What's the difference between archaeology and grave robbing?

Teamworking outdoors to cultivate the soil.
Archaeology and grave robbing are quite different.
Getty Images

In the classic adventure movie "Raiders of the Lost Ark," the bulk of the action comes when professor/adventurer/archaeologist Indiana Jones battles grave-robbing Nazis for the lost Ark of the Covenant. In the film, director Steven Spielberg draws a distinct line between the intent of the movie's hero and the intent of his money-hungry foil, Dr. Rene Belloq. Belloq is depicted as the anti-Indiana Jones, an archaeologist who has lost his way and given in to the temptations of becoming a treasure hunter for hire. Take a close look at the film's title, though. It's not called "The Legitimate Archaeologist and the Grave Robber." According to the title, they're all "raiders" of the lost ark -- Dr. Jones included. This begs the question: Where is the line drawn between archaeology and grave robbing?

It's a tough question to answer because there's no single law that states when an artifact becomes historically significant. In the world of antiques, the general rule is that an item between 75 and 100 years old is a valued collectible. United States customs laws put the number squarely at 100 years old. So does this mean that anything more than 100 years old is fair game for research? Not necessarily. Just try digging up a 105-year-old grave and taking the pocket watch from the coffin. This is called grave robbing, and it's illegal. But what if the site was a Native American burial plot and a university researcher applied for and received a permit to excavate the site? Then it's archaeology, which is protected by law, as long as the dig is conducted according to the state's guidelines. A permit makes a big difference in the differentiation between archaeology and grave robbing. It's the basis for what makes an excavation legitimate. Each state in the United States has a governing body, usually headed by the state archeologist, which spells out the guidelines for a legal excavation.


The distinction that most archaeologists point out is the intent behind an excavation. An archaeologist's job is to piece together human history and prehistory. This is largely accomplished by excavating sites, which are often tombs and burial grounds because humans have a long history of burying items important to the deceased with the body. So, if you find the remains of a 400-year-old corpse, there's a good chance there are other items with the bones of the dead. These objects can tell an archaeologist a lot about the era. If a body from the ice age is found frozen in time with a spear in his rib cage and a crude hammer in his hand, it tells us a great deal about how advanced he was, how he hunted and how he survived.

Grave robbers, on the other hand, typically have one purpose in mind -- to sell off artifacts for profit to unscrupulous collectors, or on the thriving antiquities black market. Grave robbers and looters have no interest in the historical significance of the object, just what it can fetch on the open or underground market. It appears the easy answer, then, is: Grave robbers are working strictly for profit, while archaeologists are interested solely in research.

Not so fast. In recent years, there's been big debate about booty found on shipwrecks and what makes it different than items found through land-based excavation.


Undersea Archaeology

An archaeologist's main goal is to help piece together the past.
David Silverman/Getty Images

Relatives of the victims of the Titanic have complained that the mining of valuables and relics from the sea floor amount to nothing more than grave robbing. After all, the resting place of the Titanic is also a mass grave of sorts, the sea a home to more than 1,500 casualties. Yet we've seen thousands of personal items on display at numerous Titanic exhibitions since it was discovered in 1987. Undersea explorers claim that these items are displayed as a historical collection of antiquities, just like the contents of King Tut's tomb. The UNSECO Convention of 1970 helped to protect cultural property by outlining guidelines that prevent the plundering of archaeological sites. Those who abide by the convention are not considered grave robbers, but archaeologists trying to piece together the puzzle of human history.

In 2001, the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage was adopted and ratified by 23 countries, which doesn't include the United States, England, France, Germany, Italy, China and Russia. This convention allows the recovery of artifacts as long as the people involved in the recovery make a "significant contribution" to the protection and knowledge of underwater heritage sites. It also prohibits the trading, buying and selling of underwater cultural property. But a convention is only as strong as the countries that acknowledge it, and with major countries like the United States, England, France, Germany, Italy, China and Russia steering clear, it remains a convention in limbo.


This state of limbo has allowed major undersea exploration outfits like Odyssey Marine Exploration (OME) to find and recover hundreds millions of dollars of booty from shipwrecks on the sea floor. The COO of OME, Dr. Mark Gordon, believes that these sites are too far down and too hard to find for teams funded by universities and museums. His rationale is that by operating a for-profit endeavor, his team can recover many more items than would ever be possible with a not-for-profit model. He maintains that the money OME makes selling items helps fund the operation, and that individual unique pieces are not sold, but kept for research purposes. His critics charge that the operation is nothing more than a well-funded and sophisticated looting business, staffed by educated grave robbers.

As the undersea debate continues to rage, it's hard to tell what lies ahead for companies like Odyssey Marine Exploration. As more countries ratify and observe the 2001 UNESCO Convention, the difference between land and sea excavation, and archaeology and grave robbing may become more clearly defined.


Lots More Information

Related Articles


  • Walden, Dwain. "Archaeology vs. grave robbing: Where's the line?" Moultriobserver.com. Aug. 22, 2009.http://moultrieobserver.com/opinion/x1896329270/Archaeology-vs-grave-robbing-Where-s-the-line
  • Williams, Rhys. "'Titanic' show goes on despite grave-robbing row: Maritime museum says it is satisfied none of the artefacts have been taken from the wreck." Independent.co.uk. March 23, 1994.http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/titanic-show-goes-on-despite-graverobbing-row-maritime-museum-says-it-is-satisfied-none-of-the-artefacts-have-been-taken-from-the-wreck-rhys-williams-reports-1430981.html
  • "The Arkansas Burial Law." Arkansaspreservation.com. 2010. http://www.arkansaspreservation.com/archaeology-section106/burial-law/
  • Meltzer, David J. "North America's Vast Legacy." Archaeology.org. 2010. http://www.archaeology.org/9901/abstracts/namerica.html
  • Kraske, Marion. "Bulgaria Plagued by 'Grave Robbers'." Spiegel.de. Dec. 21, 2007. http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/0,1518,524976,00.html
  • Pringle, Heather. "A Victory in the War of Wrecks." Archaeology.org. Jan. 2, 2009. http://archaeology.org/blog/?p=163
  • "Insider: Guardians of Antiquity?" Archaeology.org. July 2008. http://www.archaeology.org/0807/etc/insider.html