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Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, etc.


The rape of history

December 12, 2004


The billion-dollar question in Roger Atwood's riveting report on the voracious pilfering of international antiquities is: Who is most at fault? The dirt-poor peasant, the rich collector or the museum director?

A co-dependency exists among the trio. The peasant, whether in Peru or Iraq, goes out at night armed with a shovel and knapsack and loots an ancient site for precious metals, textiles and body parts of statues. Through a middleman expert in smuggling objects through airports and ports of call, the collector lays out hard cash and greedily awaits the arrival of the smuggled object. Hungry for new exhibits and funding and without closely checking the provenance of the treasure, the museum director accepts the goods from the collector who, in turn, gets a nice tax write-off from the Internal Revenue Service for the donation. Every year, Atwood writes, the trade in stolen antiquities ranges between $300 million to $6 billion.

Perhaps it's simply enough to say that there is plenty of blame to go around. What is not at question is that irreplaceable artifacts are being looted and desecrated at unprecedented levels and that the sorrow at the loss is almost too much to bear. Who can forget the Taliban's heartless destruction of the giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, in 2001?

By Roger Atwood
St. Martin's. $25.95.


One night on the south coast of Peru, Roger Atwood watched buaqueros, or tomb robbers, at work:

After sinking their poles and making mental notes of where they hit bodies, they began to dig -- fast. The speed with which they dug astounded me. In 15 minutes, they could excavate a hole 6 feet deep; in half an hour, they had broken into tombs 10 feet down. The tombs belonged to ordinary Inca folk, simple graves of farmers and artisans with gourds containing peanuts or bird bones, woven bags containing coca leaves, and coils of string. There were knitting instruments, broken ceramics, a small woven bag containing a clutch of pointy bones that I found out later were deer antlers, a child's tiny llama-bone flute with a string attached. I looked at this all in the moonlight, fascinated, disgusted, and saddened. They couldn't sell this stuff, and they were throwing it all away into heaps of debris.

"We know what people are buying and what they don't want. We have to leave these things because we can't sell them," said Robin.

A car drove slowly down a dirt road at the bottom of the buaca [burial pyramid], headlights ablaze. We ducked into the emptied graves, cowering among skulls and bone until it passed.

At about 2 a.m. Harry's pole made a promising noise. The other two came over and began digging furiously. In no more than 10 minutes they had dug about 3 feet down and shined their flashlight on a row of partly disintegrated bodies.

-- From Stealing History, by Roger Atwood

"Looting robs a country of its heritage," Atwood writes, "but, even worse, it destroys everybody's ability to know about the past."

Atwood, a frequent contributor to ARTnews and Archaeology magazine, takes readers on a thorough investigation from war-ravaged Iraq to northern Peru. Stealing History contains passages that read like "Raiders of the Lost Ark." In Iraq, Atwood finds a free-for-all in the ruins of the Babylonian town of Isin where, in May 2003, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, looters were swarming over the site, digging some 200 fresh holes.

The looters dashed up to the author selling, among numerous items, "a clay tablet bearing an inscription in cuneiform, the world's oldest form of writing." Atwood could have bought the tablet for a mere $100, then sold it for thousands elsewhere.

What was occurring at Isin was happening across Iraq. Only areas that U.S. troops were guarding day and night with armor-piercing bullets went untouched at the time. The National Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad had already been ransacked of 13,000 objects, although many of those items were later confiscated and returned.

In Peru, a landscape rich in Inca and pre-Columbian tombs and treasures, Atwood sneaks out with local looters on their nightly quests to unearth textile grave goods from the Paracas culture of 200 B.C.-A.D. 600. These weavings the ancient Paracas wrapped their dead in today fetch up to a half a million dollars per item on the antiquities market. Poor Peruvians hoping to strike it rich have no compunction about disturbing graves. "We violate tombs. That's what we do for a living," boasts a coca-chewing man named Remi. The rampant digging is the reason that, as one source tells the author, "Ninety percent of all valuable, pre-Columbian Peruvian art ever created" has left Peru.

Where do these objects end up? According to Christopher Donnan, a professor at UCLA, some of the pilfered loot arrived at the Art Institute of Chicago. "At the Met, the Munich museum, Art Institute of Chicago," Donnan tells Atwood, "ninety-nine percent of the [pre-Columbian] objects there have no provenance. It's all looted. I don't know why people have this idea that just because it's in a museum, that the object has somehow become sanctified." The Art Institute is mentioned again by Atwood himself, who writes that the museum has in its permanent collection "Mayan artifacts smuggled out of Guatemala since 1960."

Other, drier sections explain the various international laws -- mostly ineffective -- against artifact commerce and attempts by countries to repatriate their history from private and public collections. Compared to Europe, the United States has a stellar history in this regard. "Derided so often as unilateralist cowboys," Atwood writes, "the Americans were leading the way on cooperation, prosecutions, and police action to stop the loss of cultural property, while European governments were dithering or demanding the right to import antiquities unfettered."

The author also recounts exciting sting operations by this nation's undercover FBI agents. However, Atwood's analogy between antiquities smuggling and the drug trade is overstated and mars his otherwise even-handed reporting. Textile trafficking will never approach the amount of deaths and trashed lives that cocaine and heroin do.

One hero in this sordid business is archeologist Walter Alva, who in 1987 rushed to a pillaged Moche royal tomb site in Sipan, Peru. Under armed guard from angry villagers who wanted to continue to loot the graves, Alva was able to not only save artifacts from leaving Peru, but also to excavate the site meticulously. Instead sitting perhaps in a Park Avenue condo, the items are now on display forever in the Royal Tombs of Sipan Museum in Lambayeque, Peru. Alva has also been instrumental in organizing citizens' brigades of "archeological protection groups" in rural Peru to protect local sites from looters.

Alva's efforts cannot be minimized, writes Atwood. Instead of instant profits, "What we gain by stopping the pillage is the knowledge that these sites can someday be excavated scientifically and that, when they are, we will all broaden our understanding of ancient life and be able to look at the excavated objects in the context for which they were made. You could call it delayed gratification."

Stephen J. Lyons' book, A View from the Inland Northwest, Journalistic Dispatches From the Idaho-Washington border, was published this fall by Globe Pequot Press. He writes from Monticello, Ill.


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