Dear Editors,

As an excavator and a professor of ancient Middle Eastern history at Sofia University, in Bulgaria, I have spent my entire professional life thinking about how to reduce the looting of historical sites.

Have you, Dear Editors, ever seen a plundered ancient tomb, knowing very well that it was once filled with artifacts? Have you seen the remains of 1,300-year-old painting ripped from a wall? Have you seen a completely destroyed archaeological site, with the looters’ trenches tearing through strata—destroying forever all intelligible remains of the past? Have you seen a laboratory for melting down Hellenistic gold and silver objects?

There is no doubt that buying artifacts, displaying them and then bestowing them upon some national museum is very noble, but it does not help preserve our history. On the contrary, the market for such objects is the incentive for the destruction of history.

My question is, Should we encourage such pillaging, which is simply done to fuel the antiquities market?

Diana D. Backus
Tannersville, Pennsylvania

Dear Dr. Backus,

What a welcome letter! That you feel passionately about the damage looters do is something you and we share.

Then let us together consider what we can do to eliminate—or reduce—looting. At least let us discuss it. The archaeological establishment will not even discuss it.

The problem is a complicated one with many aspects. Consider some of them:

Are archaeology-rich countries doing enough to protect archaeological sites? For example, the head of Italy’s carabonieri says getting caught looting is like getting a parking ticket. Looting at one site in Italy has gone on for four generations. Shouldn’t the archaeological establishment be taking a position in situations like this?

How about exploring ways to protect sites with electronic fences? An alarm would go off in a central office when the electronic fence was crossed after dark. Practical or not? Should the archaeological establishment look into it?

Authorities in Iraq tell us (see Editors’ Page) that when the local community is placed in charge of endangered sites, looting stops. This may be because they now take pride in the site or because they have a job guarding it or because they find employment excavating the site under the supervision of professional archaeologists. Should this be further explored by the archaeological establishment?

Should antiquities authorities sell low-end items, like oil lamps and jugs, of which there are thousands of duplicates and no place to store them? Would this eliminate—or reduce—the incentive for looters to dig illicitly for these low-end items?

Should we conduct emergency excavations on especially endangered sites, obtaining funds for such salvage operations by allowing donors to buy some of the artifacts for a museum after they have been studied and published?

I could go on and on. Not all of these suggestions would be good. Perhaps all would need to be modified in one way or another. But they are worth talking about.

All that the archaeological establishment is interested in talking about is how terrible the antiquities market is—the collectors, the antiquities dealers, and the museums that buy unprovenanced objects. The necessary assumption of this utopian position is that somehow, by this vilification, the market for looted artifacts will disappear, so the looters will no longer have any incentive to loot. But this is demonstrably untrue: Looting is worse than ever. On this all agree.

This vilification simply drives the market underground so that we never hear about objects from which we could learn so much—not as much as if they had been professionally excavated, but still a great deal. In short, there is a price to pay for this vilification of collectors (who could easily be converted into archaeological supporters), dealers and museums: the loss of knowledge. Perhaps it would be a price worth paying if it had any chance of success. It does not.

So why not begin to talk realistically about how to stop—or reduce—looting.

Hershel Shanks