An archaeologist’s view

Posted on: December 10, 2014 by

Have you ever wondered what archaeologists think about illegal excavations and looting – and how best to tackle them? Well I did and so I asked Kathryn R. Morgan, a staff member at the University of Chicago’s Neubauer Expedition to Zincirli and the University of Pennsylvania’s Gordion project. Kathryn is a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania and currently resides in Turkey where she is conducting research for her dissertation “Tangled Webs: Archaeological Textiles in Social Context.”

Last summer, Kathryn worked on an excavation project at Gordion (sometimes referred to as “Gordium”), a site in central Anatolia located about an hour’s drive west of Ankara, the capital of modern Turkey.

Gordion is an important site in the history of the ancient Near East and was famous in antiquity as the capital city of the fabled King Midas of Phrygia, and later, as the place where Alexander the Great cut the Gordian Knot. The location of the ancient city was forgotten, however, until 1893, when workmen laying the Berlin-Baghdad railroad came across its ruins. Gordion was identified based on its location on the banks of the Sakarya river, and a pair of Germans, the Körte brothers, came back to excavate it for one season in 1900. After that, it again lay undisturbed until 1950 when the present excavation, organized by the University of Pennsylvania, began. Kathryn excavated at Gordion for the first in the summer of 2014, having previously worked at another site in Turkey.

Kathryn has focused her excavation efforts on a textile production area at Gordion from the time of the destruction, ca. 800 BCE – and successfully so. Her team uncovered architecture and domestic installations from at least 2 earlier phases (earlier than 800 BCE), and excavated to a total depth of almost 6 m in a 5×7 m. trench. Not bad for 7 weeks of work!

Kathryn, from the perspective of an archaeologist, what are the most effective measures against illegal excavations and looting?

Education and economic incentives are probably the two most effective anti-looting “measures,” if they can be called measures. Education, because if people value the past for itself and think that it’s important, they don’t want to loot; and economic incentives, because if they are reliably prosperous without relying on looting, they don’t have to. Alternatively, you can try to foster the idea that an excavation itself and/or the tourism that it brings is a more sustainable long-term alternative source of income than a quick loot-and-sell operation. As far as I understand it, looting often isn’t that profitable a business for the looter: he’s giving whatever he finds to a middle man, who may be giving it to someone else, and him to someone else, until it finds a legitimate seller and a legitimate buyer who hasn’t dirtied his hands with any of the illegal activity. So, for the little guy, it’s dangerous – because looting is of course illegal – and he’s not making that much money off of it; he’s not going to do it unless he has to. If you can foster a good relationship with locals – providing them with employment opportunities, buying food for the project from within the village, some projects get students to teach English or organize pick-up soccer games with the workmen – those personal relationships are key to the long-term success of your project. But that’s kind of a warm and fuzzy answer that doesn’t deal with all of the complicated motivations that real people have in the real world.

Realistically, what do we do? What can we do? The Gordion project employs a site guard year round who checks on the site. We give a map of the area to the local Jandarma, the police force, of the “most sensitive” areas archaeologically, that they need to keep an eye on. Also, in Turkey, sites that are looted or in danger of looting can be eligible for special “salvage excavation” permits. Near Gordion, several tunnels were dug into a large tumulus, looking for the burial chamber, over the past few winters. Last year, the Turkish authorities decided to excavate the tomb themselves, in a careful, scientific fashion with conservators on call – rather than allowing looters to make another attempt. The Gordion project was invited to contribute to the effort, which we did gladly. So, sometimes pre-emptive excavation is a necessary solution.

More broadly, internationally, most academic journals will not publish articles or allow presentations that discuss looted or unprovenanced material. Most major international museums do not purchase antiquities without histories that pre-date 1970, that is, that have documentation proving that the objects were legally exported or removed from their country of origin before 1970.  This is in accordance with UNESCO’s well-known 1970 Convention. Lastly, I know that in the United States, especially in response to the crisis in Syria and Iraq, airport and customs authorities are receiving more intensive education regarding Near Eastern Antiquities – i.e., what they might expect looted objects to look like and how to respond. But from the archaeological perspective, once the looting has happened, the damage is done. For that reason, the “winning hearts and minds” approach is more effective in the long run than a structural, legal response.

There’s one more thing that archaeologists could do better, though, in order to get people to feel invested in the fight to protect antiquities. That’s quite simply to do better at sharing our passion for this work. When I say that I’m an archaeologist, people always react with enthusiasm – “Wow! That’s so cool! Do you actually dig? What’s the coolest thing you’ve found?” My experience is that people really are interested. But then why don’t they visit sites and museums more often – outside of the major ones like Pompeii and Ephesus? Why don’t archaeology conferences and talks that are open to the public draw crowds? The problem definitely has to do, at least in part, with how we as academics are trained to talk to each other, and how bad we are – myself included – at translating that for a non-specialist audience. The biggest threat to archaeology is apathy. Apathy, simple disinterest, is behind a lot of the looting and it’s also behind the second major threat to archaeological sites: large-scale, haphazard development. If people on the ground year-round feel engaged, interested, curious about the past that’s under their feet, they’re more likely to act respectfully toward it.

Archaeology is a tough job – we have limited time on site and extremely limited funds and we have to reconcile a lot of conflicting demands on both of them. But that’s life, and if we really care about our jobs, we need to try harder to explain why we value the past in the way that we do.

The full content of this interview is available in the April 2015 issue of Art Antiquity and Law.

Kathryn R. Morgan on her recent excavation in Gordion

Kathryn R. Morgan on excavation in Turkey.