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Issue Date:  May 20, 2005

By Roger Atwood
St. Martin’s Press,
337 pages, $25.95
Preserving the past from the vandals of history


In Stealing History, veteran journalist Roger Atwood shines a spotlight on the shady world of looting, smuggling and trading in archaeological artifacts around the globe. The wholesale and ruthless exploitation of the archaeological heritage of Peru serves as the sadly illuminating example of why antiquities should not be treated as just another commodity to be mined, exported and traded freely without restrictions of any kind.

Atwood focuses especially on the northern Peruvian coastal archaeological site of Sipán. As is the case with almost all huacas, or burial mounds, in the Andean nation, it was first “discovered” by huaqueros (tomb robbers), in this case the local Bernal family. In 1987, after many attempts, the family literally struck gold: They found the tomb of a Moche king. They filled nylon sack after sack with gold and silver artifacts, greedily casting aside and destroying skeletons of the king and courtiers, pottery and other in-their-eyes-worthless ceramic and copper remnants of this pre-Hispanic civilization from about 1,700 years ago.

Anyone connected directly or indirectly with these splendid artifacts was struck by gold fever: the robbers, the village, the middlemen, the dealers, the smugglers, the collectors, the museums. Much money changed hands and was lost. Lives were forever changed or ruined. It is a fascinating and dark tale of intrigue, deceit and corruption but also of dedication, perseverance and triumphs.

Walter Alva, the Peruvian archaeologist who alone did not give up hope but undertook salvage excavations under trying conditions at the beleaguered -- literally! -- huaca of Sipán, was finally rewarded by uncovering two more intact royal burials. In 2002, the excellent brand-new Royal Tombs of Sipán Museum opened in the nearby town of Lambayaque with innovative exhibits presenting the objects within their funerary setting. Even the museum’s shape echoes the burial mounds. U.S. and Peruvian police actions helped to return some of the looted antiquities to Peru.

However, the inadequacies of the legislation in Peru, the United States and other countries continue to protect some unscrupulous dealers, collectors and, yes, even major museums all too willing to hide behind technicalities. The havoc wrought on the archaeological heritage of Iraq since the invasion of 2003 helped to remind the world of the fragility of humankind’s patrimony in the face of well-organized looting combines. Some good has come out of this latest sad chapter by giving the issue overall a higher political profile than it has received in a long time. New legislation has been enacted or is being proposed in many rich “collecting” countries that will help to close some of the legal loopholes.

Nevertheless, Atwood finds it difficult not to be pessimistic. “The day is not far off when an archaeologist can go through an entire career without seeing a single unpillaged site. That’s a realistic possibility and whether we realize it or not, we are moving toward it with alarming speed,” he writes. He offers evidence of regions in Peru that no longer yield looted antiquities because nothing is left to plunder. The Vicús culture in northern Peru, for example, which thrived about 2,000 years ago, is solely known from artworks looted from its sites without any context whatsoever: Nothing was ever excavated scientifically nor is there anything left to excavate.

One may wonder: Why is it so important to have archaeologists excavate artifacts? Because “looted objects are pretty but dumb.” Artifacts can only tell their full story when found in context, in association with other artifacts and remains of human activity.

“Looting robs a country of its heritage, but, even worse, it destroys everyone’s ability to know about the past. When ancient sites are excavated carefully and methodically by trained archaeologists, all of humanity can gain an understanding into how those societies lived, how they worshiped, how they raised their children, what they valued,” Atwood writes.

This is even more true for ancient societies without written texts. As Atwood admits, “The biggest obstacle to stopping the looting ... is overcoming the feeling that it is inevitable.” Yet something does get done about it: Walter Alva successfully organized grupos de protección arquológica, or citizen’s patrols, in Úcupe, which reconnected local people with their heritage and have kept their lands safe from both illegal squatters and tomb robbers. FBI agent Bob Wittman’s sting operation recovered the massive golden backflap of the looted Sipán tomb in Philadelphia, smuggled into the United States by the Panamanian consul general. The stir caused by the looting of the National Museum in Baghdad in 2003 increased international cooperation, leading also to more recoveries of artifacts plundered from Iraqi sites.

This is a fascinating book, full of life and color. You almost feel as if Atwood is telling you his life’s work one-on-one, along with the odd jump in continuity at times. Still, he shows us this trade through the eyes of all involved. He offers us more than a one-dimensional picture, even though he doesn’t pretend to be neutral.

One quibble: It is hard to comprehend the sheer beauty and attraction of some of the Sipán jewelry from the few bundled black-and-white illustrations. Also, why are they not referred to in the text? You can go online at the official Sipán Museum Web site ( for color photos and information (unfortunately only in Spanish). The evocative jacket photo of a Southeast Asian temple sculpture vandalized by looters is unidentified.

Francis Deblauwe is an archaeologist who manages the 2003 Iraq War and Archaeology Web site,

National Catholic Reporter, May 20, 2005

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