It's an old story, and a sad one. In humanity's mad rush to build a proud future and make the present more secure, many grand achievements of the past are tossed aside, left to disappear forever. History is full of cases where pillagers and vandals tear down or carry off the monuments of a defenseless or undervalued past.
Not only do conquering armies seek plunder, but so do individuals. Ordinary people, struggling to survive in poverty near sites where powerful and wealthy peoples once flourished, treat the relics of past glories as raw material for new construction, or simply a potential source of cash.
Serious efforts to protect ancient monuments and to collect and preserve artifacts for careful study effectively began in 1798 when Napoleon Bonaparte brought a team of scientists along with his army invading Egypt. Over the next two centuries, U.S. and European governments, universities, museums, and wealthy collectors financed many expeditions to discover, record, and acquire (sometimes for money, sometimes by force) ancient objects, human remains, works of art, and even entire buildings.
Today, it is easy to dismiss such "fieldwork" as simply acts of arrogance toward peoples too poor or too weak to resist effectively. Certainly many governments, museums, and research institutes have changed their policies. And some have now begun restoring certain items and apologizing for past actions. But there is another side to this kind of looting.
The foreign institutions and collectors who are accused of stealing many ancient objects often saved them from destruction or slow decay. And the true significance of many sites and artifacts might never have been known without the careful handling and study they received from Western experts.
Respect for local heritage has spread and deepened as more nations have gained independence and a sense of common identity. Yet, even today, wherever ancient peoples once lived, worked, and buried their dead, individuals and organized bands are digging for objects to carry off and sell. In the process, they may obscure or completely erase the history of the objects they uncover.
Now and then a treasure hoard of precious metal objects or a large statue may be uncovered by professional archaeologists in the field or offered at auction. But most of the antiquities trade today involves individuals of relatively modest means who simply want a small piece of the past to show off and admire.
Through online sites and mail order catalogs, art and antiquities dealers offer everything from Egyptian mummy beads to Roman coins, from Mayan pottery to African masks. Serious collectors and casual shoppers alike can buy an ancient Greek wine jar or an Etruscan vase as easily as any modern painting or print.
Past efforts to stop looting have included guarding important sites, banning the sale or export of ancient artifacts and major works of art, and using customs authorities and police to check that buyers, sellers, and collectors all display reliable documentation to prove they are not in possession of stolen goods.
But none of these measures has been fully effective. As art and cultural reporter Roger Atwood states in his recent book, Stealing History, "The biggest obstacle to stopping the looting of the ancient world is overcoming the feeling that it is inevitable ... [that] as long as there are rich buyers, there will always be poor looters willing to supply them."
Given the present rate of worldwide looting, Atwood calculates that, within decades, only a handful of tourist-thronged, highly publicized, and heavily protected ancient sites will remain. …