Atwood’s ‘Stealing History’ Purports Preventing Looting Artifacts Possible

Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World, Roger Atwood. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004

Although Roger Atwood states, in the final chapter of this book, that it is possible to stop the looting of our world’s cultural heritage, one really wonders if it is. Despite every country’s laws against the export of cultural artifacts, despite every museum’s “mission statement” in which it claims it will not deal in ‘looted’ artifacts, despite everything – looting around the world continues unabated and wealthy collectors continue to fill their private museums with decorative items that will never be able to tell the story of the culture from which they came.

The Moche civilization of Peru had created “arts, crafts, and technologies in agriculture, hydraulics, and metallurgy…understood to be among the most advanced in the ancient world, a culture whose accomplishments were so varied and extraordinary as to make people who have spent a lifetime studying it…shake their heads and wonder how they did it.”

In 1987, professional looters discovered a Moche tomb near the town of SipÃ?¡n, and proceeded to steal everything they could, and destroy everything they couldn’t. Within months, however, the influx of artifacts to dealers had alerted the authorities. Archaeologists soon descended upon SipÃ?¡n and began an orderly excavation of what remained. Meanwhile, the authorities in Peru and, eventually, the United States, banded together in an attempt to retrieve the most valuable item stolen, a ceremonial ‘backflap’ crafted from three pounds of gold.

Atwood tells the stories of the people involved, from the Bernal brothers who found the tomb, to the people of Sip�¡n who still live in absolute poverty despite the amount of wealth that the archaeologists removed from the site, to the smugglers who brought the looted artifacts in to America, to the attempt to arrest the collector who knew he was buying stolen goods.

But Stealing History is a tapestry of tragedy. Into this narrative is woven threads of history, from Lord Elgin and his acquisition of the ‘Elgin Marbles’ of the Parthenon to the pillage of the National Museum of Antiquities in Iraq. From museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York with its sometimes shady acquisition methods, to the building of the Royal Tombs of SipÃ?¡n Museum in Lambayeque, Peru. From the UNESCO treaty of 1970 to the formation of the American Council for Cultural Policy. From the tales of poverty stricken people who loot for food, professional looters such as the Bernal brothers, and archaeologists such as Walter Alva, who excavated SipÃ?¡n and saved its wealth – of knowledge – for the world.

Atwood’s style is compelling. This is his first book, but he has written extensively for many magazines including Archaeology – as an investigative reporter rather than an archaeologist. Indeed, he spices the book with tales of his own adventures – travelling to a site in Iraq overrun by 60 – 80 looters and participating in a night raid by four young professional grave robbers in Peru.

Atwood completes the book with an epilogue detailing the fates of many of the modern day people mentioned in the body of the book, an extensive notes section, a glossary, bibliography and index.

This is a book with a wealth of information on a subject that has reached a crisis point. It’s a must read.

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