Networks of Plunder

Archaeologists tracing the labyrinth of antiquities trafficking hope to shut it down, or at least slow it up

Every day for months, Morag Kersel walked through the streets of Jerusalem to interview researchers, antiquities dealers, museum officials and others about the trafficking of ancient goods: pottery, sawed-off pieces of statues, decorated blocks sliced off the tops of ancient door frames, and biblical coins, to name a few.

NETWORKS OF PLUNDER | Clockwise from top left: Treasures in Turkey’s Aktepe tomb have been popular with looters. Statue parts are often taken from Cambodian sites. A looted bowl from the Yuan dynasty, recently returned, gets an expert’s look at the National Museum of China in Beijing. Ancient seals were among items pillaged from Iraq’s National Museum in 2003 and later returned. Clockwise from top left: Patrick Aventurier/Gamma/Eyedea Presse; Terressa Davis; Guang Niu/Reuters; Stephen Chernin/Getty Images

VICTORY FROM THE JAWS OF DEFEAT | Even looters can have a change of heart. View the inset for more information. J. Korenblat

One day in 2003, Kersel, then a graduate student in archaeology, came face-to-face with a thriving Middle Eastern trade in ancient, looted coins that had been right under her nose for some time. One of her contacts mentioned that he often purchased such coins from a Palestinian man who shined the shoes of Jerusalem’s pedestrians. Kersel realized that she had been passing by that shoe-shine stand day after day.

Kersel, now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto, refers to this street-corner salesman by an assumed name, Mohammed, in order to protect his identity. Mohammed introduced her to a side of the antiquities trade that archaeologists, not to mention law-enforcement officials, rarely see: the chain of secretive relationships that turns looted pieces of the past into scrupulously documented keepsakes for affluent buyers.

Global market

The structure of Mohammed’s trade network repeats in many parts of the world.
Sales of illegal antiquities total at least $7.8 billion annually. It’s a black market that ranks behind only drugs and weapons as the most profitable, according to a United Nations analysis.

What comes out of the ground passes through international networks of plunder. At the end of the line, people purchase archaeological artifacts in shops, on the Internet and in private and public auctions. Buyers rarely know or, apparently, care how a $2.99 Native American arrowhead or a $75,000 Egyptian sarcophagus managed to come into their possession.

During the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting, held in Philadelphia in January, researchers offered analyses of auction and Internet data documenting an ongoing demand for archaeological artifacts. Buyers show no hesitation when offered desirable items that have no documented ownership history, or provenance. Auction-house catalogs of available items contain a fair number of fake pieces and genuine ones illegally obtained.

The laws and conventions aimed at stopping illegal looting are difficult to enforce.
The situation is not entirely dismal. Enlisting the aid of urban developers, townsfolk and the U.S. Embassy, archaeologists in the southwest Asian nation of Georgia have excavated and preserved remnants of ancient societies.  In Cambodia, government actions have nearly eradicated once-heavy looting of the vast, 12th century Angkor Wat temple.

But looters hit unprotected sites hard. They sell the booty to middlemen who smuggle goods across borders and initiate a rapid series of transactions.

Estimates of the size and profitability of black markets are notoriously unreliable, cautions Sandro Calvani, director of the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute in Turin, Italy. It’s unlikely, he says, that accurate statistics on thefts of archaeological material will ever be generated.

What’s clear is that the looting of items from past societies started thousands of years ago. Some modern networks have been in place for centuries. And thefts of cultural material from private houses, museums and places of worship now rival looting in popularity, Calvani says. The illicit antiquities trade has also spawned a growing business in copies, fakes and forgeries.

“This is one of the world’s biggest illegal enterprises,” says archaeologist and law student Terressa Davis of the University of Georgia in Athens.

Archaeologists can’t reconstruct the meanings and uses of ancient finds when those artifacts have already been snatched from their original contexts, Kersel says.

Back in Jerusalem, Mohammed has no time to ponder the perilous state of the world’s cultural heritage. He’s waiting for his next delivery of highly profitable spare change.
In an effort to discourage illegal transactions, Israel has legalized buying and selling artifacts from collections assembled before 1978. Ownership of later finds automatically passes to the state. Yet Mohammed’s coin sales remain strong.

“Mechanisms currently in place to combat the illegal excavation of archaeological sites do not appear to be acting as deterrents,” Kersel says.
During the AIA meeting, Kersel described the inner workings of trafficking of Bible-era coins. Others described rampant looting and destruction of archaeological sites in many parts of the world.

Mohammed, Kersel says, participates in a trade network with a structure common to antiquities trafficking. Individuals, families and organized bands living in archaeologically rich regions loot ancient goods and smuggle them, often via middlemen, to nearby countries that serve as transit points. There, antiquities dealers and sometimes even government officials provide export papers and other documentation that wipe the illicit stain from looted artifacts.

Artifacts with a “clean bill of sale” go to sales-friendly countries or are sold via online outlets, including eBay. In some countries, laundered artifacts are sold at art fairs and auction houses. Wealthy collectors and museum officials, knowingly or unknowingly, often buy looted or stolen art and antiquities, Kersel says.

Palestinian women from the West Bank town of Hebron supply Mohammed’s product, unearthing ancient coins while gathering produce. To Jerusalem they bring not only their produce, but also hidden coins to sell to Mohammed.

He then offers to show the coins to his many foreign shoe-shine clients. On a good day, he makes $200 to $300 selling two or three coins that he bought from the Hebron women for perhaps $5.

After 40 years in the shoe-shine/coin business, Mohammed recognizes particularly rare coins and sells those to a licensed Israeli antiquities dealer who visits him regularly. Kersel and other archaeologists have noted that some licensed dealers use devious paperwork to launder looted material.

Legally sold artifacts in Israel receive registry numbers, but tourists often forget to request an export license issued by the Israel Antiquities Authority. This oversight typically doesn’t matter, since airport customs officials aren’t trained to recognize suspect artifacts and rarely ask for export licenses, Kersel says. Dealers can assign the registry numbers of already sold items to new artifacts, which receive export licenses as well.

In this way, a tourist from New York City can walk into a Jerusalem antiquities shop, buy and take home a freshly laundered coin from biblical times. If the tourist paid $250, the dealer probably bought it from Mohammed for about $50.

Looting is local

Mohammed’s business shows that artifact trafficking need not involve organized crime or terrorists, Kersel adds. Although many Israeli dealers and collectors interviewed by Kersel mentioned the Russian mafia as a force in selling looted Middle Eastern artifacts, no evidence of such activity has turned up in her research.

An online survey of 2,358 archaeologists throughout the world, conducted by criminologist Blythe Bowman of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, suggests that even frontline researchers exaggerate organized crime’s involvement. Nearly all surveyed archaeologists thought that organized criminal enterprises participated in looting, selling and transporting artifacts. But only 58 percent said that such groups operated where they worked. Many said they do know of local gangs and families involved in looting and selling antiquities.

Archaeologists often fail to grasp their inadvertent involvement in local looting, says Boston University’s Christina Luke. She works in western Turkey, where for two centuries researchers have excavated remains of royal Lydian tombs dating from the seventh to third centuries B.C.

Looting of Lydian sites began in Roman times. Annual surveys by Luke and her colleagues since 2000 reveal ongoing tomb looting and increasing destruction of Lydian earthen mounds by backhoes and other machinery.

Many Turks living near Lydian tombs have worked as hired laborers on past archaeological digs. That experience trained them to recognize promising sites and valuable artifacts.

Not knowing what archaeologists actually do, locals regard the outsiders as looters who operate above the law, according to interviews conducted by Luke and colleagues. To beat the competition, local residents take Lydian objects to dealers and collectors in nearby cities, often working on retainer fees.

“This is a new system that actually employs people to find material, instead of paying them pending the discovery of a specific object or hoard,” Luke says.

To make matters worse, farmers routinely smash Lydian monuments and bulldoze land to erase ancient remains, Luke’s group found. Their goal is to skirt a Turkish law banning farming or building on land that contains major archaeological sites. In some cases, looters threaten farmers who would inform the government of an ancient site.

Soft spots remain

University of Georgia’s Davis knows well the law’s limits in deterring looting. Consider Cambodia, where she surveyed archaeological sites from 2004 to 2006.

Cambodian officials complied with a 1970 United Nations convention, now ratified by 102 nations, that requires protecting archaeological sites and taking measures against antiquities trafficking (see also page 32, this issue). The government’s compliance presaged a sharp decline in looting at the famous Angkor Wat temple, Davis notes, which she says about 400 police officers now patrol.

But intrepid looters target isolated, unprotected sites. Working for Heritage Watch, a nonprofit organization in Phnom Penh, Davis documented rampant looting nearly everywhere she went. Treasure hunters had devastated prehistoric cemeteries and temples of the ninth to 15th century Khmer empire. Gangs of looters had used chain saws and dynamite to rip temples apart and remove colossal statues whole. Looters’ tunnels were so closely spaced that parts of the countryside had became moonscapes.

“I was shocked when I witnessed the aftermath of the destruction,” Davis says.
Somewhat encouraging, the number of Khmer artifacts offered for sale by Sotheby’s auction house in New York City has dropped by about 80 percent since 1999, the year the United States banned the import of Cambodian archaeological items lacking export licenses. But it’s hard to know whether the U.S. ban stymied the illegal trade or simply sent it further underground, Davis says.

Sales of looted Cambodian artifacts remain healthy, remarks archaeologist Dougald O’Reilly, director of Heritage Watch. Looters in remote areas now comb sites with metal detectors. Many items get smuggled into Thailand and sold in Bangkok. “We have had reports of some objects appearing in Belgian shows,” O’Reilly says.

The future of illegal antiquities sales may lie on the Internet, according to Stanford University archaeologist Neil Brodie. Using auction data from Sotheby’s in New York and Christie’s in London, Brodie documented consistently high sales figures for Mesopotamian artifacts from Iraq—many with no ownership histories—from the late 1980s to 2003. At that point, U.N. trade sanctions on Iraqi cultural material were reinforced. Iraqi artifacts without provenance suddenly disappeared from the auction market.

But from December 2006 to September 2008, websites selling 4,000- to 5,000-year-old Mesopotamian artifacts of dubious provenance flourished, Brodie says. What started out as 55 websites offering 225 artifacts, including cuneiform tablets, grew to 72 websites featuring 474 artifacts.

Another new tactic is for auction houses to hold small, private events rather than large, public ones, says Donna Yates, an archaeology graduate student at the University of Cambridge in England. In 2006, Sotheby’s launched private auctions of pre-Columbian artifacts from South America, she says.

Yates regards Sotheby’s claims of “strong provenance” for privately offered South American artifacts as dubious. Analyzing Sotheby’s public auction data from 1986 to 2005, she calculates that buyers spent nearly $20.5 million on South American artifacts. Most items had no documented provenance.

“Auction catalogs were littered with fake pieces and obviously illegal antiquities, some of which were eventually subject to litigation or seizure by U.S. authorities,” Yates says

In a statement to Science News, Sotheby’s rejects Yates’ conclusions. An in-house compliance department at the auction house has worked to abide by cultural heritage laws and regulations since 1997 and assists archaeological consultants in setting standards for documenting artifacts’ ownership history, according to Sotheby’s. “Sotheby’s has long been committed to a legal and legitimate antiquities market,” the statement says.

Saving the past

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, former Soviet republics such as Georgia attracted intense looting of unprotected archaeological sites. Ransacking of artifacts and site destruction because of urban development continue today. “Nothing short of strenuous personal intervention stands between these sites and their looting,” says archaeologist Owen Doonan of California State University, Northridge.

One day in 2008, Mikheil Abramishvili looked out the window of his office in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, and saw heavy machinery ripping into an eighth- to seventh-century B.C. cemetery that had been partly excavated more than 30 years earlier.

Abramishvili, director of an archaeological museum, convinced a government official to visit the site and confirm that construction activity had exposed archaeological remains. Georgian law then allowed Abramishvili to excavate the site at the developer’s expense.

Abramishvili, now a visiting scholar at New York University, convinced another Tbilisi developer to fund an excavation before building a supermarket on top of a Bronze Age settlement.

Says Stanford’s Brodie: “The way forward in fighting the illegal antiquities trade has to include archaeologists making long-term commitments to the sites they study, so that local residents get to know and trust them.”

In the meantime, another day dawns in Jerusalem. Mohammed’s shoe-shine stand is open for business.

Victory from the jaws of defeat

Even looters can have a change of heart. In March 2004, villagers in Khovle, Georgia, helped themselves to artifacts from a nearly 2,000-year-old tomb discovered by farmers. An archaeologist who had grown up in the village heard about the find and convinced villagers to hand looted goods over to him.
Vakhtang Shatberashvili of the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi ended up with the material. He has analyzed two painted glass jugs from the tomb that look much like jugs from third century settlements in Ukraine and Syria.
In 2008, Shatberashvili received funds from the U.S. Embassy in Georgia to survey and excavate the field around the ancient tomb. Last November, workers uncovered five graves dating to between 100 B.C. and A.D. 100. Further excavations will continue this year.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.