Don’t Touch My Stuff: Archeologists vs Looters

Looters. Graverobbers. Criminals. Black marketeers. Such are the epithets attached to those who locate, dig, and pillage artifacts from ancient graves, tombs, and assorted ruins, for reasons, as imputed to them by others, of greed, ignorance, and a mania for collecting. And it is true that everywhere that antiquities can be found (which is almost anywhere), private persons do dig up and sell objects from ancient sites.

Most countries have strict laws that forbid such private digging and regulate the selling and exporting of antiquities; many items more or less legally (if not morally) acquired in the past have been repatriated, especially since the international agreements of the 1970’s codified the standards for the trade. The Getty Museum is just one among many Western museums that has had to return iconic objects to their countries of origin. (Worth mentioning are the very similar laws regarding the poaching and sale of exotic animals.) The rationales for these laws and agreements have much to do with national identity, anticolonialism, tourism dollars, and even scholarship.

When objects are pulled willy nilly from the ground, with no record of the context in which they were found (at what depth, associated with which king, bundled with what other items, etc.), information as to age and function is lost to archeologists, and therefore to the rest of us who might be interested in the archeologists’ findings. Particularly in today’s globalized world, these objects and sites are part of the heritage of the whole human race and belong to all of us.

Taking these points into account, it seems reasonable and just to protect our human heritage through law and to bring the full force of the justice and police system down on the looters and grave robbers. This seems so obvious.
But that which seems obvious may simply be prejudice or self interest, so let us consider the motives of the looters themselves. That is, the often poverty-stricken peasants who, upon locating a cache of ancient and often very beautiful objects, remove them and carry them away to be sold to dealers, who in turn will sell them to collectors who want them as objects of interest and beauty for their own enjoyment. The latter may (or may not) be motivated by greed (they could also be motivated by genuine interest or a love of art), but the peasants are motivated by the needs of poverty. It is of little interest to them that somewhere in America, Europe, or Japan there are disinterested scholars eager to excavate these sites properly and to display the prime objects in cosmopolitan museums (the rest of the objects being cataloged and stored in university basements, unlikely ever to see the light of day again), nor does it interest them that said scholars will present their findings at posh conferences and in peer reviewed journals. What they want is to feed their families, build a better house, or send a child to school.

But such peasants not only have no money, they have no power, yet they are well aware of who does, and they are not incorrect in believing that the academics periodically swarming over their territories represent those who do have power. They might (certainly in their own minds) wonder why they cannot dig and remove while the men and women in khaki can. Why, they might ask, is what we do called looting and grave robbing while what the professors and their students do is not? Have not in both cases the graves of the ancients been opened and emptied of their contents? Have not the professors gained wealth and prestige from this activity?

I remember what a leading mullah said some years ago, well before the United States invaded Afghanistan, about the Western world’s lamentations over the destruction of the Bamiyan buddhas, that we had never shown such concern for the hunger of the Afghan people. Wrong as it was to destroy those unique and irreplaceable monuments to Afghanistan’s past, I couldn’t help but think he had a point; the United States had used the Afghans to fight a proxy war with Russia, and once that was concluded to our satisfaction, we abandoned their country. Now we seem to be doing that again. Can it be that loss of life bothers us less than the loss of statues?

“Education” is often used to justify what might otherwise be recognized as exploitation, self-interest, and cruelty. Consider that marine mammal theme parks promote themselves as educational (especially for children, who may be too naïve to notice the hypocrisy) to justify the corralling of whales and porpoises who, in their natural setting (not “the wild,” since it is not the wild to them) range for thousands of miles; or that zoos, which are anything but natural settings, promote themselves as not only educating the public but also preserving endangered animals. Meanwhile, the societies in which these amusement parks and zoos are imbedded continue to degrade these creatures’ natural environments, thus hastening their demise and, not so incidentally, making the zoos even more “necessary”.

That college students and, occasionally, the general public are “educated” about ancient peoples through popular books and exhibitions may well be true, but mostly such beneficiaries are the already prosperous urbanites of populous consumer societies who have the time and inclination for such hobbies, and money to spend in museum stores. It is for these privileged ones that the graves and tombs of the ancients are pillaged by the archeologists. Not to mention that there is money to be made by documentary film-makers working for, say the Discovery or National Geographic channels, as well as scholarly careers, reputations, and tenured professorships.

Basically, fundamentally, opening an ancient tomb, removing the objects and bodies it contains, and transporting them elsewhere is desecration. The person or persons buried there meant to stay there; they did not go to their graves with the hope that hundreds or thousands of years later they would be exhumed by curious or greedy people; they did not think of their graves as “time capsules.” The reasons for disturbing their final resting places would make little difference to them. There is no a priori justification for the greed, the love of beauty, or the thirst for knowledge that motivates the desecrater.

I admit to being fascinated by the discoveries of archeology, especially by what they tell us of the ways ancient people understood themselves and the world, but I also admit I cannot think of a truly objective basis for holding that the satisfaction of such curiosity trumps all other considerations. The priority of such academic curiosity has been established by an elite that has power, money, ideology, ego, and politics on its side.

Perhaps Native Americans have the moral high ground on this issue. In recent decades, Native American tribes have demanded that objects and human remains removed from their ancestral lands and deposited in academic storage rooms and museums be returned to them for reburial according to their own rituals, and they have increasingly won their point.

(Books that document the seamier side of archeology include two by Cathy Gere, The Tomb of Agamemnon and Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism, and Jo Marchant’s recent book The Shadow King: The Bizarre Afterlife of King Tut’s Mummy.)

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