BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Endangered Heritage: Archaeological Looting in Turkey

Local stories of archaeological looting

kyzikos-frieze

Winged charioteer depicted on a frieze fragment from ancient Kyzikos. The frieze was confiscated from a smuggler who, however, had already broken up this panel into pieces in order to sneak it out of the country. Photo: Mark R. Fairchild.

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.


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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.

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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.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Archaeological Looting and the Destruction of Cultural Heritage

The Antiquities Market—A “Cat and Mouse Game”

Biblical History at What Cost?
Hobby Lobby, the Museum of the Bible and the antiquities market

ISIS Destroys Antiquities in Mosul, Iraq

Ancient Coins and Looting

Sold to the Highest Bidder: Antiquities as Cash Cows


This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on November 21, 2016.


3 Responses

  1. Dennis says:

    I’m not surprised with Turkey having an Islamist government with the fundamentalist Erdogan working toward making Turkey an Islamic State. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk must be rolling in his grave. In the republic he set up, the military was charged with guaranteeing Turkey remained a secular state. The current military leaders are failing their constitutional duty.

  2. […] commendable that greater awareness is being raised for the value of our shared cultural heritage. Greater awareness can inspire more vigilance and better ideas for the protection of cultural […]

  3. Charles H. Eypper says:

    As soon as Turkey stops its wholesale destruction of the Armenian heritage in eastern Anatolia, then we can begin to concern ourselves with Turkey’s own monuments and artifacts.

Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


3 Responses

  1. Dennis says:

    I’m not surprised with Turkey having an Islamist government with the fundamentalist Erdogan working toward making Turkey an Islamic State. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk must be rolling in his grave. In the republic he set up, the military was charged with guaranteeing Turkey remained a secular state. The current military leaders are failing their constitutional duty.

  2. […] commendable that greater awareness is being raised for the value of our shared cultural heritage. Greater awareness can inspire more vigilance and better ideas for the protection of cultural […]

  3. Charles H. Eypper says:

    As soon as Turkey stops its wholesale destruction of the Armenian heritage in eastern Anatolia, then we can begin to concern ourselves with Turkey’s own monuments and artifacts.

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