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Roger Atwood

Fellowship Title:

Lives in Looting

Roger Atwood
December 20, 2004

Fellowship Year

How professional grave-robbers are destroying the past

The burial mound, Huaca el Sol, Moche, Peru.

At 23, Robin is a huaquero, a professional grave-robber who has been digging up pre-Hispanic burial mounds known as huacas in his native Peru almost every night since his early teens. He and his buddies loot tombs left by the long succession of cultures that flourished before the arrival of the Spaniards in 1531. They sell the choicest items they find to traffickers, who smuggle most of them out of Peru to sell to dealers in Europe, the United States or Chile.

No matter how many international treaties are signed to combat this trade, no matter how many times art dealers protest that they don’t buy looted goods, no matter how many smugglers are arrested, Robin knows that the trade in pre-Columbian artifacts is thriving. It is thriving because collectors want to buy pre-Columbian art that has just come on to the market for the first time. The want fresh loot, and Robin and thousands of looters like him all over Peru, Guatemala, Mexico and other countries with rich archaeological heritages are delivering it to them. In the process they are destroying the sites that, properly excavated by specialists, would yield new insights and understandings into the way people lived in centuries past.

Robin lives in a small brick house with his wife and two daughters in a town a few hours outside Lima. He earns a little money on the side driving a taxi. He looks a lot like the boxer Oscar de la Hoya and has the body to go with it; looting keeps him in great shape, he says. (Robin is his nickname.)

These days he works ransacking tombs near the town of Cañete, where there is little police interference and abundant Inca textiles of the kind that bring the big bucks on the international art market.

Looting tombs is illegal in Peru. But in a country that, according to a government registry, contains some 5,000 recognized archaeological sites over an area three times the size of California, the law is virtually impossible to enforce. If relatively rich countries like Italy and Greece have a hard time preserving their ancient sites from the depredations of looters and souvenir hunters, the problem is even worse in poor Peru.

The market for illegally excavated Peruvian antiquities took off in the late 1980s after looters in the village of Sipán discovered a 1,700-year-old tomb that was filled with gold, silver and turquoise artifacts. For two weeks they ransacked the tomb and sold what they found to a web of middlemen and dealers, who within days had smuggled most of it out of the country. Word swept through the international antiquities market that Peruvian looters had stumbled upon a major site. But collectors had to move fast – police were sure to find the site and break up the whole racket soon.

On February 26, 1987, two weeks after the looters found the Sipán tomb, police overran the site and evicted the looters. Archaeologists then began the slow and careful excavation of other tombs at the same site, finding that the looters had missed much more than they destroyed. The archaeological research at Sipán brought new insights into the Moche society that dominated the north Peruvian coast for seven centuries and that buried its leaders with a sumptuous array of metalwork and jewelry. The treasures excavated by archaeologists at Sipán are now on display in a special museum in Peru, after tours to museums in the United States, Germany and Japan.

Meanwhile, the international art market’s taste for Peruvian antiquities had been whetted as never before. Up and down Peru’s arid coast, professional looters began digging into ancient burial sites with a new rapacity, looking for the next Sipán.

“Illegal excavations are happening daily in Peru, but within our resources we do what we can to combat it,” said María Elena Córdova, executive director of the National Culture Institute (INC), which is responsible for preserving Peru’s vast archaeological heritage. In many parts of Peru, the INC has embarked on public education campaigns about the damage caused by looting while some communities have created anti-looting citizens’ patrols. Police enforcement has been uneven at best.

Robin was one of those professional looters who got into the business after the Sipán discovery. It took some persuading, but Robin and his colleagues agreed to show me where they dig up tombs night after night. I told them I wouldn’t buy anything or join in the digging, and they agreed.

We approached the huaca on foot after midnight. They whispered to me about strange and beautiful things they had found over the years – perfectly preserved pots, color-spangled weavings, piles of human bones and skulls, the fickle spirits of the dead that can bring them luck or frustration. The huaca is a living force with jealousies and resentments, moments of generosity and fits of spite.

“If you act greedy, the huaca won’t give you anything. You take too much, and it will close up and never give you anything again,” said Robin.

There was no fence of any kind around the huaca, not even a sign. I followed them up and sat on the bare, chalky surface as they began to work. First, they plunged metal poles into the earth for about an hour, prospecting for tombs. If they hit nothing, they moved on. If the pole suddenly met no resistance, that meant they had hit an empty pot that probably accompanied a tomb. If the pole made a certain muffled crack, that meant they had hit a body. I began to recognize that excruciating crack of metal hitting bone, and it made me recoil as if the pole were hitting me.

After an hour of sinking their poles and making mental notes of where they hit bodies, they began to dig – fast. In 15 minutes, they could excavate a hole six feet deep; in half an hour, they had broken into tombs 10 feet down. The tombs seemed to belong to Inca commoners, simple graves with gourds containing peanuts or bird bones, woven bags, coils of string, knitting instruments, a child’s tiny bone flute with a string attached. I looked at all this in the moonlight, fascinated, disgusted and saddened. They couldn’t sell this stuff, and they were throwing it all away into heaps of debris.

“We know what people are buying and what they don’t want. We leave a lot of stuff because we can’t sell it,” Robin whispered to me. “It’s hard to sell ceramics these days. Too much of it is on the market. These days buyers want textiles and more textiles.”

They often get specific requests relayed from collectors relayed through middlemen. This kind of customized looting increasingly seems to drive the market. A wealthy collector somewhere lets the long chain of dealers and middlemen know what he wants, and looters go out and look for it.

“What they’re asking for is textiles,” Robin said.

At about 4 a.m. they found what they wanted. At the bottom of a hole nine feet deep, using a flashlight, they could see an Inca weaving wrapped around a bundle that probably contained a body. In the light they could see the fabric’s deep red and ochre. Robin pulled the weaving free and clambered out of the pit. He held the fabric up to the flashlight and shook it, releasing a cloud of dust. It was indeed a lovely piece, a design of red, yellow, blue and beige diamonds, and it was almost perfectly intact. It was actually a shirt, with a hole for the head and two for the arms and probably once worn by a boy or young man. The naked bones of his body lay at the bottom of the pit: a femur, a backbone and a skull gazing up at the stars.

“Best thing we’ve found in two weeks,” said Robin. They were even luckier that the pole had not pierced the fabric. They excitedly discussed how much money it might bring them. A thousand dollars, maybe $1,500.

The sun was rising as we reached the small house where Remi lived with his wife and young daughter. The men spread out the weaving on the dirt floor. By 9 a.m., they had a buyer, a smuggler they knew only as Lucho and asked him to come see it. They wouldn’t let me stay to see the sale but told me later they sold this weaving to Lucho for $1,000, a price that reflects both the high quality of the weaving and also the fact that modern looters are more savvy about the commercial value of what they find. The days in which a high-quality Inca weaving could be had for $10 or $20 are long gone.

Before I left, I asked the looters if it didn’t bother them to dig up bodies.

“When you first start doing this, it makes you nervous,” Remi said. “Digging up bones, you think you’re going to incur a curse. But after a while it becomes easy. You don’t even think about it.”

“But doesn’t it bother you personally?” I asked. “I mean, how would you like it if someone dug up your grave and stole everything your family had put in it?”

They didn’t have an answer for that. They looked at each other nervously, and then at me as if suddenly they wished I wasn’t there. Then Remi said, “Around here there is no other kind of work. I used to work at the dairy factory, but it closed. There is no work but looting.”

©2004 Roger Atwood

Roger Atwood, a freelance writer in Washington, D.C., examined the looting of the ancient world during his Patterson fellowship.

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Roger Atwood