Looted Heritage: Monitoring the Illicit Antiquities Trade

“In his overview of what ‘open access’ might mean in the academy, Peter Suber draws attention to the salient features of what it means to call something ‘open’ – that it is digital, the cost (to the reader) is free, and most copyright or similar legal restrictions are relaxed (Suber 2012). In this paper, we describe ‘Looted Heritage’, a developing digital archaeology project and its early results that explore ways of leveraging open content, of dealing with the firehose of data that comes when materials can be freely collected and examined. We focus not on the academic open access movement, but rather on the torrent of archaeological materials shared through social media streams such as Twitter and blogs. We focus on user-generated content surrounding the trade in illicit antiquities, reports of looting, and explore the patterns in this data, of not just what is shared, but why.

In a way, our approach is the inverse of ‘crowdsourcing’. To crowdsource something,  whether a problem of software development, or the need to transcribe historical documents, is generally to fracture a problem into its component pieces, allowing an interested public to solve them. In archaeology, such approaches are starting to find currency in everything from funding fieldwork (Morgan 2011) to the entire excavation and its subsequent interpretation (Wilkins et al. 2012; Wilkins, B 2012). In 2011 I and my students embarked on a project to crowdsource the idea of ‘sense of place’, using an open-source software platform to solicit and collect community memories about cultural heritage resources in Central Canada (Graham, Massie and Feuerherm 2011). One of our findings in that project concerned the order of operations that should be followed, that perhaps it is better to collect what is freely available first, before asking the crowd to fill in the gaps (Graham, Massie, and Feuerherm 2011).

Accordingly, we set up a data-trap, to collect the tiny pieces out on the open access web. We then study these pieces using data mining and text analysis to develop a picture of what is happening right now. It is a kind of digital excavation, and what we are excavating is the world of social media. We then put all of our data, and our analysis, online to allow others to fill in the gaps. When we mine the open web for information about looted cultural heritage, what are the discourses? What are people saying, does what they say change over time, and do these trends and this excercise hold any lessons for us as archaeologists?” – Graham & Blades, ‘Mining the Open Web with ‘Looted Heritage’


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