Do You Get to Keep What You Find?

Posted in: Ancient Near East Today, ASOR
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By: Eric Cline

There is one question that I am asked all the time, which has a short answer but is long on associated implications. The question is simply “Do you get to keep what you find?” The answer is very short: “No.” Whether you’re working in your own country or in a country other than your own, that nation’s antiquities department will have a set of rules. The best discoveries might go to a national or regional museum, as has been true throughout the history of archaeology, but most of the material will be put into bags and boxes and stored at the local university, museum, or some other place where graduate students and other scholars can come in and study the material during the months (or even years) after the excavation. A six- or seven-week field season can yield enough material for two years or more of study and published findings.

Not only don’t I get to keep what I find, but I don’t think that other people should collect such items either. The consensus among scholars is that there is a direct correlation between private collecting and the looting of ancient sites all over the world. Looters wouldn’t bother stealing things from archaeological sites if they had no place to sell them.

More complex is the issue of museum collections: whether the British Museum, the Louvre, the Met, and other museums should return items that they obtained in the period of European colonialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to their original countries of origin—like the Elgin Marbles, the bust of Nefertiti, and the Rosetta stone. Museums have become much more careful in the past couple of decades to ensure that the objects they purchase have clear provenance, but many looted objects still are displayed in museums that were obtained decades ago when the rules were not as stringent. It is a moral, ethical, economic, and legal problem that cannot be easily resolved. It may be that case-by-case decisions would be best, but even that remains to be determined.

However, right now we are seeing the greatest prevalence of looting of archaeological sites worldwide that has ever been documented, almost certainly fueled by demand from private collectors. The greatest opportunities for looted objects are places where the policing of ancient sites is difficult because of political instability, like Syria and Iraq at the moment. Of course, looting is nothing new; some of the Egyptian pharaohs’ tombs were looted in antiquity, perhaps even immediately after the pharaohs were buried. But now we are seeing an upsurge worldwide in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, and even Peru and the United States. Ancient sites are now pockmarked with looters’ pits.


Satellite image of Dura Europos, showing looting pics. (BUREAU OF EDUCATIONAL AND CULTURAL AFFAIRS)
02 April 2014

Nimrud being blown up, from ISIS video (Conflict Antiquities)

Mosul museum exhibits being smashed (New York Times)

On a small scale, illegal digging for antiquities has always been a way of life in some areas and cultures, usually done by impoverished folks hoping to supplement their meager income in some way. It is hard to blame a Syrian villager who excavates cylinder seals to sell to a middleman in order to feed his family when shops are closed, fields are burned, and travel impossible. But now wholesale looting operations seem to have swung into action, including in Syria, where ISIS reportedly sponsored and actively participated in the antiquities trade, looting entire sites and destroying parts of others, such as Nimrud and the Mosul Museum.

I was part of a delegation of observers who went to Egypt in May 2011, after the January revolution of that year. We went to do some “ground truthing” in order to see whether the fresh holes dug into the ground that my colleague Sarah Parcak thought she had spotted in satellite photographs were looting pits. They were. I know. I was there and have pictures. Results of our study were published in the journal Antiquity for others to use.

ICPEA members (from left) Ted Greenberg, Eric Cline, Peter Herdrich, driver, Sarah Parcak, security, and Deborah Lehr examine a looters pit in Saqqara. (Copyright Peter Herdrich)

In fact, looted Egyptian antiquities have shown up in auction houses in London and New York, just as looted Iraqi antiquities have. When the Iraq Museum in Baghdad was looted, some of the most famous pieces in the museum were stolen. Many were returned or have been recovered, but others are still missing. Some ended up on eBay, where I and anyone else could see them, until pressure mounted and such sales were forbidden. Despite this prohibition, some looted objects can still be found for sale on eBay.

One of my favorite stories is of someone who was trying to sell a stolen Iraqi item. When examined closely, it turned out to be one of the replicas that had been for sale in the museum store. Colonel Matthew Bogdanos of the US Army, who was put in charge of recovering the items stolen from the Iraq Museum, documents many of these stories in his best-selling book Thieves of Baghdad, which was published in 2005.

The looting went far beyond the museum and extended to archaeological sites throughout Iraq, with reports of men armed with both shovels and machine guns illegally digging at sites across the country. At least one, the ancient city known as Umma, has been so thoroughly looted that all that can be seen in the photographs are looters’ pits, rather than ancient buildings or anything else.

The appearance of one-of-a-kind looted objects can cause a dilemma for archaeologists committed to limiting the trade in illegal antiquities. Such seems to have been the case in 2011, when the Sulaymaniyah Museum in the Kurdistan region of Iraq was advised by an Assyriologist in Britain to buy a group of clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform that he had been shown by an antiquities dealer. In this case, among the tablets was one that turned out to contain a previously unknown section from the Epic of Gilgamesh. It fills in a large gap within the fifth tablet in the poem where Gilgamesh and his sidekick Enkidu are heading for the Cedar Forest to get timber; this is usually thought to be the same general region where the famous Cedars of Lebanon mentioned in the Bible were located. The new lines describe the noises that they hear upon entering the forest, including birds, insects, and monkeys

The looted site of Umma (Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz)

New Gilgamesh tablet (The History Blog)

Lost for three thousand years, this tablet filled in an important piece of one of the classics of world literature. The dilemma for archaeologists, of course, is that we don’t want to encourage looting, but also cannot allow such a tablet with valuable information to go into the art collecting market and disappear from public view without making some effort to save it and allow scholars to study it. Discussions on the issue have been prompted by the history of the Dead Sea Scrolls, many of which were purchased from the Bedouin who had illegally found them in the caves around Qumran; it is frequently asked what would happen if such scrolls appeared on the antiquities market today?

In fact, there is something similar that has happened with more than a hundred—or perhaps as many as two hundred—clay tablets that apparently come from an archive that documents the daily life of Jews who were moved to Mesopotamia during the Babylonian Exile in the sixth century BCE and remained there into the fifth century BCE. The tablets appeared on the antiquities market at some point, reportedly after the 1970s, though exactly when is debated. At least half were eventually purchased by a private collector and then published by a pair of scholars, after which they were displayed in an exhibit at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem in early February 2015, from which came a second publication by a different set of scholars.

Even though it is not clear from which site they came, the tablets give its ancient name as “al-yahudu,” which, roughly translated, means “Judah-town.” They are among the first textual evidence from Mesopotamia confirming that the Babylonian Exile reported in the Bible and elsewhere did take place and what happened to those who were exiled. The tablets are extremely important, but they have no known context and were obviously looted—perhaps from southern Iraq, according to some reports. Should they have been published? Should they have been put on display? In this case, the importance of the texts, like the Dead Sea Scrolls to which they have the best parallel in terms of circumstances of discovery, persuaded at least some scholars that they should be published and displayed, despite the fact that they were apparently looted and acquired illegally. Not all scholars agree; in fact, the Archaeological Institute of America’s policy is to refuse to publish articles that describe objects that cannot be clearly demonstrated not to have been looted; same goes for the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR).


Qumran Caves (Wikimedia Commons)


In 1970 UNESCO approved the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, which was put into effect in April 1972. As a result, any antiquity that is being sold today needs to have valid proof that it was either found before 1970 (or sometimes 1973; that is, after the implementation of the convention) or, if found later, that it was legally exported from its country of origin—in other words, verification that it wasn’t looted. Obviously this system is not foolproof and many more objects on the art market are purported to have been found before 1970 than after since the convention took effect, but on the whole, this was a good start (although the convention is now nearly fifty years old and should probably be updated).

Clearly, looting, especially during or in the aftermath of a conflict, is by no means a new problem, but unique situations can sometimes necessitate new laws. Thus, additional legislation is now beginning to be passed, not only about artifacts found in the United States, but also for artifacts found elsewhere and smuggled into the United States. Most recently, the US House of Representatives passed legislation in 2015 that makes it illegal in the United States to sell artifacts that have been looted from Syria. That legislation—now referred to as the Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act—was approved by the Senate in April 2016 and signed into law by the president on May 9, 2016. Similarly, a memorandum of understanding between the United States and Egypt was signed on November 30, 2016. This will place restrictions on incoming antiquities from Egypt to help curb the ongoing looting in that country.

As far as I am concerned, and I believe that I speak for many of my fellow archaeologists as well, ancient artifacts are part of our collective heritage, and so we can only hope that the new legislation and agreements will help to curtail the looting going on around the world. More can and should be done, from passing legislation to guarding excavated sites and protecting known but unexcavated remains. Those outside the profession can help by not succumbing to the temptation of purchasing an ancient artifact offered in a Middle Eastern market or seen on eBay. Because everything that we excavate, study, and write about took place so long ago, the question that should concern all of us is how we can stem the loss of knowledge about our own shared past before it is too late.

Eric Cline is Professor of Classics and Anthropology at the George Washington University. He is also co-editor of the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research. Excerpted from THREE STONES MAKE A WALL: The Story of Archaeology by Eric H. Cline. Copyright © 2017 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission. NOTE: The original text contains footnotes and full documentation which is not included here for reasons of length.


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