An Italian archaeologist pleads for professionals to gather information from farmers and from those living near ancient sites

The integrity of most archaeological sites in Italy has been compromised by extensive illicit excavations, which have caused the loss of an enormous quantity of archaeological information


The so-called “tombaroli” and their legacy of destruction are realities that every archaeologist in Italy must contend with, because all archaeological research and, in particular, the survey of ancient sites, has been seriously affected by the destructive vandalism of these tomb-robbers.

Because these sites have not been adequately protected or monitored by the police or the community, any topographical reconstruction of an ancient site which aims to be comprehensive must include all the available information connected to illegal excavations. It is important to determine exactly where clandestine excavation has taken place and to gather as much information as possible about its extent in an attempt to compensate for the enormous loss of archaeological data.

Archaeologists often refuse to have any kind of dealings with tombaroli, and, indeed, the law prevents them from speaking to tombaroli without alerting the police to the tomb-robber’s activities. On the other hand, the evidence provided by individuals like Antonio Induno has proven itself to be extremely useful to archaeologists.

More often than not, tombaroli are unwilling to speak to archaeologists about their illicit activities for obvious reasons. When attempting the reconnaissance of sites, one must, therefore, chart as accurately as possible, the extent of illegal excavations. One must catalogue the fragments of artefacts such as pottery shards that tomb-robbers have left behind because they have no market value. Surveying the damage done by tombaroli is the only way for archaeologists, who are often working alone and with meagre funding, to chart vast archaeological sites which have not been excavated because of the limited financial resources available in Italy for archaeological research.

Unfortunately, straightforward surveys of archaeological sites, no matter how detailed and accurate, will never tell the whole story. Too often looted tombs are on private land belonging to farmers. When these fields are cultivated the holes in the ground that may have been left behind by illicit excavations are covered by earth and hidden from sight.

In attempting a comprehensive archaeological survey, it is, therefore, necessary to gather as much information as possible from these same farmers and from others living nearby who may have witnessed the looting of archaeological sites. One must attach great importance to the testimony of those people who are willing to describe what they have witnessed or to relate what they have heard others witness. This type of investigation, a kind of “Archeologia dell’informazione”, can yield important results. It was by using a similar approach that a team of archaeologists led by Francesco di Gennaro, Ispettore of the Soprintendenza Archeologica of Rome, was able to create the topography for the site of the ancient Latin city of Crustumerium: by integrating the information gleaned from interviews with farmers and locals with the knowledge borne out of the archaeological excavation of tombs on the site (The Art Newspaper, No. 98, December 1999, pp. 44-45).

Of course, this kind of eye-witness information may not be entirely reliable: the personal memory of eye witnesses can be confused and misleading. Those who report hearsay often distort information and add their own interpretation to their vague memories. The value of the information one collects from such witnesses is directly proportional to the methodological rigour one applies to the process of gathering evidence and it is important to compare systematically the information collected from different people at different times.

Undeniably, farmers who own land which archaeologists wish to survey will have a much more detailed knowledge of their fields than the scholar who has visited a few times. However, the farmer in question may not be willing to give precise information, or he may decide that it is in his best interests to give false information because he fears the government taking control of his land if illicit activity is reported.

Finally, where possible, it is important to verify systematically on site the information gathered from witnesses, if the hallmarks of illicit excavations are still visible. Where this is not possible, one must try to cross-reference and compare testimonies.

It is only by drawing together data from legitimate excavations, from surveys of archaeological sites, and from the extensive interviewing of witnesses to illicit activity that Italian archaeologists are able to draw topographical surveys of ancient sites. The Italian archaeologist is far removed from the Indiana Jones of Hollywood and much more grounded in the harsh realities caused by the terrible destruction of the tomb-robbers’ illegal activities.