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Field Notebook

June 05, 2009
Obsessed with the Oldness of Things...

Detail of cuneiform tablet
Detail of cuneiform tablet
The oldness of things can become infectious. Some take to the sciences and become archaeologists, while others delve into the precarious underworld of dealing and collecting, and a small number spend their lifetimes scouring the earth in search of untouched relics. I am mostly among the later. I grew up with a gut reaction to archaeology where an arrowhead in my hand felt warm with possibility. Though I could scarcely say why, I taught myself to leave anything I found. It just seemed like the right thing to do. The conviction echoed through my life as I carefully guarded my knowledge of sites that I came upon, never even marking locations on maps. I left behind baskets, pots, and woven sandals.

I once sat in an archaeologist's office discussing a site I had discovered, and when I would not disclose its location he said I was no better than most vandals. He said that people like me effectively prevent professionals from identifying and preserving crucial sites. That was aout the time I began writing a book on global issues surrounding artifacts, the manuscript now coming down to the wire (pub date ~ June 2010). My journey proved much more difficult and revelatory than I expected as I immersed myself in a world of scholars, thieves, and would-be saviors. During one of the interviews I was in the vault of an antiquities collector with, I'd guess, about $10 million in artifacts all around us. When I told him of pieces I had found in the wilderness and left behind, he was incredulous, saying, "They are crying out to be taken, you're just wasting them by leaving them there." He sounded an awful lot like the archaeologist.

Discourse among scientists, curators, dealers, and collectors tends to be polarized at best, vitriolic at worst. The cast of characters involved in ancient things gets along like a pen of angry dogs. Some are even willing to kill. At one point I interviewed an antiquities broker - he seemed like a nice enough fellow - and a few days later heard that he put a price on the head of a troublesome foreign journalist. Another man, an amateaur archaeologists cum pothunter now in prison, explained to an undercover agent that you have to go into the field well armed, and if law enforcement pays a visit to your digging operation, you "drop 'em...and never come back." Meanwhile, a university archaeologist has publicly implored troops to shoot people plundering archaeological sites in Iraq. On a more personal note, an archaeologist in Utah once said that she would be glad if I died on one of my ventures in the wilderness and scavengers ate my bones. You don't get this kind of talk from geologists or stamp collectors. It is a phenomenon of archaeology.

I met an elderly pothunter who took off his bracelet and handed it to me, an inlay of silver and turquoise probably a century and a half old. "You know where I got that?" he asked. "Off a dead Navajo." He was a grave-digger with a mischievous grin on his face and the bracelet in my hands suddenly felt like ice. Though I had to swallow my sudden discomfort, I listened to him whimsically explain his love for the past, saying an artifact like this is holy, physically embodying stories that take him back in time. In his mind, he was honoring the bracelet by giving it another go around, but I remained stuck on the fact that he had driven a shovel through a nest of human bones to get it.

I have set out to find if any common ground exists that might lead to greater understanding of why we are so drawn to old things. It is a common ground I hope might ease the destruction and removal of archaeology from the land.

Stacks of books have been published on the ethics of archaeology attempting to answer the ever-elusive question of who has the right to own antiquity. But that is a dead-end question. If someone tells you they have an answer, you can bet they are with one side or another. As archaeological scholar John Carman writes, "Like it or not, by considering archaeological material as 'cultural property' we make archaeology not a handmaiden of history even, but of law and economics." Certainly, law and economics are not what draw people to artifacts in the first place. What we need to consider, rather, is motivation and emotion. That is what is missing from the stacks of books. What is at the core of our attraction to ancient objects? What is so damned important about a clay seal lying in the desert for 2,000 years? Why will we kill for it?

Kathryn Walker Tubb, a cultural heritage scholar at University College of London, writes, "Ultimately the hope, currently so forlorn, must be that some form of reconciliation can be discovered before the archaeological resource is exploited to the point of extinction." I have been trying to write that reconciliation. I have found that the various players in antiquities, though often at each other's throats, are mirrors for each other. They are each driven by the same fundamental desire to create a link in the contemporary mind to those who lived in the distant past. Beyond that, they choose slightly different paths which throws them into far corners of the fight.

When I began writing this book, I was galvanized. Artifacts, I believed, had to be returned to their origins. My conviction took a serious beating through the course of writing, such as a hard lashing from Thomas Hoving, former director of the Met, and many conflicting conversations with researchers and collectors of illicit objects. I asked Hicham Aboutaam, the current kingpin of global antiquities trafficking, to convince me of what is so important about his profession, and he did. Archaeologists won my adoration, and particular museums became holy.

Where did this journey ultimately lead? To the side of a road in New Mexico last week. I was walking along a gravelly shoulder when I strayed to look down a dry arroyo. On the ground before me, I spotted a small red arrowhead. It was made of Jasper stone, for which I named my first son. I picked it up, held it against the sky, a perfect little bird-point. I instantly wanted it. Having it for my own would mark this day and this place on the side of the road. I have seen plenty of arrowheads, and they all cry out with their small voices to be pocketed, this one especially. For the name of my son, for the turquoise sky overhead, for the silent buttes in the distance, and for the long spans of time that fall between.

But there was an older, deeper voice that came through. It had to do with respect for the object, and for the place, reminding me of the brevity of my own life while this arrowhead has been here for centuries. It was the gut feeling I grew up with. I flicked the arrowhead away with my thumb and it landed back in the dirt. I left it there wishing the earth to be populated with memory, a stone on the ground bright as blood.


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