Illicit antiquities trade in Argentina: the appropriateness of governmental policy to local socio-cultural contexts of looting

Annemiek Rhebergen

People around the world engage with the past and its material remains in a variety of ways, based on what is perceived as meaningful and ethical from their own cultural backgrounds. It has been proposed that heritage policies derived from a nation’s legal framework might therefore not be culturally appropriate at a local level where interests and ethics prevail other than the official ones that are authorised. Within debates concerning the looting of archaeological sites and the subsequent illicit trade in cultural objects, local descendant communities are widely acknowledged as important stakeholders. However, little is known about their own views on looting and concerns with the trade. As a result, policy developed to curtail the illicit antiquities trade might not be effective or not represent local interests.

The recent developments in Argentina’s legal and policy frameworks and the known occurrence of looting in the Northwest provides a unique space to contribute to the understanding of different heritage discourses and its implications in the field. This research aims at establishing the extent to which the governmental policy against looting and the illicit antiquities trade is appropriate to local contexts of looting. Through ethnographic research, using methods of participant observation and interviewing, the broader socio-cultural context of illicit digging in Argentina will be examined. It seeks to expose alternative understandings of heritage from which justifications for local practices emerge and identify, describe, and contextualise the interests and concerns of local indigenous communities in relation to the illicit trade. It is expected to find different perspectives underlying the governmental policy as opposed to those present at the local level, demonstrating that empirical research is key to constructing effective and culturally appropriate policy.