By Karen D. Vitelli
The last few decades have seen concerted efforts on many fronts to protect archaeological sites from looting and development and their fruits from theft. These efforts have had some very positive side effects, but their impact on site preservation has been less than stunning.
Thirty or so years ago, when I entered the field, archaeology resided pretty firmly within the lofty, masculine walls of academe. Beyond those walls, the public had only a vague and romantic notion of the exotic field, fed largely by Hollywood (and James Michener's The Source), that regularly prompted the comment, "Oh, I always dreamed of becoming an archaeologist" whenever I was introduced at social gatherings. Many archaeologists of those years built up guilt-free collections of antiquities "for teaching purposes." They consorted freely with local amateurs, who, in turn, sought out archaeologists for advice and openly shared their collections and information about newly discovered sites. Wealthy, well-educated, and passionately involved collectors often served as patrons for archaeologists, providing access to their private collections and funding for fieldwork and travel. Ford Foundation grants paid fieldwork expenses for graduate students. Life was good.
Then came the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The convention brought archaeology into public and professional discussions in a different context. A host of new phrases entered our vocabularies: cultural property, clandestine excavations, illicit export, country of origin, states parties, and the like. The national antiquities laws of the countries we worked in, which had seemed simple manifestations of bureaucratic red tape, took on larger meaning. Our research objects were publicly defined as "cultural heritage" whose "true value can be appreciated only in relation to the fullest information regarding its origins, history, and traditional setting" (UNESCO Convention preamble). The convention told us that looting—actually, it used the even stronger term pillage—is a direct result of the market demand for antiquities by dealers and collectors. The battle lines for the coming decades were drawn.
Meanwhile, within the walls of academe and on the sides of trenches, archaeology was engaging new technologies, the growing environmental movement, explicit theory, and science. Handheld calculators made quantification and statistical analyses easier and far more attractive than had cumbersome slide rules. Sampling and sample size became major archaeological concerns. Archaeological context moved to the fore. The U.S. government's response to public environmental outcries led also to the concept of cultural resource management. Archaeologists began the trip into the real world of business and contract archaeology, which by the end of the century would employ more archaeologists in the United States than does academe. And the focus of archaeology moved from the wonderful and curious objects and monuments of earlier generations to broader questions about how and, more importantly, why people in the past had organized their lives as they did. Even without the UNESCO Convention, the new directions of archaeology made the split between archaeologists and collectors inevitable.
It is interesting, if academic, to imagine different ways the relationship might have developed had dealers, collectors, and archaeologists not begun their new relationship in the context of legal battles that encouraged polarized positions. Might the many archaeologists who at that time had good working relationships with collectors have introduced the new approaches and goals and persuaded their amateur colleagues and patrons to participate in different and more productive collaborations? It seems to me possible. The split from collectors did not take place suddenly, and it is still not honored by all archaeologists, even though all the major professional organizations have now labeled such collaborations unethical. Many still feel that the self-righteous tone of the professional codes ignores political reality and damages the archaeological reality. In practice, many archaeologists still work with collectors, at least on the local level. I expect, and hope, that the professional organizations will rethink some aspects of this kind of collaboration and look for ways to put the genuine interest and considerable abilities and influence of some local collectors to constructive use in stewarding the archaeological heritage more effectively.
The old files from my years as editor of "The Antiquities Market" for the Journal of Field Archaeology (JFA) provide an interesting perspective on the early UNESCO years. Extensive correspondence and the occasional article in the journal addressed questions of theft and looting and of their relationship to the larger archaeological enterprise. Colleagues were anxious to talk with me—I was suddenly perceived as exper—about an object in their university museum that they had seen, in situ, at a foreign archaeological site years before. Or about the source and authenticity of antiquities for sale at their local mall or offered by mail. But most were reluctant, in the 1970s, to have their names mentioned in print in that context. Anonymous letters from enthusiastic readers were common.
Most of the space in early issues was devoted to "Market Alerts"—the report of thefts from archaeological museums and storerooms. Theft was not a controversial issue—although its reporting represented a major departure from earlier practice. Museums and excavation storage facilities had rarely made public the news and details of thefts, lest they publicize the inadequacy of their security systems and perhaps frighten away potential donors. The JFA "Market Alerts" actually helped secure the recovery of some items, encouraged museums to make theft information public, and may have helped the Art Theft Archive at the International Foundation for Art Research get off the ground. They drew attention to and helped gain improvements in security systems. Perhaps most significantly, they made palpable the reality and extent of the problem. Archaeologists were stunned by thefts of familiar pieces from sites and museums they knew well: Famagusta in Cyprus; Arezzo, Naples, Florence, Pompeii, and Perugia (and almost every other museum in Italy); Naxos and the Amphiareion in Greece; Aphrodisias, Gordion, and Istanbul in Turkey; Aswan, Giza, and Douch in Egypt; Moundville in Alabama; university museums in Pennsylvania and New York; and the National Museum in Lima, Peru. The theft of cultural items was no longer an abstraction—not someone else's problem.
Archaeologists were shocked and angry. Many addressed that anger by looking for a scapegoat. They found one in their former friends and collaborators, the collectors. It was the collectors—who would pay any amount of money for their personal satisfaction, with no concern for the source of the objects—that created the problem. If collectors simply refused to buy stolen and looted objects, theft and looting would cease. Attacks on collectors became more frequent and loud.
The collectors, in turn, were shocked and angered by the archaeologists' turnaround. What had happened to the kudos recently awarded for "saving" wonderful pieces? To the mutual admiration for and appreciation of those objects? To praise for a collector's sharp eye and clever intuition, not to mention the open checkbooks that made possible much of the archaeological endeavor? Few collectors consider themselves the "real" looters or accept any responsibility for that ancient occupation. They returned the attacks and then sought out other—and more powerful—allies.
Fortunately, some archaeologists, who also saw the link between collecting and looting, looked for other causes and cures for the apparently expanding market in antiquities and the concomitant looting of sites. They looked at the way they had learned and now taught archaeology. They considered the message conveyed by their "teaching collections," whose source and true value went unexplained. They noticed at public lectures the way archaeologists played to the intake of breath that marked the audience response to the most stunning objects. They wondered why so many archaeological sites are looted while the excavators are in the field (or as soon as they leave)—almost certainly by local people whom the archaeologists know. They spoke with lawmakers about pending legislation and came away struck by how little that group of concerned citizens knew and understood about archaeology. They began to realize the import of leaving popular writing to nonarchaeologists. With help from the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, they came to accept that while archaeologists may be self-proclaimed stewards of the archaeological record, they were not its only legitimate stewards—and that their approach to stewardship had its flaws.
Such self-critical evaluation is changing the face of archaeology. The discipline is beginning exciting and enriching new partnerships with groups from all backgrounds. These collaborative ventures—with Native Americans, inner-city teens, local businesses, international ecotourism and development groups, and others—have potential for a genuine and positive impact on a host of real-world social and economic problems, including looting and theft.
What effect has all this soul-searching and outreach had on looting? It is hard to be sure, for we have no statistics on the extent of looting in the past or the present—but the indicators are not encouraging. From Cambodia to Mali, from the highlands of Peru to southern Indiana, from the Three Gorges in China to the graveyards of New Orleans—not to mention the ocean floor and all of Italy—media accounts report almost daily on massive looting and destruction.
A study by Christopher Chippindale and David Gill, soon to be published in the American Journal of Archaeology, looks at the recent history of objects published in the catalogues of a number of recent, significant collections and exhibitions of classical antiquities. Nearly 75 percent of the more than 1,300 objects in those collections have "surfaced" without documented provenance and therefore were most probably looted since 1974. That is, they have appeared and have been purchased since—and in spite of—the UNESCO convention and other national and international laws, treaties, and conventions, during the years that archaeologists and others have been making a concerted public effort to prevent precisely this.
Brooks S. Mason, writing in the January 2000 Art Newspaper ("Unfazed by Protesters"), reports that the collective clientele of just seven U.S. antiquities dealers includes over two hundred clients, each of whom spends more than $50,000 a year on antiquities. The same article suggests that huge profits from a booming stock market, along with major museum exhibits of antiquities and the taste of interior decorators, are behind the collecting enthusiasm. The protests of the conservation community are dismissed as "a dying dinosaur issue." That collectors are said to be more concerned with "provenance" than "legality" would seem to confirm the accusations of archaeologists that today's collectors care more about status and protecting investments than about cultural heritage preservation, national and indigenous rights, or international relations. And now the Internet is democratizing the collecting of what are purported to be genuine antiquities by making them widely and easily available at prices to suit every budget.
It certainly appears that current approaches to protecting cultural heritage are not effective. That conclusion has prompted a number of nonarchaeologists to propose the creation of a legal market, usually by designating some portion of archaeological sites for speedy excavation specifically to feed that market. All the proposals I have seen demonstrate yet again a serious lack of understanding of archaeological procedures and goals, and would, in my opinion, create more problems and even more opportunities for fraud and deception than currently exist. I think any failure of current approaches results less from their nature than from the relatively small scale of the resources available to develop them. Conservation-minded individuals and groups are currently outnumbered and easily outspent by those with a more personal agenda. In the long run, I think the new collaborative and public education programs of archaeologists and others are the most likely to produce lasting, positive results. The only question is whether we have a long run to work with, given the current ravages and multiple threats to this nonrenewable resource.
Karen D. Vitelli is professor of anthropology at Indiana University. She has been vice president for professional responsibilities for the Archaeological Institute of America and presently serves as chair of the Ethics Committee of the Society for American Archaeology. From 1976 to 1983 she was editor and columnist for the regular feature "The Antiquities Market" in the Journal of Field Archaeology.