Illicit antiquities are a major resource for traffickers, ranking among other highly trafficked commodities such as narcotics. UNESCO estimates the legal antiquities trade to be worth US$2.2 billion annually; however, the financial scope of the illicit trade is ultimately unknowable as black market statistics are notoriously difficult to ascertain. A precise characterization of the trade has arguably eluded researchers since the observable aspects of antiquities trafficking have proved to be incredibly variable.
The antiquities trade has many similarities with the other commodities trafficked through networks. Demand in wealthy countries drives individuals in economically depressed countries to export material abroad. This is characterized in the antiquities trade by artifacts passing transnationally from archaeological sites in “source” countries to collections in “market” countries, typically via transit countries. Transporting illicit artifacts from source to market requires organization, though not necessarily centralization, and sources on antiquities trafficking show a vast population of participants, from farmers to university-trained antiquities experts, whose only connection is a shared opportunity.
Looting on land is widespread and found in nearly every country. Illegal excavators visit remote archaeological sites or those near cities under the cover of darkness. In some countries they use heavy equipment to move massive amounts of earth, while others use shovels and spades.
There are three types of underwater looting. Poorer individuals remotely pulling up artifacts using nets or hooks. Using SCUBA equipment or free diving, others directly loot sites. Finally, treasure hunters use large scale marine exploration equipment to locate and salvage shipwrecks.
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