Should looters of ancient artifacts go to jail?


Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archeology Review, poses a hypothetical scenario that raises pressing questions about the current state of the antiquities market:

Imagine a young Bedouin looter exploring one of the hundreds of complicated and dangerous caves in the Judean Desert by the Dead Sea. He discovers an extraordinary ancient gold artifact with a Hebrew inscription referring to King Solomon.

One of the Israeli antiquities dealers who sees it reports it to the authorities, who quickly trace it to the young Bedouin and seize it from him. It is displayed in the Israel Museum, which has to remain open until midnight to accommodate the crowds. It is an international sensation. The New York Times sends two of its most knowledgeable reporters to write the story.

The young Bedouin looter is arrested by the authorities and tried for looting and sentenced to two years in prison. The gold inscription soon comes to be regarded as Israel’s most valuable ancient inscription.

This of course is a thoroughly fictional account. But it does bear some resemblances to a real occurrence—something that is reported in the Archaeological Views column of this very issue of BAR.

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.

There are thousands of caves in the Judean Desert. They are large and twisting and dangerous. They have produced archaeological riches beyond avarice. Yet for some reason they cannot all be located and explored. They are often accidentally explored—sometimes by looters. When the looters are caught, they are jailed—instead of congratulated—for the find. Somehow it doesn’t seem right. But somehow I am pretty sure I am wrong. Maybe an archaeologist can explain why to me.

The primary problem Shanks is identifying relates to property. As I have mentioned in an earlier blog post, many countries with sizable yet undiscovered archeological artifacts have effectively nationalized their ownership to the state. While archeologists can receive permission from a government to perform digs, the price signals that could indicate their relative significance have been effectively elminated. As a result, the state treats knowledgeable locals as criminals, while their “crimes” provide clues to archeologists on where to dig next.

What both antiquities-rich nations, and the archeologists that work there, currently do not recognize is there would be a wide range of benefits if people were able to own land that held artifacts. Through the price system, property owners would be incentivized to hold and develop land believed to hold valuable objects. Archeologists could work peacefully with these landowners to obtain rights to perform digs on their land that could lead to obtaining valuable historical information. Finally, the local people would benefit because they could help landowners and archeologists with valuable services.

Unfortunately, both governments and scientists would have to be open to learn about how markets work before they would be open to such liberalization.

Nevertheless, one can always hope, right?