What is Looting?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

Many of the treasures that were originally buried with Egyptian mummies were looted long before modern archaeologists came upon their burial sites.
Many of the treasures that were originally buried with Egyptian mummies were looted long before modern archaeologists came upon their burial sites.

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.

Nazis were infamous for looting thousands of works of art.
Nazis were infamous for looting thousands of works of art.

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.

Rioting sometimes leads to looting.
Rioting sometimes leads to looting.

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.

Looting might occur in the aftermath of a natural disaster.
Looting might occur in the aftermath of a natural disaster.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments

anon204295

it's like all this looting going on in london, bristol, manchester, liverpool and birmingham at the moment, not to mention the small towns. it's pathetic and could do with stopping. people have spent years building up businesses and communities for them to be ruined by selfish thugs showing each other what they have. cut their benefits and things will change!

Post your comments
Login:
Forgot password?
Register: