Watch out for the looting of our archaeological sites

The essentials In Ariège, wild excavations at the Château de Labarre in Foix have just been reported. An archaeological plunder that is developing in France, thanks in particular to the use of metal detectors. Every year, treasures fall into the hands of illegal “collectors” and unscrupulous human traffickers, and millions of items are lost to the detriment of science and national heritage.

We’ll call him “Candide”. During the week he helps his wife in the shop. “And on the weekends I look for old things, it relaxes me and I feel better …” he smiles. He shows pictures of his finds on his cell phone. Bronze coins, arrowheads discovered thanks to a metal detector. His grail would be gold and silver coins, a Roman statuette. So he combs with his “frying pan” the known areas of his network or his perspectives in which he believes he “knows that …”, between Bigorre Gallo-Roman and Béarn Merovingien or vice versa, without spitting on the Visigoths or the Occitans of the Middle Ages … More or less innocent when he speaks of his “nice little collection” and still knows how to quantify the price of a Gaulish denarius from 100 to 300 € “depending on the state”. From discovery to big buck, there are websites and buyers for it under the guise of numismatic passion.

In short, when he talks to you about his “hobby”, Candide presents himself as a brave “treasure hunter” on Sunday. But never think of being a … poacher. Or even worse. “A looter of our common heritage,” sums up every archaeologist when he crosses his detector to the right, left or even to his excavation site.

In France, every archaeological practice is actually subject to the Heritage Code: excavating with a metal detector is punishable by law without the approval of the competent authorities – regional prefect, archaeological services – and the owner of the land (see below). below and page 3). And the problem is that Candide is not alone, he is now a legion among the 100 to 120,000 “detectorists” in France, drawn to the eternal and understandable joy of searching as well as the promises of the pubs. The detector is also a market (see below) …

Candide, who is not necessarily aware of the law if he forgets to read his message … provided he does not care if he is just looking for intercourse and profit without openness.

Secret excavations are increasing

Gallo-Roman villa of Gers, Gallic oppidum of Aude, necropolis near Toulouse … This week the castle of Labarre in Ariège discovered holes that indicate a recent passage of looters in a department where, as elsewhere, “clandestine Excavations are increasing, ”notes Frédéric Maksud of the Regional Archeology Service (SRA).

From the simple ignoramus – who believes collecting historical remains equals collecting mushrooms – to the deadly human trafficker, the detector has actually become a nightmare for researchers when it does irreparable damage by destroying raw material from scientists on the spot.

Archaeologists – that is, at least ten disciplines who analyze the dating of objects, pollen, metals, wood, or ceramics, for example – are in fact not there to play Indiana Jones. In her profession, the old-fashioned “antiquarianism” is long dead: To discover “the beautiful object” is no longer the goal. By digging, they are working to fill in the gaps in our past to build this knowledge of vanished civilizations and cultures that will also enable us to better grasp the present and think about the future. The “barbarian” is not exactly who we think when his remains were desecrated by today’s thief to stab his belt buckle …

“The actors in this secret research present different profiles. The prospectors themselves can be divided into four groups: those interested in history, leisure seekers, free electrons and looters, ”lists Xavier Delestre, a specialist in the case that has been sounding the alarm for many years. Years like his colleagues from the archaeologist, some of whom are on guard working together.

Founded in 2007, HAPPAH (Halt au Pillage du Patrimoine Archéologique et Historique) pursues the scourge … which can be measured on websites with free classified ads. Brooches, coins and even antique bronze phalluses for sale between the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean: when it comes to antiques with no guarantee of controlled origin, there is indeed a choice.

2.4 million objects per year …

Xavier Delestre worked in PACA, a very exposed region like Occitania. He analyzed the looting over several years and created reference works. “Human trafficking, theft, secret excavations … an archaeological legacy in ruin,” sums up one of his titles. Because every year at least “2.4 million objects that could be of interest to historians and archaeologists that are discovered secretly,” he estimates.

Combine education, deterrence and repression to preserve this national heritage: Today’s goal in the training of judges and investigators is to better combat this plundering of the common good and knowledge.