Artifacts and Thieves

September 4th, 2010

Archaeologists have a big problem: people looting archaeological sites. It’s going on all the time, everywhere. People are digging up stuff and selling it to collectors, and in the process they often destroy the archaeological value of the site they loot. Archaeologists have gotten laws passed criminalizing such behavior, but in many countries these laws have little effect. Even in places like the USA, a person can dig up Indian artifacts and destroy a promising site without anybody knowing until much later.

What can be done? The sad fact is, there really isn’t much that can be done to stop the looting. However, there is a way, I think, to head off some of it. You see, digging up a site is a tedious, laborious, and therefore expensive process. Archaeologists don’t make bombs, so they don’t get much funding. That in turn means that they can only investigate the most important sites, and only in a rather superficial manner. Wouldn’t it be great if archaeologists had the kind of funding that physicists get? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they had a few billion dollars to sling around?

Here’s my idea for archaeology: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Archaeologists have a huge advantage over looters: they understand the context in which they’re working. Which means that they can explain what each artifact means. Here let me show you something:

I inherited this from my father. He collected a variety of ancient artifacts, and his taste ran to the more expensive side. This is undoubtedly something truly rare and special. There’s only one problem: there was nothing attached to it explaining what it is. We searched high and low and were unable to find anything to suggest what it might be. I suspect that it’s some kind of pottery shard, probably extremely old. But there’s no way of knowing whether it’s a pottery shard from Jericho 8,000 years ago, or a chip off a brick purchased at K-Mart. Here’s a closeup, at 60x:

My point here is that this object could be very valuable -- if we knew what it is, where it came from, how it was made, and how it was discovered. Without that information, it is utterly without value. Indeed, the more we know about it, the more valuable it becomes as a means of connecting with our roots. And that’s where archaeologists have a handle on the problem. When a looter steals some artifact from a site, he has no way of knowing what that artifact really represents. About all the buyer gets is something like “pottery shard, ancient Jericho”. But suppose instead that my pottery shard were accompanied by something like this:

Civilization began in the Middle East when people in what is now southern Turkey, northern Syria and Iraq, and northern Israel began growing food instead of obtaining it by hunting and gathering. This led to people settling down into permanent communities, and thus were born the first cities. They also needed a way to store their saved grain so that mice and rats couldn’t eat it all, so they developed pottery in which to store their food. One of the early places where this happened was in ancient Jericho, a town that we can trace back at least 11,000 years. This was one of the first cities on earth, although it probably had only a few hundred inhabitants back then. The soil in the area was good for farming, and there was plentiful water from the Jordan River. So Jericho prospered. This shard of pottery dates from very early times in Jericho; we don’t know exactly how old it is, but it is surely at least 6,000 years old. It was made by a local potter out of clay taken from the hills just a few miles northwest of Jericho; the potter fired the pottery directly in a fire pit, a crude but effective technique. The pot probably had no decorations of the sort we see in much later pottery; this was a working storage pot, nothing more. It was probably used for decades before some clumsy oaf broke it. The pieces were simply swept out into the street and left there, where they were eventually buried in other detritus and remained undisturbed for 6,000 years before we discovered them in a careful excavation. We found it between three houses, in an open passageway in the northeastern corner of the city. Here’s a map showing the other places we know were in that area. [] We think that this area was used to process the grain from the fields; here is where they broke out the wheat from the stems, separated the seed from the chaff, measured it out in defined portions, and stored it safely.

This is, of course, a fiction. But it brings so much more richness to the artifact that it greatly enhances whatever value that artifact has. It helps us connect with our heritage. People will pay money for that. And only archaeologists can provide such value. Therefore, I propose that archaeologists initiate their own commercial efforts to help fund their activities. Such commercial efforts would begin only some time after all the primary research has been published (and other archaeologists have had a reasonable opportunity to see the artifacts). Let’s say that the waiting period is two years after the publication of the final paper presenting the results of a dig. At that point, the archaeologist in charge sorts through the entire collection of artifacts, dividing it into “interesting” and “uninteresting” sets. “Interesting” material is anything that somebody might reasonably be expected to examine at some time in the future. “Uninteresting” material is stuff that is so badly damaged or so common as to be unlikely to attract any attention in the future. Once the uninteresting material has been collected, the archaeologist sits down with a professional writer and explains the dig, its historical context, the significance of the findings -- everything that might be relevant to the artifacts. The writer then prepares a nicely illustrated article presenting all this material, with a special appendix describing the significance of a particular artifact. They put together a package consisting of 1) the artifact; 2) the primary chapter on the context; and 3) the appendix devoted to that specific artifact. Then they sell the packages on the open market under the seal of their university. Buyers get two things that they can’t get from anybody else: the assurance that this artifact is legitimate and that their purchase will help fund further archaeological research; and the kind of contextual information that makes a gray rock become a piece of history.

These efforts will not put looters out of business; but they will give archaeologists the wherewithal to carry out their research more quickly. Along the way, they might even be able to hire the looters or their laborers, further reducing the amount of looting going on.

There are always objections to any scheme; I can anticipate some of those objections. These are my responses to those possible objections.

“We’re scholars, not salesmen”
Oh come on! Everybody scrabbles for funding. Whether you’re begging for grants or looking for sponsorships, you’re still grubbing for money. This is just one more avenue available to you. You don’t have to avail yourself of this opportunity -- but other scholars will surely do so, and they’ll get more money to pursue more ambitious digs, and ultimately publish more and better papers than you will.

“There is no such thing as ‘uninteresting artifacts’. All artifacts have potential that we might not yet recognize.”
This argument certainly has merit. For example, where would we be if earlier archaeologists had discarded old bits of wood before carbon-14 dating became available? Or what if they had sold off stuff that could now be used for pollen analysis? New research techniques will always open up new avenues of exploration, giving new value to old artifacts. But I’m talking about selling off stuff that is so common that plenty of other examples will remain in safe hands. I’ll offer two good examples: pottery sherds and old coins. Many excavations unearth hundreds or thousands of pottery sherds. If those sherds can be assembled into a partially complete pot, we have something of value. But if the graduate student is unable to put the pieces together after a hundred hours, it’s unlikely that anybody ever will. It’s not as if the missing pieces will be turned up by a later excavation. So why not keep 20% of the material as representative in constituation and sell of the remainder?

Coins provide us with another good example. There are zillions of old Roman coins bouncing around, with more being found every day. Sure, we want to keep the best-preserved pieces, the rarest pieces, and so forth. But must academic institutions and museums become warehouses for literally millions of badly preserved old copies of common Roman coins? Inventory that you’ll never use is a liability entailing storage costs; make it an asset and move it out!

It’s true that someday future archaeologists might condemn you for throwing away valuable data. Perhaps they’ll come up with fabulous new technologies that will permit you to extract important information from even the crudest of artifacts. But you must remember that your problem is not a simple question of “Do I save the data or do I throw it away?” The real question is “Do I save this data or do I use it gather other data that might be more valuable?” Every artifact that you permit to be looted because you refused to sell a useless artifact is blood on your hands. Your responsibility is to bequeath to future generations the maximum amount of knowledge about their past; that entails saving the stuff that is already in your hands AS WELL AS the stuff that isn’t in your hands. If by clinging to some useless pottery sherds you thereby passively permit the destruction of an important site, other people may not know that it’s your fault, but your conscience will know. You have a difficult decision to make here, weighing two valuable things against each other to determine what is best. You can’t evade responsibility to use your expertise to make the best possible decision. All decisions involve sacrifices and benefits. Face up to the problem and make the best possible trade-off.

“This scheme will only create a new generation of buyers who will pay for even more looting.”
There is absolutely zero evidence to support this hypothesis. How do we know that, by making artifacts legitimately available to the public, we might not drive the shadow market even deeper into the shadows? The effects of such a program on the public are difficult to gauge, but my intuition is that it will take dollars away from the black market in antiquities -- and my logic tells me that it will certainly make money for you to move faster in the race against the looters. That’s the true benefit of the idea: it gives archaeology the resources to put up a better fight against the looters.