Sunday 2 May 2010

"Swansea Jones" and the Lost Hoards of History

Well, it had to happen didn't it? Archaeology and looted artefacts have a specific place in popular culture and thus true to form Robin Turner's article 'Swansea archaeologist works to send stolen artefacts home' (Western Mail May 3rd 2010) begins:

"Like Indiana Jones, Dr David Gill delights in getting his hands on precious antiquities. But while his movie counterpart is often seen plucking priceless artefacts from ancient tombs, Dr Gill does the process in reverse – and sends the relics back to where they came from. The Welsh academic works across the world in persuading museums to return ancient artefacts to Egypt, Italy, Greece and other countries suffering a plague of history looting".

The focus of the article is of course quite rightly the recent withdrawal by Bonhams of several items from last week's auction that quite clearly should never have been there. I am sure David will be the first to agree with me when I point out that the journalist was being a bit premature however suggesting these items will be "going home" to the place from which they were stolen in the near future.

In the article Gill is quoted as saying:

“The looting of human history has become a full-scale industry. In some countries like Italy, for example, some are literally using mechanical diggers on historical sites to rip up artefacts for sale. These have tended to reach auction rooms in places like New York and London via Switzerland, though the Swiss are now trying to tighten controls. Archaeological sites are being decimated and the few treasures taken away for financial gain lose their context. Strip them from that context and we lose dating, related objects and information about who used them. Presenting a looted object means that we value the object as a beautiful thing but we do not care about the society and culture that created it. And that is an uncivilised view.”
But it’s a lucrative business.
There is a potted history of looting, a mention of the 2003 events in Baghdad, the looting of ancient sites in Central America, Cambodia, Italy, Mali and China, with "some private collectors and even museums turning a blind eye" and buying the looted objects.
Dr Gill and his colleagues Dr Christopher Chippindale, the curator for British Collections at Cambridge University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and ex-Greek government archaeologist Christos Tsirogiannis, say £300m worth of antiquities have been sold at just two major auction houses in the past 12 years.

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