Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession
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To whom does the past belong? Is the archeologist who discovers a lost tomb a sort of hero--or a villain? If someone steals a relic from a museum and returns it to the ruin it came from, is she a thief? Written in his trademark lyrical style, Craig Childs's riveting new book is a ghost story--an intense, impassioned investigation into the nature of the past and the things we leave behind. We visit lonesome desert canyons and fancy Fifth Avenue art galleries, journey throughout the Americas, Asia, the past and the present. The result is a brilliant book about man and nature, remnants and memory, a dashing tale of crime and detection.
In India a common practice is to make replicas of looted objects, have them assessed by archaeological authorities who sign them off as fakes, then supply the real ones with this paperwork so they can slip through customs without a hitch. The artifacts are sometimes bought and sold between shell corporations to further obscure their origins, and with essentially new identities they move into the hands of auction houses and art dealers, their paperwork nearly impeccable. Voilà, they become legal, all traces of the black market obliterated so that antiquities can fly around the world in a nonstop migration.
With a . 22 rifle slung on his shoulder and another guy standing near him, he looked like he was out hunting. We must have made an impression, three travelers wearing behemoth packs springing up in the middle of nowhere. When we gave a friendly wave he pulled the rifle and with one hand hoisted it over his head. He looked like a beacon, the classic Apache pose. We stared at him for a moment. Seeing that we did not get his point, he sighted his rifle and popped a few bullets into the boulders above us.
He wagged the bow at me. “Listen, somebody else is going to find this. How could they not? And they’ll take all these bows just like that. ” “You want to take them instead? ” “Better us than them. ” He glanced around to see who was with him, but nobody was. Ugly Man cocked his jaw. “Come on, there’s nothing wrong with it. ” Trying to answer him, I felt like I was stammering, empty-handed. I had no argument for how I felt, other than that we should not take these things. They are not ours. But I had never had to come up with a reason why.
I would do anything to get close to these peepholes that were being dug in time. It was, indeed, a privilege. Even if I only excavated mouse bones, potsherds, and horizons of fine, gray dust, the sense of revelation springing out of the ground was well worth it. (Not to mention enthusiastic camps awash in evening talk about ancient wars and migrations. And, of course, there were nights spent in poorly lit bars where excavators were far more raucous than the usual ranchers and drunks. ) I have secretly wished to be an archaeologist myself, but I do not have the patience for the scientific tedium involved, which would test model-ship builders.
So I was going to repatriate it myself. Who else knew the canyons of its origin better than I? I slipped the vessel into my satchel. Inside the case, the absence was obvious, a gap left on a shelf. I reached in with the bandana and rearranged the remaining pots until they looked evenly spread, leaving faint circles in the dust. I leaned in my head and blew across the row of pots. The dust danced up and settled. I took only one artifact from the case, a truly symbolic gesture, considering how unlikely it was that anyone would even notice it gone.