Changing attitudes toward looting. What are your ideas?

Posted in: Antiquities Market, ASOR, Cultural Heritage and Property
Tags: Antiquities market & looting, cultural heritage and patrimony, israel
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Euphronios Krater, returned to Italy by the Metropolitan Museum of Art

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. [1] 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).

Weary Herakles statue returned to Turkey by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

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.[2] 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.[3] 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.’[4]

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 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?

Let us know in the comments.


[1] See Morag Kersel’s post earlier this month and also see Kersel 2005, Yahya 2010, al Houdaliyeh 2009, Ilan et al 1989, Pinto 1999, Blum 2002) Kersel 2008;  Kersel, M. (2005 ). Archaeology’s Well Kept Secret: The Managed Antiquities Market. SOMA 2003, Symposium on Mediterranean Archaeology. C. J. G. Briault, A Kaldelis and A Stellatou. Oxford. 1391.  Kersel, M. (2008). “The Trade in Palestinian Antiquities.” Jerusalem Quarterly 33: 21-38.   YAHYA, A. Looting and ‘Salvaging’ the Heritage of Palestine. Present Pasts, North America, 2, Aug. 2010. Available at: <>. Date accessed: 08 March. 2011. Ilan, D., U. Dahari, et al. (1989). “Plundered! The Rampant Rape of Israel’s Archaeological Sites.” Biblical Archaeological Review XV: 38-42. {Al-Houdalieh, 2009  #4475}
[2] Ganor 2009; al-Houdaliyah 2009.
[3] Brodie, N. and C. Renfrew (2005). “Looting and the World’s Archaeological Heritage: The Inadequate Response.” Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 34: 343-361.
[4] A New International Instrument: the proposed UNESCO Recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape (HUL). Comments by ICOMOS. 24 December 2010.


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10 Comments for : Changing attitudes toward looting. What are your ideas?
    • kalyanaraman
    • May 1, 2012

    Restitution of illicit treasure to the people to whom the treasure belongs should be the international law, instead of allowing museums to trade heritage like a commodity fetishism.


    • Rick HAUSER
    • May 1, 2012

    A thoughtful piece. May it be widely disseminated.

    Most importantly, perhaps this commentary and the archived history of movement in the antiquities market in Journal of Field Archaeology by Morag Kersel and Christina Luke could be integrated into every basic college curriculum on archaeology. ASOR could lead this educational effort.

    An innovative approach to education regarding provenience was posted on the ASOR Blog this month by Rachel Hallote entitled A CLASS TRIP TO THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART( ).

    I personally am of the opinion that Giorgio Buccellati's efforts at Urkesh (Tell Mozan, Syria)—site preservation and involvement of local populace in conservation efforts to raise consciousness of our shared heritage—are a model for how field archaeologists may work to slow the looting ( ).

    An important question of course must be—once looted and divorced from context, can the artifact be studied by responsible scholars? Current prohibitions sometimes stand in the way—and should now be revisited and revised, as they have done their initial good work of alerting the field and the trade to traffic in archaeological artifacts.

    • Shannon Houtrouw
    • May 1, 2012

    Is there a way to get the 'looters' to buy into the value of preserving their own ancient heritage that they are destroying? No doubt many of them are trying to find ways to support and feed their families like the rest of us. Is there a way for those who would profit from black market activity to turn the tables and somehow 'profit' from protecting the vulnerable secrets of antiquity that remain unearthed?

    • Maat
    • May 1, 2012

    Stopping the trade of antiquities won't stop the looting of sites. I have seen first hand in Central Asia hoards of coins melted for jewelry and this kind of thing will continue.

    The trade of items already in the trade should stay legal and each country should work harder to protect their sites.

    Most collectors are painted as just ignorant looters when in actuality they are often great scholars in their fields of expertize. Especially with coins, where the private collector does the greatest amount of the scholarship.

    It isn't fair to brand as villains all collectors, as the trade has been a legal endeavor since times immemorial. Of course, as with anything, there is a bad element.

    We all should work together to purge the bad element as there are enough items already out. Or make laws as it is handled in the UK and the dectectorists, who yearly discover sites that otherwise would have never been found.

    There will always be a trade in antiquities, always has been and always will be.

    Better to keep it more transparent and with the items already out.

    With the price of gold and silver there will always be someone looking for a hoard to melt down, whether coins are legal to trade or not.

    I know it is fashionable now to parade collectors as looters and believe everything should be returned to their countries of origin, but it overkill and a middle ground should be sought.

    I may not have popular views, but they are honest ones formed from years of experience as a collector and in the academic field. I have lived both sides of the fence.

    • John S. Holladay, Jr
    • May 1, 2012

    The title of our essay "said it all!", and _not_ "all!"

    This is a complex matter, and one with a long history. In the first place, if traffic in antiquities (with or without pedigrees)is _legal_ in a country, it becomes an issue like smoking! Perhaps immoral from some persons' point-of-view [as here!], but not _illegal_, and, therefore, within the bounds of even "polite" society. Drugs are "bad", but "Grass" may legally smoked in the Netherlands and a host of third-world venues, with safe injection sites for more addicting drugs springing up in forward-looking states and provinces. Alcohol is legal in most non-Muslim states, as well as in not a few states which consider themselves "Muslim". When I was young, I thought slavery was something long-dead, but now even the young are aware that slavery is alive and well in, perhaps, dozens of smaller and middle-sized states. Similarly, "trafficking in antiquities" is am important "industry" in many regions of the world!

    High-level "blackmailing" of 'foreign' museums to repatriate materials for one's _own_ museum/s relates perhaps more to national identity and pride than to objective "justice". Or, in any case, that's one way of looking at it. From my perspective, archaeological excavations are very much like medical post-mortems: something to be entrusted only to the competent few who are willing to devote their (considerable!) talents toward an otherwise arcane science, for less than stellar recognition or financial reward. That's fine for the run-of-the-mill finds, but not for the exceptional "FIND!"

    There is something magical about a genuine "Picasso", as opposed to a child's early paintings, _even were they visually identical_! So we _need_ museums (and even well-kept private collections which eventually will be willed to major institutions [should they be willing to accept them, and "properly display them" in a new gallery or building, etc., etc.]). That is the way major museums and galleries are built and expanded, and the _Hermitage_ and the Egyptian Museum are really no different at one level, however radically different they are they in what they exhibit. Whether I should go to the Egyptian Museum or the Metropolitan Museum, or the Royal Ontario Museum is often determined by my own personal wealth and/or travel schedules. But my debt to Ancient Egypt, and, yes, modern Egypt, is, perhaps not "equally", great in visiting either venue, or even standing before a private collector's show-case before those materials eventually are willed to some larger public venue.

    To "return"/"repatriate" all those collections to their respective "National" museums might be a wonderful thing, but I really wonder: "Would the glories of ancient Egypt/Babylon/Chile…or even our own Canadian "Group of Seven" paintings _best_ be seen _only_ in Canada, or Iraq, or Egypt, or is there room for the Albright-Knox Library, and the Baghdad Museum, and the new Luxor Museum, along-side the Cairo Museum?

    And that seems to be the way "it is". The current tendency toward restricting scientifically-oriented excavators' ability to collect/curate and document/study [e.g., petrography, R-F and metallurgical analyses, etc.) pottery, faunal/botanical remains, and commonly-occurring artifacts (e.g., sling-stones/[clay]pellets, grinding stones, metal fragments, etc.) is already going some distance toward "dumbing-down" archaeology and perpetuating slovenly field-work practices. Ideally, each venue/country _should_ have its own experts in each of these different areas, with their own continually-evolving state-of-the-art laboratories and storage facilities, working side-by-side with the excavators, and contributing equally to the final interpretations and publications, but, for the most part, academic niches for these individuals are generally lacking and not likely to become urgent priorities in most host-countries.

    Chance finds and metal-finding equipment aside, I really wonder if the looting of antiquities would be anything like it presently is were the public sale of lesser/more common antiquities to be (a) against the law, and (b) that law were to be enforced! Chance finds will always be with us, but, if "antiquities" could not be sold in the public markets, with the government's connivance, the exploitation of antiquities sites would simply not be "worth while"!

    • Hans
    • May 2, 2012

    Pressure on art dealers, application of international laws, fight against corruption.

    • Amihai Mazar
    • May 5, 2012

    The argumentation in the blog is basically correct but what about adding to the name "Israel" additional names like "Jordan", "Turkey", "Egypt" "Iraq" "Meso-America" and many other countries throughout the world where looting is taking place?

    The Israel Antiquity Authority is one of the few that maintains a special unit and invest huge efforts in preventing looting of sites. The fact is that looting in Israel has been very much reduced, but continues in the West Bank, Gaza, and few limited areas in Israel close to the border.

    Indeed a major problem is the fact that in Israel antiquities trade is legal though monitored by the IAA. This subject is highly controversial and many if us demand a change of the law. Others believe that illegal trade will worse the situation, as in countries where the trade is illegal but still continues.

    • G.M. Grena
    • May 6, 2012

    Dr. Dodd (the unnamed author of this post) is guilty of conflating 2 entirely different types of collections here. She begins by defining looting (an illegal act), then assumes that every private collection contains strictly looted material, which is not true. Prior to 1978 (& feel free to correct me if I'm wrong about this) you could pick up artifacts on the surface of Israel (the "chance finds" mentioned by Dr. Holladay in his comment) and either keep them or sell them (as a licensed business). These artifacts did not necessarily come from a "plowed field or the rifled, destroyed ancient tomb or mound … open, gaping holes in fields and hillsides all over Israel."

    A large percentage of all provenanced jar handles bearing royal seal impressions were found on the surface of excavated sites. Based on what people in Israel have told me (& again, correct me if I'm wrong), there are still millions of pottery shards visible on the surface throughout Israel. The majority of them are undoubtedly ordinary, but even exceptionally special artifacts were not found by plowing, rifling, destroying, or causing gaping holes anywhere. A few that come to mind are the Gezer Calendar, the Dan/David Stela, the Qasile Ostraca (though it's been suggested that one or both of these were forgeries), the Moabite Stone, the Dead Sea Scrolls.

    As I argued with Dr. Dodd & others last month here on the ASOR Blog, I simply fail to see the basis for vilifying legitimate, law-abiding collectors & dealers. I understand that sites have been, & continue to be looted, but I agree with the comment posted by "Maat", & remain baffled as to why the villains continue to be portrayed as victims by normally objective scholars.

    "[Y]our lips have spoken lies, your tongue hath muttered perverseness. None calleth for justice, nor any pleadeth for truth; they trust in vanity, and speak lies…" (Isaiah 59:3-4).

    And I also disagree with her main point about changing attitudes toward possessing things that belong "more properly to national patrimony." I would much rather go to the Penn Museum in Philly or the British Museum to see Assyrian, Babylonian, & Persian artifacts than to the God-forsaken region where they originated (where in most instances it's a capital offense to be a Christian or to speak truthfully against Islam).

    We don't need to change attitudes about collectors & unprovenanced artifacts; we need the attitudes of (predominantly Muslim, i.e., anti-Israel) hostile countries to change. As the late Dr. Greg Bahnsen once said in a debate with Jewish & Muslim scholars, Jesus Christ is the only hope for solving the problems in the world. Arabs don't want peace with Israel & America, they want to conquer them.

    We don't have to look any further than the Temple Mount to see literally "rifled" archeological material with "gaping holes" in order to expand the construction of Muslim mosques, with the material being dumped in the Kidron Valley.

    Except for 2 prominent scholars, Gabriel Barkay & Eilat Mazar, where's the public outcry against these archeological atrocities? How about a month on the ASOR Blog dedicated to this & similar crimes (what's been done about it, & what can be done to prevent it from recurring)? Where are the peer-reviewed journal articles & books by anthropologists investigating the crime? Where's the "advanced social discourse" about bringing the Waqf to justice? Yet what we mostly hear from you professional scholars is about how terrible private collectors are for legally preserving material found on the surface, sold by law-abiding, taxpaying dealers.

    If Dr. Morag Kersel's research is accurate, & Palestinians are mostly responsible for the looting, & we all know that Muslims are to blame for the Temple Mount vandalism, my suggestion for an "innovative" strategy to "eliminate or reduce the illicit trade of antiquities" would be for Israel to take complete control of the Temple Mount, & use the military to take control of the regions neighboring Israel currently governed by the incompetent/negligent Palestinian Authority (in contrast to Dr. Mazar's apropos observation about the IAA).

    A second "innovative" strategy would be to establish a program whereby collectors could be allowed to rent provenanced artifacts. I can offer a specific example: I personally would prefer to pay the IAA to transfer all (in rotation) their LMLK jar handles to me in California for a limited time, rather than buy unprovenanced specimens for my research. This would also save me considerable travel expenses, & give me the flexibility I need to balance time between my day job & this research hobby. I dream of being the first person in history (since Hezekiah's reign) to assemble all 21 seal types in one place, but will probably never be able to find the rare ones on the market, & they simply don't exist at any museum (even in the IAA's storage; I'd have to coordinate this event with several institutions).

    A third strategy (building upon Dr. Holladay's suggestion) would be to get Israel to simply outlaw the sale & trade of all antiquities AND replicas thereof (to eliminate any question regarding their authenticity & forgeries, especially forged inscriptions on ancient artifacts such as the LMLK handle I referenced in my response to Dr. Kersel in April). Only then could they put pressure on Western/Judeo-Christian nations to also outlaw the same. Obviously we don't have to worry about Arab/Muslim nations since they primarily want to destroy Judeo-Christian heritage along with Jews & Christians. Note that it should not be illegal to own artifacts, but anyone in possession of them would have to register them (as the IAA has already begun doing).

    Though innovative, I don't believe Shannon Houtrouw's suggestion would work because it assumes (naively along with Kersel & Dodd) that the looters are ethical. In a hypothetical scenario, they would simply take the cash to protect the site, then do a better job of covering up their "gaping holes" & continue to make cash their traditional way. You can see plenty of examples of this among urban street gangs that blackmail businesses for protection, but continue committing other crimes in an effort to build little empires.

    • asorstaff
    • May 8, 2012

    From Member Charles Sundmacher:

    My best guess is that criminals will always circumvent the law, no matter what law. But more laws means a greater need for enforcement. The problem comes identifing the true antiquities on site not in a marketplace where faked copies abound and where the unaware are often fooled. Registration and licensing may stem part of the tide, but not all of the blackmarket activities, though. It's a tough problem, but as long as there are private collectors who will deal on the blackmarket, there will be a market in stolen antiquities.

    • Sustainable Preserva
    • November 25, 2012

    Thanks for the interesting post. The discussion surrounding professional and opportunistic

    looters of museums and archaeological sites during times of conflict throughout the world is

    an important one, but here at SPI, we see a significant amount of damage and looting done to

    archaeological sites located in poverty-stricken areas by locals with no other alternative but to

    loot in order to provide the basics for their families, as mentioned by some of the previous comments here. By creating an economically sustainable

    link between the preservation of the site and the local community, the lives of the locals can

    improve and the future of the archaeological heritage can also be ensured.

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