Last October, a story caught my attention. The Green family, best known for owning the craft store Hobby Lobby, was under investigation for the “illicit importation of cultural heritage from Iraq.” According to The Daily Beast, US customs officers had seized a shipment of several hundred cuneiform tablets purchased by the family in 2011, for display in their soon-to-open Museum of the Bible. Sources say that the shipping label described the tablets as “hand-crafted clay tiles” and valued them at around $300—an inaccuracy possibly angled to let the tablets sail through a less rigorous customs process.
People can be Gollum; they want the precious. There’s a desire to own, to hold, to make a piece of the past belong to you. Because of that, collectors sometimes don’t look critically enough at how the objects they’re buying are obtained. Some collectors are driven by owning a particular type of object, others by owning objects from a particular culture—and a big problem arises when people purchase objects obtained illegally. Sometimes, it’s an honest mistake. But sometimes, it’s willful ignorance.
The Recent Rise of Looting
This month’s National Geographic magazine cover story looks at how looters are stealing our collective history. It shows how an artifact—like an ancient sarcophagus—can be smuggled out of Egypt through a circuitous route and end up in the hands of a collector in the United States. In this moment when terrorist organizations are looting for profit across the Middle East, not doing your due diligence might mean that you are aiding and abetting criminal activity.
My colleagues and I published a detailed look at looting across Egypt between the years of 2002 to 2013. We found that looting levels doubled in 2009-2010, on the heels of global recession, then doubled again following the Arab Spring. Looting is an economic issue—it’s something people turn to in desperation. It’s not looting that drives demand for antiquities, but the other way around. In 2002, the total value of Egyptian antiquities sold at Sotheby’s auction house was $3 million. In 2010, it soared to $13 million. We’ve now entered the age of “blood antiquities,” and not asking the right questions is no longer excusable.
Experts are asking big questions about how the Green family has obtained objects for the Museum of the Bible. The family has been advised by top archaeologists on the proper procedures for purchasing objects—and still, that shipment of tablets was mislabeled. What interests me most in this case is that customs made this information public. I suspect that the family might be made an example of, because they’re so high profile.
Antiquities and the Law
The U.S. government is getting serious about antiquities. Just last week, President Obama signed into law a bill to stem the antiquities market. The bill will enforce emergency import restrictions for objects from Syria, and will create a new position—a U.S. Coordinator for International Cultural Property Protection, which hasn’t existed until now. This bill sailed through the House of Representatives last summer and through the Senate this spring, both almost unanimously—which says something in this political climate. There are a lot of us that helped with testifying and providing documentation to the staffers, and when I helped with informal briefings, representatives on both sides of the aisle showed deep interest and asked great questions. This bill is a big step forward. It sends a strong message that our heritage is important.
Other countries are working on this too. Last October, the British government announced a £3 Iraqi emergency heritage management project to help protect the country’s antiquities. Germany’s culture minister is working to update its laws. And UNESCO is training customs officials in the European Union to better detect looted objects.
We need to figure out to what extent looted objects are reaching the West. Archaeologists have so many questions: Is this similar to what we see in the art world, where wealthy individuals have key objects in mind and make that known to people who can make it happen? Are antiquities being sold through the darknet?
A New Future for the Past
As archaeologists, engaging with collectors is important. A year and a half ago, I testified in front of the State Department’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee when Egypt requested import restrictions. I was speaking as a scientist with large-scale data on looting across the country, but there were also coin collectors there who were concerned that new laws would inhibit their work. I went over and talked to the collectors, to try to understand their point of view. The reality is: we need to create safe spaces for these dialogues. If they could present their concerns and we could present ours, we could find that thin line where we can work together.
As archaeologists, the idea of taking and owning is anathema. But the Hobby Lobby case shows that archaeologists need to do a better job of listening—and of educating people on what careless purchases might be funding. The bottom line: it will take listening on both our parts to change this.
How Tomb Raiders Are Stealing Our History (From the June 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.)
Sarah Parcak is a space archaeologist, and the winner of the 2016 TED Prize. With this $1 million prize, she’s building a citizen science platform that will allow anyone, anywhere, to join in the search for ancient sites. Sign up for updates on this project, Global Xplorer°, which will launch in the fall. And stay tuned to Explorers Journal, where Sarah will be sharing her thoughts on archaeology and the evolution of her TED Prize wish.