October 29, 2019

Archaeology, the anti-looting

I spoke at Ursinus College outside Philadelphia last week on my book Stealing History and was struck by how its basic message still resonates. That message is that the illicit antiquities trade is compromising our ability to learn more about the story of humanity. No matter how much the dealers’ lobby and collecting museums try to defend it, the antiquities trade depends on commercial looting and grave-robbing of archaeological sites to gather valuable artifacts to sell. When looters dig up those artifacts, everything else gets trashed and the site itself becomes degraded or, in the most extreme cases, unsuitable for scientific excavation. I saw it with my own eyes in Peru and Iraq – bearing witness is part of what journalists do – and wrote about it so people would know where antiquities in some of our most prestigious museums and private collections actually come from. They come from illegal excavations, smuggling rings and, in Syria, digging operations to support ISIS.  I spoke to Deborah Barkun’s class of terrifically bright undergraduates and then gave a talk at the Berman College of Art.