Local stories of archaeological looting
Archaeological looting and trafficking of cultural artifacts are probably more extensive now than ever before. Political and security breakdowns in countries that came to encompass territories of ancient civilizations provide ideal conditions for these (and other) illegal activities. Modern communication tools further facilitate the illicit business, taking it to a global scale. Lamentably, the inability to prevent archaeological looting or to eliminate trafficking is not limited to a failed-state environment or to any specific part of the globe.
In his Archaeological Views column “Turkey’s Treasures in Trouble” in the November/December 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Mark R. Fairchild of Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana, shares his personal experience with archaeological looting in Turkey, recounting his recent travels throughout that country to visit ancient sites.
Professor Fairchild remarks that looting (the illicit removal of artifacts from sites) is alive and well especially in rural and remote areas of Turkey. He tells two vivid stories: Near the ruins of the ancient city of Kyzikos (in the region of Mysia), he met a man who had gone to prison for trying to sell antiquities on the black market. After his release, the man is back in the “business.” In another village, a bunch of people bragged to Fairchild about the artifacts they had found. However colorful and even entertaining, Fairchild’s tangible encounters with on-going archaeological looting and trafficking are unsettling.
Not only are archaeological looting and trafficking illegal under international and local laws, but looters and smugglers often also damage artifacts and destroy other historical evidence in the process. While minor damage to an artifact can be undone, the loss of archaeological data—informing on the context in which a given object was found—is permanent; once disturbed, contextual archaeological evidence is lost forever. Finally, illicitly excavated artifacts tend to end up in private collections where they are rarely accessible to the scholarly community.
The role of education in preventing illegal archaeological looting and smuggling cannot be overstated. Most people would agree that teaching kids to appreciate the past and respect cultural heritage is the best prevention. Yet time and again our idealistic vision is confronted with a different reality—one in which local people are lacking in other or better sources of subsistence, collectors are ready to buy and scholars are willing to cooperate.
In the particular case of Turkey, Professor Fairchild sees signs of hope: “Today, Turkey’s universities are training the next generation of historians and archaeologists who are eager to explore Turkey’s past. In recent years, a few new digs have begun … around the country.”
Read Fairchild’s full account of his experience with looters in the Archaeological Views column “Turkey’s Treasures in Trouble” in the November/December 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
BAS Library members: Read the full Archaeological Views column “Turkey’s Treasures in Trouble” by Mark R. Fairchild in the November/December 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.
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This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on November 21, 2016.
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