Even though they’d been sawn in half, the items were unmistakable to the Israeli Antiquities Authority officials inspecting Jerusalem’s Old City shops: Two ancient Egyptian wooden coffin lids, dating back as far as the 14th century BCE.
What hands brought those Egyptian coffin lids into the Jerusalem shop remains a mystery for now. But how the lids got to Israel is slightly clearer. According to one report they were smuggled from Egypt to Dubai and then shipped to Israel for resale, under a now closed loophole in Israeli law. Whether they traveled by land, sea, or air isn’t known, but the choice of venue—the Israeli antiquities market—was deliberate.
Looting archaeological sites in the Middle East is as old as ancient towns and cemeteries themselves. In the past—with the exception of plundering tombs of the rich and powerful—this was merely a form of recycling, as expensive metal and exotic objects were put back into circulation from beyond the grave.
But beginning at least 300 years ago, such items began to be rechristened as “antiquities,” regarded as precious and irreplaceable artifacts that provide knowledge of and a tangible connection to an otherwise inaccessible past. This evolving consciousness led to antiquities collecting in the name of connoisseurship, then to national glory and scholarship. But collecting was also constrained—sometimes barely—by imperial and then national laws. Today a patchwork of local laws and international agreements restricts the illegal excavation, sale, and import of antiquities.
Under nationalist regimes in countries like Iraq, selling antiquities was strictly prohibited. But after the fall of Saddam Hussein, looters roamed freely across the country, outnumbering and outgunning the few remaining antiquities guards. Where previously Saddam and his minions had occasionally treated themselves to museum-quality items, now ancient cities were transformed into cratered moonscapes as hundreds of looters pillaged for days and months. Most of the material disappeared from view—sold, it seems, to nouveau riche collectors and resellers in the Gulf states and Europe.
The unpleasant reality is that in Iraq—and now, thanks to the upheaval of the Arab Spring, Libya, and Egypt—authoritarian regimes kept archaeological sites and museums relatively well protected. Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Qaddafi, and Saddam patronized antiquities to demonstrate their sophistication and development, exercise control over Western intellectuals who wished to study them, and to pose as heirs to the royal traditions of the past. For regular Egyptians, Iraqis, Libyans, and perhaps soon Syrians, the fall of these regimes has created an opening to strike back at hated symbols and to make some good money.
In the wake of the collapse of Mubarak’s regime, Egyptians—some hungry, some angry at the regime that identified itself as the patron of the past, some who hate the past on Islamic grounds, and some merely criminals—are looting sites, cemeteries, antiquities warehouses, and, most spectacularly, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo at the height of anti-government protests in January 2011. Looting is particularly rampant, including, according to one recent report, in iconic locations such as the shadows of the great pyramids of Giza. (In Egypt the past faces additional threats. Salafi leaders like Abdel-Men’em Shahat are repeating their calls for statues of the pharaohs to be covered in wax “because they resembled the idols that were present in Mecca.”)
Israel’s security situation may have declined with the Arab Spring, but its reputation in the region as a reliable tourist destination where antiquities are available to those that can afford them has been a boon. The coffin covers are only one example of valuable treasures that have mysteriously appeared on the Israeli market. But while Israel’s openness is great for tourists and collectors, it poses a very serious threat to the integrity of the country’s antiquities and archaeological sites.
Israel has long been one of the only Middle Eastern countries where it is legal to sell and buy antiquities. The country’s antiquities law, adopted in 1978, states that all objects created before 1700 are antiquities and belong to the state. But the law also stipulates that collections assembled before the law passed in 1978 may be sold by licensed dealers. Dealers have therefore managed to secure a never-ending supply of artifacts from “pre-1978” collections, thanks to creative inventorying.
Every year, tourists looking for souvenirs and collectors looking for serious artifacts spend millions in the antiquities shops of Jerusalem and Jaffa. Most objects on offer are pots from Israel and the West Bank, sold for a few hundred or thousand dollars: coins and scarabs (many, if not most, fakes), figurines in stone or pottery, pieces of glass and ivory, and the like. A smaller number, like the Egyptian coffin lids, come from further afield.
Professor Morag Kersel of DePaul University has extensively researched how the local antiquities industry works. It is another of the countless examples of Israeli-Palestinian economic cooperation. The industry consists of Palestinian overseers with some knowledge of archaeological sites and market demand who dispatch gangs of professional looters, both Israelis and Palestinians, to sites. Many looters work construction by day and then loot by night, sometimes from the sites on which they are building. Goods are then transferred to Palestinian middlemen, usually from a higher economic class or with connections to one of the long-established antiquities retailing families, who then sell the artifacts to Bedouin (who also loot and transport antiquities themselves as long-standing family traditions). They finally sell to the dealers, both Arab and Israeli. Kersel has found that more than 50 percent of antiquities dealers are Palestinian, and most have been in the business for generations. Wealthy Palestinians from abroad are some of the most avid collectors.
The damage from looting is immense, and patrols from the Israel Antiquities Authority lie in ambush on dark nights to catch thieves in the act. Already in 1989 archaeologists David Ilan, Uzi Dahari, and Gideon Avni estimated that 6,000 ancient tombs in the Judaean foothills alone had been looted since 1967 to supply the antiquities markets. Looters searching for inscribed items, such as seals or carved architectural elements, have also torn into countless other village and town sites in pursuit of these most rare objects.
Tourists purchasing objects receive a license to export the goods, which are then replaced by dealers with newly looted items. Smaller, more rare, or exceptional items are often smuggled out of the country and resold in the vastly larger markets of Geneva and London, usually after a cooling-off period. Diplomats also transport materials in and out of the country without inspection.
It is a system filled with contradictions and legal fictions that has worked to everyone’s relative advantage for decades. Palestinians and Israelis make money; Israel exports a nonrenewable commodity and markets itself as an open, capitalist society, rich in heritage. The best objects are purchased by collectors or by the state for its museums. It is an economic and political equation. The great losers are the archaeological sites themselves, which are ruined, and archaeologists, who are bereft at the destruction of data.
There has always been a connection between antiquities and power, including in Israel. The collection of Moshe Dayan, the former chief of staff of the IDF, was an especially notorious example. Dayan’s home outside of Tel Aviv was a veritable museum filled with pieces he had illegally excavated from sites all over Israel, Sinai, and Gaza, often with the help of the Israeli army, as well as those he had obtained from Cyprus, Jordan, and Iraq. Dayan also sold, traded, and gifted antiquities, including to the Louvre.
A study by Israeli archaeologist Raz Kletter showed that from the early 1950s onward Israeli archaeological officials repeatedly caught Dayan in the act. Demands that he stop were rejected on the spot, and pleas from antiquities officials to prime ministers and the courts produced nothing. They were essentially powerless against this national hero, general, member of the Knesset, and defense minister. The final indignity, and source of public controversy, was that his collection had to be purchased by the Israel Museum from his widow after his death in 1981.
During Dayan’s life, his looting was of interest mostly to archaeologists and left-wing journalists who hated his politics. But it wasn’t just Dayan. The late Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek was also a noted collector, and the Bible Lands Museum was built to house the collection of antiquities dealer Elie Borowski after the Israel Museum declined, largely on ethical grounds, to give it a home.
In recent years, less visible connections between antiquities and the powers of wealth and religious belief have also been on display in the Holy Land. A Tel Aviv court recently concluded a monumental case against Oded Golan, an engineer and antiquities collector and the alleged forger of some of the most spectacular objects of recent years, including a stone ossuary, or bone box, bearing the inscription “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”
Unveiled with great fanfare in 2002 by the Discovery Channel and the Biblical Archaeology Society (which produces the popular magazine Biblical Archaeology Review) the James ossuary was instantly touted as evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was real. But as soon as the ossuary went on display at the Royal Ontario Museum in 2003, scholars began to question whether the words “brother of Jesus” had been added to an existing inscription, or whether all the words had been carved into a real but uninscribed ossuary.
Clumsy police work had contaminated the crime scene, as had Golan’s handing of the artifacts. Most scientific investigations of the objects indicated that the inscriptions were forgeries, but others produced tantalizing evidence that they were real. Golan himself claimed he acquired the artifacts years before from Arab dealers in Jerusalem and had forged nothing.
In the end, after eight years, the Tel Aviv court convicted Golan of illegal dealing in antiquities but acquitted him of having forged the artifacts, while at the same time carefully stating that their authenticity had neither been proven nor disproven. The decision was an embarrassment for the Israel Antiquities Authority and for the prosecution. But the objects themselves remain tainted and are hidden from display by the Antiquities Authority.
The Israel Antiquities Authority claims that increased publicity from the affair has helped reduce looting. The marketplace for biblically significant artifacts has also been partially exposed and wealthy collectors put on alert that they may have spent millions on fakes.
Would a legal state-owned market in antiquities help? Critics point to overflowing storehouses of essentially identical pots from hundreds of excavations that are unlikely ever to be examined by scholars and ask: Why not sell some? Most archaeologists, like David Ilan, now director of the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, remain opposed, believing that such a market would “legitimize the private, underground trade.” Ilan suggests that “antiquities departments can and should continue to enforce existing laws and to bring culprits to court, but there should be large budgets to publicize the nature of plunder, trade, and collection and to defame these activities, at home and abroad.” By some estimates, more than 100,000 artifacts are sold every year in Israel. At that rate, the storehouses would be emptied quickly.
In contrast, New York art lawyer William Pearlstein argues that “permitting a legal private market in redundant objects is superior to a system of blanket national ownership.” Even DePaul’s Prof. Kersel, a leading specialist in looting, has asked whether antiquities dealers are merely exercising their right to free enterprise as guaranteed under the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The fact is that appreciation of the past as an independent entity, worthy of being protected to some extent from uncontrolled landscape development and unfettered markets, is very much a value for people who can afford it. Nation-states and archaeologists have been mostly unsuccessful at inculcating this value, which is not shared by poor people or religious ideologues—or even by a vast swath of people who simply want to make money by exploiting resources, even nonrenewable ones. Whether a government-managed antiquities market or further crackdowns on looting would change this is unknown.
For now, the seized coffin lids sit in a climate-controlled room awaiting repatriation to Egypt, where they face an uncertain fate, especially with Islamists poised to take full control. But the problems they symbolize are only becoming more acute across the region.
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Alex Joffe is an archaeologist and historian. His website is alexanderjoffe.net.
Alex Joffe is a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.