Researchers will spend next four years gathering and analysing data on movements and motives of traffickers
When archaeologist Neil Brodie arrived for a dig at an ancient Roman cemetery site in Jordan, it was obvious that someone had got there before him.
“It was a desert environment and there were just all these big holes in the ground,” said Brodie. “They must have been looking for metal and jewellery. All the human bones were just scattered around. The landscape was full of big holes and bones. It looked like a WW1 battlefield.”
What was particularly disconcerting for Brodie was that the site was opposite the local police station.
Every year, artefacts and antiquities of cultural significance are looted and smuggled around the world, often turning up in private collections or even museums. Last year, a number of objects were stolen from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo during the protests in Tahrir Square.
Now, a team at Glasgow University has been awarded a £1m grant from the European Research Council to study the illegal trade in antiquities.
Researchers will spend the next four years gathering and analysing data on the movements and motives of traffickers, the types of activities involved, such as illegal excavation; transit and purchase; and pricing structures. The aim is to develop new approaches to regulate the international trade of cultural goods and help policymakers better define laws to fight criminal activities.
“It’s extremely widespread,” said criminologist Dr Simon Mackenzie, who will lead the project. “There are architectural sites and museums that are being looted all over the world, including Britain and the USA, but obviously more so in the developing world. Previous safe areas have become accessible and the material is saleable. Nowhere is safe.”
Mackenzie said it is impossible to estimate how much the trade is worth, and the research will try to follow the money trail from the international markets back down the line to those who take the objects from their original site.
The team have already identified a key illegal trading route from Cambodia and Thailand through mainland Europe and on to the two main market destinations of London and New York. The team plan to identify and interview those involved in the trade at each stage including looters, police, customs officials, dealers and collectors.
Mackenzie said the trade is helped by the fact that it is often hard to confirm the provenance of a specific object, and those involved have become adept at covering their tracks. Dealers can soak labels in tea to make them look older. Another favoured method is to dip genuine antiquities in plastic and pass them off as tourist tat.
The market, says Neil Brodie, is driven by availability, and the size of an artefact is not a problem
“It goes through phases. Greek pots have always been popular but there are not a lot of new Greek pots coming on the market so people might start marketing Iranian pottery. There is more actually coming out of Iran. Some of the pieces are huge; Cambodian sculptures, for example.
“The people who sell this material they are actively wanting to create markets. If it becomes possible, for instance, to dig up rock art in the deep Sahara, they will be promoting that; they will actively create a market for it. There is a synergy between the accessibility and the availability of the material, and the marketability by the dealers. The internet has made that a lot easier.”
The buyers of looted artefacts have also changed, says Simon Mackenzie, from those with an understanding of art and antiquities to those with money in search of a status symbol. “People have become more casual consumers; people with money are more interested in buying art without caring [where it is from]. It has moved away from more artisanal consumerism, which may explain why people are not so concerned about the provenance of the object.”
Neil Brodie is dismayed at the television dramas and sitcoms that feature antiquities as part of the décor, as if it is desirable to have such objects in your home. People should understand, he said, that the illegal trade in antiquities can damage not just specific sites, but a nation’s cultural heritage.
“As an archaeologist, if you excavate a site you need to know where the objects are found, what they are found with. If archaeological sites are looted you have lost the context, and that limits our archaeological knowledge. It can also affect the culture of a people. If these sites are just dug out or destroyed it weakens their cultural identity; groups that have been politically oppressed and whose political and cultural identity are intertwined. You have to protect archaeological and cultural sites; they are quite crucial.”