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the Covid-19 pandemic: a threat to peruvian archaeological heritage

July 23, 2020


by Catherine Lara, archaeologist at the Institut Français d’Études Andines (UMIFRE 17 MEAE / CNRS USR 3337 América Latina).



On April 7, a French newspaper published a column entitled "Peru: arrested because they were doing archaeology during the lockdown".


This anecdote, at first glance quirky, really hides a much more complex reality. Before the pandemic, archaeologist Peter van Dalen had started excavations at Huacatón (close to Northern Lima), on a site particularly threatened. On March 15, 2020 (the start of the lockdown in Peru), the researcher had taken the initiative to continue his work. He stated that he had told the local cultural institutions of his decision, promising that the medical security of his personnel was assured. Two weeks later, the authorities however arrested the researcher for breaking the lockdown regulations, and putting his team in danger. A month later, the site is partially destroyed by road work done illegally by an individual.




Archaeologists dread the destruction and pillage of archaeological sites (they often go together): in order to retrace events in the past, they must find the remains as they were left by ancient populations, which is only possible by using meticulous and methodical excavation techniques. When they dig, looters looking only for high value, marketable objects, mix everything they find. So, they destroy any hope of being able to interpret the remains of ancient sites.


In Peru, this type of pillage is far from unusual. It goes back to the Spanish colonial period. This practice is currently sanctioned with a sentence of 3 to 8 years in prison. During the Covid-19 pandemic however, it has alarmingly increased. Just to name a few examples, on the North coast of Peru, this was the case at Portada de la Sierra (close to Trujillo), and at Lambayeque. In the Andes, the authorities stopped the clandestine excavations being done right in downtown Cusco. In the space of one month, the Peruvian government received over fifty complaints; in reality, there would be a lot more cases of pillaging.


Two factors could explain this phenomena:


Though the pillage of archaeological sites can be done as a hobby, potentially motivated by the lure of money (Canghiari, 2012[1]), most of the time, it is really due to poverty. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Peru has been hit head on by the economic crisis that seems to be here to stay. For the most underprivileged populations, the pillaging of archaeological objects can be an alternate source of revenu. Furthermore, the lockdown coincided with Holy Week which, according to popular belief, is particularly favorable to the discovery of high value marketable archaeological objects.

View of the Sipán site (Lambayeque Valley). Photo: C. Lara
View of the Sipán site (Lambayeque Valley). Photo: C. Lara

Futhermore, the lockdown paralyzed the scope of actions of the main actors which, in normal times, can neutralize pillages: the police and especially the government workers, as well as the researchers from the cultural and university institutions. For the past several decades, they have been deploying tremendous efforts alongside local communities to fight against the pillage. But the projects that underlie these initiatives are largely financed by local, but mainly, international tourism. The fall of this one because of the pandemic forecasts a particularly serious crisis for the different actors in the Peruvian archaeological sector, especially those who fight against the destruction of the sites. In other words, archaeological pillaging may have sunny days ahead "post-covid".

Reconstitution of the Lord of Sipán tomb (Lambayeque Valley). Photo: C. Lara
Reconstitution of the Lord of Sipán tomb (Lambayeque Valley). Photo: C. Lara



What happens to the pillaged archaeological objects? Some are purchased by museums and private collectors in Peru, others go overseas. Before the pandemic, it was estimated that 800 million dollars of cultural goods left Peru illegally every year  (Chamussy et al., 2011[2]). The objects are mostly found in France, the United States, Spain, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Sueden, Switzerland and also Australia.

Santa Rosa de Pucalá community museum (Lambayeque Valley). Photo: C. Lara
Santa Rosa de Pucalá community museum (Lambayeque Valley). Photo: C. Lara

During the last few years, border control reinforcement in Peru and internationally has made it possible to intercept a certain number of trafficking networks. In 2019, over one thousand cultural goods made it back to Peru. Unfortunately, too many objects still fall through the cracks to reach the very lucrative business with sales on the internet, at flea markets, antique stores, and of course, auction houses. Most of the time, these last ones are not very fussy about justifying the origin of the pre-Colombian art pieces. From time to time, the embassies of the country these pieces came from attempt to stop their sale. But they have to be able to prove that the objects in question come from clandestine excavations, and that they left the country of origin illegally. This is extremely difficult, if not impossible, especially for objects coming from unknown sites or that have been circulating within private collections for decades, which seemed to be the case for a batch of seven Peruvian objects sold this past June 29 at Christie's in Paris.


The 1970 UNESCO Convention against the illicite trafficking of cultural property is not of great help in this instance. In fact, it targets only pieces identified on the heritage inventories of the member countries, and so does not apply to objects coming from clandestine excavations (Montenegro, 2015[3]). The UNIDROIT Convention on stolen or illicitely exported cultural goods is much more useful in this sens. Unfortunately, it was only ratified by a few countries.




Peter van Dalen's excavation during the lockdown created controversies within the Peruvian archaeological community. Though they did not try to justify it, the elements described below can at least help us understand what had motivated the researcher. Without a doubt, actions undertaken by the different countries and international organizations during the past few years have led to unequivocal progress with respect to the fight against the trafficking of archaeological goods. On the American continent, Peru and Mexico are the most active in this area. In fact, a meeting was supposed to take place on this topic at Cusco in September. If it is maintained, it is more than likely that this meeting - originally meant to reinforce international rules on the fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural property -, will take into account the heritage emergency created by the Covid-19 crisis.


The resurgence of this trafficking during the pandemic requires not only that efforts be consolidated, but also that further steps be taken. For the countries of origin of these goods, there must be sanctions taken against the biggest buyers of archaeological objects - often influential people, high up on the social ladder. For the countries "recipients" of the pieces, the return of objects to the country of origin must be simplified, and further investment must be made into ratifying and applying intergovernmental conventions. Finally, at the international cooperation level, current agreements must be adapted to the evolution of violations against cultural heritage. For sure, this is an ambitious agenda in today's context, and its implementation will take time. We must remember though that over and above any "heritage" aspect, in countries like Peru, archaeology holds an important role in the national economy, via tourism. So it is really a strategic sector in governmental stimulus packages. One can hope that -just as with the environment and health-, the current crisis will act as a catalyst to local and international initiatives meant to safeguard this lasting wealth.

[1] Canghiari, E. 2012 « ¿Huaqueros? Lamentablemente no tenemos: legitimación y reivindicación en el saqueo de tumbas prehispánicas ». In Espacios, tradiciones y cambios en Conchucos, S. Venturoli ed., pp. 36-65. Progetto Archeologico Antropologico “Antonio Raimondi”, Bologne.

[2] Chamussy V., Goepfert N., Touchard A.  2011 « La pratique de la huaquería au Pérou : un patrimoine détruit à 90% ». In Halte au pillage !, G : Compagnon & J.-L. Le Quellec (éds.), pp.314-333. Éditions Errance, Paris.

[3] Montenegro, N. 2015 “Introducción al tráfico ilícito de bienes culturales”. AFESE 61: pp. 113-128.

Catherine Lara is an archaeologist at the Institut Français d’Études Andines (UMIFRE 17 MEAE / CNRS USR 3337 América Latina).