CRF Blog

How Tomb Raiders Are Stealing Our History

by Bill Hayes

In How Tomb Raiders Are Stealing Our History, National Geographic reports on the debate over what to do about the illegal trade in antiquities.

From murderous temple thieves in India to church pillagers in Bolivia to hundred-man bands of tomb raiders in China’s Liaoning Province, looters are strip-mining our past. Like most illegal activities, looting is hard to quantify. But satellite imagery, police seizures, and witness reports from the field all indicate that the trade in stolen treasures is booming around the world.

In Egypt, [Egyptologist Sarah] Parcak has pioneered the use of satellite imagery to measure looting and site-encroachment damage. Her research tells a grim tale: A quarter of the country’s 1,100 known archaeological areas have sustained major damage. “At the current rate of destruction, all known sites in Egypt will be seriously compromised by 2040,” she says. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Over the past two decades a series of high-profile court cases and repatriations have exposed the dark side of the antiquities trade, bringing to light criminal networks of diggers and traffickers who sell looted artifacts to Madison Avenue galleries and renowned museums. In 2002 Frederick Schultz, a prominent Manhattan dealer in ancient art, was sentenced to 33 months in federal prison for conspiring to receive stolen Egyptian objects. In 2006 the Metropolitan Museum of Art, under pressure from the Italian government, agreed to return the famous Euphronios krater — a wine-mixing bowl looted from an Etruscan tomb near Rome. And in recent years the drumbeat of war and turmoil in many antiquities-rich countries, culminating in the sack of ancient Mesopotamia by the Islamic State (ISIS), has sparked concern that the antiquities trade is helping fund terrorism.

Yet the debate about how to halt looting has reached an impasse. Archaeologists blame the antiquities trade for looting, claiming that many artifacts on the market were stolen. Collectors, dealers, and many museum curators counter that most antiquities sales are legal. Some argue that the ultimate goal of safeguarding humankind’s artistic heritage obliges them to “rescue” antiquities from unstable countries — even if it means buying from looters. [more]