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Looting (Hindi lūṭ, akin to Sanskrit luṭhati, [he] steals; also Latin latro, latronis [Sp. ladrón], "thief"), to rob, sacking, plundering, despoiling, or pillaging is the indiscriminate taking of goods by force as part of a military or political victory, or during a catastrophe or riot, such as during war, natural disaster, or rioting. The term is also used in a broader (some would argue metaphorical ) sense, to describe egregious instances of theft and embezzlement, such as the "plundering" of private or public assets by corrupt or greedy authorities. The proceeds of all these activities can be described as loot, plunder, or pillage.

Looting originally referred primarily to the plundering of villages and cities not only by victorious troops during warfare (see war loot), but also by civilian members of the community (for example, see War and Peace, which describes widespread looting by Moscowmarker's citizens before Napoleon's troops enter the town, and looting by French troops elsewhere; also note the looting of art treasures by the Nazis during WWII). Piracy is a form of looting organized by ships on the high seas outside the control of a sovereign government. The Hague Convention of 1907 and the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, both explicitly ban "pillage" by hostile armies. a common way to avoid this is to establish Custodian of Enemy Property, which handle the property until it can be returned.

During a disaster, police and military authorities are sometimes unable to prevent looting when they are overwhelmed by humanitarian or combat concerns, or cannot be summoned due to damaged communications infrastructure. Especially during natural disasters, some people find themselves forced to take what is not theirs in order to survive. How to respond to this is often a dilemma for the authorities. In other cases, looting may be tolerated or even encouraged by authorities for political or other reasons.

Measures against looting

An FAFN freedom fighter has been caught by French Foreign Legion troops.
In many countries, even in Western democracies that otherwise ban the death penalty, extraordinary measures may be taken against looters, during times of crisis. Looters may be summarily shot by the police, army, or property owners. Extraordinary measures, combined with an impressive show of force, help to discourage looting and to disperse crowds that would otherwise find a normal show of force non-threatening. This is also common police practice in discouraging potential riots – which are often associated with looting – from escalating.

Examples of looting

  • After the fall of Constantinople in 1204, the crusaders looted the city and transferred its richness to Italy.

  • After half a year of besieging the Protestant city during the Thirty Years War, the Roman Catholic troops of Imperial Field Marschal Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly committed the Sack of Magdeburg in 1631. Within the two to three days of pillaging, rape, and murder, Magdeburg's civilian population was reduced from 30,000 down to 5,000, giving rise to the new term magdeburgisiren (modern spelling magdeburgisieren, "to magdeburgize") in German as a synonym for utter annihilation by means of grossest atrocities. At the time of the Peace of Westphalia ending the war in 1648, the city's population had further dropped to only 450 people still living in the city. In a letter, Imperial Field Marshal Gottfried Heinrich Graf zu Pappenheim wrote about the Sack, "I consider it cost the city more than 20,000 souls, and most certainly no greater horrors and divine justice have been seen since the Destruction of Jerusalem. All our soldiers have become rich men."

  • In 1664 the Maratha leader Shivaji sacked and looted Suratmarker. Surat was under sack for nearly three weeks, in which the army looted all possible wealth from Mughal and Portuguese trading centers.

  • During the American Civil War, the New York Draft Riots (July 13–17, 1863) began as protests against President Abraham Lincoln's Enrollment Act of Conscription drafting men to fight in the ongoing war. Considered by some to be the worst civil unrest in American history, the riots included 50,000 participants and lasted several days, claiming hundreds of lives and destroying millions of dollars in property. The violent demonstration could not be contained by the civil police force, and required the intervention of regiments of the New York State Militia, who marched back to New York from the battlefield of Gettysburgmarker, to restore civil order.

  • During the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997–98, lootings occurred in many parts of Indonesiamarker.
  • After the United States occupied Iraq, the absence of Iraqi police and the reluctance of the US to act as a police force enabled looters to raid homes and businesses, especially in Baghdadmarker, most notably the Iraqi National Museummarker. During the looting, many hospitals were stripped of nearly all supplies. However, upon investigation many of the looting claims were in fact exaggerated. Most notably the Iraqi National Museum in which many curators had stored important artifacts in the vaults of Iraq's central bank. Looting also occurred on a grand scale at a number of archaeological sites across Iraq. Sites were allegedly being destroyed and objects removed numbering in the tens or hundreds of thousands.
  • In 2005 in New Orleansmarker after Hurricane Katrina there was massive looting by some people desperate for food, with police being accused of joining in in some cases. Many were in search of food and water that were not available to them through any other means, as well as non-essential items.

Looting by type

Archaeological removals

Looting can also refer to antiquities formerly removed from countries by outsiders, such as some of the contents of Egyptian tombs which were transported to museums in Europe. Other examples include the obelisks of Pharaoh Amenhotep II, in the (Oriental Museum, University of Durhammarker, United Kingdom), Pharaoh Ptolemy IX, (Philaemarker Obelisk, in Wimborne, Dorset, United Kingdom)Recent controversies include the Elgin Marbles, presently in the collection of the British Museummarker and the claim by Greecemarker that they should be returned.

Looting of Native American archaeological sites

Throughout the history of the United States Native American archaeological sites have been looted, destroying religious sites and relics that date back several hundred years. Many Indian burial sites and sacred grounds have been systematically plundered and destroyed until the 1957 dispute about the Gasquet-Orleans Road. The GO road in what is now the Six Rivers National Forest in the Siskyou Mountainmarker Range was the first logging project that raised public Indian opposition. After several legal disputes and lawsuits, including the 1978 Indian Religious Freedom Act, the case was decided at the Supreme Court.

in 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) became the primary federal legislation pertaining to graves and human remains in archaeological contexts. The act "establishes definitions of burial sites, cultural affiliation, cultural items, associated and unassociated funerary objects, sacred objects, cultural patrimony, Indian tribes, museums, Native Americans and Native Hawaiians, right of possession and tribal land."

In 2002 Federal grand jurors have accused two men, Steven Scott Tripp, 40, of Farmington, and William Thomas Cooksey, 53, of Union, of looting and violating the integrity of an American Indian burial site at southeast Missouri's Wappapello Lake. The looters "illegally excavated, removed, damaged and defaced archaeological resources, and that by doing so they caused at least $1,000 in damage. Gary Stilts, the Army Corps' operations manager there, estimated the damage to be about $14,000". Stilts said about the looting:

In 1995, authorities were informed about the looting of Elephant Mountain Cave, located on government property in the Black Rock Desertmarker of Nevadamarker. Jack Lee Harelson, a former insurance agent, looted the site for years, uncovering two burial sites, grave goods, obsidian blades and deer-hoof rattles. Harelson decapitated the two 2000 year old corpses and buried the heads in plastic garbage bags in his backyard. In 1996 a federal court in Oregon found Harelson guilty of corpse abuse and possession of stolen property, resulting in a $20,000 fine and 30 days in jail. (The conviction of corpse abuse was later revoked because the statute of limitations had expired.) In 2002 a federal administrative judge issued a civil penalty of $2.5 million for Harelson for destruction of archaeological resources.

James Patrick Barker, a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) archaeologist for the state of Nevada, describes the Elephant Mountain Cave as one of the most significant sites of the Great Basin. One pair of sandals plundered by Harelson was later estimated to be 10.000 years old, making them one of the oldest pieces of footwear worldwide.

On December 5, 2005 six Ohio residents, Daniel Fisher, 41, and Thomas J. Luecke, 40, of Cincinnati; Richard Kirk, 56, of Stout; Joseph M. Mercurio, 44, and Tanya C. Mercurio, 43, of Manchester; and David Whitling, 47, of Bellefontaine, entered federal ground to dig for artifacts, using "rakes and digging implements to disturb the surface of the ground, creating holes and displacing archaeological sediment in violation of the federal Archaeological Resources Protection Act". The looted site at Barren River Lakemarker includes Early Woodlands ceramics dating back roughly to 1500 to 300 B.C. They looters were sentenced to probation by Judge Thomas B. Russell in federal court after pleading guilty.

Looting of industry

In the aftermath of the Second World War Soviet forces had engaged in systematic plunder of Germanymarker, including the Recovered Territories which were to be transferred to Poland, stripping it of valuable industrial equipment, infrastructure and factories and sending them to the Soviet Union.

War looting

Looting and racism

The term looting has been depicted in some quarters as an intrinsically racist term through being applied more frequently to the behavior of black people than to that of white people. This especially came to light in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, where media coverage referred to black people as looting food and water from shops in contrast to white people who were described as finding food and water in shops.


  1. loot - Definitions from
  2. BBC NEWS | World | Middle East | Baghdad protests over looting
  3. BBC News | Americas | Looting frenzy in quake city
  4. BBC News | AMERICAS | Argentine president resigns
  5. War and Peace by graf Leo Tolstoy - Project Gutenberg
  6. BBC NEWS | Entertainment | Arts | Nazi loot claim 'compelling'
  7. BBC News | Asia-Pacific | Indonesian food minister tolerates looting
  8. German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt (...) claimed to have an agreement with the Egyptian government that included rights to half his finds (...). But a new document suggests Borchardt intentionally misled Egyptian authorities about Nefertiti.
  9. Will Nefertiti Return to Egypt for a Brief Visit? Egypt Asks Germany for a Majestic Loan by Stan Parchin (June 17, 2006)
  10. Iraq's Endangered Cultural Heritage: An Update
  11. Photos : Story in Pictures-- Hurricane Katrina : Aug 31, 2005: Looting in Mississippi
  12. Indian Burial and Sacred Grounds Watch. List of News and Campaigns. Available:
  13. Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. National Park Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. Available:
  14. News Tribune. Two accused of looting American Indian graves. News Tribune. Jefferson City. November 29, 2002, Available:
  15. Eric A. Powell. Big Time Fine For Cave Looter. Archaeology . Volume 56, Number 2, March/April 2003, Available:
  16. Eric A. Powell. Cave Looter Solicits Murder. Archaeology . January 27, 2003. Available:
  17. Neil Relyea. Ohio Residents Sentenced For Looting Native American Archaeological Site. ABC9. WCPO. April 4, 2007, Available:
  18. See also other copy online
  19. Racist Coverage of "Looting" after Katrina, AZINE, 2 September 2005
  20. Liberating the Loaves of Bread, August 30, 2005
  21. Language Log: Finding vs. looting, September 1 2005


  • Abudu, Margaret, et al., "Black Ghetto Violence: A Case Study Inquiry into the Spatial Pattern of Four Los Angeles Riot Event-Types," 44 Social Problems 483 (1997)
  • Curvin, Robert and Bruce Porter, Blackout Looting (1979)
  • Dynes, Russell & Enrico L. Quarantelli, "What Looting in Civil Disturbances Really Means," in Modern Criminals 177 (James F. Short, Jr. ed. 1970)
  • Green, Stuart P., "Looting, Law, and Lawlessness," 81 Tulane Law Review 1129 (2007)
  • Mac Ginty, "Looting in the Context of Violent Conflict: A Conceptualisation and Typology," 25 Third World Quarterly 857 (2004)

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