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Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World Paperback – January 10, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
As the destruction from the war in Iraq has demonstrated most recently, a country's antiquities are never safe from marauding looters and greedy collectors who trawl the black market. In a study that is part detective story and part history lesson, Atwood, an expert on the antiquities market who writes for ARTnews and Archaeology, focuses on one incident as a case study of the insidious effects of the illicit antiquities trade. In 1987, a group of grave robbers working at a burial mound near the village of Sipán in northern Peru uncovered a mausoleum of Moche rulers (the Moche were an innovative indigenous tribe) with a rich cache of gold and silver artifacts. Word soon spread to international buyers, who responded favorably, and prolonged looting began. By the time the Peruvian police intervened three weeks later, much damage had already been done. Walter Alva, a native Peruvian and the site's chief archeologist, uncovered many more undamaged tombs and worked tirelessly to preserve this ancient legacy, bravely confronting looters and endeavoring to establish laws to prevent museums form accepting stolen goods. The case raised international awareness of the illegal antiquities trade. Atwood's ability to bring a story dramatically to life and his keen interest in stemming the illegal antiquities trade makes this an important book for anyone interested in archeology, preservation or the potentially tangled provenance of works they love. B&w illus., one map.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Writing for magazines such as ARTnews, Atwood is an expert on the global traffic in stolen archaeological objects. His meticulous book tracks his investigation of one such object, a gold ornament cast by the Moche culture of pre-Columbian Peru. But in a prelude, Atwood recounts the night he accompanied, with their permission, Peruvian grave robbers at work. Although sympathetic to their destitution, Atwood is appalled at their obliteration of a site's archaeological value. Of course, the demand for these objects emanates from the acquisitive appetites of museums and wealthy collectors, who appear in the course of Atwood's account of the Moche "backflap." Plundered by grave robbers in 1987, it was smuggled into the U.S. by a corrupt Panamanian diplomat and seized in an FBI sting in 1997. Atwood's high-velocity, true-crime narrative immediately hooks readers while also informing them about the international antiquities business. A case study of the sordid trade, Atwood's stern admonition to the art world to reform, before archaeological knowledge becomes irretrievable forever, deserves a hearing. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
One drawback of his book is that it concentrates on Peru, though he includes a great section on repatriation of the Parthenon marbles. In the process of researching that subject, he elicited a statement in an interview with the director of the British Museum that puts the Museum's position in a nutshell, in that the marbles, "...have a purpose here which they can fulfill nowhere else..."
Countries of origin want the artifacts back, BUT.
I saw a program on History Channel where Egyptian
state archeologists loaded a mummy with beautiful but
fragile bead work in a pick up truck and literally destroyed the artifact.
On the other side, local folks have destroyed beautiful pieces
by chopping out parts of sculptures to sell to western collectors and museums.
All very sad.
Nor is all this anything new. Atwood comments: "Grave robbing is an old phenomenon, some will argue. The Romans looted the tombs and temples of the Greeks, the Vandals looted Rome, the then European colonists looted nearly everyone. Most of the tombs in Egypt's Valley of the Kings were robbed within a hundred years of their sealing, and even the famously pristine tomb of Tutankhamen had been penetrated at least twice in antiquity before Howard Carter found it in 1922." (pp. 11-12).
This book focuses on another form of exploitation of the dead--that of archeological treasures, and in recent years. Note that looting of architectural treasures involves not only a looting of the dead but also a destruction of one's historical and cultural heritage. Instead of repeating other reviewers, I focus on mostly-unmentioned content.
To begin with, it would be a mistake to regard looting as primarily the work of western imperialist peoples. Consider Peru: "The tombs were all dug up, the place tapped out. It all happened very fast and very recently, in the last two decades of the twentieth century, a period which will be remembered as one in which more Andean historical heritage was lost than in the previous four centuries..." (p. 24).
It would also be a mistake to regard looting of archeological artifacts only as the work of professional thieves and profiteers. As an example, Atwood writes: "Back in Sipan [Peru], villagers had overrun the burial mound and were sifting the backfill left by the looters for scraps of metal or anything else that looked valuable...People from nearby villages had come, too, all hoping to strike it rich." (p. 51). The crushing poverty of the villagers was a major motive behind their looting. (p. 54). [So also was the crushing poverty of WWII- and post-WWII Poles in the looting of Jewish properties.]
Massive looting of archeological treasures took place after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Without exaggeration, some 13,000 objects were stolen. (p. 1). This has been a problem all over the world, as manifested by headless Buddhas in Cambodia, and nameless places where one can see such things as "...giant holes that show where looters gouged out tombs." (p. 243). [The latter is reminiscent of the looter's holes at Treblinka, begun by members of the Soviet Army using explosives.]
This work elaborates on some remedial measures to reduce the extent of global archeological looting. It is not easy. For instance, it is difficult to prove that an object was looted. (p. 195).
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