Tutankhamun's mask in 1925 in Tutankhamun's tomb, one the rare unlooted ancient Egyptian tombs

The looting of tombs and archaeological sites is a billion-dollar-a-year industry. The word “loot” is of Hindi and Sanskrit origin, emerging in British India, where it doubt described activities there. Looted objects are often easy to slip across borders. The penalties for getting caught are generally less than those for trafficking drugs.

Metal detectors are used by looters to locate coins, bronze sculptures and other objects. Looters can work much quicker than archaeologists because the just dig, sometimes with backhoes and bulldozers, and don’t painstakingly records where everything is or sift through the soil for every pottery shard.

Looting irrevocably messes up archaeological sites by destroying the context of an object which depend on the position the objects is found and its relationship to its surrounding, Thus is almost more than the objects themselves into collecting information and gather insights into an archaeological site and the culture that occupied it.

The issue of looting and illegally obtained antiquities has become an issue between source countries such as Italy, Greece, Egypt, Turkey, China, and Peru and collecting countries such as United States, European nations, Israel and Japan. The international antiquities market operated primarily in the United States, Europe, Israel and Japan.

Most countries have anti-smuggling laws for antiquities but the laws are often written in favor of the looters and purchasers. First and foremost countries must prove that the items that are claimed to have been stolen are indeed from the their county. This is very hard to prove.

Books: “Loot, thawed Battle Over Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World” (Times, 2008) by Sharon Waxman, a former Washington Post and New York Times reporter; “ Stealing History: Tomb Raider, Smuggler and the Looting of the Ancient World” by Robert Atwood (St. Martins Press, 2004)

Aphrodite statue that the Getty returned to Italy

Websites and Resources on Prehistory: Wikipedia article on Prehistory Wikipedia ; Early Humans elibrary.sd71.bc.ca/subject_resources ; Prehistoric Art witcombe.sbc.edu/ARTHprehistoric ; Evolution of Modern Humans anthro.palomar.edu ; Iceman Photscan iceman.eurac.edu/ ; Otzi Official Site iceman.it Websites and Resources of Early Agriculture and Domesticated Animals: Britannica britannica.com/; Wikipedia article History of Agriculture Wikipedia ; History of Food and Agriculture museum.agropolis; Wikipedia article Animal Domestication Wikipedia ; Cattle Domestication geochembio.com; Food Timeline, History of Food foodtimeline.org ; Food and History teacheroz.com/food ;

Archaeology News and Resources: Anthropology.net anthropology.net : serves the online community interested in anthropology and archaeology; archaeologica.org archaeologica.org is good source for archaeological news and information. Archaeology in Europe archeurope.com features educational resources, original material on many archaeological subjects and has information on archaeological events, study tours, field trips and archaeological courses, links to web sites and articles; Archaeology magazine archaeology.org has archaeology news and articles and is a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America; Archaeology News Network archaeologynewsnetwork is a non-profit, online open access, pro- community news website on archaeology; British Archaeology magazine british-archaeology-magazine is an excellent source published by the Council for British Archaeology; Current Archaeology magazine archaeology.co.uk is produced by the UK’s leading archaeology magazine; HeritageDaily heritagedaily.com is an online heritage and archaeology magazine, highlighting the latest news and new discoveries; Livescience livescience.com/ : general science website with plenty of archaeological content and news. Past Horizons : online magazine site covering archaeology and heritage news as well as news on other science fields; The Archaeology Channel archaeologychannel.org explores archaeology and cultural heritage through streaming media; Ancient History Encyclopedia ancient.eu : is put out by a non-profit organization and includes articles on pre-history; Best of History Websites besthistorysites.net is a good source for links to other sites; Essential Humanities essential-humanities.net: provides information on History and Art History, including sections Prehistory

Illegal Art and Antiquities Market

Looters in Iraq

Illegal and black-market trade of art and antiquities is estimated between $2 billion and $6 billion. It is the forth largest criminal enterprise after drugs, arms and money laundering. By one estimate 98 percent of the profits from the illegal art trade goes to middlemen and dealers. Up to 75 percent of all antiquities offered for sale in London actions have no published provenance

Provenance is the word used to describe where an object comes from. When antiquities lack a credible provenance — a documented chain of ownership — that usually means they are plundered from ancient sites.

A British study of five large collections in the mid 1950s of 546 objects determined that 82 percent of the antiquities had suspect provenance. A Cambridge University archaeologist told U.S. News and World Report, “However dodgy things look, when you discover the truth, it’s always worse.”

It is estimated that 80 percent to 90 percent of the Chinese art sold on the international market was somehow illegally obtained. Source nations of looted materials and archaeologists complain that simply by providing a commercial market for ancient objects, museums and private collectors encourage looters to vandalize archaeological sites.

Illegal Art and Antiquities Market and Museums

Reputable art dealers insist they bend over backwards to identify and avoid getting mixed up with illegal goods. Museums have adopted a "don't ask, don't tell" policy for obtaining art. Source countries have threatening museums with taking them off their lists of recipients of long term loans of art.

Many objects are obtained through Switzerland from Lebanese antique dealers. A lot of art and antiquities passes through Switzerland partly because Swiss law automatically grants legal title to a work of art if its present owner can demonstrate that the work has been on Swiss soil for at least five years. Good stolen in Asia often make their way first to Switzerland , where strict export documentation is not required. And from there they make there way to New York or London.

Many museums have codes and guidelines to avoid acquiring antiquities of dodgy origin. Compliance is voluntary and the measures are not legally binding. Museums don’t often live up to their own standards. Many of the issues associated with dodgily-obtained art are not as clearly cut as they would seem to be and don’t have easy answers. This is particularly the case when wealthy collectors decide to donate their collections to museums and questions are raised about how the collector obtained the art.

See Getty Museum, See Italy

Case for Museums to Hold On to Dubiously-Obtained Materials

Adad-Nirari stela looted from the Iraq National Museum

Some argue that collectors and museums that obtain looted take better care of it and expose it to more people than local museums, where art is often boxed and put in warehouses and storage rooms, and neglected. These museum often can't afford to display the items or repair them.

Famous museums expose works of art to a wide audience that wouldn’t see them if they were only on view in the source countries. The museums also argue if they can’t purchase materials that means they fall into the hands of private collectors. In museums, museums argue, people can see them and specialists can study them. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York alone welcomes 4 million visitors a year.

The museums also argue who really owns the past. The people who lived in a modern country often have a different history than the people who lived in it in ancient times. A good example is in Egypt. The ancient Egyptians were a very different people than the Arabs that live there now.

The museums are also ask what is the statute of limitations on antiquities, Will Italy return the bronze horses of San Marcos in Venice which was seized as war booty from Constantinople in 1204? Will Turkey return ro the Alexander Sarcophagus taken from Lebanon in the 19th century? Source countries have been accused by other source countries of holding materials. Libya, for example, has asked Italy — which asked other countries for art to be returned — for the return of the Venus of Cyrenem which was taken by Italian soldiers in 1913 when Libya was an Italian colony (Italy promised to give it back).

In an internal document written in 1989, Getty Museum antiquities curator Margaret True wrote: “The market in antiquities is perhaps the most corrupt in the international art trade. Accepting the premise that the majority of antiquities on the market have been removed from their countries of origin illegally, can we justify collecting these objects at all?” She answered that the Getty could “without compromising either personal or institutional standards for ethical behavior.” As True saw it, if museums didn’t collect important objects they would disappear into private hands, “Given these alternatives, purchase by the Getty Museum under conscientious guidelines, followed by prompt exhibition and publication, may be the best possible outcome for such an object.” [Source: Hugh Eakin, The New Yorker, December 17, 2007]

In 1991, True presented a provocative paper before Italian and Greek scholars in Rome in which she said, “Archaeologists in both the art-rich nations and the collecting nations abroad are particularly vehement in their condemnation of collectors and collecting institutions, most often blaming them for the destruction of sites and contexts, Yet when we examine the current condition of the sites we often find them neglected and crumbling.” She then went on to describe vast amounts of artifacts just sitting in the storage rooms and warehouses of museums inaccessible to anyone, often uncataloged, unrestored and unavailable to researchers, simply collecting dust.

Combating Looting

Palmyra here was looted by Islamic State in Syria

Places with valuable materials on display like museums usually have armed guards and sophisticated security systems. It has become increasingly common for archaeological sites to have armed guards. But a lot of sites are unpoliced and if they to get guards who will pay for them or prevent them from bribed by looters. In some places vehicles carrying artefacts from archaeological sites are given police escorts to keep the vehicles from being hijacked.

One of the best ways to keep looters away from sites is develop them as tourist sites. The presence of tourists scares looters away and gives local people jobs and opportunities to make money so they are less likely to resort to looting and are more likely to take an interest in protecting the sites.

Archaeologists and looters often keep tabs on one another. The looters observe archaeologists for promising sites and the archaeologists keep their ears open for local gossip about major finds. Looters like to brag and often they don’t know the value of what they found so they consult knowledgeable people who are often in contact with the archaeologists.

Tracing looted objects is very difficult. One Hong Kong art dealer told Time. “Once these goods are taken from their original source, you can’t prove they were stolen, It’s as if they never existed at all.” Many of the countries where item are looted lack customs offices and police to prevent looting and track down looters.

Getting Looted Stuff Back from Museums

Nearly all source nations have cultural-property laws that make it illegal to take antiquities out of the country without approval and allows the country to make claims for materials found on their soil. The statutes of limitation vary from nation to nation. A 1970 UNESCO convention has made these laws enforceable in the courts of other nations, such as the United States, that have accepted it. Under its terms governments have the right ro recover antiquities stolen after 1971. In the United States, cultural property claims by foreign nations are enforceable under ordinary laws governing stolen property.

silver items looted from Morgantina that were returned

Local and international laws are often inadequate of nonexistent. The process of getting stuff back requires dedicated cooperation between governments, law enforcement, museums and antiquities dealers. The process is often thwarted by lack of historical records and dubious documentation.

It has been suggest that the solution may be in source countries “leasing” their treasurers to museums in rich nation on a temporary basis while retaining title to them. The cash earned from such a scheme could be used to beef up security at archaeological sites.

The Getty Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Princeton University Art Museum and Boston Museum of Fine Arts are among the museums that have given stuff back.

As of 2008, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sharon Waxman, a former Washington Post and New York Times reporter, said “remains one of the few major museums that continues to collect antiquities that lack clear provenance.” Other institutions such as the British Museum and the Getty has stopped acquiring antiquities that might be looted.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Ancient Foods ancientfoods.wordpress.com ; Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson (Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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