Tip of the Arrowhead: Hobby Lobby and the Antiquities Black Market Problem

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The story that Hobby Lobby illegally purchased stolen artifacts is getting a lot of attention in the news and on social media. This is great, and I am pleased to see that so many are aware of and are condemning what appears to have been willful ignorance at best. However, this is not an isolated incident, only a high profile one, and it is systemic of a much larger problem.

 

For those who are not familiar with the case, Hobby Lobby is being fined $3 million for illegally purchasing 5,500 looted artifacts from Iraq with the intention of using them in the Museum of the Bible. There are several problems with this. First, this antiquities black market has been identified as a source of funding for ISIS and other terrorist organizations. Second, this is Iraq’s heritage, not ours. Finally, though their motivation seems to be simply enthusiasm for the Biblical time period, these artifacts are now nothing more than things, the stories they could have told us are gone forever.

 While I am pleased that we are denouncing this act, the looting of sites for personal profit is something that we deal with on a national and state level all the time. In 2007, 24 individuals in Utah were charged in a sting operation that seized 250 artifacts, such as a blanket almost certainly from a child’s burial, which were illegally looted from federal and state lands. In 2013, the Florida Fisheries and Wildlife Commission conducted a sting operation in which they arrested 13 individuals for  illegally looting artifacts on state managed land. They are still working on what was seized but there are over 5,000 artifacts which will never tell us their story.

These stings are just two of the biggest. In the last two years there have been three other cases in Florida involving stolen artifacts where people were arrested. This is a very real problem at our state level for many of the same reasons it is a problem in the Hobby Lobby case.

 This is one spot of extensive damage found on the Aucilla River, Florida just last March. (Image courtesy of the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Resources)

Though the local antiquities black market does not fund terror groups, it has very solidly been linked to the drug trade, particularly meth. While the linked article is featuring the southwest, we had at least one drug-related case here in Florida last year when a teacher was murdered while being robbed for her collection. Articles at the time cite drugs as a suspected motivation.

While these artifacts are not being stolen from another country, they are being stolen from us. Sites on state or federally managed land are held in the public trust, they are for all of us and are not just for someone looking to make a quick buck. Poaching on a wildlife preserve is pretty despicable, but plants and animals grow back (to a point). Once a site is destroyed there will never be another one like it.

 Finally, many people do not realize that in archaeology the artifact is only as valuable as the story it tells and, for this story, context is everything. Imagine someone walks into a police station and says, “Here, I found these bullet casings at a crime scene.” Even if they remember exactly where the casings came from, that evidence is forever tainted. Artifacts are evidence. Everything from a building to a ceramic pot to a tiny stone flake to pollen and starch residues are a piece of the puzzle. Guess which of those things I just listed are what looters are after? Guess how many of those things they disturb, damage, and destroy in the process of looking for the “pretty” objects?

This is why archaeologists get so upset when it comes to looting sites. They do not want the artifacts for themselves. This is not about job security. They see the lost potential of not just the objects up for sale, but for everything else lost while they were being ripped from the ground in the name of greed.

Looters dug up and rejected all of these artifacts last March. We lost far more than whatever they took. (Image courtesy of the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Resources)


So, what can you do? Well to start with, be aware of your legislature and tell your representatives that this is important. Last year Florida almost passed a bill that would have effectively legalized the looting of sites on state managed lands. Currently, South Carolina is the only state in the U.S. that has such a law.

Otherwise, tell people about why it matters, why we want to leave things in place. Here is a comic/slideshow I made a while ago that explains what is lost: http://bit.ly/2uP5LEu. Please feel free to share if you find it helpful.

If you simply cannot slake your thirst for all things history with just taking a photograph of an artifact, get involved! Check out your regional FPAN office for events and volunteer opportunities. Also, do not hesitate to contact us directly. Most of us have a few volunteer projects in reserve for just that occasion.

And just to be clear, I am talking about for-profit looting of archaeological sites in this post. There are perfectly legal ways to collect artifacts from sites, and while there is still the problem of removing the story from the artifacts, in my experience these individuals are at least motivated by a genuine passion for history rather than a desire for personal profit. I still wish that they would not remove the artifact from its location, but at least we have some common ground in that enthusiasm.


While I am happy to see people being critical of Hobby Lobby’s blunder, this really is just the tip of the arrowhead. The looting of archaeological sites and the antiquities black market are major problems that do not get much attention. If we can simply be aware of these issues, we have made a step towards getting them under control.