Tracking the Trade - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Tracking the Trade April 21, 2005


A contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY, Roger Atwood is the author of Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2004; $25.95). He spoke recently with ARCHAEOLOGY about his experiences reporting on the world of antiquities looting and smuggling.

Could you tell me a little bit about how you first became interested in antiquities trafficking?

Before my first year in college I worked as a volunteer on a dig at a late medieval fortress in the Channel Islands, off the coast of France, where the archaeologists in charge had us living in tents directly on the site to prevent coin hunters from coming by night to dig holes. We were part diggers, part security guards. And this was in one of the richest places in the world, the island of Guernsey; so much for the idea that looting afflicts only poor countries. That was my first brush, so to speak, with archaeology and looting and how they lived in this odd symbiosis, one feeding off the other. Nine years later, when I arrived in Peru as reporter for Reuters in 1989, I happened to be in Peru when Sipán was making headlines and changing our understanding of how people lived in the Andes before the arrival of Europeans at a time when the archaeologists were living under constant threat of assault from looters. I thought it was fascinating but I didn't have a chance to write in depth on the subject until I began working on Stealing History.

Sipán is really the focus of your book.

I couldn't find any site that offered such a compelling, almost day-by-day contrast between what archaeology does and what the antiquities trade does as Sipán. Also, Peru seemed to bring together all the ideas that I wanted to explore in the book--the long history of looting, the way it has become a modern and global business, the role of museums, how law enforcement in the United States had cracked down, the ways in which Peruvians themselves have tried to stop looting.

In your book you record one instance when an archaeologist asked to be transported out of a site in the trunk of your car for fear that locals would harm him. Did you ever feel you were danger while reporting the book?

Only in Iraq, at Isin, where I was so scared that my interpreter literally had to hold my hand. The place was being turned inside out by bootleg diggers, and I was terrified that as soon as they realized that we were not buyers, that they would throw us off the site or worse. I happened to be with a German archaeologist, Susanne Osthoff, who was one of the bravest people I've ever met and who encouraged us to keep exploring even as she was watching the demolition of her former study site.

So you've reported on looting in Iraq, Peru, and Cambodia. Are there any interesting differences in the way the antiquities trade is structured in these three countries?

There are probably more similarities than differences. The antiquities trade's business model is quite simple--get the stuff out of the ground and to market, often via a neighboring country that acts as a laundering point--and doesn't vary too much from country to country, in my experience. But perhaps some antiquities dealers could answer that question better than I. The differences are more a function of the kinds of antiquities that are found: in Cambodia, it's mostly standing monuments, Khmer stone structures being sawed apart, so the damage is very visible. In Peru, the actual above-ground structures are not too exciting in appearance, being made usually of mud bricks, so the looting is almost entirely underground, which makes Peruvian antiquities that much harder to trace to a particular site. Iraq has seen a combination of the two, with heavy damage to aboveground monuments in the north like Nineveh and Nimrud and underground looting in the Sumerian sites.

You met many collectors during your reporting. Did you feel you gained any insight into the psychology behind collecting?

I met collectors who sincerely loved and appreciated the objects they owned. Some were in denial about how these pieces reached them, through looting, and others did know but didn't care. I met some who thought that, with prolonged exposure to those objects in their living room, they could reach some deeper understanding of the cultures that created them. Like, if they looked at the pot long enough, then the genius of the Moche would be revealed to them. And I met many collectors, in fact almost all of them, who took excellent care of the pieces in their custody. But I didn't dwell on the "psychology of the collector" and all that because it doesn't interest me much and because other people have already written about it at length. I was more concerned with how the antiquities trade works on the ground.

You've spent a great deal of time in Peru. In your experience, is the average Peruvian aware of looting as a crisis, or are they not concerned with the problem?

I think there is a growing feeling among ordinary Peruvians that by allowing the pillage of their ancient sites to feed the antiquities trade, they are losing a very valuable and irreplaceable part of their identity. Not all Peruvians see it that way, maybe not even most, but the idea is there, it's growing, and it's not just the elite anymore. Unfortunately, it's too late for a lot of areas.

After reading Stealing History, it's easy for someone to imagine that looting will someday put archaeologists out of business. But did you encounter anything in your reporting that you gave some hope that the future isn't so grim for archaeology and world heritage in general?

Here and there, yes. The Peruvians are working with anti-looting rural patrols, the Italians are putting great resources into protecting their sites, governments in the buyer countries have worked to stop the trade, as the Schultz case showed, and very gradually the idea is sinking in that by buying undocumented antiquities, you're encouraging looting. It took a long time for ordinary people to make the connection between elephant ivory and poaching, but it has happened, and something like that can happen with antiquities.

In your book you describe a number of methods governments can curb looting. In the short term, what do you think is the most effective thing governments can do to stop the flow of illegal antiquities?

For governments that haven't ratified the UNESCO agreement of 1970, the first step would be to do that. The biggest holdout is probably Germany. For those that have ratified, the most effective measure now would be to sign more bilateral agreements with countries that are under assault from the antiquities trade to ban the import of unlicensed antiquities from those countries. It's a slow process, but it can help cool looting at the source. In the United States, the government could tighten the donation-for-deduction regime that allows collectors to donate antiquities of often-dubious provenance to museums.

I understand you lead tours to museums pointing out artifacts labeled with dubious provenance. Are there a few examples that are your "favorites"?

These tours are meant to educate people how antiquities reach museums and how museums present them to the public when those antiquities show signs of having been looted. I work with publicly available information, no rumors or hearsay. One of my favorites, so to speak, is the Weary Herakles at the Boston MFA, the bottom half of which is in Turkey, where it was excavated by archaeologists in about 1980. I also like the Batán Grande gold at the Metropolitan. You would never know it from the benign description on the label, but Batán Grande, which is in northern Peru, was largely leveled by bulldozers and huge looting teams to extract its treasures until the early 1970s. It was an act of cultural demolition and it seems to me the Met might be more up-front with the public about that. Also, the Met has exhibited a group of ancient Iraqi cylinder seals that it says came into its collection in the late 1990s. I think the museum might explain how it got those seals, considering that Iraq at that time faced looting of ancient sites and was under U.N. trade sanctions. I'm not accusing the Met of anything; I just think a word of explanation would be good. And then there is the Moche gold at the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe. I could go on and on.

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America