About Andrew Vasicek

Andrew Vasicek graduated from the University of Rochester in 2002 where he studied evolutionary biology and European history. He received his JD from Boston College Law School in 2006. The focus of his legal studies was intellectual property law and environmental law. He is presently a contract attorney with Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP.

Forensics, looting, and the law: The view from Ohio

An article I first encountered in the online version of the newspaper The Columbus Dispatch, out of Columbus, Ohio, caught my eye awhile ago when searching for current news to discuss, but then things got busy and it slipped my mind. Rediscovering it now, I realise that the innovative project it describes is worthy of dissemination here. The article describes a course held last August to provide archaeologists and law-enforcement officials/investigators from around the region, and from across the US, the tools, on-the-ground training, and ‘forensic’ perspective they need to investigate cases of prehistoric and historic site looting (see photo at left). For the 4th time, this course was held within Wayne National Forest near Nelsonville, Ohio, an area containing a variety of archaeological sites spanning 12,000 years of occupation, and including Hopewell-culture burial grounds significant to several Native American descendant tribes. Both an introductory and advanced course are offered, with the advanced course geared more towards professional practicing archaeologists employed by National Parks or Forestry departments around the country; often the first individual to stumble on cases on fresh looting.

Mock ‘crime-scenes’ illustrating several illicit surface collection and excavation scenarios were set up and then utilized, most illustrating evidence for the looting of small, portable prehistoric artifacts such as arrowheads. Field training went hand-in-hand with workshops on the finer points of local and national laws that permit the arrest and trial of looters caught in the act-an outcome which happens far too infrequently, even in the US, according to course instructor Martin McAllister, founder of the cultural resources management firm Archaeological Damage Investigation & Assessment (ADIA), and Wayne Forest chief archaeologist Ann Cramer. Rick Perkins, chief ranger of the nearby Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, and Steve Vance, tribal historic-preservation officer for the Cheyenne River Sioux of South Dakota (and an attendant), both attested to the importance of a course that provides field investigators the skills with which to record burial looting events, evidence for which can be subtle or deliberately concealed. Legal fines can be as steep as $250,000 and five years in prison for deliberate removal of artifacts more than 100 yrs old (error in original article corrected, McAllister, pers. comm.) and additional penalties are in place for damage to burials under NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act), as well as lesser fines for damaging historic period sites. Therefore, one would think that casual visitors and locals would have every incentive to leave the past alone, and yet looting continues apace.

Although the article does not report whether or not participants or course conveners deemed the class a success, the continued offering of such classes by ADIA (above), sometimes within western US states (such as McAllister’s native Montana) suggests that all involved come away much more informed. Comparative international examples exist, such as the village workshops conducted by Heritage Watch within communities near threatened sites in Cambodia, but these tend to be more focused on the value of intact sites themselves (a crucial educational message regardless), and less about training authorities to recognize and document looting ex post facto. If any readers of this blog know about current workshops or classes in their area of the world that are comparable to this, I’d love to hear about them. I suspect, however, that such training efforts are rare internationally due to monetary or staff constraints-making this innovative project a model to be followed in future wherever possible.

Finders Keepers – Craig Childs

As it turns out, the author’s title is unbelievably appropriate as it describes the essence of the entirety of the book – a personal reaction to the discovery of artifacts.

Childs sets out to describe the history behind humanity’s need to understand its past. He artfully crafts a story based in part on his own personal, and very diverse, travels about the globe. He tells of grand discoveries as often as simple broken pots. Childs successfully creates a sense that each item has a tale to tell and is valuable for that alone, if nothing else. He also notes the vast disparity between people of all walks of life in terms of how they interact with, and understand, the past as embodied in ruins and artifacts. Archaeologists, collectors, looters, and families all make their appearances; all lending their views on the issues and all are given due consideration by Childs.

Perhaps comprising the central theme of the book, Childs effectively engenders an appreciation for the natural beauty of not only artifacts, but also of their settings. In this simple observation, he draws attention to perhaps the thorniest issue surrounding many of the artifacts of the world, whether in private collections, museums, or still in the ground: are artifacts art or information? Do they have value on their own or do they require provenance and detailed records of discovery? Who should properly care for them – individuals, museums, or the sands of time?

Childs wavers back and forth throughout the book, between his opinion that humanity’s need to possess items from its past is natural and his personal feeling that artifacts should remain where we find them, left to become one with the earth again in time. For him, the answer is personal and simple, our museums and collections are full to bursting already – we ought to let our discoveries lie in peace to be observed and appreciated in their “natural” state by the next passerby.

However, this is where one comes against at least two main problems with Childs’ conclusions. First, his premise is based on an entirely personal feeling. Such a feeling is obviously difficult to define, as Childs doesn’t fully succeed in convincing the reader that his position is the right one. As such, his position is not particularly helpful in defining how we ought to interact with our past, or how we ought to govern our behavior. Of course, if his goal was to start the discussion surrounding the treatment of cultural sites and artifacts on an entirely new path, Childs could be successful.

Second, the ultimate result of Childs’ “let it lie” mentality is often bound to be precisely the same result as if nothing had been found at all. For all intents and purposes the artifact — all its uniqueness, history, and information – will be lost to humanity. Perhaps this is preferable to the destruction of innumerable sites from the greed or nonchalance of looters and others, but perhaps not. What value has history if no one knows it? Childs tells of several finds he uncovered in his travels, only to leave them to chance thereafter. He argues that our museums and collections are overflowing with artifacts and that we cannot properly care for the ones we already have. Why continue to dig up new artifacts which might not even be seen in a museum, instead languishing away in a climate-controlled basement? One has to admit, Childs has a valid point.

Even so, is there not a value in facilitating the sharing of knowledge and engendering an appreciation for humanity’s past? Who is to say when a new discovery is more than just another pot, and is, in fact, new evidence never before seen? Provided we continue to legitimize the process surrounding digs and the acquisition of artifacts, it seems almost silly to argue that we’re better off leaving things in the dirt. Childs’s personal, almost spiritual, relationship with his process of hiking and discovery is just that – personal. It is not immediately translatable to anyone else.

While Childs himself does not truly reach a firm conclusion, he certainly generates the impression that if he had his way, all the world’s remaining undiscovered ruins and artifacts would remain as they are – unknown to anyone unwilling to backpack for days in the remaining wilderness areas of our world. At the same time, Childs does agree that the work of archeologists is preferable to that of looters, even though he often equates the two in many ways.

His final three examples demonstrating his ethic when making a new find illustrate all the above criticisms. He tells of returning to the site of a long ago discovered basket, an arrowhead on the side of the road, and a prayer stone in Tibet. He again wavers between his natural desire to possess each of these finds, to take them to show others. In the end, his conscience wins the day and he leaves each where he found them — in an important way, treating them as the bits of plant matter and rocks they will soon become.

Childs doesn’t seem to see the problem that strikes the reader in these actions. For example, he states that the basket was clearly purposefully placed where he found it. However, his discovery came on the heels of an arduous and dangerous trek to find a tiny crack where if he poked his head in he could just discern the shadowy form of the basket. Everything about his lengthy description speaks to the probability that the basket merely fell into the crack some hundreds or thousands of years ago.

The arrowhead he leaves behind instead of sharing with his son because he knows it will merely become a dusty member of his own cardboard box collection. Because of this, he opts instead to leave the artifact by the road for someone else to discover. Is it really better than teaching his son about the history that fragment represents? With his decision, this piece of history will likely remain nothing more than roadside gravel. Even though the sentiment is a noble one, perhaps it is too simplistic.

In final example of the prayer stone, the reader feels Childs’s ethic is the most appropriate. These stones were placed for a specific and important purpose. It is an inherently different idea to protect the placement of something placed for a firm purpose.

Of course, it is never that simple. Who is to say what a culture from the past (or even the present) holds sacred? Who gets to decide, particularly if the item is old enough that we don’t rightly know to whom it can be said to “belong?” Even though the questions are difficult, the reader almost feels as though Childs’s approach ignores them rather than answers them.

Even though he acknowledges that there are places where one can hardly walk without crunching artifacts underfoot, Childs also seems to ignore the reality that over time, we can expect humans to continue to grow across much of the land that is currently “undeveloped.” If the best policy were truly to simply leave things as they are, anything we might gain from undiscovered sites or artifacts will be lost to us as we cover the earth with our buildings. Childs seems to believe that this is simply the way it ought to be, that artifacts and ruins should just be reclaimed by the earth. The reader feels this attitude is too simplistic or perhaps simply oblivious.

All in all, Childs’s heart is in the right place and he tells an interesting story of a personal journey across the face of archaeology and collecting. However, in terms of the world at large, the reader feels we should focus on creating better incentives to properly study the artifacts we have, allowing for as much preservation of their context as possible. In many cases, this may mean leaving the items where they were found. But is it really wrong to say that if someone thinks the find is of interest, for knowledge and understanding or simply for aesthetics, that they should be barred from a thoughtful study of them?

Humanity as a whole should be allowed to care about its past, to want to touch it, to understand it – in fact, it should be encouraged to do so. Not all of us can make treks through the wilderness to find these relics from the past – but many of us can make a trip to a museum or follow a designated path to a protected site.

Artifacts are both a part of us and the earth’s history. The fact that each person has different ideas about how we ought to deal with them is what makes the topic so difficult and yet so compelling. Hopefully, opinions like those of Childs will continue to move that discussion along to fruitful outcomes.

Cradle of Gold – Christopher Heaney

(Review by Andrew Vasicek)

In his book, Heaney utilizes an easy, conversational style to tell an interesting and surprising tale of the life and adventures of Hiram Bingham. The reader is treated to Indiana Jones-like stories of the explorer’s travels throughout Peru and of the wonderful discoveries he made. Heaney’s use of original sources is at times inspired and always appropriate. The little tidbits about Bingham and his family are often poignant and truly create a feeling in the reader that one knows the man himself.

At the same time, the reader is shown the sometimes shady underbelly of the profession of archaeology (or perhaps just “exploring”) and its connections to the mistreatment of indigenous people, the illicit artifact trade, and much more. Sadly, these practices date back hundreds or thousands of years, perhaps as far back as humanity has existed in a form resembling that of today.

In many cases, Bingham represents a sort of “renaissance man” that belongs to a different era. He lived a highly varied life, spending time on isolated islands — at sea and in the jungle. He met a great number of people from all walks of life and from all over the world. However, as Heaney writes, Bingham was the hero of his own life.

Bingham treated the world almost as his personal plaything; he expected to get what he wanted and to make use of it as he saw fit. He ostensibly followed the rules, but felt few qualms about bending them as it suited his needs. When the rules became too strong to bend to his will, he simply changed games, moving into politics instead. As a man of experience and pedigree, he found early success in this venture as well. It is this sense of “easy” success and entitlement that shines through the story most of all, not merely of Bingham personally, but also of the “civilized” world in general. For much of human history (including perhaps our own current time), humanity has divided itself into segments. To the extent that they are aware of each other, each segment feels free to judge and place a value on the others.

It is this sense of “easy” success and entitlement that shines through the story most of all, not merely of Bingham personally, but also of the “civilized” world in general. For much of human history (including perhaps our own current time), humanity has divided itself into segments. To the extent that they are aware of each other, each segment feels free to judge and place a value on the others.

In Bingham’s time, this was most definitely the case. Theories such as Social Darwinism and Eugenics came and went, but always the “civilized” nations felt they were the best qualified to care for humanity’s history. In fact, they often felt that they needed to care for humanity’s history. This feeling extended even over artifacts and locations where the local countries were actively fighting for their right to control their own cultural discoveries. Thus, the people with sufficient power and motivation felt they were the only ones who cared enough — the only ones who could care enough — to properly preserve historical items. Unfortunately, this attitude led to the widespread removal of artifacts from their homelands to be displayed (or hidden in storage) in far-flung museums and galleries. This practice became something of a competition amongst the wealthier nations of the world. In one sense, the reader sides with the explorers and researchers as they are at least preferable to unsupervised and rampant looting simply for personal gain. We want to see the museums of the world display artifacts and sites in such a way that the viewer can truly gain an understanding and appreciation for all that has come before.

However, as Heaney points out, this viewing need not take place in Bingham’s New Haven, CT. In fact, many times, such a viewing might be more effective if the items could be studied closer to home, providing the opportunity for the most interested parties to see and appreciate them. Sometimes this might even include people who can trace their remote ancestry directly to those who hail from the era of a cultural site. In the end, the book represents a fascinating and at times gripping story of Bingham’s life. In terms of what this amazing man’s experiences can teach us about the discovery and study of antiquities today, Heaney only touches briefly upon the topic, picking up the theme throughout the overarching narrative of Bingham’s movie-script of a life. He helps the reader understand what it is about humanity that might make us seek to make discoveries, to possess ancient objects at whatever the cost. Heaney does not, however, go far enough in elucidating ways to reign in these exuberances. In fairness, this was not the focus of the book, but Bingham provides such fertile soil, that the reader justifiably might expect more.

The Lost Chalice: A review

The book’s cover promises a thrilling and true story surrounding the shady deals of the underground. However, the author only partly delivers on this promise. The Lost Chalice follows the history of several key players in the drama that surrounded one of the more famous pieces of ancient craftsmanship to be discovered in recent times. This piece is none other than a spectacular red-figure Attic krater (something like a broad vase) created by a preeminent Greek painter and potter by the name of Euphronios. The book provides an admirable level of information about the history of this and other related works, and the methods by which they were created. Silver does not bore with too much detail, but suceeds in making his descriptions of the works, their subject matter, and the period in which they were created interesting and helpful.

Unfortunately, once the story began to dive deep into the complex world of tomb raiding, it also began to become less clear. To some degree this effect may simply be due to the reviewer’s relative lack of experience with the world of antiquities. However, the convoluted relationships between tomb raiders, art dealers, collectors, and museum staff often remained just so. It was also sometimes difficult to keep track of which artifact was being followed and described at a given moment due to the fact that the story followed additional ancient works (such as the chalice of the title, also referred to as a “kylix”), some made by Euphronios and some by others, but all of which (to a novice) sometimes seem very similar. All of this added to the mystery surrounding the pieces and the process, but it also sadly made the action somewhat difficult to keep straight at times.

Even so, Silver provides stunning amounts of detail, sometimes even for items quite unrelated to the plotline. This attention to specifics effectively put the reader in the moment, and demonstrated the author’s dedication to uncovering all the information he possibly could about the pieces and the players (both reputable and less so) involved in the artifact deals.

This is the book’s true focus: on the winding and sometimes mysterious path of Euphronios’ priceless work(s). The krater was unearthed in the 1970s in Italy, after about 2,400 years of undisturbed rest. From there it began its new life in the underground network of tomb raiders and art dealers. Kept often in hiding, smuggled into other countries, bought and sold, and eventually prominently displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the piece was eventually returned to Italy in 2008 under a landmark arrangement that helped set the stage for more judicious treatment of ancient artifacts. This unprecedented event was forcibly caused by the dogged determination of a few groups of investigators and officials (who themselves were not always spotless in behavior). This relatively new development will hopefully further decrease the incentive to conduct illegal digs that disrupt the ability of researchers to fully grasp the meaning and importance of historical finds.

It is here, that the story could have done more than simply create an entertaining crime drama. While noting the importance of “proper” archaeology to uncovering critical details about archaeological finds, the style of the book causes this to feel like mere lip service to the idea. Silver generally appears to be more interested in telling a thrilling adventure story that surrounds the acquisition of artifacts than anything else. Indeed, in many instances throughout the book, one may find oneself “rooting” for the underworld characters – those people robbing the world of the opportunity to fully appreciate the heritage and knowledge that might be found in an archaeological site.

The police and other representatives of “the law” come off as the oppressors in many instances (or even simply co-conspirators who turn a blind eye). Even the mediocre application of these laws intended to prevent looting is portrayed as more of an impediment to be overcome, than a guide for the proper course of action. Silver does note that most countries have had laws respecting the discovery of ancient artifacts, but that until recent decades these were only inconsistenly enforced, and with moderate success. The adventure surrounding the “lost chalice” and it’s relatives may shed additional light upon the problems that are associated with tomb raiding and illicit artifact dealing, but the message certainly could have been more strongly conveyed.

The people associated with the clearly illegal elements of the story were not necessarily portrayed in a positive light, but they did often make sympathetic characters (particularly the principal raider – Giacomo Medici). Silver did leave one with the feeling that the times have changed, and that the pool for illicit deals is drying up. Many (if not most) of the items discussed in The Lost Chalice have, in fact, been repatriated to their countries of discovery, or are still the subject of legal battles and negotiations to do so. In that way, perhaps this story will continue to help spur awareness of these issues and encourage people to think twice about engaging in the purchase of items with questionable provenance. Unfortunately for the artifacts that have already been the subject of looting, there is no way of knowing what information has been forever lost as a result.

(Note: Medici has been sentenced to 10 years in jail with a $14 million fine. Other players on trial still await final verdicts.)