believes repatriating antiquities is, in the long term, a price worth paying, but she would prefer it if more was done to fight looting.”

Second, there was a discussion about using satellite imagery to combat clandestine archaeological looting.  The idea has been mentioned many times before and bears repeating.  Indeed, Cabitza writes that “Nicola Masini of Italy's Institute for Archaeological and Monumental Heritage has been using satellite imagery in Peru since 2007. . . . Mr Masini believes satellites could also be used to combat looting, because they reveal the presence of fresh excavations.”

Satellite monitoring should be used as a tool for detecting site looting around the globe and for collecting evidence in order to both deter clandestine digs and to prosecute illegal antiquities trafficking.  Commercial satellite imagery can be expensive, but the technology has shown early results when used to expose war crimes (see the Satellite Sentinel Project).  Satellites may be used in a similar fashion to combat crimes affecting cultural heritage.  Global Heritage Network (GHN) announced that it started using satellites this year to monitor endangered cultural sites, and Google Earth is being utilized in some places as a cheaper alternative.  But there should be more widespread discussion about investing in the higher resolution images that can be provided by a commercial company like DigitalGlobe, which furnishes GHN's images.

Satellite image of the famous site of Macchu Pichu in Peru.
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