Found Objects

What archaeologists can gain from markets, or lose by ignoring them


The initial reports from Iraq last spring confirmed the worst fears of archaeologists around the world. Warnings and pleas about safeguarding important cultural sites had gone unheeded. With coalition forces still struggling to accomplish key objectives and put down resistance, mobs ran riot through Iraqi cultural institutions, including the National Museum and several libraries. Looting merged with violent expressions of hatred for Saddam's Ba'athist regime. Exhibits were smashed, books burned, computers stolen, and records destroyed; the looters made off with a massive number of priceless and irreplaceable artifacts. In fact, early wire dispatches pegged the National Museum as a complete loss: all 170,000 items just…gone.

And that was only in Baghdad. Elsewhere in Iraq, similar desperate scenes played out. The museum at Mosul was sacked, and dozens of key archaeological sites—including ancient Nineveh and Nimrud digs—were looted, often using heavy equipment. In late May, reporter Edmund Andrews wrote in The New York Times of looting that was still going on at an archaeological site near Isan Bakhriat. A man who had been the site's armed guard under Saddam's rule watched helplessly as local villagers started pillaging. In one morning alone, looters dug out two urns, a vase, a statue leg, and a number of engraved artifacts. "In two weeks, they have ruined all the work that was done over 15 years," said archaeologist Susanne Osthoff, who had been part of the original excavation team.

Students of antiquity were understandably upset, and grief quickly turned to finger pointing. "Why didn't they stick a tank there?" asks Ellen Herscher, chair of the Cultural Property Legislation and Policy Committee of the Archaeological Institute of America. In an interview with reason, Herscher called for a full investigation to help prevent future wartime disasters. Although she says she would never want to second-guess the actions of the troops on the ground, Herscher echoes a familiar grievance-laden refrain of many archaeologists: Why did the troops manage to secure the oil ministry but not the museum?

The total-cultural-destruction scenario received massive play in the press, in part because it was an apparently legitimate story, and in part because it was a handy stick for the war's critics. A Doonesbury character sold a plundered scroll on eBay. New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote that "America stood idly by while much of the heritage of that civilization…was being destroyed." Rich, unsurprisingly, used the looting to criticize the barren wasteland that passes for U.S. culture: "Goodbye, dreary old antiquity! Hello, 'Friends'!"

One of the notable aspects of total-destruction fantasies, however, is how rarely they pan out. Eventually, a very different picture emerged from Iraq. Yes, the National Museum was looted, but the staff had already removed most of the items from the display area. Most items were spared, and calls by imams to return museum pieces had a remarkable effect. In several cases, we've seen the entertaining phenomenon of "pre-emptive looters": Iraqis who explain that they only took stuff to keep other people from taking it, or to keep it out of the hands of some museum directors, who were thought to be too close to Saddam. As for the American "failure" to protect the museum, evidence uncovered by the BBC supports U.S. claims that its forces avoided the site because Ba'athist loyalists were using the museum as a defensive stronghold.

Adding evidence for the view that the looting scandal is as much about ideology as tragedy, several pro-war commentators seized on a line in a June 9 Washington Post story and radically misread it to claim there were only "33 items missing" from the National Museum. And according to a story in The Times of London, there was a pitched gunfight next to the museum in which Iraqi soldiers used the museum like a hostage. Thus, in the minds of many, total destruction and malignant American neglect became, "Nothing happened here, move along."

But something did happen. Even the Post story pegged the number of missing antiquities at 3,000. As of late June, many archaeologists in Iraq regarded that number as optimistic, with the suspected total running to twice or three times that. (Depending on whom you believe, the discrepancy between the early figure of 170,000 and the current estimates occurred either because the foreign journalists misunderstood what the Iraqi curators were saying or because the Iraqis were initially very inventive with their estimates.)

The revised version of the National Museum story is good news, but it is tempered by the knowledge that thousands of its items were professionally looted and will be very difficult to retrieve; that museum records are in disarray; that site looting continues to be a major, underreported problem; and that Ba'athist cronies had already taken away a great number of important antiquities well before the hostilities commenced. (The best story to emerge from the whole farrago is the fact that Hussein put his belly-dancing former mistress in charge of the antiquities market in the north. That must have been some shimmy.) The looting of Iraq's cultural resources is a real and continuing problem, one which will resonate far beyond the bounds of ancient Mesopotamia.

It's unfortunate that the antiquities issue became grist for the domestic squabbles of the U.S., because the controversy obscured a much more interesting and long-running conflict within the profession of archaeology, one with ramifications that are anything but academic. Everyone agreed that what happened in Iraq was a tragedy. With the news that the National's catalog might have been destroyed, several independent efforts were launched to reconstruct it from records at other museums and post the results on the Internet. But there the consensus splintered into two schools of thought.

A pair of late April op-ed pieces in The Wall Street Journal by Hershel Shanks, publisher of Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) and Archaeology Odyssey, and André Emmerich, a longtime collector of antiquities, made several parallel points: 1) The law would probably not be an effective remedy in recovering many of the looted items; 2) a buyback program should be instituted in Iraq, quickly; 3) internationally, the aid of dealers and collectors should be sought to ransom whatever items make it through Iraq's borders; 4) the "archaeological establishment" is not being realistic about how to deal with this problem; and 5) in the future, archaeology will have to find a way to use markets rather than fight them.

The current approach is vastly different. In the U.S., the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) has urged that Iraq's borders be sealed and that the U.N. and the U.S. condemn the theft and establish a worldwide ban on the trade of Iraqi antiquities. Before the anti-anti-looting backlash, archaeologists were hopeful that the U.S. would finally ratify the Hague Protocols relating to cultural property. These would transfer even more of the burden of protecting antiquities onto invading armies, a prospect that isn't likely to fly with the Bush administration. University of Virginia archaeologist Malcolm Bell, an AIA officer, strongly urged antiquities collectors to declare the items in their collections now in order to better weather future crackdowns.

To be fair, there was some overlap between the supposedly hidebound AIA and its more market-savvy critics. Most establishment archaeologists supported a limited buyback program, though they are loath to label it as such. "We're calling it more of a rewards program," says the AIA's Herscher in an interview. Even modest cash payments within the bounds of Iraq set off paroxysms of hand wringing. Several archaeologists expressed concern about fueling the dreaded international antiquities markets. In fact, they sometimes seem more concerned about not enriching collectors than about recovering the artifacts. When I asked for a reaction to Emmerich's Journal argument, one AIA member responded with a hissing sound.

That reaction is understandable. Cambridge's Neil Brodie spelled out the extent of the looting that followed the first war with Iraq in the July/August issue of the AIA's glossy magazine, Archaeology. In the three years following the 1991 war, 10 regional museums were attacked and looted. More than 3,000 items were taken, and smuggling methods and connections were tried, tested, and refined. Established trade routes likely exist through Iran, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, leading to various European and Asian countries, Israel, and America. As Brodie put it: "No one can blame the Iraqis for believing that their museums were modern treasure houses—in a sense, they were."

Yet looted material from museums was only a small part of the overall trade. One of the few forms of ready cash during the years of the debilitating, decade-long sanctions regime against Iraq came from artifact sales. In defiance of the Ba'athist government, which occasionally executed looters, and of U.N. Security Council resolutions, an extensive black market in Iraqi antiquities was in place before the recent scandal. The Iraqi antiquities that ended up for sale on eBay were likely from this earlier period. By 1997, enough antiquities had been seized at the Iraq-Jordan border to have their own exhibit at the National.

Nor are Iraq's looting problems unique. In the last dozen or so years, museums in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Kuwait have been sacked. Site looting is the order of the day anywhere poor people find themselves sitting on land that is less valuable than what is underneath the soil. In an interview, Hershel Shanks described a conversation with an Italian museum curator to illustrate the point: "I said to him, in certain places in Italy they've been looting tombs for three generations. He said, 'No. Four.'" For Shanks, the exchange embodies a certain bitter truth: To archaeologists, site looting is more damaging than sacking museums. At least in the case of the latter, the items have been excavated using methods that allow scholars to compare notes. The information can survive the loss or the destruction of the object, but haphazard, undocumented looting deprives future generations of important tools for reconstructing the past.

The modern archaeological establishment has responded to the threat of markets by lobbying governments to disrupt the flow of antiquities across borders, and to crack down on collectors and dealers. They may have occasional legislative successes—Switzerland recently tightened its notoriously loose antiquities laws, for example—but the most likely result will be a slight reduction in trade volume, and even that much is uncertain. Historically, governments have not proven to be very good at preservation.

Reducing the flow of illicit goods would do precious little to fix some of the other problems that plague professional archaeology, including a chronic lack of funding for digs, and of the time and money needed to service large collections of artifacts. One of the reasons the details from the National Museum are still so sketchy is that thousands of items were still awaiting documentation. As with many museums, the National had (and continues to have) thousands of items deteriorating in storage in the hope that someone might someday pull them out and catalog them before sticking them back on the shelf. At any given time, Iraq's premier cultural institution could showcase perhaps 8,000 items from its 170,000-piece collection. Practically, this means that most items will never see the light of archivists' flashbulbs.

Shanks argues that from the point of view of archaeology, collectors can be either "good" or "bad," and that a lot of the collectors' actions depend on what archaeologists choose to do as a profession. That means that both law and the field of archaeology should carve out a place where collectors and potential looters can funnel their energies. There are many possible ways to structure such an arrangement. Shanks, for example, has suggested giving responsibility for major sites to private companies that would ensure the sites' security in exchange for an opportunity to trade in duplicate finds.

Potential looters should be hired and supervised by archaeologists (a perfectly common arrangement in archaeology's past), who could pay for the digs by getting collectors to sponsor them or by selling many of the items afterwards, after they've been studied and cataloged. Emmerich argues, and Shanks concurs, that many duplicate pots and artifacts currently sitting in museum storage should be sold to private collectors, who would be more likely to properly maintain and display them, and who might keep their own property safe in a time of looting.

A less antagonistic arrangement would be ideal for archaeologists, for collectors, and for the nations that are so rich with physical evidence of ancient cultures. Archaeology is more interested in the information that the artifacts provide than in the artifacts themselves. By controlling the excavations and thoroughly documenting finds, archaeologists could get all the necessary information. Collectors could get access to artifacts that interest them, especially duplicate objects that are otherwise sent into eternal storage, without risking forgeries, lawsuits, or public denunciation. Countries of origin could require that a minimum percentage of the antiquities found (including all unique objects) be donated to their museums, which would both enrich their collections and boost their reputations. The possibility of continuous employment—along with the occasional payout for important finds and no risk of being shot or hanged—might persuade the locals to go along with an ordered excavation instead of looting.

These proposals are neither new nor untested. Shanks likes to point out that the Dead Sea Scrolls were found and dug out by people we'd now consider looters. Archaeologists responded by buying the scrolls from antiquities dealers, then hiring the Bedouins to help them further excavate the fragments of this ancient library. Many museums in the U.S. and other countries have Iraqi antiquities today because they agreed to finance digs with the understanding that they could keep half the artifacts.

Much of what happens in the next few years will depend on the actions of the archaeological establishment. Right now, an anti-collector, anti-market bias remains pervasive. That may be a majority position, or it could be that, as pro-market archaeology types would have it, a loud minority only makes it sound that way. In either event, the utility of this attitude is far from clear. If used properly, markets could help preserve artifacts, reduce looting, and expand the number of digs. It's a virtuous circle waiting to happen.

Regarding the current problem in Iraq, the University of Virginia's Bell admits much of the recovery effort will "depend on the principles that govern the behavior of dealers and collectors." He hopes they will help recover the items, but that would seem rather less likely to occur if the AIA's recommended import/export ban is ratified by Congress. In that case, the items likely will be unloaded on less scrupulous dealers and disappear into the hands of very discreet collectors, leaving them outside the scope of professional study for our lifetimes.