Antique Values


In the Italian region of Apulia is a plain rich in ancient tombs that have never been properly excavated. For years, looters have been breaking into the tombs and selling valuable artifacts on the antiquities black market. Tens of thousands of objects, especially Greek vases, have reportedly been dug up and sold illegally.

"Whatever the reason the Italian government can't stop this," writes Hershel Shanks in the May/June issue of Archaeology Odyssey, "you can be sure of one thing: It would immediately be stopped–it would never have started–if this land were owned by the Apulian Tomb Company, a private corporation."

Shanks, the magazine's editor, is not suggesting the land be turned over to private hands, though what he is proposing is just as heretical: He wants the archeology establishment to come to terms with the private antiquities market. The study of the past will be better served in every way, he argues, if the market value of ancient objects is allowed to assert itself.

In the case of Apulia, the Italian government, which technically owns any artifact found on public or private property, would realize no material value from an excavation; objects would simply be sent to a state museum. The museum is likely to have duplicates of almost everything that's found, and so will simply store the objects. Nobody will ever see them. Indeed, there are already great numbers of ancient coins, lamps, vases, and other objects in storage, where they apparently will remain forever.

Why not arrange to sell such duplicates, asks Shanks, and apply the profits to a proper dig? As things now stand, any unique objects are being looted. Because the circumstances of their discovery will remain unknown, so will their significance. By refusing to take advantage of a site's material value, the archeological establishment squanders the site's intellectual value, he says.

Many such sites are being looted, with the paradoxical result that a private antiquities market is flourishing even as archeologists are perpetually broke. Academics have responded by criticizing the dealers and trying to outlaw them. But as Shanks points out, that only drives the trade underground.

Shanks has waged seemingly quixotic campaigns before–and won. Another of his magazines, Biblical Archaeology Review, led the effort to release long-untranslated portions of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Many museum directors are sympathetic to this effort, too, he says, but they won't speak publicly because of a "McCarthyite" animus against the market. It's a self-defeating antagonism, he believes. As he writes of the despoiled Apulian plain, "Only by realizing the value of the vases–on the market–can this looting be stopped."