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14.30  Artefact Looting and Fake-Making in Thailand and Sweden: the Gotland Case

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9:00, Tuesday 7 Jun 2016 (30 minutes)

Historically, the study of heritage has been dominated by European, or Western scholars and approaches, privileging the material, the linear, the grand. One of the main driving forces within critical heritage studies has been to open up new ways of thinking about and doing heritage and not only include but also put the interests of the marginalized and excluded to the forefront. In line with this, “Asian” approaches to heritage have been identified as important to include, since they represent the “other,” non-Western cultural heritage tradition privileging the spiritual, immaterial, and imaginative. It has also been put forward that these alternative approaches might be necessary for challenging the global heritage practice with its international and well-established standards based on European notions of time, materiality, and aesthetics. So, even with the best of intensions, a discourse of difference was born, where Asian have been set against European approaches to heritage.  

This project (together with the paper by Anna Källén in the same session) connects to this general idea of an existing discourse of difference, in this case the imagined difference between Asian and European approaches to heritage, as its overall objective is to challenge this dichotomization. More specifically this new research project will compare local dimensions of looting and artefact trade in one Asian and one European context. Aiming to allow for more complexity in the discussion and analysis of looting, it also includes other practises involving artefacts, such as official archaeological excavation and fake-making. By studying the values of materiality, spirituality, conservation, and consumption involved in artefact looting and fake-making in both Asia and Europe, the aim is to critically investigate the complexities and interrelations of these artefact practices, from the situated contexts of looters and local communities.  

This paper presents the part of the project that concerns Europe, through the specific case of the Swedish island of Gotland, famous for its numerous and dense prehistoric remains, especially its spectacular silver hoards. The use of metal detectors has been banned there since the 1980s, but looting is still ongoing. Recently, for the first time since the new Swedish heritage protection law came into force in 1991, a looting case (a silver hoard looted by metal detector) led to four people being sentenced to imprisonment. From the perspectives of criminology, law, and archaeology, this case is obviously a site destructive crime, part of the chain of the illicit artefact trade. Analyzing it from the perspective of the looters and the local communities, however, exposed complex realities. Looking at the local production industry of copies of prehistoric jewellery (particularly copies of artefacts from the famous silver hoards), even more complex realities are unfolded, challenging concepts such as value, authenticity and age, and the idea that heritage is a non-renewable resource, and that “fake is safe.” 

Ban Chiang in Thailand (presented by Anna Källén) and Gotland in Sweden are similar in the sense that they are both home to UNESCO World Heritage Sites, have an iconic archaeological heritage that is copied and sold as fakes, and are known for extensive artefact looting. They are different however in terms of official religion, culture, and socio-economic standing, and the explanations for looting offered by existing research have also differed significantly in these two areas. Through long-term studies, interviews, and heritage-focused ethnography, this project will increase the knowledge of local practices surrounding artefacts and fakes, local attitudes toward looting, and explanations of looting, which, in turn, help us challenge the notion of a fundamental difference in local perceptions of archaeological heritage between Asia and Europe.

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