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Images of looting at the Jackes-Eglinton Site from 1925 “Vacant Lot in Toronto Yields Relics of Red Men.” Toronto Daily Star, August 21, 1925,1, City Section.

The Legacy of Looting: The Darker Heritage of Archaeology Collections in Ontario

News and social media sites today are buzzing with the looting of archaeological sites, the illegal antiquities trade and the destruction of heritage around the world.

Jul 14, 2016

“…they actually had cemetery digging bees – just like you’d have a barn-raising bee. People would crowd in and just have a picnic lunch and dig through these graves, which is, I mean what can you say? There’s really no way of describing the wrongness of that. But that’s what happened…”  – Bill Fox

“…how do we protect what’s in the ground and maybe should stay in the ground? How do we learn the most from what inadvertently comes out of the ground? But also, we have to go back and look at the archaeological record of the past, because there’s a whole lot of – if you really think about it – a mountain of paper, of photographs of objects that I think we need to do some rethinking about. And who knows what would come out of that?” – Rick Hill

News and social media sites today are buzzing with the looting of archaeological sites, the illegal antiquities trade and the destruction of heritage around the world. The speed and intensity of destruction of sites by ISIS has certainly fuelled this fire, but so too have protests by Native American groups over the sale of sacred objects, including items stolen decades ago, in recent auctions in France and elsewhere. In Canada, the sentiments and recommendations of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission have added momentum to efforts to build better, collaborative relationships and tackle difficult questions about how to deal with contested collections in museums and research institutions across the country.

This frames the questions that we have been ruminating on at Sustainable Archaeology McMaster as we continue to process our legacy collections. Given the prevalence of looted objects currently housed in the repository, how do we deal with the legacy of private collecting in Ontario archaeology? How can these objects be integrated into collaborative research and heritage projects? Can this lengthy history of conflict, inequality and trauma help us to understand and deal with contemporary practices, in Canada and abroad?

‘It Was a Different Time’

It is a difficult image to reconcile today: men, women and children dressed up for a party – fur coats, skirts, shirts and ties. Family and friends gathered for a Sunday afternoon of plundering the earth for relics. Grave robbing as a popular hobby or social activity. These digging bees, holiday pass times, and after-church activities were all smiles, fun, and dripping with competitive spirits, everyone secretly hoping to have the best find of the day.

‘It was a different time.’

This is a phrase that I have heard over and over again. There were different attitudes towards material culture and archaeology, there were different relationships between archaeologists and First Nations communities, there were different ideas about history, access and inclusivity.

These observations are all true. It was indeed a different time. But to write it off as such loses some important threads of the narrative and erases this context from our understanding of how archaeology has developed in Ontario, and Canada more widely. It also ignores the fact that, in some ways, things haven’t moved on as much as we would want them to.


What do collections borne out of looting tell us?

In March 2016, Emily Meikle in collaboration with SA McMaster and a panel of experts recorded a podcast that explored the relationship between First Nations communities today, archaeology and a difficult history in which heritage and objects were dissociated from the landscape, made inaccessible and used to define inequality. Since then, we have been revisiting a number of sites housed at our facility that are the products of looting and working to restore context, access and inclusivity.

We’ve compiled a list of our observations about looting and its legacy. These are by no means complete or conclusive, but are meant to sustain and stimulate further conversations.

  1. A Looter by any other name: In Ontario, many looters in the first half of the twentieth century came to be termed ‘amateur archaeologists’, and as such played important roles in early archaeology societies, museums and community heritage projects. They laid the groundwork for the increasing institutionalization and professionalization of archaeology, they informed academic archaeologists of some of their favourite relic hunting locations, they even funded or supported early excavations of sites. In some cases, their collections are the only artifacts remaining from sites that were destroyed by early construction in Ontario. For better or for worse, our present is inextricably linked to this dark heritage of looting. As much as we may wish to distance ourselves from this past, we have all inherited features from this history. Discussions of archaeology therefore must include an understanding of looting and the individuals that were involved in these acts in order to tackle problems in contemporary practice. These discussions must also be sympathetic to the fact that what one person may view as an amateur archaeologist (or indeed a professional archaeologist) may be understood to be a looter or grave robber by another person; these diverse perspectives need to have a place in our narratives going forward.
  2. Looters are Diverse: In the image above of a group looting the Jackes-Eglinton site in 1925, women are front row, centre. These are the original Trowelblazers. The typical image of looters (and indeed early archaeologists) is dominated by men; the names that we have attached to our looted collections at Sustainable Archaeology are certainly almost exclusively men. And yet glimpses into these ‘digging bees’ demonstrates that just as women have been written out of early archaeology, they have been written out of this practice too. A more inclusive narrative of the development of the discipline must also recognize that men and women (young and old) were complicit in these acts.
  3. Times have not changed as much as we would like: It may be more than 90 years since those photos were taken at the Jackes-Eglinton site, however, evidence of continued looting of indigenous heritage sites is easy to find. Online auction sites like Ebay provide a platform for profiting from looting; Instagram is used for the trade of human skeletons. Collectors of projectile points and pottery sherds across North America tweet about their weekend finds or curate Facebook albums of the best pieces in their collection. We do not have any systems in place to record private collecting and private collections in Ontario (see for instance UK’s Portable Antiquities Scheme), let alone curb it. The continued destruction of heritage that is important to and valued by descendent communities is widely unchecked, and tackling this issue should be included in our responsibility to mend relationships, control what is excavated/developed, and repatriate collections to First Nations communities. We’ve set some bad examples in the past but we can still address the contemporary impact.
  4. All’s not lost: Archaeology 101 tells us that context is key; knowing where an artifact came from is paramount to interpretation. The problem with looted materials is that they rarely come with clear provenience; at best we might know the field it came from, but not its position within a site or association with other artifacts. Many of us, therefore, turn away from looted materials as ‘damaged goods’. First and foremost, repatriation should be considered. Looting certainly contributes to emotional and cultural trauma and collaboration should always be part of the process of re-engaging such collections. Another step of this process is a creative and proactive approach to the fate of collections that are being stored and preserved. Clever detective work may uncover more information – rooting through old journals and letters, newspaper articles and photographs do unearth much needed context for some objects. Integrating them into comparative collections for teaching and research, for museum displays and community events, and for visualization projects can give new life to looted collections. Looting is never ideal and this history cannot be erased but re-investing these objects with value and increasing their accessibility helps to move beyond the context through which they were disturbed and ensure that the destruction didn’t occur for nothing.
Examples of notes about private collections that are now part of the McMaster legacy collection.

Examples of notes about private collections that are now part of the McMaster legacy collection.

We hope that through ongoing events, podcasts, blogs, and research, we can continue to review and revise our relationship to looting in Ontario archaeology. We also seek to provide platforms for diverse voices to be heard on the subject, starting with our podcast and hopefully to be continued through the Comments section, social media, and future endeavours. Finally, we hope to continue to stimulate innovative approaches to re-envisioning the looted collections housed in our facility and elsewhere in Ontario, taking into account the legacies of the past and new visions of what archaeology could be. Sustainability is, after all, built by understanding the past with a view to crafting a better future.

Acknowledgements. Thank you to Mima Kapches who helped to fill in some of the history of our Jackes-Eglinton collection and for bringing to our attention the evocative image above of looting.

Article written by Katherine Cook, Operations Manager