Archaeology Magazine Archive

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The Looting Game Volume 57 Number 6, November/December 2004
by Julia M. Klein

It's not hard to find good looters," a Peruvian businesswoman named Gloria complains to Roger Atwood. "What is hard is finding looters who are good and that you can trust." Atwood, the author of Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World (New York: St. Martin's Press; $25.95), isn't quite the kindred spirit Gloria imagines; he's simply adept at getting her--and all of his sources--to spill their secrets. This vividly written, well-researched book is a great primer for anyone interested in the ongoing struggle by archaeologists, law enforcement officials, and national governments to curb the illegal antiquities trade.


A journalist who's frequently covered the issue for ARCHAEOLOGY and other publications, Atwood focuses on the impact of the looting in the late 1980s of the Royal Tombs of Sípan in northern Peru, and their extraordinary relics of Moche culture. He talks to the looters themselves, private collectors, Peruvian archaeologist Walter Alva (who led the subsequent Sípan excavations), and the undercover FBI agents who participated in a 1997 sting to recover a 2,000-year-old gold backflap (see "Backflap Sting," September/October 1998), a piece of metal costuming worn by the highest ranks of Moche society.

Digressing from this central thread, Atwood puts the looting of Sípan into a global context. He retells the familiar story of Lord Elgin's removal of the Parthenon sculptures; touches on the looting of Cambodia's Angkor, among other important sites; and offers a meandering history of the international laws and treaties designed to curb the antiquities trade. An account of the recent devastation in Iraq, including thefts from the National Museum in Baghdad and archaeological sites around the country, frames his narrative.

Atwood lets everyone involved have their say. Some of the looters are motivated by economic necessity, and some of the collectors by genuine aesthetic appreciation. But he particularly condemns major American museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which, he charges, "have acted like high-class fencing operations" by accepting the donation of pillaged objects. And by allowing tax write-offs for the donors, the U.S. government asks taxpayers to finance looting.

Atwood's biggest concern is that the illegal antiquities trade may be wiping away cultures before archaeologists can chart them. Scholars can contribute to a solution by not working with collectors, he says, because when they do, "they raise the value of the object, confirm its authenticity, and encourage further looting."

Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic for national publications including Smithsonian, The Nation, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America