Friday, August 4, 2017

Won’t Somebody Please Think of the Looters



With multiple antiquities scandals involving Hobby Lobby currently in the news, we are seeing perhaps unprecedented attention to issues such as antiquities trafficking, provenance, and archaeological ethics. One of many articles that I’ve recently read on these topics, brought to my attention by Caroline Schroeder of the University of the Pacific, is an opinion piece by Hershel Shanks (First Person: Should These Looters Go to Jail, Biblical Archaeology Review, July/Augst 2017) (Shanks is founder of the Biblical Archaeological Society and editor of the society’s popular Biblical Archaeology Review). Shanks invites us to imagine a Bedouin (a “young” Bedouin at that) looting a cave near the Dead Sea, discovering a gold artifact inscribed with the name of King Solomon. He shows it to an antiquities dealer, who alters the authorities, leading to the arrest, trial and imprisonment of the Bedouin; meanwhile, the artifact is meets a sensational reception and becomes a priceless part of the Israel Museum and Israeli culture. Shanks then compares his hypothetical to a real life incident where the arrest of looters operating in the Cave of Skulls near the Dead Sea leads to an Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) excavation.

In many ways this op-ed is eye-rolling. It implicitly asks us to look favorably on looting, to celebrate looters as heroes. Shanks and BAS have a history of advocating for the publication of looted objects, despite the serious problems of legality, ethics, and loss of scholarly information. This history includes hosting a 2006 forum on unprovenanced artifacts slanted entirely in favor of publication, centering on a “Statement of Concern” that misstated the ASOR and AIA policies on ethics, and asserted without citing any evidence that there is no link between scholarly publication of unprovenanced finds and looting. (The work of Neil Brodie over the last 15 years strongly suggests otherwise.)

But one aspect of Shanks’s piece stands out and deserves discussion: the attention he draws to a rarely discussed issue, the disparity between treatment of looters and treatment of others involved in antiquities trafficking. As Shanks writes,

What makes me feel the need to explore the situation is the fact that the looters alert the archaeologists to the existence of the other valuable finds in the cave and get sent to jail for it, while the archaeologists learn from the looters where to dig.

Shanks is correct: Looters face sustained criticism, including from scholars. This may take an extreme form, like American archaeologist Elizabeth Stone urging American soldiers to shoot Iraqis for the crime of looting in 2003. “I would like to see helicopters flying over there shooting bullets so that people know there is a real price to looting this stuff … You have got to kill some people to stop this.” Or it may be more mundane: an unfortunate ASOR poster/banner at the 2014 ASOR Annual Meeting described how, in the years after the initial discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, ASOR “rescu[ed]” some additional scrolls from “Bedouin looting”. What was omitted was that the Dead Sea Scrolls were only discovered in the first place by Bedouin looting – and several ASOR scholars built careers around those looted objects. The scholarly community criticizes looting even while profiting from it.



The antiquities trade involves looters, dealers, and collectors, along with various middlemen. Of the three main groups, almost all of the burden of punishment falls on looters. This is both unfair, and unsurprising, because looters have by far the least power of the groups involved in the trade. Dealers and collectors are generally richer, and often located outside the source countries that tightly regulate (or outlaw) trade in antiquities – and so are beyond their reach. No one calls for shooting dealers or collectors involved in illegal acts on sight. Shanks has a point here, though motives for looting are more complicated than mere subsistence looting, as demonstrated both in general and for the Bedouin specifically by Morag Kersel.[1] Bedouin often view looting as a profession, one that is traditional and has been handed down generation to generation. They do not fit the oriental stereotype of “ignorant locals” but are intelligent and resourceful, and knowledgeable about archaeological sites and artifacts. But, more broadly, people are sometimes forced to loot sites; looters can include children, who sometimes die in the process.

It is surprising that Shanks did not pick a different real-life incident to illustrate his point – one that mirrors his hypothetical almost exactly. In 2004, three Bedouin discovered four fragments of an ancient scroll of Leviticus from the Bar Kokhba era (2nd century CE); they brought them to an antiquities dealer in Hebron, who through a second dealer in Tel Aviv was able to estimate the fragments’ value at $20,000. Later the Bedouin brought the scrolls to the attention of noted scholar Hanan Eshel and his research assistant Roi Porat, whose institution (Bar-Ilan University) eventually bought the scrolls in early 2005 for $3,000, via a donation by Swiss collector David Jeselsohn. After initial study of the fragments Eshel turned them over to the Israel Antiquities Authority. However, later in the year Eshel and Porat were investigated by the police for antiquities trafficking; Eshel’s home was searched and he was taken by the police multiple times for questioning. The scholarly community in Israel rallied around Eshel, circulating a petition in Haaretz and insisting that he bought the fragments for “pure academic interests”; that he “rescued” (there’s that word again) the scrolls; and for all of this was being treated like a “common criminal.”

Many of the details of the case are even now unclear, because of competing claims from Eshel and the police, and because the news accounts are mostly slanted toward Eshel. At least some of the most damning police claims appear to be refuted by actual evidence given by Eshel. Nevertheless, the scholarly community sanitized Eshel’s actions somewhat. Both Eshel’s purchase of the scroll fragments and his failure to turn them over to the IAA immediately violated the law. Buried in most of the discussion is the fact that the cave where the fragments were said to be found is located in the West Bank, which complicates both the legitimacy of Eshel’s purchase – the police had considered charging Eshel with illegally bringing antiquities into Israel – and Israeli jurisdiction. (The only news outlet to refer to the location of the cave in the West Bank was ERETZ Magazine in 2006, which described it as “technically across the Green Line.”) There were "problematic aspects in the behavior of both sides,” suggested archaeologist Isaac Gilead of Ben-Gurion University, in probably the fairest assessment of the situation. But Eshel and his assistant were never charged with a crime; the only ones charged, and eventually fined, were the three Bedouin.

Embed from Getty Images

Embed from Getty Images

Above: Hanan Eshel holding photographs of the scroll fragments
Below: The fragments before cleaning

Shanks is surely familiar with this episode: between 2005 and 2007 he wrote a series of op-eds on it for the Jerusaelm Post, the Jewish Week, and his own Biblical Archaeology Review. In those pieces, unlike his hypothetical example above, Shanks came to the defense of the scholar Eshel while ignoring the fate of the Bedouin. By the time of Shanks’s first piece on the affair the Bedouin had already been remanded to a military court. But Shanks showed no concern for what had happened or would happen to the looters, in stark contrast to his 2017 piece. Perhaps Shanks has changed his views on this issue over the last decade. Or perhaps his primary goal, even in 2017, is to protect the privilege of scholars to study looted objects.

I’ve come to believe that many people, including many scholars, while they may pay lip service to the evils of looting, prefer to see looted objects on the market – because it means more goodies for them to study and publish than could ever be found in controlled excavation. Condemning looters (while protecting scholars) is a convenient way to use the least powerful players in the antiquities trade as a scapegoat and avoid meaningful change. The case of James Charlesworth (a prominent professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary) is exceptional but illuminating: in the Q&A section of a lecture first highlighted by Årstein Justnes (of the University of Agder, Norway), Charlesworth expresses excitement at the poor Palestinian economy, because (as he claims) Arabs are now digging under their houses and selling him their finds more cheaply. Shanks’s piece (whether it was argued in good faith or not) draws attention to how vastly different such scholars are treated from looters – but then appears to embrace an idiosyncratic conclusion (let’s honor the looters!). Instead we can take other approaches, such as holding accountable those with the real power in the antiquities trade who break laws and ethical codes.


[1] Morag M. Kersel, Christina Luke, and Christopher H. Roosevelt, Valuing the Past: Perceptions of Archaeological Practice in Lydia and the Levant, Journal of Social Archaeology 8 no. 3 (2008): 298-319 (pdf). See also Morag Kersel, Transcending Borders: Objects on the Move, Archaeologies 3 no. 2 (August 2007): 81-98. This is based on Kersel’s research for her dissertation: Licensed to Sell: The Legal Trade of Antiquities in Israel, University of Cambridge, 2006.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Do you know Hanan Eshel from your years living in Israel?

Michael said...

Thanks for reading the post, Anonymous. I did not mention it in the piece but Eshel died in 2010. I did not know him personally prior to his death.