Networks of Plunder: Archaeologists Tracing the Labyrinth of Antiquities Trafficking Hope to Shut It Down, or at Least Slow It Up

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, March 28, 2009 | Go to article overview

Networks of Plunder: Archaeologists Tracing the Labyrinth of Antiquities Trafficking Hope to Shut It Down, or at Least Slow It Up


Bower, Bruce, Science News


Every day for months, Morag Kersel walked through the streets of Jerusalem to interview researchers, antiquities dealers, museum officials and others about the trafficking of ancient goods: pottery, sawed-off pieces of statues, decorated blocks sliced off the tops of ancient door frames, and biblical coins, to name a few.

One day in 2003, Kersel, then a graduate student in archaeology, came face-to-face with a thriving Middle Eastern trade in ancient, looted coins that had been right under her nose for some time. One of her contacts mentioned that he often purchased such coins from a Palestinian man who shined the shoes of Jerusalem's pedestrians. Kersel realized that she had been passing by that shoe-shine stand day after day.

Kersel, now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto, refers to this street-corner salesman by an assumed name, Mohammed, in order to protect his identity. Mohammed introduced her to a side of the antiquities trade that archaeologists, not to mention law-enforcement officials, rarely see: the chain of secretive relationships that turns looted pieces of the past into scrupulously documented keepsakes for affluent buyers.

Global market

The structure of Mohammed's trade network repeats in many parts of the world.

Sales of illegal antiquities total at least $7.8 billion annually. It's a black market that ranks behind only drugs and weapons as the most profitable, according to a United Nations analysis.

What comes out of the ground passes through international networks of plunder. At the end of the line, people purchase archaeological artifacts in shops, on the Internet and in private and public auctions. Buyers rarely know or, apparently, care how a $2.99 Native American arrowhead or a $75,000 Egyptian sarcophagus managed to come into their possession.

During the Archaeological Institute of America's annual meeting, held in Philadelphia in January, researchers offered analyses of auction and Internet data documenting an ongoing demand for archaeological artifacts. Buyers show no hesitation when offered desirable items that have no documented ownership history, or provenance. Auction-house catalogs of available items contain a fair number of fake pieces and genuine ones illegally obtained.

The laws and conventions aimed at stopping illegal looting are difficult to enforce.

The situation is not entirely dismal. Enlisting the aid of urban developers, townsfolk and the U.S. Embassy, archaeologists in the southwest Asian nation of Georgia have excavated and preserved remnants of ancient societies. In Cambodia, government actions have nearly eradicated once-heavy looting of the vast, 12th century Angkor War temple.

But looters hit unprotected sites hard. They sell the booty to middlemen who smuggle goods across borders and initiate a rapid series of transactions.

Estimates of the size and profitability of black markets are notoriously unreliable, cautions Sandro Calvani, director of the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute in Turin, Italy. It's unlikely, he says, that accurate statistics on thefts of archaeological material will ever be generated.

What's clear is that the looting of items from past societies started thousands of years ago. Some modern networks have been in place for centuries. And thefts of cultural material from private houses, museums and places of worship now rival looting in popularity, Calvani says. The illicit antiquities trade has also spawned a growing business in copies, fakes and forgeries.

"This is one of the world's biggest illegal enterprises," says archaeologist and law student Terressa Davis of the University of Georgia in Athens.

Archaeologists can't reconstruct the meanings and uses of ancient finds when those artifacts have already been snatched from their original contexts, Kersel says.

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Back in Jerusalem, Mohammed has no time to ponder the perilous state of the world's cultural heritage. …

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