October 4, 2006

Looting in the ancient world

Posted at 12:40 pm in Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

The Australian has a review of a book on the looting of ancient sites around the world. Another review of the same book from the Boston Globe was posted here previously.

The Australian

Strange turns of events
Barry Oakley and Barry Oliver review books on the pilfering of antiquities and travelling with an attitude
September 30, 2006

DOES every traveller have a sacred stone? Worse, a stolen sacred stone? Mine was furtively lifted from the floor fragments of an abandoned Hindu shrine on the edge of the Bay of Bengal and serves as a paperweight.

Such petty pilfering pales beside the princes of the art, whose supreme modern exemplar is Lord Elgin, Thomas Bruce, seventh earl of Elgin. When, as Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, he set out in 1799 with his wife, dogs, secretaries, servants and library, one thing was uppermost in his mind: the removal of antiquities.

Tired of the bribes necessary to get into the Acropolis, he wangled an impressive-looking document from the pasha in Constantinople that permitted him unfettered access to the site. He then persuaded the Athenian authorities that this entitled him not only to look but to loot. His agents immediately got to work with their block and tackle and began pulling down the friezes that ran around the Parthenon.

During the next eight years his men dragged down 75m of the superb sculptures, carried them by donkey cart to the port and shipped them to England where, in a shed near Piccadilly, they caused a sensation.

Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers and the Looting of the Ancient World by Roger Atwood (St Martin’s Griffin, $24.95) is about the business of looting and this is one of the less depressing examples. At least the marbles are on public view at the British Museum. For depredation on a much grander scale, Atwood takes us to Peru.

First, there’s good news. In 1988, archeologists announced the unearthing of one of the richest funerary complexes ever found in the Americas: an enormous mound dating back 2000 years, a burial pyramid containing priceless evidence of a culture, the Moche, that had dominated northern Peru until it mysteriously died out about AD600.

The Moche were one of the great innovating cultures of the Americas. They built irrigation canals for agriculture, perfected industrial-scale metallurgy and decorated their pots with a grace and realism that rivalled the vases of the ancient Greeks.

Most of this site, at Sipan, was saved from the looters, but there are many more in the region that were not. A stream of fabulous treasures — gold cups and necklaces, dazzling textiles — were ripped from the tombs and spirited out of the country.

Atwood follows the supply chain upwards. The looters, often impoverished peasants, sell to agents and the agents smuggle the artefacts out and sell them to collectors. As one Peruvian archeologist puts it: “Every day the history of the country and the objects of our study are being extinguished so that the rich and powerful can have a few more trophies in their living room.”

Across Iraq the same thing has been happening. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, looters by the hundreds dug up dozens of sites, destroying the patient work of archeologists and pulling out artefacts by the sackful. The worst pillaging occurred on the occupiers’ doorstep: 13,000 objects were stolen from the National Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad and less than one-third has been recovered. The others will be rippling through the antiquities market for years, despite UN resolutions trying to prevent it.

In Cambodia, Egypt and Guatemala, the same grand larceny is going on. Precious objects are being dug up, sawn off or dragged down and sold. Stealing History — now deservedly re-released in paperback — is a disturbing book with a disturbing prediction: “The day is not far off when an archeologist can go through an entire career without seeing a single unpillaged site.”

As one curator puts it: “If you love culture, don’t buy antiquities.”

Barry Oakley


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