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Antiquities trafficking

What are antiquities and why do we value them? Watch Dr Donna Yates discuss the destructive nature of the looting of antiquities.
Antiquities are the material remains of the past left behind by the generations that came before our own. Also called artefacts– cultural objects and cultural property– antiquities can be extremely old, such as the first stone tools fashioned by our ancestors in Africa several million years ago; to very new, such as the Atari game cartridges recently excavated by archaeologists working at a landfill in New Mexico. Antiquities come from archaeological sites where they have usually been buried at some point in the past and forgotten. In a perfect world, all antiquities would be discovered by archaeologists or local communities, studied by professionals, and published or put on display so everyone can benefit from the information they contain. However, ideals don’t often reflect reality.
Graves are robbed. Temples and churches are sacked. And archaeological sites are destroyed to feed the black market for illicit antiquities. Even in ancient times, cultures interacted with antiquities. For example, archaeological excavations at the site of Tenochtitlan in Mexico has shown that the Aztec revered artefacts produced by the Olmec civilisation 2000 years before. We know that the sixth century BC Neo-Babylonian king, Nabonidus, excavated the remains of even more ancient cultures than his own and displayed his finds in a museum. Looting– defined as the removal of artefacts from sites by nonprofessionals who hope to sell the spoils for profit– isn’t new.
During the so-called Grand Tour, wealthy Europeans regularly travelled to Greece, Rome, and West Asia; purchased antiquities; and brought the artefacts home with them. What is new is the intense commercialisation of the antiquities market and its exploitative nature. What is new is firm global belief that indigenous people in developing countries have a right to their own cultures and that we should fight the remains of racist colonialism. What is new is an understanding of what archaeological knowledge can offer us in the present and in the future. An artefact buried in an intact, unlooted archaeological site has what we call archaeological context.
Context is how an antiquity rests within layers of the soil, within the architecture of the site, and in relation to other artefacts. Context is the raw material through which archaeologists reconstruct the past. And to us, it’s everything. When an antiquity is looted, that key to the mystery of the ancient– that precious context– is destroyed. It can never ever be recovered. Every looted antiquity in a private collection or public museum represents a devastating loss. We have all been robbed of knowledge. And we are all victims. Thus, this week, we’ll talk about antiquities trafficking by focusing on three links of the smuggling chain– source, transit, and market– antiquities looting; antiquities smuggling; and antiquities sale.
We will combine criminological thinking with some archaeological case studies to consider some of the most important and most controversial questions in this field. I must stress, antiquities are part of our heritage, and thus, our culture and identity. There are many ways to approach these issues– many points of view; many differing opinions; and no right answers. These questions should be debated and discussed. And I look forward to doing so with you.

What are antiquities and why do we value them? If looting has been around for centuries, what’s so new and important about looting today? Watch Dr Donna Yates discuss the destructive nature of the looting of antiquities.

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Antiquities Trafficking and Art Crime

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