When news broke of the participation of the Hobby Lobby conglomerate in smuggling and purchasing antiquities, I was initially hesitant about writing about such a major news story. But this case beautifully (and horrifically) illustrates why the antiquities trade and in turn looting are bad for archaeology.
The sale of antiquities is a tale as old as time, and it has unfortunately wrecked havoc on archaeological sites around the world. The damage done to the archaeological record is irreversible and the disregard for other human culture (even when that culture has been ‘dead’ for a thousand years or more) is frankly disturbing. The Victorians even liked to have ‘mummy unwrapping’ parties, and some Medieval physicians thought ground mummy could be used as a medicine. However, the antiquities trade today mainly focuses on more mundane artifacts like the cuneiform tablets bought by Hobby Lobby.
I get it, I’m an archaeologist, I love the rush that you get knowing that the object you’re holding was held by somebody else two thousand years ago. But when you buy antiquities you are effectively stopping that objects, and the ancient persons who held it, story from being told. When looters take objects from archaeological sites, they are removing it from its proper context. What you are left with is a pretty artifact with essentially no meaning. For instance, say that you bought a beautiful Greek vase like the one below. You could describe the vase in great detail, but you can tell very little about the vase beyond maybe an approximate date it was made, the approximate region of origin, and potentially its creator. If you know where the vase was looted from (this pot was looted from the Euphronios krater) than you can potentially glean a bit more information. In the case of this vase, it came from an Etruscan site in Italy. But how did a Greek vase end up in Italy? And who did this vase belong to? What was their social status? Or did this vase reside in a temple or even a commercial area?
Once the vase was looted, it lost all of the information that could answer these questions for us. And worse, the site that it came from was looted so extensively and destructively, that it is now difficult for archaeologists to determine what is going on in the site. Unfortunately, this is all too common for archaeological sites, especially those that are known to have cool artifacts.
And once the artifacts have lost all this information they are placed in the hands of (usually wealthy) individuals. They do not go to museums where they can be enjoyed by the public. They are closed away and lost from history. Even if they are found, the information that they can tell us is limited at best. The story that they have to tell can no longer be told.
See the New York Times for more info about the Euphronios Vase.