Saturday, 14 August 2010

Turkish Looters Caught Just in Time, or Too Late?

The blogs have been a-buzzing with a recent 'find' from Turkey. A tomb with nice masonry, wall paintings and a chunky carved sarcophagus in the chamber. What is more associated with a known historical personage. Whoopee. But if we take a closer look after the initial excitement fades, a number of questions arise. While the layour of this tomb is still far from clear from the published accounts, we may glean some interesting information from the photo galleries already published (see the references to those given in a comment by Yasar Ersoy on David Gill's Looting Matters blog ) some of which I reproduce below.

The first point is that it turns out that this tomb lies actually under the podium of a temple of Zeus Carios in Milas, a place mentioned in the tourist guides: "the suspects had dug two tunnels— 6 and 8 meters (yards) long, from the house and an adjacent barn, leading to the tomb that is buried some 10 meters (yards) deep" (Turkey Discovers Ancient Underground Tomb), so right under the noses of the antiquities police. That's a lot of earth to shift - where did they put it all without being noticed?

Why on earth did they dig a tunnel 10 metres down ? On the off-chance it would hit something? How did they know there was going to be anything worth robbing here? Or were they just rash and lucky?

The antiquity dealing lobbyists want to see looters as "finders" and just ordinary blokes driven by poverty to do a bit of "subsistence digging". Is that the case here? Hardly. One of the "tunnels" (actually a shaft) comes down exactly in the middle of the burial chamber over the sarcophagus. Now somebody tell me how eight 'ordinary blokes' having dug into a tomb by luck in an adjacent house can marry the measurements taken in the dark underground with the tangle of walls above ground to place that hole so precisely. "Ordinary blokes" with a tape measure, sticks and string?

According to an article "Turkey Discovers Ancient Underground Tomb " Culture Minister Ertugrul Gunay described what he saw at the site last week as:
"not an ordinary treasure hunt. It is very organized and it is obvious that they received economic and scientific help", [...], adding that Turkey also would investigate the suspects' possible overseas links.
This is raised by the question of the equipment used:
They used sophisticated equipment to drill through the thick marble walls of the tomb and were working to remove the coffin from the underground chamber when they were detained, according to the Culture Ministry. [...]

This can be seen in the photo gallery attached to the article: Ahmet Bayrak et al. 'Son 100 yılın en önemli keşfi yerinde sergilenecek' Milliyet 12 August 2010)

A core-cutting tubular drill was used to tunnel through walls to investigate what was behind them.

and used to make a hole in the shaft in the roof of the burial chamber

Here they were obviously going to cut through the side wall.

Another point is this has apparently been going on some years. In one of the earlier accounts I read, I came across a note that among the material the robbers had tsken into the tomb and later found by police was a bottle which had an expiry date of 2005 on it (I cannot fnd it now, but am sure I did not imagine it). While this could have been reused after emptied, it could also suggest a version of the story in which the tomb was in fact discovered more than five years ago. Ministry officials suggest that "several treasures that would have been placed in the underground tomb were most likely looted by the treasure hunters and sold in the illegal antiquities trade".

View down one of the vaulted passages, note the heaps of soil along the walls.Now where did this soil come from? Is it material washed into the tomb after the burial, or did this magnificent tomb simply have a beaten earth floor? Nevertheless it is clear that before the police entered this tomb, the material on the floor had been gone through to recover any collectable items, though at the same time destroying any evidence about where items had been placed in the tomb and what else was in it.

One of the photo galleries includes a shot of a (pierced) Byzantine gold coin, with no indication whether it was found in the tomb (evidence of later intrusion), in the soil on top of the temple platform, or in the houses of the looters.

The picture that seems to be emerging from the early reports is a gang which had come together (after all if a couple of guys stumbled acrosss the tomb, why involve six other people?) to make some money out of the discovery. It is possible that they had 'academic' help actually locating the tomb buried deep below a 3.5m tall masonry platform of a later temple in the first place. It is unclear whether the tomb had been opened in the past (earth on the floor, apparently a smashed coffin lid). The current looters had possibly been working in the tomb for several years, clandestinely putting an unknown number of objects of unknown type on the market, presumably somewhere along the line somebody suggesting to buyers that they come from some unnamed "old collections". These objects have so far passed unnoticed to buyers who asked-no-questions, now we will have to work hard to try and identify them and those dealers and collectors who handled them. Anyone who handled rich items of "Greek type" but of unknown provenance in recent months should fall under suspicion.

The Turkish ministry surmises (or perhaps received information) that having emptied the tomb of its smaller items, the gang turned its attention to the richly carved sarcophagus, worth a couple of thousand green ones on the no-questions-asked market no doubt. Possibly they already have a buyer who is sitting waiting for them to get the object out. maybe they saw it only on a video, or maybe they secretly paid a visit to the tomb recently accompanied by teh gang and agreed a price. But how to get it out? It was probably inserted there using a ramp, and the tomb built around it. Obviously this process could not be reversed under the noses of the townsfolk and antiquities police. It seems to me that cutting the access shaft above the sarcophagus was connected with lowering and operating heavy (diamond-bladed?) cutting equipment which was to cut this magnificent sculpted monolith into smaller pieces to be passed out through a tunnel (the robbers having started exploring where they could dig such a tunnel by drilling throught the tomb walls, or perhaps they were going to use the existing access tunnels). The pieces would be smuggled out to Florida, Tokyo or Dubai or wherever where very probably the buyer is already waiting for it. The question is is somebody waiting for a full sarcophagus or are four different buyers waiting for four relief scenes?

The men accused of looting are taken away for questioning. One commentator has said "if I ever come across the people who looted this tomb, I will string them up and torture them". Let us hope that whatever does happen to these men, that the opportunity is taken to get every piece of information from them possible about what was taken, where it went, who they had been in contact with abroad, and who was interested in buying the sawn-up sarcophagus.

The pro-trade lobby suggests that the problem with looting is the lack of something like "the British PAS system" in place in the "source countries". How can this apply to the present case for example? Would the gang of eight report the find to the Turkish PAS for a reward? What kind of reward? The full market value of everything which the tomb contains (including what they could get for sawing up the sarcophagus - and what about dismantling the slabs with the wall paintings)? These are not "finders" but a gang of looters who seem to have been working to order. How would a PAS-type system stop this? We have seen that the collectors that "support" the British scheme when it suits them in fact completely ignore its existence in their purchases (for example here). It is not in the market's interest that the exploitation of this tomb is stopped and the archaeologists move it - that way there is nothing to sell, no grave goods, no "king's skull with diadem, full teeth", no sawnup bits of sarcophagus. Who would pay for rewarding the "finders" in a case like this, where would the money come from?

Surely here another approach would be more effective, how is it possible that the ill-dressed blokes in the picture above could manage to put on the market items from a newly-discovered tomb and NOBODY NOTICED? Surely what we need is to ensure full transparency of the trading of arcaeological objects so that the moment something of unclear origin comes onto the market, it provokes instant examination of the circumstances. This, and only this, is the way to fight looting. If the antiquities trade has nothing to hide, then why are they so adamant on hiding it? Cases like this one show the profits to be made by nobody asking any questions.

Photos: The photo credits can be obtained from clicking on the links in their capttions, they come mostly from two online galleries from the Turkish media.

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