This is more of a generic post, rather than the typical B.C. specific ones of this site, that was inspired by a Buzzfeed post that I came across a week or two ago (which I can’t find now; I tried searching the site and just ended up getting distracted by random articles for hours; upside was that I learned a lot about sassy Disney villain comebacks and the ’29 most useless life hacks’). The title of the article I was actually looking for was something along the lines of “Twenty Thoughts That Will Blow Your Mind” or some similar idea and the item on the list that stood out for me was ‘How much time needs to pass before grave robbing becomes archaeology’.
While there is certainly a time related aspect to the difference between these activities (digging up graves of the recently deceased would certainly not count as archaeology), I would likely describe it as something along the lines of the point in time where information can be obtained from the action of study or excavation. To my mind, there needs to be some result of the activity which has the potential to benefit or improve society in some way; regardless of whether or not most of the general population keep up to date with the information. Furthermore, I would say that it is actually this increase in knowledge that is the real marker of archaeology over grave robbing, rather than a specific time constraint. If a site is being excavated with the intent of personal gain where materially valuable items (gold, jewelry, statues, art, etc) are being removed for the individual to sell or display themselves, with no study, research, or record of these items being made, then that would fall under the category of grave robbing regardless of the age of the site itself. In contrast, an archaeological excavation makes record of every aspect of the excavation from the measurement of depth, to the type of soil, to the exact layout of the excavation site as a whole as well as the positioning of its material culture. In this way, the actual items themselves are almost a secondary consideration, the conditions in which they are found is the first concern as the removal of artifacts will permanently alter this environment.
It is only after a thorough record of the site has been made, with the artifacts still in place, that the material items are removed and cataloged before they themselves are studied (often repeatedly by a number of individuals all with different backgrounds and specialties). The most import part of this (for this particular discussion anyway) is that reports of this information are submitted and available for others to read and learn from. As dry and technical as they can often be, they are there and available for others to read through while the artifacts themselves are often made accessible to the public through institutions such as museums and universities.
On a final note, however, I will allow that the beginnings of the field of archaeology were what we would now consider to be grave robbing. It was a field full of (typically) wealthy white men who traveled to exotic locations and brought back artifacts purely based out of personal interest. So, maybe a better question would be when and how did grave robbing evolve into archaeology?