You are here

All the King’s Horses: Essays on the Impact of Looting and the Illicit Antiquities Trade on Our Knowledge of the Past

All the King’s Horses: Essays on the Impact of Looting and the Illicit Antiquities Trade on Our Knowledge of the Past

Edited by Paula K. Lazrus and Alex W. Barker. Pp. iv + 164, figs. 10, table 1. Society for American Archaeology, Washington, D.C. 2012. $24.95. ISBN 978-0-932839-44-2 (paper).

Reviewed by

The volume under review began as a session organized by the Ethics Committee of the Society for American Archaeology at its annual meeting in Vancouver in 2008, chaired by Barker and Lazrus. The title of the session, which has been retained here for the volume, foregrounds “the effects of looting and distortion of the archaeological record, on the irretrievable loss of the evidence of our common, shared human past” (1). Had there been illustrations and more developed discussion of the topic in the other chapters, the introduction to the volume could have stood alone as a major essay on the issues and debates involved in archaeology. Barker and Lazrus define cultural resources as the exploitation and use of the evidence of the past (an economic aspect reflected in the volume’s first essay). “Cultural heritage” reflects shared values and interest (stewardship), seen, for example, in the varied examples of historical nationalism discussed in the fourth essay (2). Each of the other chapters, representing unique perspectives and diverse approaches, adds to the quality of the overall discussion of this useful collection.

In the first essay, Brodie and Contreras use “subsistence digging” (a term developed by Dwight Heath) to avoid the more ethnocentric or judgmental term “looting” in their discussion of a particular form of archaeological site destruction carried out by people living in impoverished socioeconomic circumstances. The authors provide evidence of artifacts stripped from tombs in Jordan and sold in London. Utilizing Google Earth satellite imagery, they document looted sites, estimated site and artifact loss, and per capita economic attributes for various regions. The authors offer suggestions for possible heritage management programs, emphasizing the potential of archaeological resource preservation as an educational resource/tourist attraction in political regions where economic gain from looting for export is minimal (23–4).

Gill underlines another issue relating to looting and material culture: the lack of cultural/archaeological context and the diverse ways in which we perceive objects from the past. Using the well-known odyssey of the Sarpedon (Euphronios) krater, Gill recounts its passage through various wealthy hands after its large fragments supposedly were removed from an Etruscan tomb in 1971. The Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased it from a private collector for one million dollars. Legislation led to its return to Italy in 2008, generating wide political and diplomatic ramifications and embarrassment for the museum (39–42).

Dyson presents a fascinating history of looting in classical archaeological settings. He begins: “the impulse to loot artistic treasures ... began early in Greco-Roman history” (44). Roman conquerors took foreign sacred objects back to Rome or took “great art” for themselves (43–4); wealthy Romans decorated their houses and gardens with Greek art (45). The rise of Christianity reduced interest in classical Graeco-Roman statuary and resulted in the destruction of many monuments. The Renaissance revived interest in ancient art identified by century, not context, and competition for originals (not reproductions) became important to museums. Greek intellectuals, exiled outside Greece, created an imaginary Attic-based nationalism; the Acropolis became symbolic of the Periclean Golden Age during the late 18th and early 19th centuries (46–9). The debate between provenance/cultural context or “truth and beauty” cosmopolitanism continues in collecting practices as part of the debate between archaeologists and some museum curators (49–50). Dyson claims classical archaeologists continue to work with objects lacking “quality disciplinary context,” but that we should not “abandon efforts to save what is left of the archaeological record or to combat ‘cultural myths’ that promote its destruction” (54). He notes that classical archaeology contributes a long, rich history and methodology for creating orders and contexts “for objects from the past that are orphans in the archaeological world” (54).

German discusses how unprovenanced and misattributed artifacts have led to misrepresentations that have plagued the historical narratives of Minoan and Mycenaean society and religion—problems that persist today, which require revision.

Rodrigues describes the astonishing 7,000 shipwrecks, dating from the 1600s onward, that surround Australia. Shipwreck looting has occurred since the 1950s as a result of interest in the recreational collection of relics on small and more grand (i.e., with dynamite) scales or the desire to retrieve scrap metal. Recently, maritime archaeology programs have developed in western Australia to undertake formal research on shipwrecks. The Commonwealth Government of Australia and West Australia Dutch East India Company formed a shipwrecks protective agreement in 1972–1976 (71–2). Today’s blanket protection law requires owners to report relics/artifacts they own (when objects become 75 years old) to Australia’s maritime cultural heritage agencies (based on an honor system), and other laws govern artifact sale or transfer. A reward is offered for reporting an unknown shipwreck, but monitoring is difficult (72–89).

Elkins discusses collecting ancient coins, a familiar and often popular (and affordable) type of looted object. Prospecting for coins in sites disrupts other objects and stratigraphic contexts. Without scientific research methods, historiographic, archaeological-cultural, iconographic, and numismatic data are lost (91–3). Common ground is needed between the shared interests of archaeologists and collectors to facilitate cooperation between them and jointly improve coin provenance data. The author notes that coin collecting is a major international export business with little to no regulation (which the major participants do not want) (104–6).

Brodie and Kersel raise issues related to religious artifacts. The authors suggest that the economic complexity of business plans required of major museums today has the potential to overshadow due diligence and emphasis on provenance in the authentication of objects because of faith-based beliefs and economic and political pressures. Examples include the James ossuary debacle of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and Islamic artifacts mislabeled to sell as Herodian in some localities because of the current popularity of Judeo-Christian religious history (113–24).

Early’s essay describes Americanist archaeology in Arkansas. Wealthy collectors devise elaborate, fictional historic artifact exhibitions with unprovenanced materials, some from other states and some even faked. She describes Arkansas’ looted sites, and artifacts with unknown provenance (127–29). She concludes with the “gorilla in the room”: our disregard of trafficking in fakery in the United States (129–32).

The references and index to the volume are valuable. The placement of the references for all essays at the conclusion of the text rather than scattered throughout the book worked well for relocating points needed.

Ellis E. McDowell-Loudan
Department of Sociology-Anthropology
SUNY Cortland
Cortland, New York 13045-0900

Book Review of All the Kings Horses: Essays on the Impact of Looting and the Illicit Antiquities Trade on Our Knowledge of the Past, edited by Paula K. Lazrus and Alex W. Barker

Reviewed by Ellis E. McDowell-Loudan

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 118, No. 2  (April 2014)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1182.McDowellLoudan

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.