Looting involves the removal of valuable or culturally precious objects during a period of disaster or turmoil. It differs from scavenging, where people may take items like food, water, and medicine for survival, sometimes without the intent of paying or making good on the use of those items in the future. In looting, the objects stolen are usually not necessary for survival and can have a very high resale value or cultural importance; things like objects of art, cultural artifacts, and human remains may be looted.
This activity appears to be almost as old as human civilization, according to numerous records documenting the plundering and sacking of ancient cities like Carthage and Alexandria, sometimes on multiple occasions. Historically, conquering peoples have looted heavily from the civilizations they take over, sending precious items to their home nations and destroying objects they cannot carry or move safely. Looting during periods of war has persisted through to the modern era, with troops taking valuable objects from the communities they pass through.
In addition to being linked with war, looting can also occur during natural disasters, riots, periods of political turmoil, and other events. Generally, law and order break down, permitting people to engage in activities that would otherwise be too dangerous, like stealing from museums and normally well-secured private homes. Creative looters have even looted directly from archaeological sites, bribing guards or creating diversions at well guarded sites in order to access objects of interest and value.
Recognizing that looting happens, international courts periodically hear cases involving looting. A number of nations have filed for the return of culturally important artifacts, ranging from the Elgin Marbles in Greece to Incan mummies in South America. Nations with rich cultural histories and turbulent economies and political systems have sometimes argued that objects removed from their borders “for safety” have effectively been looted by more powerful nations. For some developing nations, reacquiring important cultural artifacts has been an uphill battle.
One of the most notable restorations of looted objects in the modern era occurred after the Second World War, when an international commission assembled to review art ostensibly looted by the Nazis to determine its provenance and return objects to their rightful owners. In some cases, museums and families had trouble documenting the circumstances of losses and were unable to reclaim their art.
Measures are also in place to prevent looting in circumstances where it may be a risk. Many museums are designed to lock down during disasters, with independent internal systems to maintain security systems, humidity controls, and other measures intended to keep art safe. Members of military forces are warned about the consequences for looting during military actions and in some cases international troops are sent to protect museums and important cultural locations during military actions to keep important objects safe.