Soon after discovering King Tut’s tomb in 1922, Howard Carter discovered that the tomb had been opened and resealed at least twice since its royal occupant had been laid to rest there. When Carter called his benefactor, the earl of Carnarvon, to tell him about the discovery, what he didn’t tell him was that he feared there would be nothing left for them to find. Many Egyptian tombs had been robbed in early antiquity, but a few had not yet been discovered, including King Tut’s. We now know, of course, that there were plenty of fabulous objects for Carter and Carnarvon to find, but he later estimated that about 60% of the jewelry alone had been taken.
In Eric Cline’s new book, Three Stones Make a Wall, he tells the story of archaeology. Included in that story is the struggle between those concerned with preserving our cultural heritage and those who would seek to profit from it. The looting of ancient sites is older than the practice of archaeology itself. In fact, the first archaeological excavations to take place anywhere in the world were at Herculaneum in 1709, but it wasn’t so much archaeology as it was looting. Credit for the discovery usually goes to Emmanuel Maurice de Lorraine, Duke of Elbeuf; many of the pieces were sent to decorate his estate in Naples. Others were delivered to museums, but without records. It wasn’t until later that a man by the name of Johann Joachim Winckelmann became the first scholar to study the artifacts from Herculaneum and nearby Pompeii.
Today, we are seeing the greatest prevalence of looting from ancient sites ever documented, almost certainly fueled by demand from private collectors. “Perhaps the most compelling reason to write this book now, however, is that the world has been witnessing an assault on archaeological sites and museums during the past several years at a level and pace previously unseen” (Pg. xvi), Cline writes in Three Stones Make a Wall. The deliberate looting and destruction of ancient sites across the Middle East is tied to the recent wars and unrest there. In 2015, UNESCO warned of, “industrial scale looting in Syria,” in which looters use small bulldozers to scrape away the top layer of earth across large swaths of land, then use metal detectors to find anything valuable. In Syria, ISIS has reportedly sponsored and actively participated in the antiquities trade. Antiquities from Egypt, Iraq, and Syria have shown up in auction houses in London and New York.
Though the unrest in the Middle East makes it a prime target for looters, this is actually a worldwide problem. In order to control the prevalence of looting, items discovered at an archaeological site are subject to the rules and regulations of the antiquities department in the country of origin; they usually find their way to universities and museums. Much progress has been made in preventing theft from archaeological sites since the early days of archaeology. In 1970, UNESCO approved the convention on the means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. In the United States, one of the earliest laws aimed at preventing theft from ancient sites was passed during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, trying to control the huge trade in looted painted pots and other antiquities illegally dug from graves on Ancestral Pueblo sites in the U.S. Southwest. Most recently, President Barack Obama signed into law the Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act on May 9, 2016, which makes it illegal to sell artifacts that have been looted from Syria in the U.S. It is important to stop the theft of antiquities because they are part of our shared cultural heritage.
The study of ancient sites enriches our understanding of our past, present and future. In Three Stones Make a Wall, Eric Cline makes a compelling case for protecting that which has been left behind by our ancestors.