1st things 1st, full disclosure - I have been a longtime fan of Hershel Shanks and a subscriber of his flagship publication BAR Magazine since the mid-1980s.
Hershel Shanks has long taken heat for at least indirectly advocating the private ownership of antiquities (the magazine sometimes carries ads from antiquity dealers) but now he just says it plainly:
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BAR 34:06, Nov/Dec 2008
First Person: A Radical Proposal
Why don’t the archaeologists join the looters?
“Profits are phenomenal, and looters are running riot,” says Giorgio Gligoris, head of Greece’s police squad set up to combat antiquities trafficking. He’s right! That’s one thing on which all agree, whether it’s the Mayan jungle, Etruscan tombs, Iraq’s cuneiform tablets, Mediterranean coastal waters or sites in the West Bank.
The second strategy adopted by the archaeological establishment is even stupider: Forbid study by scholars of looted objects. This policy is not enunciated directly, but is carried out by scholarly organizations that will not allow articles about looted objects in their publications and will not allow papers on looted objects to be presented at their scholarly conferences. This is the policy, for example, of the Archaeological Institute of America, the major American organization of archaeologists. It is also true of the American Schools of Oriental Research, the major American organization of Near Eastern archaeologists. This policy was recently adopted by the Israel Exploration Journal but was promptly abandoned when a paper on an exciting new looted inscription was submitted to it.1
I call this the avert-the-eyes strategy. Don’t look at it. Needless to say, this strategy has had absolutely no effect on looting, although it makes a major contribution to the self-righteous feeling of those who adopt it. It also has the additional effect of depriving the public (including scholars) of the valuable information that even looted objects can impart. As I like to say, looted objects may be worth less because they were ripped from their context, but they are not worthless. Indeed some of them, like the Dead Sea Scrolls, have actually transformed our understanding of aspects of history.
So here is my radical proposal. It may not solve the problem completely, but at least it makes economic sense.
Compete with the looters. Professional archaeologists should professionally excavate areas subject to looting—and fund their excavations by selling the “loot.” After all, we are assured by Giorgio Gligoris, “profits are phenomenal.” The “loot” from these professional excavations must, of course, be available for study and publication. And we will always know where they are in an open market—just as we know about the location of a Renoir painting.
Moreover, much of this professionally excavated loot will end up in museums. Indeed, museums will be some of the prime purchasers—with money provided by their benefactors. Other pieces will later be donated to museums by private purchasers. Such gifts provide the donor with a tax deduction in many countries—a nice inducement.
I recall a conversation I had with the current president of the Archaeological Institute of America, Brian Rose (before he became president). He had just given a paper decrying the looting of a rich tumulus in Turkey. There were several other tumuli at the site, so I suggested to Brian that professional archaeologists should excavate these other tumuli before the looters got hold of them; finance the dig through the sale of the artifacts to museums, where they would be available for study and publication. I’m sorry to say the suggestion had no appeal.
Even if my suggestion would not substantially reduce looting, it would be good for human knowledge. We would have more wonderful artifacts to study and to interest the public in the past. Isn’t that what we’re about?
But I am under no illusions. My suggestion here will no doubt fall on deaf ears.
1) A paper by Yuval Goren on the recently surfaced inscription variously called “Gabriel’s Vision” and “Gabriel’s Revelation.” See Ada Yardeni, “A New Dead Sea Scroll in Stone,” BAR 34:01, and Israel Knohl, “The Messiah Son of Joseph,” BAR 34:05.
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No doubt about it Hershel.
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