Session I: Archaeological Survey and Anti-Looting

 Human bones litter the surface near a looted grave

Human bones litter the surface near a looted grave

 The stone coffin of a looted grave is left open after the thieves depart

The stone coffin of a looted grave is left open after the thieves depart


Dates: June 17 - July 8, 2018

Fee: $2,800 (For support in applying for external funding, please contact us.)

Skills: archaeological survey; drones and GIS; basic artifact cataloging and conservation; public outreach

Logistics: We will frequently be moving by car between camps. Participants should bring their own tent and camping equipment. Water may be purified from nearby rivers and lakes. Project cooks will prepare all meals. 

Description: The illegal looting of ancient burial sites has become a big problem in Northern Mongolia. During the summer of 2017, the NOMAD Science team witnessed nearly 100 instances of new looting, including the complete destruction of a medieval cemetery (40 graves) - bits of metal and wood artifacts, human bones, and clothing fragments were strewn on the surface and would not survive long without our intervention. Thieves get away with priceless cultural heritage objects that will likely never be recovered, while completely disrespecting the final resting places of ancient people. Archaeologists are concerned because looting permanently destroys our ability to continue answering research questions for the benefit of humankind. Mongolia has created strong anti-looting laws supporting cultural heritage preservation, but the vast areas of the countryside, low population density and economic challenges make enforcement problematic.  Though no systematic monitoring has been conducted, some of the looting may in fact be inspired by our own research activities. Therefore, NOMAD Science will spend Session I in the summer of 2018 solely investigating and combating looting activities in the region where our regular fieldwork is conducted. We intend to do so through monitoring, research, and education. This will be done by implementing a 5 step approach:

1) Create, print and distribute an anti-looting educational booklet.

2) Conduct interviews with locals about looting in the area.

 3) Collect data and discarded artifacts from looted sites.

 4) Analyze data and create aerial maps using GIS and drones.

5) Create a “Cultural Heritage Management Plan” with local National Park rangers.

 A recently looted grave

A recently looted grave

1) Anti-Looting Booklet: Prior to arriving at the site, we will create and publish an educational anti-looting booklet in collaboration with colleagues at the National Museum of Mongolia. This booklet will illustrate the difference between illegal looting and legitimate archaeological research, share interesting recent archaeological findings in the area, and provide guidance about how to work with archaeologists, local law enforcement agencies, and national park rangers to report and deter looting.

2) Interview Locals: When we deliver the above booklets to local residents in the remote region of northern Mongolia where we work, we will engage residents in dialogue about looting in the region. During previous fieldwork, several locals suggested that looting was being conducted by outsiders who paid for local workers’ aid. NOMAD Science team members will work to understand why people are looting, what would be the most effective ways to combat it, how looting may have changed over time , what kinds of artifacts people have heard about or seen in the possession of looters, and what people know about existing cultural heritage protection laws. Participants will field questions about what archaeologists are finding, and how we can work together to deter looting. Together, we will discuss and make plans about how locals can benefit from archaeological sites and artifacts without abetting looting.

3) Monitor Looting Activity: Using information from the above interviews and our regular survey work, the team will monitor looting in the region with a customized application for smart phones and tablets to record survey data. Preliminary results suggest that using this application is an efficient way to record looting incidents. Understanding looting trends over time and monitoring how our efforts may be encouraging or discouraging these illegal acts is crucial to deterring this phenomenon. 

4) Mapping: Combining the above application data with  high quality aerial photographs and GIS maps will allow us to contextualize and visualize this data spatially, analyze it, share our data with colleagues and collaborators, and produce effective figures for mobilizing allies in cultural heritage preservation.

5) National Parks Cultural Heritage Plan: All of the fieldwork described above will be used to create a “Cultural Heritage Management Plan” in collaboration with the National Park Service and the Mongol Ecology Center. These organizations have created management plans for the natural resources of the region, but have not had the expertise or funds to create an equivalent Cultural Heritage strategy. The Local National Park Service oversees a number of National Parks and Nationally Protected Areas in the region, but an effective plan might be adopted by the nearly 100 National Parks and Protected Areas around Mongolia.

This five step plan will provide us with the information necessary to combat looting activities related to antiquities trafficking in northern Mongolia and will save irreplaceable cultural heritage resources that are currently endangered. 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.