Looters or Heroes? Production of Illegality and Memories of ‘Looting’ in Mali

Panella, C. (2014), ‘Looters or Heroes? Production of Illegality and Memories of ‘Looting’ in Mali’, European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research 20(4): 487–502.

This paper proposes an ethnographical perspective of the clandestine trade in antiquities in Mali by showing on one side the social organization (techniques, hierarchies, trade chains) of farmers-diggers; on the other side, by analyzing the rhetorics of illegality driven by officially-mandated cultural heritage policies. In particular the paper stresses the function of visuality in the construction of ‘illegal’ subjects and iconographies of ‘plunder’ circulated through national and international press. It shows that such an iconic power of images does befog self-representations of farmers-diggers (risk, courage, loneliness) which constitute the ethical cosmos of digging activities. In such a perspective, the debate over the looting of archaeological objects has become a reiterative product of national rhetorics of legality and illegality opposed to narratives of self-representations of marginality and heroization produced by ‘illegal’ actors.