Online Antiquities

Online Antiquities Photo Credit: Clipart.com.

Online auction sites have transformed the sale of ancient artifacts.


The Internet and ancient relics. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

The black market in ancient artifacts may be taking a hit—from online auction sites like ebay. This according to Charles Stanish, director of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA. Stanish notes that the Internet has made it profitable for people all over the world to crank out cheap knockoffs of ancient relics.

And they can sell them. They can sell them legitimately as replicas. And they can also sell them to people who then turn around and sell them as perhaps, antiquities.

... Which may not be honest, but it beats looting historic sites and causing irreparable damage. Stanish adds that while looting is still a problem, the surge in forgeries has made it harder and more expensive to authenticate any artifact. That's deflated prices and demand, which may also make looting less tempting in the future. I'm Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.

Making Sense of the Research

In less than two decades, the Internet has transformed the way we buy and sell just about everything. Among other things, it's made it possible to find and purchase a rare item—be it an out-of-print book, a toy from the 1950s, or an unusual flavor of jelly—in seconds, rather than months or even years of hunting around in specialty shops. It also means that someone selling unusual items can market them to the entire world, not just people in their local community or those on painstakingly assembled mail-order lists.

As Internet sales emerged, archaeologists like Stanish watched anxiously to see how it might affect looting. Archaeological looting has existed for as long as humans have recognized and studied ancient cultures. Simply put, looters raid historic sites, steal artifacts, and sell them on the black market. This not only deprives the world of the information and insight that these relics have to offer, but usually also disturbs the site itself—for example, by contaminating it with modern debris, exposing it to the elements, or carelessly breaking other parts of it.

Archaeologists worried that the Internet would make looting much more profitable and widespread, since looters could potentially peddle their wares on sites like ebay instead of through complicated networks of black-market buyers. However, Stanish says that so far, there hasn't been an explosion in looting. In fact, some of the consequences of the Internet marketplace may be working against the looters.

For one thing, it turns out that the Internet makes selling fake relics more profitable than selling real ones. In the past, villagers around archaeological sites might have been able to sell a few knockoff vases to unsuspecting tourists on the street, but the more remote the site, the more difficult this would have been. Now, people in the farthest corners of the globe can manufacture fake artifacts and sell them online for a profit—either legitimately, as replicas, or falsely, as antiquities. In fact, entire local industries have emerged around this type of business. Why go through all the trouble and risk of looting—venturing into dangerous sites, avoiding law enforcement and rival smugglers, dealing with shady middlemen—when you can make dozens of replicas for the same money and effort? Perhaps the profit margin on each replica may be smaller than it would be on a true stolen treasure, but in the bigger picture, replicas often make more sense.

A flood of fake relics has led to a secondary pressure against looting: the more fakes that enter the market, and the more convincing those fakes become, the harder and more expensive it gets to identify legitimate artifacts. This has affected every level of the antiquities market: in recent years, even some major museum pieces have turned out to be forgeries. With so much uncertainty, some collectors have decided it's no longer worth it to look for genuine artifacts, especially lower-to-mid-priced items. And if buyers no longer want legitimate artifacts, or don't care enough to authenticate them, then there's even less reason for a looter to go through the trouble of getting the real thing.

Stanish cautions that looting is far from over and remains a big headache in many parts of the world. However, he's relieved that the Internet doesn't seem to have made the problem worse, and may in fact help protect ancient sites in the future.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What is looting, in the archaeological sense?
  2. Why were scientists concerned about the Internet's effect on archaeological looting?
  3. What are some reasons why the Internet may be making looting less profitable?
  4. In what other ways has the Internet discouraged dishonest business? In what ways has it encouraged it?

For Educators

In the National Geographic News article From Looters, Ancient Maya Altar Rescued, read about the recovery of an elaborate, 600-pound stone altar stolen from an ancient Maya ball court in Guatemala. Professional archaeologists, Guatemalan undercover agents, and local villagers collaborated to recover the altar from a ring of looters and drug runners attempting to sell it in the lucrative antiquities market.

Another National Geographic News article, Hunt for Stolen Iraqi Antiquities Leads to Cyberspace, tells about the hunt for priceless antiquities looted from the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. Scholars in Chicago have created a website to catalogue artifacts and help trap smugglers. The online "wanted" posters may also dissuade international art collectors and dealers from trafficking in illicit artifacts.

This transcript from "The Global Village," from PBS' Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy website, focuses on how in the 1990s, technology crossed over national borders, spreading commerce and ideas.

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