Looting is the scourge of archaeology. The act of looting damages archaeological sites and limits our understanding of the past; once objects are removed from their original contexts without record, their associations can never be reconstructed. The problem is analogous to a tainted crime scene. Archaeologists are detectives: Archaeologists reconstruct the past by analyzing the relationships of objects to one another in different occupation horizons as detectives recreate crimes by looking at the relationships between weapons, footprints, fingerprints, broken glass and other evidence. When something has been taken away from a historical site (the crime scene), the object is divorced from its relationship with other objects, and its utility for the writing of history (solving the case) has been diminished.
To take our analogy further, let’s think of an ancient coin as a murder weapon. No one would disagree that going into a crime scene before the investigators arrive and absconding with the bloody knife, cleaning it and then putting it in a private collection would seriously compromise the case. But this is what happens when looters descend on an archaeological site and remove coins and other artifacts: They disturb objects, their relationships with one another and remove evidence that may well be the “smoking gun” for an excavation. Even if sites are not undergoing active excavation, it is important to preserve them intact for future generations.
I have spent my recent summers at the University of North Carolina-led excavation of the Late Roman-period synagogue at Huqoq in Israel.a One of our primary goals is to determine the dating of Galilean-type synagogues. As primary chronological indicators, along with the ceramics, coins are crucial to our investigation. Common coins that might trade in the U.S. market for only two or three dollars are critically important at sites like Huqoq when they are found under sealed floors, foundations or walls. They are the “smoking guns,” the definitive evidence.
If the murder weapon clandestinely taken from our hypothetical crime scene is cleaned and sold, we can surely appreciate its rarity and the quality of its manufacture and study its production context. Ancient coins and other artifacts looted from sites can certainly be studied this way, too. But this object-oriented avenue of inquiry is limited because of the loss of contextual information. We cannot solve our crime scene or provide a definitive answer as to the chronology of a building type, since both were stolen without record.
The fruits of illegal and clandestine excavations are easy to find in auction catalogs and online storefronts. The most widely collected and sought-after ancient objects are coins. Research demonstrates that millions of coins enter the market each year from unrecorded digging. The U.S. market alone imports hundreds of thousands of earth-encrusted coins annually that are smuggled from Balkan nations such as Bulgaria. Although archaeologists almost universally condemn looting and indiscriminate sourcing practices in the antiquities market as detrimental to the study of the past, numismatists (specialists who study ancient coins) have been more reticent to condemn the effects of looting and the unregulated trade. Because the study of coins lies at the intersection of multiple fields, including archaeology, art history, Classics, ancient history and economics, specialists come from a diverse array of backgrounds and ask different questions of the evidence. Those numismatists who come from some backgrounds may find the provenance of a coin of little concern if, for example, their research is purely iconographical. Another reason a numismatist may be less concerned is because of the fear of alienating allies in the collector and dealer communities. As numismatics has traditionally focused narrowly on the objects themselves and their production contexts, an approach driven by the fact that the vast majority of coins in public and private collections have no 069recorded provenance, numismatists often rely on collections and sales as source material for study. But numismatists ought to be concerned.
Although we might study coins for different reasons, our goal is the same—the writing of history. And intellectually honest people recognize that the writing of history is a multidisciplinary process; our personal approach is not the only valid approach. The iconography, archaeology, text, inscription or coin alone is not the answer; they are different pieces of the puzzle that, when brought together, provide the history. This is not to say that numismatists ought to ignore decontextualized objects or objects in private collections in their research. As most source material for numismatic study resides in public or private collections without a recorded provenance, it would be impossible and intellectually dishonest to pretend that these objects, many of which are unique, do not exist. We must, however, endeavor to preserve, and encourage the preservation of, as much information as possible, even if it is not directly relevant to our own research process. We must be conscientious as to how our own actions may condone or, worse, encourage destructive behavior.
Collectors as well should practice due diligence when acquiring material. Collectors of ancient coins tend not to collect for financial investment. Most collect out of a genuine passion for ancient history; in this, we are all allies. True lovers of ancient history do not encourage the loss of historical information by buying objects that come from unrecorded digs where the lack of recording and scientific processes is destructive. Instead, they insist on provenance and a solid collection history in order to avoid putting money in the hands of people who buy from looters, smugglers and other middlemen who exploit the past for financial gain. The burden is on us, whether we are archaeologists, numismatists or collectors, to take responsibility, to evaluate our own actions and to preserve our common, human heritage.
Looting is the scourge of archaeology. The act of looting damages archaeological sites and limits our understanding of the past; once objects are removed from their original contexts without record, their associations can never be reconstructed. The problem is analogous to a tainted crime scene. Archaeologists are detectives: Archaeologists reconstruct the past by analyzing the relationships of objects to one another in different occupation horizons as detectives recreate crimes by looking at the relationships between weapons, footprints, fingerprints, broken glass and other evidence. When something has been taken away from a historical site (the crime scene), the object is […]