Kate Burmon, assistant professor of Criminology at Mount Saint Mary College, kicked off this semester’s Investigating Research on Campus (iROC) series with “Archaeology, Annihilation, and Anomie: Consequences of Looting and Destruction of Cultural Property” on Thursday, February 11.
The virtual talk, presented on Zoom, was open to the community to attend.
According to Burmon, archaeological looting is “any unscientific and illegal act of plundering archeological sites for profit.”
Stolen items can be sold on the black market or, more shockingly, on the legitimate art market as well.
To search for artifacts correctly, one must first get permission from the local government to dig at a site, something that, in itself, varies in difficulty from country to country and site to site. But getting permission doesn’t mean that just any kind of excavation will be allowed, Burmon noted: specific guidelines prevent the destruction of the land and the artifacts, and help to preserve our understanding of the civilizations that came before us.
In a sanctioned dig, “You are going layer by layer through the earth and you are recording where everything is being found,” Burmon explained. “And you’re being meticulous about removing objects and recording exactly where they were…But when we have an illegal dig, all of that context is lost. When you have people just digging random holes, it causes destruction.”
In addition to affecting the ability to study these objects and destroying evidence present at their origin sites, archaeological looting also ruins historical context and understanding of the significance of these items.
“Art history is more than just the object,” said Burmon. “Why was this work of art created at the time it was by the person it was? …When we are dealing with ancient cultures, we don’t have a lot more to go on than the objects themselves and where they are found.”
So when a work of art is looted, this context is lost. Figuring out where this art came from and where it fits historically becomes a guessing game.
Burmon’s presentation was built on work she initially started while researching her master’s thesis on the historical consequences of art looting from the Iraq National Museum during the invasion of Baghdad in 2003. Subsequently, she’s delved further into the consequences of archaeological looting and plundering of sites during war to better understand the theoretical underpinnings from both art historical and criminological angles.
Last February, Burmon was invited by the Departments of Classics and History of Art & Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh to speak on this topic as part of their Faculty Fellow Lecture series.
Burmon holds a master’s degree from New York University in Museum Studies and a second master’s degree in the History of Art at Indiana University, specializing in Islamic Art & Architecture and Ancient Greek & Roman Art. She earned her doctorate from Northeastern University in Criminology & Justice Policy and her current research focuses primarily on fine art theft, examining variables significant to stolen art recovery. Additionally, she examines the art historical impact caused by archaeological looting and the destruction of fine art, cultural property, and cultural heritage, primarily in regions of conflict and economic uncertainty. Burmon’s pedagogical interests largely center on community engagement and service learning in criminology classrooms, using projects to prepare students for positions in the field.
The goal of the college’s iROC is to provide a forum for Mount faculty, staff, and students to showcase their research endeavors with the college and local communities. Presentations include research proposals, initial data collection, and completed research projects.
The next iROC talk, “Elective Citizens? The Radcliffe College Community’s Spectral Participation in World War I Activity, 1914-1926,” will take place on Thursday, February 25, at 12:45 p.m. It is free and open to the public, but you must register to attend. Register at www.msmc.edu/McGuireiROC
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