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Shanks: "if there were no market for looted antiquities, looting would stop"

Hershel Shanks of Biblical Archaeology Review has written a provocative and, in my opinion, wrong-headed piece, "First Person: A Radical Proposal. Why don’t the archaeologists join the looters?", BAR 34:06, Nov/Dec 2008.

Here is Shanks' comment on the archaeological "suggestion" for limiting the looting of sites:
The archaeological establishment’s principal suggestion that will supposedly stop the looting is—well, not to put too fine a point on it—stupid. “Don’t buy looted antiquities” is the strategy. Admittedly, if there were no market for looted antiquities, looting would stop. If the looters could not sell their loot, they would discontinue looting.
The antiquities recently returned to Italy and Greece from North American collections have reminded us that objects need to have histories that can be documented prior to 1970. If a tombarolo discovered another Attic red-figured krater attributed to (or "signed" by) Euphronios in an Etruscan tomb, I have a suspicion that no responsible museum curator would touch it with a barge-pole. Would the museum want all the adverse publicity? And even if a private collector bought it, the piece could never (I suspect) be placed on a short- or a long-term loan in a museum without drawing some unfavourable comment. So I have to agree with Shanks: "If the looters could not sell their loot, they would discontinue looting."

Shanks suggests that the result of this policy is that archaeological objects (by now stripped of their meaningful archaeological contexts) end up in some private collection away from public view. But remember that the Nostoi exhibitions of returned antiquities have included pieces that have formed part of major North American private collections, including the Leon Levy and Shelby White collection, and the Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman collection. So these private collections are not beyond public scrutiny.

Then we move into areas where I disagree with Shanks. He writes:
The second strategy adopted by the archaeological establishment is even stupider: Forbid study by scholars of looted objects.
There is a balance to be struck between making the acquisition of newly surfaced antiquities transparent, and safeguarding the corpus of knowledge. Thus a new acquisition of, say, a Minoan larnax by a North American museum should be published in an annual report (complete with photograph) and posted on the museum's website. (In these days of electronic documents that is not exactly difficult.) In addition, the piece can be posted on the AAMD database, in the way that the Portland Art Museum has done for an Indian sculpture.

But, for example, should a fragmentary Greek funerary stele enter the corpus of knowledge through a scholarly discussion of the iconography that is published in an academic journal - only to find, several years later, that the conclusions are undermined when the true context is revealed. The article will become redundant. What happens when forgeries of Cycladic marble figurines are allowed to enter the corpus of known pieces? Shanks underestimates the scale of the issues.

Shanks has been supporting a long-running campaign ('The Publication of Unprovenanced Artifacts'), backed by numerous academics. The targets are the publishing policies of bodies such as the AIA and ASOR. I have addressed this issue before, and I continue to believe Shanks' proposal is flawed - and it is not unconnected to the recent discussion of inscribed incantation bowls that appear to have come from Iraq.

Then we come to Shanks' main proposal:
Compete with the looters. Professional archaeologists should professionally excavate areas subject to looting—and fund their excavations by selling the “loot.” After all, we are assured by Giorgio Gligoris, “profits are phenomenal.” The “loot” from these professional excavations must, of course, be available for study and publication. And we will always know where they are in an open market—just as we know about the location of a Renoir painting.

Moreover, much of this professionally excavated loot will end up in museums. Indeed, museums will be some of the prime purchasers—with money provided by their benefactors. Other pieces will later be donated to museums by private purchasers. Such gifts provide the donor with a tax deduction in many countries—a nice inducement.

Paul Barford has discussed why it is not a good idea to dispose of the datasets from archaeological excavations. And the proposal to have tax-deductible gifts of antiquities will ring disquieting bells in the heads of informed archaeologists and museum curators.

Shanks closes with a discussion of Brian Rose's comments on the excavation of a tumulus in Turkey (I presume in Phrygia).
I recall a conversation I had with the current president of the Archaeological Institute of America, Brian Rose (before he became president). He had just given a paper decrying the looting of a rich tumulus in Turkey. There were several other tumuli at the site, so I suggested to Brian that professional archaeologists should excavate these other tumuli before the looters got hold of them; finance the dig through the sale of the artifacts to museums, where they would be available for study and publication. I’m sorry to say the suggestion had no appeal.

I am not surprised that Shanks' suggestion "had no appeal". And if you realise that a recent (i.e. 2006) study of tumuli in Lydia (also in Turkey) suggests that some 90% have been looted, you are likely to accept (or at least acknowledge) the reasons why archaeologists are reluctant to adopt a policy that could lead to a further destruction of the finite archaeological record.

Shanks thinks that his "suggestion here will no doubt fall on deaf ears". Actually, his piece shows that he has not been listening to what archaeologists have been saying.


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