Its an old joke I heard that well, archeology is just defacing/looting some old tombs. If you mess up and go for a tomb that is too fresh, you will be in trouble.

But that raises a good point: When does defacing/looting a tomb becomes archeology?

Like when we open the tombs of old pharaohs, that is considered archeology, but try to open the tomb of old popes or the old kings of England and I'm pretty sure that will be considered as defacing a tomb.

So is there a demarcation between when you deface a tomb and when its considered ok because is archeology? Like a number of years since the death, or is it really just on a case by case scenario (like, for instance, if the empire is still active its probably gonna be frowned upon)?

  • Thank you for your question; please consider revising it to be more in line with our community expectations. Like other stacks, we expect questions to provide evidence of prior research. That helps us to understand the question, and avoids our repeating work you've already done. Our help center, and other stacks provide additional resources to assist with revisions. Please revise your question to document your preliminary research.
    – MCW
    Jul 19, 2021 at 14:21
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    As it stands, this isn't a question of history, but rather ethics/philosophy. A question about changing attitudes towards archeology, and how tombs are treated, over time, might be an interesting. Jul 19, 2021 at 15:03
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    Answer: "About a thousand years." ;-) Of course, intent also plays a role, as does the attempt to disturb as little as possible vs simply operating a grab-and-run. Jul 19, 2021 at 15:18
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    @Fredy31 - understood - but like most SE sites, we require some evidence of prior research. I'd start by researching archaeology and use that to refine the question. The simple answer is intent; the intent to study and learn is quite different from the intent to deface.
    – MCW
    Jul 19, 2021 at 15:52
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    There is not single answer to this question. The issue is still being debated. Consider the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which was passed in 1990, and the legal issues relevant to it. For example, the case of Kennewick Man was only settled in 2016 (and one would assume that serious disagreements remain).
    – Juhasz
    Jul 19, 2021 at 20:50

1 Answer 1


The difference between archeology and looting a tomb is based, today, on two points:

  • First, in archaeology people don't expect to make money directly out of the opening of the tombs: they won't take what's inside and sell it. Instead, they will take it and give it to a museum, that will expect some profit from showing this to tourists
  • Second, in archaeology you open the tomb with precaution, to minimize damages, and you don't destroy what's inside. Plus, you're trying to know more from the discovery of the tomb. Contrary to looters that will destroy the tomb by opening it and take only the gold

These are the theoretical differences. Now, you could object that taking objects out of a tomb and showing them in a museum is a kind of "making money by looting the tomb". And opening the tomb is still a sacrilege in some religions. That is why we must consider historical reasons:

Archaeology started by opening tombs that were of no more importance to contemporaries: nobody honored Old Egypt's Gods or Pharaohs in the 20th century when English archaeologists opened them. Not even contemporary Egyptians. So that is why the motive of knowing more about Old Egypt and showing objects in museums was accepted by nearly everyone by the time. Evenmore, opening contemporary tombs (let's said Georges Washington's tomb) would of no help in knowing more about the Independance War. Later on, even tombs that were erected on the basis of contemporary values were opened on the motive of archaeology: that is, for example, Polish Christian Kings' tombs were opened in contemporary Christian Poland.

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    Archeologists also keep better records of what they find than looters. ;-)
    – llywrch
    Jul 19, 2021 at 21:01
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    @Ilywrch exact and they let other people know about those records Jul 20, 2021 at 10:42

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