By Dr. Lynn Swartz Dodd
A growing body of literature documents the reality that the ancient, buried landscape of Israel, including the areas known as the West Bank and Gaza, are being inexorably and irretrievably looted. Looting refers to a process by which objects are removed without official permission or archaeological oversight and documentation.  Some positive outcomes may devolve to those who participate in such activities (money from selling artifacts, cultivation of buyer/dealer networks, prestige from owning objects that are old and in increasingly short supply). In every single case, there is a parallel negative result that occurs, which is the loss of context for an ancient object and the loss of association between those certain artifacts and the place they last were laid by an ancient actor. Anyone who denies that this outcome is the reality is, in this author’s mind, uninformed about the consequences of looting.
A certain number of collectors of antiquities, whether inside Israel or outside, take pride in showing others their personal antiquities collections. Many such collectors take pains to purchase artifacts that are represented as genuine, and sometimes they have the objects authenticated by well respected experts, and furthermore they believe they are buying artifacts that are legally sanctioned for sale. In many cases all these assumptions are 100% true. So from the perspective of a collector, they have a reason to boast to people who visit them and their collection. They own something very old and, hence, very special in a certain way. They care for the objects to the best of their ability, often in controlled environmental conditions with good labels and nice lighting.
One can understand this urge to collect the products of human creativity and experience. For instance, collectors who still buy artifacts from Israel typically buy objects that are intriguing, historic and sometimes very beautiful. They are remnants from the past that can be linked to an exciting, persuasive narrative of an ancient nation. It is a compelling connection to our shared past. I have visited many collections owned by people with a discerning eye who genuinely enjoy, curate, protect and value the artifacts they own.
But this is not what this post is about. This post is about something none of these collectors ever does when they show me their collection. No collector has ever boasted by showing me their pictures of the plowed field or the rifled, destroyed ancient tomb or mound from which their artifacts were pulled. Many collectors do not visualize the connection between their actions in the market, the collection in which they take pride, and the open, gaping holes in fields and hillsides all over Israel. Perhaps another reason that nobody shows me such pictures is because no dealer in their right mind provides them to a buyer (with a few famous exceptions that landed the people in hot water).
In the public at large, there is an emerging popular disdain for tomb invasion and cultural patrimony thievery. Despite the popularity of Indiana Jones, who grabs the goods and runs on film, we members of the public have started to become aware of the claims of various countries for the artifacts found in their national territory, which their laws stipulate is their property, their national patrimony. Recent public pressure was placed on curators of famous museums (Getty, Met, Princeton, Boston) because the trials moved into the court of public opinion, not because these countries prevailed in law courts.
It will take a substantial time for attitudes about preserving heritage to change so that artifacts dug out of their place in the earth will be seen as less authentic, of diminished value, representing an ignoble desire to posses something that belongs more properly to national patrimony. Without meaning to demean the importance of ancient artifacts in this comparison, an analogy for this potential transformation may be found in the changed attitudes toward fur or grocery bags in the USA. Over the past generation, a series of small, sustained efforts succeeded in changing fashion in a dramatic way. Today, few American women dare walk down the street wearing mink. Similarly, only a couple decades ago everyone received grocery bags made from new paper. In the USA and elsewhere, this practice became connected with gross overconsumption and unsustainable environmental exploitation. Soon, stores introduced cheaper bags made of recycled paper or plastic, which could be recycled too; and finally, stores started selling reusable bags, which customers buy from them and carry back to the store time and time again, as a display of sensitivity to limited resources and overconsumption.
When we achieve this advanced social discourse about antiquities sales, then the powerful private interests that support a legal market will find themselves faced with a counter argument when they try to persuade the archaeology advisory committees of Israel, which includes highly-respected archaeologists who have spent their lives finding objects in intact contexts, to continue the legal market for antiquities sales.
I wonder whether we would be so complacent about antiquities sales if we could see the damage being done to the non-renewable ancient traces of past human history. Few people are aware of the scale of heritage destruction; hundreds of tombs and other ancient sites may be destroyed annually according to reports in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. To visualize this, let’s imagine the lovely Old City of Jerusalem with the Western Wall of the Temple Mount (which is known in Arabic as the Haram el-Sharif or Noble Sanctuary). If every artifact taken from the ground were instead a little bit of stone from Old City buildings, with each visitor taking a piece and an occasional deep pocketed person lugging off a big stone, after a while, with chip after chip falling into the hand of each tourist as a memento of their trip, Jerusalem will be denuded of its stone structures and walls, including the Western Wall.
Likewise, the buried heritage resources are finite and non-renewable resources, and they require protection. As recently argued in an ICOMOS report about historic ancient cities, once it is lost, it is lost forever. For this reason, it is essential to emphasize the ‘inter-generational nature of heritage conservation. Heritage resources must not be sacrificed needlessly to suit the passing needs and aspirations of any one generation.’
In 2005, the ASOR Board of Trustees voted to update ASOR’s 1995 policy on Preservation and Protection of Archaeological Resources. According to the web page on the ASOR website where this policy was published, the text that appeared in italics reflected the 2005 additions (see http://www.asor.org/excavations/policy.html for the complete text).
The second of these italicized portions reads:
“ASOR will continue to explore innovative strategies and support legislation designed to eliminate the illicit trade of antiquities and enhance the protection of the world’s archaeological and cultural heritage.”
The question this ASOR blog editor would like to pose to you at the conclusion of the month in which we have considered a range of topics related to looting and objects without provenience is this:
What innovative strategies can you think of that would eliminate or reduce the illicit trade of antiquities and enhance the protection of the world’s archaeological and cultural heritage?
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