Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Death of Archaeology

Last night I attended a lecture by Christopher Roosevelt of Boston University. The topic was the destruction of archaeological sites in Turkey. As an archaeologist, I am well aware of the ongoing destruction of the planet's cultural heritage. However, rarely is one confronted by the nitty-gritty details, and the results are depressing.

Professor Roosevelt has been cataloguing burial mounds, known as tumuli, in an area of western Turkey that between the 8th and 6th centuries BC formed part of the Kingdom of Lydia. Wealthy members of the aristocracy would be buried in stone tomb chambers that would be covered with large mounds of earth. These would stand as monuments to both the deceased and their descendants, and were designed to be visible in the landscape. Unfortunately, such visibility has attracted thieves, both in antiquity and today. Not one intact Lydian tomb has ever been scientifically excavated.

Whatever the ravages these tombs suffered over the previous 2500 years is nothing compared to what they have undergone in the last few decades. Roosevelt was able to locate about 650 tombs. Of these, 80-90% show signs of recent illicit excavation. Furthermore, many tumuli known from earlier studies are no longer extant -- these amout to around 15% of the total. Many of these have been leveled using bulldozers or other earth-moving equipment by people in search of treasure. Treasure-hunting in Turkey is quite an industry, even if illegal. There are even web sites that glamorize the activity and provide tips on how to conduct an dig for gold. Needless to say, preserving archaeological contexts are not among the suggestions.

Much of the material gets smuggled to countries such as the U.S., France, and Japan via middlemen, often operating in Switzerland. The U.S. in particular has fairly weak importing restrictions. If a source country can prove material was taken illegally out of the country, sometimes they can get it returned, as with the so-called "Lydian Hoard," which the Met returned to Turkey a few years back. However, the material comes divorced from its archaeological context, and it isn't necessarily safe even when returned, as small museums regularly experience theft in countries such as Turkey.

It would be wrong, however, to think that this is a problem restricted only to developing or "Third World" countries. Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States all are suffering from looting to a greater or lesser extent. Even the lower-end estimates are disturbing to read. Moreover, the demand for antiquities in the West, Japan, and even emerging economies such as China, are driving the trade. It's like the drug trade, except that the results are permanent depletion of a resource that's limited enough to begin with.

Sorry to end on a sad note, but this is a problem without an easy solution. The political will and money are simply lacking to deal with something on this scale. It's up to archaeologists to try and raise public consciousness before it's all gone, forever.

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