Recently I had the fortune of seeing Rachel Louise Snyder at a book reading here in Phnom Penh. She recently wrote a book called “Fugitive Denim” that details the construction of a pair of jeans from design through production (including chapters on growing cotton and weaving fabric) to appearing at your local retail store. I’m reading Snyder’s book now and am enjoying it a lot. Snyder is fairly well known for her This American Life piece on the garment industry in Cambodia and a large portion of her book is devoted to this topic. At the end of her reading someone asked her about the state of sweatshops and the garment industry (in Cambodia and in general). She noted that while lots of people say that they don’t use sweatshop labor it is really an impossible thing to guarantee. There are not enough inspectors and factory inspections are tedious. In reality, if a big order comes in then you may have to work overtime to meet that order. Then she said (I’m paraphrasing from memory) “Jeans cost $30 in 1981. You can still buy a pair of jeans for $30 today. How is that? The truth is that if you buy a pair of jeans for $30 someone, somewhere has paid the price.” In other words even if jeans from the Gap cost $30 and Gap says they don’t use sweatshop labor, the globalized nature of our economy means that somewhere along the line of production someone got screwed.
So what does this have to do with archaeology and beads? Well a lot actually, and it is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. When I was in high school and college I worked in two different bead stores, both of which regularly carried antique or even ancient beads. I won’t lie, I LOVED these beads and they are the reason I am writing a dissertation on beads now. However the back story to these beads was always fuzzy. Much like a pair of jeans at the Gap, I knew beads had come from Africa or India and that they were old but how they got to my store as a mystery. One string of beautiful white agate I bought were from Mali and called dig beads. I know now that dig beads, in this case, meant they were looted.
Recently when I was back home my mom and I were in a bead store where she spotted a beautiful necklace made with tiny shards of glass. The store owner had said they were shards of Roman glass from Afghanistan, but had no other information. I was suspicious but we bought it anyway. This past week my mom was in Milwaukee at the giant Bead and Button Show. She told me that she saw several other vendors there selling the same kind of roman glass beads strung into a necklace. After asking around she was told that a cache of these broken shards of Roman glass were found in Afghanistan. Because there was a perception that these broken pieces of glass were useless in their present state, they were strung onto a necklace and then smuggled out of the country to be given a second life. The smuggling aspect was played up in this story, I think to add to the appeal and exoticness of the beads. My mom asked me what I thought. Before I respond I should say that I’m not judging my mom, my old bead stores, or anyone who currently sells or buys beads like this. I would venture to say almost no one fully understands where the beads come from and how they get there. I have a small collection of beads that are of dubious origin. But the story told to my mom is not truthful and after talking with her about it she suggested I write more on the blog to spread the word. So here it goes.
The Afghani glass bead necklace my mom got and was for sale at the Bead and Button show was not an innocent find by a bunch of well-meaning Afghanis. The pieces of glass were looted from an archaeological site. This might seem fairly benign except that looting archaeological sites for beads is intensely destructive. To find one bead several cubic meters of an archaeological site will be destroyed beyond repair. As a reminder- here’s a before (i.e. not yet looted) and after (looted) photo from my recent trip to NW Cambodia.
Some of those pits are over 1 meter deep. This means that the past is literally being erased. There is very little an archaeologist can do once a site has been looted like this.
[Update: A photo essay by John Vink showing the looting of a site called Bit Meas in Cambodia. His caption is incorrect, the site is not a Cham graveyard but an Iron Age site (approx. 500 BC- AD 500)]
Looting in places like Cambodia and Afghanistan is often a subsistence activity. People may come upon what appears to be an archaeological site by accident and then continue digging to look for things to sell. Or people may go out to dig for artifacts during slow parts of the year. In Cambodia, beads are the specific target of looters and they can be sold to dealers or middle-men for a few dollars. These middle-men or dealers in turn resell them at a much higher price point. Therefore you can’t even say that buying looted beads is helping the local economy, instead most of your money is going to a middleman. Here’s an excerpt from an article in the South China Morning Post:
“Other villages in the Cambodian province of Banteay Meanchey have had better luck. The graves there that are worth the really big money are the last resting places of chiefs from a culture that flourished more than 1,000 years ago, the progenitors of the kings who built the extraordinary temple complex at nearby Angkor Wat.
But the graves of their subjects often have a few glass beads in them – enough to sell to traders in the nearest town for a few US dollars and make the digging worthwhile.…
Glass beads are in demand in Bangkok where they are prized as talismans with the power of the dead chiefs they were buried with. They are often reworked and sold as amulets, and there is a thriving market for them on eBay among European and American collectors.”
These artifacts are then smuggled out of the country. They are smuggled because in most countries it is illegal to remove antiquities! If an ancient/antique bead (or any artifact for that matter) comes from a country that can currently or in the recent past be described as impoverished, war-torn, or corrupt you can be 100% sure that the object was not obtained and exported legally.
Recently there have been reports that in places like Iraq and Afghanistan the illeagal antiquities trade has been funding organized crime and even terrorism! I’m not quite ready to say that buying ancient beads means that the terrorists win, but the supply chain of ancient beads is not a clean one.
So to recap:
1. Beads are looted from places like Afghanistan and Cambodia by desperately poor people who get only a few dollars for their effort. A single ancient bead that you see in a market or bead show means that an archaeological site and a country’s cultural heritage has been destroyed for only a few dollars.
2. Middlemen buy the beads from the looters for a few bucks and then resell them to collectors/dealers for drastically higher prices, keeping the profit for themselves. In some cases this profit goes to fund nefarious activities.
3. Beads are illegally removed from countries, in violation of cultural heritage laws.
4. Beads make their way to Milwaukee, or Chicago, or New York and are sold to people who often have no idea about how the beads were obtained.
So what to do? Looting of archaeological sites is often related to poverty and lawlessness within a country. This is a long-term systemic problem. So what YOU can do is not create a demand for these objects. Ask hard questions about how beads were obtained and where they were from and if something is not right, don’t buy them. This is hard advice to take, believe me, but without demand, there will be little impetus to loot an archaeological site for beads. On behalf of myself and future archaeologists, I thank you.