In the Editors’ Page of the July/August 2002 issue, editor Hershel Shanks wrote an open letter on archaeological looting to the distinguished British archaeologist Colin Renfrew of Cambridge University. Lord Renfrew then responded to Shanks in Looting Forum, sidebar to The Forum, AO 05:06.

Dear Professor Renfrew,

Thank you for your—I think—courteous response to my open letter to you regarding archaeological looting. The reason for the hesitation expressed in the previous sentence is that I’m not sure you believe me when I assert that I abhor archaeological looting as much as you do. As a matter of fact, I think you don’t believe me. You twice refer to my statement to this effect, the first time adding that “I don’t think you realize the damage done by prominent museums and their curators when they pay large sums of money for obviously looted antiquities.” The second time you say that if I don’t agree with your criticism of specific museums concerning specific acquisitions, then “perhaps” you would give a “discourteous answer to [my] question: ‘Can you believe that I abhor looters as much as you do?’ ” That makes a difficult start to a discussion you say you “welcome.”

Well, let me jump in at the risk of eliciting a discourteous response and say that I don’t think the museums were necessarily wrong. The problem of looting is a terribly complicated one. Different situations require different answers. This is not a one-size-fits-all situation. This is not like elastic socks, Professor Renfrew.

The only aspect of the problem you address is the role of museums, collectors and antiquities dealers in encouraging looting. Your only proposed solution is to choke off demand by eliminating the dealers and vilifying the collectors and museum officials who buy looted objects.

One thing is absolutely clear: Your solution hasn’t worked! It has been tried for a quarter of a century and looting is worse than ever. Neither ethical proclamations by prestigious organizations, nor export controls by recipient nations like the United States, nor laws abolishing antiquities sales in archaeologically rich countries has even reduced demand, let alone eliminated it. On the contrary, demand has soared.

In your letter, you do not explicitly state what your proposed solution is. Perhaps that is because its very statement reveals its weakness. Let me be blunt: You will never eliminate demand. I prefer to base my principles and solutions on a realistic assessment of human nature.

Let’s put the issue forthrightly on the table. What are we talking about? The question is how to reduce, if not eliminate, archaeological looting. This is a practical question and demands a practical solution. It may even require many solutions—or at least many experiments.

There is also a subsidiary issue: What do we do with looted objects that come onto the antiquities market? Some looted objects still have information to give us. As I have often said, they are worth less than if they had been scientifically excavated but they are most assuredly not worthless. And it is foolish to pretend that they are.

Let’s get down to cases. You say you are “personally uncertain” as to whether the Dead Sea Scrolls should have been purchased from the Bedouin who illegally excavated them, even though you admit that not acquiring them would be “a major loss to scholarship.” Wow! I just can’t respond to that.

As you know, some scholars have taken the position that it is wrong to publish (that is, study) looted objects. Would you go so far? There are even some scholars who oppose citing the publication of a looted object. Would you condemn the hundreds of scholars who are studying and publishing the Dead Sea Scrolls? Would you say that scholars who cite the Dead Sea Scrolls should instead ignore them?

You also say you are “uneasy” with the Israel Museum’s acquisition of the ivory pomegranate that may have come from Solomon’s Temple. That acquisition, you say, provides “a massive incentive to looting. It directly encourages the destruction of archaeological sites and hence promotes the loss of information.” (Incidentally, the basis for the belief that it probably came from Solomon’s Temple is a Hebrew inscription carved into the neck of the pomegranate reading, “Holy to the Priests, belonging to the Temp[le of Yahwe]h.” The letters in brackets did not survive and have been restored.)

Your observation regarding the pomegranate is unbalanced. You give no consideration to the alternative. If the Israel Museum (or some public institution) had not purchased the ivory pomegranate, it would have remained hidden in some unknown place. In short, failure to purchase such a piece also has a price: The object disappears. Secondly, you assume that because this extraordinary object came onto the antiquities market, it was looted by illicit diggers who will therefore be encouraged to go on another expedition to find such an object. The fact is, we don’t know where the ivory pomegranate came from. It may have come from a legal excavation; a workman probably pocketed it before it could be registered. The way to control this is not to refuse to buy such objects, but to create regimes at legal excavations that would prevent diggers from pocketing unregistered finds. It is also possible that the ivory pomegranate was found, not by looters, but accidentally—perhaps by someone digging in his garden or excavating for an extension to his house. The way to prevent such objects from coming onto the clandestine market without provenance is to encourage such finders to announce their finds and to compensate them.

Of course, it is possible that the ivory pomegranate was discovered by looters in an illegal excavation. But even so, one thing is certain: They did not excavate looking for stuff like this. They were digging for pedestrian pots, juglets and oil lamps—or maybe for coins. The way to stop such illegal excavation for common artifacts is for the state to sell some of the thousands of duplicates it has (using the funds from such sales to expand legal excavations), thus putting the looters out of business. Who would buy an unprovenanced pot from a looter, when she could have a certificate of authenticity from the state and a legal export license, all for the same price as an illegally excavated pot?

Let’s turn to the lead in your parade of horribles—the Euphronios vase purchased by the Metropolitan Museum in New York. As you note, the Met paid more than a million dollars for this piece and director Thomas Hoving admitted he knew at the time it had been looted.

I think Mr. Hoving did just the right thing! I can’t imagine a better place (although there are other equally fine venues) for this vase than the Met. Here is Hoving’s description of the vase: “The drawing is equal to Leonardo’s or Albrecht Duuml;rer’s. The drama is as intense as the greatest Rembrandt. The architecture is Parthenonesque although on a much smaller scale. The artist was as innovative as Pablo Picasso.” (Hoving is here quoted from a series of articles he published between June 29 and July 16, 2001, in the online magazine

Two matters: (1) We don’t know where this vase came from. What should be done with it? To my mind, the most important thing is that scholars should be able to study it and the public should be able to see it. Perhaps a proven country of origin should have the option of purchasing it from the Met at fair market value. (2) That something like this surfaces on the antiquities market is not a significant encouragement to looters. One cannot imagine a looter saying to himself in the morning, “Let’s go out today and look for a Euphronios vase.” There’s no way to tell where such extraordinary objects are located. They are accidental finds. That they do in fact surface from time to time is not a serious incitement to looting, especially when weighed against the deprivation to scholars and the public from not having such objects available to them. If there are fields where such objects are likely to be found, like Appulian vases or Etruscan tombs in Italy, the fields should be turned over for scientific excavation to some public authority or regulated private party—the excavation to be paid for by the sale of the objects to an appropriate public institution after study and publication. You may be sure that in these circumstances no looter would have access to the site; the site would be adequately guarded to protect the investment in it.a

You condemn all collectors. This is where we disagree. I try to balance the good they can do against the incentive they give to looters. There are good collectors and there are bad collectors. The good collectors allow scholars to study their objects and publish them, allow the public to see them, and eventually leave them to an appropriate public institution. Bad collectors secrete them, denying scholars and the public access to their treasures.

Antiquities dealers, on the other hand, are morally neutral. They are only conduits, providing services for which they are paid. They should be encouraged to make sure they sell only to good collectors (or to public institutions), not to bad collectors—but this may be a vain hope. If, however, they themselves become looters by association or otherwise, they should be put in jail. Meanwhile, collectors should be encouraged to become good collectors instead of bad collectors; we should encourage them to allow scholars to study their collections and museums to exhibit them. Vilifying collectors is counter-productive; it simply encourages them to become bad collectors.

Just as you fail explicitly to state in your letter your proposed solution to the looting problem, you also fail to comment on the many suggestions I made in my previous letter. I have given you several more here. I hope you will address them in your response—and that you will not find it necessary to be discourteous.

Hershel Shanks