How to be a tomb raider?

Slate’s regular Explainer feature covers Tomb Raiding 101 this week. It is generally well-researched and informative. Christopher Beam does a good job of giving an enjoyable overview, but gets a few things wrong.

For example, Beam writes

“Tomb raider” is really just a glamorous way of describing an unlicensed archaeologist. Anyone who wants to dig in Egypt must first go through the arduous process of getting official permission. The authorities demand an explicit description of any project, proof that the diggers are with a university or museum, and a list of everyone who will be working on the site. The license request goes to the Supreme Council of Antiquities, a government agency that oversees all excavation projects. If you try to dig without the council’s permission, you’re breaking the law—so “tomb raiders” might be opportunists looking to sell their findings, or they might be serious excavators who simply can’t get permission for a dig.

That is correct for Egypt, but looting takes place all over the world. In Latin America for example, a number of unlicensed digs take place, but many of the excavations in that country are not conducted by the stereotypical tomb raider, or simple villager. In many cases, illicit excavation is done by “subsistence diggers”. David Matsuda has done some good work on this subject. This is a controversial aspect of the illicit trade, because it means that the reasons for allowing the illicit trade to continue may be as compelling as the claims of archaeologists and other advocates who argue for an end to the trade in antiquities. When you are digging in tombs for your own survival, the ethical rationale for your illegal activity increases dramatically in my view. However, just how many “subsistence diggers” there are, and if the availability of other means of survival is open to debate. At the very least, though many media reports talk about the criminal “tomb raider”, this stereotype may be inaccurate.

Beam also references the criminal conviction of Jonathan Tokeley-Parry in England, and his counterpart Frederick Schultz in the US in recent years. These two were hardly tomb raiders. They never unearthed an object. Rather, Parry dealt with Egyptians who found or dug up antiquities. They constructed elaborate provenances and disguised the antiquities for Schultz to sell in his Manhattan gallery. They weren’t raiders, they were dealers and middlemen.

Beam talks about the various international agreements relevant to the illicit trade, most notable the 1970 UNESCO Convention. He says these agreements make tomb raiding “very difficult”. I think that may be giving a bit too much deference to these international instruments. The most important impact these international conventions have had on the illicit trade is in terms of raising the profile of the problem, and encouraging Nations to take action. The UNESCO Convention does not return objects. Rather it is the individual Nations implementing structures that dictate their return.

So, though “Tomb Raiding 101” may be an entertaining read, if you are considering a foray into the illicit antiquities trade, I’d consider a more thorough introduction. The sad reality is that becoming a tomb raider may be far easier then you would think.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

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