Tomb Raiders Are Stealing History

May 15, 2016

The lady in the striped wig with the staring eyes lies on a brightly lit table as the professor hovers a palm’s breadth from her face. “Still in remarkable condition … extremely well preserved,” the professor murmurs.

As her gaze glides down the victim’s body, painted on the lid of her coffin, she points out a fresh cut across the upper thighs, and symbols of the god Amun, an ibis, and magic spells from the Book of the Dead. “And here is her name and title: Shesep-amun-tayesher, Mistress of the House. By reading it aloud, I fulfill her wish to be remembered in the afterlife.”

The Egyptian noblewoman has been dead some 2,600 years. Sarah Parcak, an Egyptologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, is examining her inner sarcophagus, one of three wooden cases that, nested like Russian dolls, once cradled her mummified body, the odor of which lingers in the coffin. Looters sawed this sarcophagus into four pieces and shipped it by airmail to the United States, where an antiques restorer put it back together.

Months later customs agents discovered the coffin stashed at the home of a Brooklyn antiquities dealer. It lies in a warehouse at a secret location in New York City, where federal authorities hold seized artifacts from around the world: a huge stone Buddha from India, terra-cotta horsemen from China, reliefs from Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. All are orphans of the illegal antiquities trade, victims of the international battle over cultural heritage.

From murderous temple thieves in India to church pillagers in Bolivia to hundred-man bands of tomb raiders in China’s Liaoning Province, looters are strip-mining our past. Like most illegal activities, looting is hard to quantify. But satellite imagery, police seizures, and witness reports from the field all indicate that the trade in stolen treasures is booming around the world.

In Egypt, Parcak has pioneered the use of satellite imagery to measure looting and site-encroachment damage. Her research tells a grim tale: A quarter of the country’s 1,100 known archaeological areas have sustained major damage. “At the current rate of destruction, all known sites in Egypt will be seriously compromised by 2040,” she says. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Over the past two decades a series of high-profile court cases and repatriations have exposed the dark side of the antiquities trade, bringing to light criminal networks of diggers and traffickers who sell looted artifacts to Madison Avenue galleries and renowned museums. In 2002 Frederick Schultz, a prominent Manhattan dealer in ancient art, was sentenced to 33 months in federal prison for conspiring to receive stolen Egyptian objects.

In 2006 the Metropolitan Museum of Art, under pressure from the Italian government, agreed to return the famous Euphronios krater—a wine-mixing bowl looted from an Etruscan tomb near Rome. And in recent years the drumbeat of war and turmoil in many antiquities-rich countries, culminating in the sack of ancient Mesopotamia by the Islamic State (ISIS), has sparked concern that the antiquities trade is helping fund terrorism.

Yet the debate about how to halt looting has reached an impasse. Archaeologists blame the antiquities trade for looting, claiming that many artifacts on the market were stolen. Collectors, dealers, and many museum curators counter that most antiquities sales are legal. Some argue that the ultimate goal of safeguarding humankind’s artistic heritage obliges them to “rescue” antiquities from unstable countries—even if it means buying from looters.

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