Looting Mali’s History

As demand for its antiquities soars, the West African country is losing its most prized artifacts to illegal sellers and smugglers

Mali's long history as a sub-Saharan trade route underlies its artistic traditions. (Aaron Huey)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 1)

In 1977, McIntosh and her then-husband, Roderick McIntosh, both graduate students in archaeology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, carried out excavations at a 20-foot-high mound that marked the site of Jenne-Jeno, a roughly 2,000-year-old commercial center along the ancient gold-trade route from Ghana and one of the oldest urban centers in sub-Saharan Africa, near present-day Djenné. The couple found pottery and terra-cotta sculptures embedded in clay, along with glass beads from as far away as Southeast Asia. The find was highly publicized: a Times of London correspondent reported on the excavations, and the McIntoshes documented their findings in the journal Archaeology. Meanwhile, the archaeologists also published a monograph on their work, illustrated by photographs of terra-cotta treasures they uncovered in 1977 and 1980, including a headless torso now on display at Mali's National Museum. A demand for figurines of similar quality was one factor in increased looting in the region, which had begun as far back as the 1960s.

From the 1980s on, she says, thieves ransacked hundreds of archaeological mounds in the Inland Niger Delta and elsewhere. The objects from these sites fetched extraordinary prices: in New York City in 1991, Sotheby's auctioned a 31 1/4- inch-tall Malian terra-cotta ram, from 600 to 1,000 years old, for $275,000—one of the highest prices commanded to that date for Malian statuary. (A Belgian journalist, Michel Brent, later reported that a Malian counterfeiter had added a fake body and hind legs to the ram, deceiving the world's African art experts. Brent also charged that the piece had been pillaged from the village of Dary in 1986.) In another notorious case, in 1997, then French President Jacques Chirac returned a terra-cotta ram he had received as a gift after Mali provided evidence that it had been looted from the Tenenkou region.

With a fierce wind blowing from the desert, I venture beyond Gao to observe examples of the systematic looting in the region. Mamadou Cissé, McIntosh's graduate student, leads me across an archaeological mound known as Gao-Saney. Grains of sand nip at our faces as we trudge across the 25- to 30-foot-high mound, crunching shards of ancient pottery beneath our feet. Below us, on the flood plain, I can make out the long dry bed of the Telemsi River, which likely drew settlers to this site 1,400 years ago. What commands my attention, however, are hundreds of holes, as deep as ten feet, that pockmark this mound. "Watch out," says Cissé, hopscotching past a trough gouged out of the sand. "The looters have dug everywhere."

Between A.D. 610 and 1200, Gao-Saney served as a trading center controlled by the Dia dynasty. A decade ago, Western and Malian archaeologists began digging in the sandy soil and uncovered fine pottery, copper bracelets and bead necklaces strung with glass and semiprecious stones. Looters, however, had already burrowed into the soft ground and sold what they found to international dealers in Niger. Several years ago, Mali's culture ministry hired a guard to watch the site around the clock. "By then it was too late," Cissé told me, surveying the moonscape. "Les pilleurs had stripped it clean."

The late Boubou Gassama, director of cultural affairs in the Gao region, had told me that looting had spread up the Telemsi Valley to remote sites virtually impossible to protect. In October 2004, local tipsters told him about a gang of pilleurs who were active in a desert area outside Gao; Gassama brought in the gendarmerie and conducted a predawn sting operation that netted 17 looters, who were making off with beads, arrowheads, vases and other objects from the Neolithic era and later. "They were mostly looking for glass beads, which they can sell in Morocco and Mauritania for as much as $3,000 apiece," Gassama had said. The men, all of them Tuareg nomads from around Timbuktu, served six months in the Gao prison. Since then, Cissé reports, locals have created "brigades of surveillance" to help protect the sites.

The Malian government has made modest progress combating antiquities theft. Former President Alpha Oumar Konaré, an archaeologist who held office between 1992 and 2002, established a network of cultural missions across the Inland Niger Delta, responsible for policing sites and raising awareness of the need to preserve Mali's heritage. The government also beefed up security at important mounds. McIntosh, who usually returns to Mali every couple of years, says Konaré's program has almost eliminated looting in Jenne-Jeno and the surrounding area.

Samuel Sidibé, director of Mali's National Museum in Bamako, has helped Mali's customs officials prevent cultural heritage material from leaving the country. Regulations require anyone seeking to export Malian art to submit the objects themselves—as well as a set of photographs—to museum officials. Sidibé and other experts issue export certificates only if they determine that the objects are not, in fact, cultural patrimony. Only two months earlier, Sidibé told me, he had been able to block a shipment of centuries-old terra cottas. Shady exporters are furious about the regulations, he adds, because they make it more difficult for them to pass off copies as authentic artifacts, and prices have nose-dived.

Oungoyba, the illegal antiquities dealer, scoffs at the regulations. I asked him if I would be able to smuggle Dogon sculptures out of the country. "Pas de problème," he says, flashing a small smile. Oungoyba says that he'll pack up whatever I purchase in a secured wood crate, and he instructs me to undervalue the purchase by 95 percent. Bamako International Airport, he says, can be tricky; he advises his clients to carry their purchases overland to Niger. Malian customs officials at the border usually can't be bothered to open the crate. "Just tell them that you spent $100 on it as a gift for your family, and nobody will ask questions," he assures me, adding that suspicious officials can be bought off. Once I've crossed into Niger, he continues, I'll be home free. The Niger government has been lax about enforcing the Unesco treaty obliging signatories to cooperate in combating antiquities theft. Oungoyba insists that his black-market trade helps the economy of the destitute Dogon region. But others say dealers and buyers hide behind such arguments to justify the damage they're inflicting on the culture. "They claim they're doing good things—building hospitals, spreading money around," Ali Kampo, the cultural official in Mopti, tells me. "But in the end, they're doing a disservice to humanity."

Writer Joshua Hammer lives in Berlin. Photographer Aaron Huey works from his base in Seattle, Washington.

About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a foreign freelance correspondent and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.

Read more from this author

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus