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Mobsters, Museums and the Twin Towers: Tutankhamun and the Illicit Antiquities Trade

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The 20th-century saw modern man make numerous momentous steps forward thanks to his senses of innovation and exploration.

It also witnessed significant progress in gazing backwards to understand our place in history.

Next week marks the 90th anniversary of one of the latter types of milestone, arguably the most dramatic in the science of archaeology.

On the afternoon of Sunday, November the 26th 1922, Howard Carter gazed through a small hole in the door of the tomb now listed as KV62 in the Valley of the Kings, near Luxor in Egypt.

By flickering candlelight, he told his patron, Lord Carnarvon, that he could see "wonderful things". There were so many precious objects, in fact, that it took a decade just to clear the tomb.

In that time, Carter's achievements made his name famous along with that of the previously obscure young pharaoh, Tutankhamun, whose remains had lain for millennia beneath a golden death mask.

His discovery also helped fuel a lasting worldwide passion for all things Egyptian in a manner which not even Napoleon's expedition of 120 years before had managed and underlined the financial value of ancient artefacts.

That museums clamoured to acquire works of historical significance, beauty and appeal to increase reputations wasn't necessarily new. However, for the first time, there was a huge popular demand to view such material, a demand which hasn't abated in the near century since, as those who queued to see a selection of the riches intended for King Tut's afterlife at London's O2 Arena in 2007 will attest.

Outside dusty galleries, Hollywood and pop music were also quick to capitalise. Over the years, Boris Karloff, Steven Spielberg and even Rolf Harris have all tapped into the rich seam of fascination and imagination which Carter created.

Whilst packed audiences on his speaking tours demonstrated to him just how interested the public had become, Carter could not have known that his efforts would appeal to gangsters and terrorists too.

Families living around the Valley of the Kings, for instance, had long pilfered tombs for items to sell to tourists but mobsters now globalised the trade, generating billions of dollars each year.

They ensnared private collectors and unscrupulous institutions who didn't care from where or how objects were acquired. They took their lead from freelances like Giovanni Batista Belzoni, an 18th-century Italian strongman, who broke into tombs on behalf of British diplomats using explosives and battering rams.

The latter-day illegal tomb raiders, also used mechanical diggers to smash apart historic sites in search of sellable trinkets and used material as collateral in drug deals. Great swathes of land, formerly part of ancient or classical civilisations in the Americas, Europe and the Far East have been destroyed.

Those with bigger and more dastardly and dramatic goals even than crime gangs have taken advantage. In 1999, two years before he helped bring down the World Trade Centre, Mohamed Atta, himself an Egyptian, is alleged to have tried to sell artefacts looted in Afghanistan to a German university in order to get the money to buy a plane.

His is one attempt which shows how thieves have used political upheaval and war in order to cherry-pick antiquities from museums and places of interest. The 'Arab Spring' continues to prompt grave concerns about spoliation with museums not spared from attack. Syria currently alarms the archaeological community in much the same way that Libya, Egypt and Iraq all have in recent years.

Such damage is not without its consequences, though. Just as investigation by myself and others have helped win the restitution of Holocaust era art to the families from which it had been taken by the Nazis, institutions around the world have been forced to repatriate hundreds of ancient items. They include the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, which last year returned 40 illegally excavated objects to Italy, among them a seven-foot-tall statue of the Greek goddess, Aphrodite.

Another of the by-products of the interest in Tutankhamun has been the awakening of a consciousness and connection between objects in display cases around the world and those countries in which they had been found.

Dr Zahi Hawass, an egyptologist who styles himself as his country's 'Indiana Jones', has pressed foreign governments, museums and collectors to hand back even those treasures taken and maintained with the best of intentions. The British Museum has long resisted his attempts to return the Rosetta Stone.

As well as understanding the national pride associated with getting back Egypt's illustrious patrimony, he knows the potential commercial value it represents in luring tourists to North Africa.

It is a more illicit worth which has resulted in two attempts to stem the black market in antiquities. Earlier this year, a team of specialists at Glasgow University was awarded a £1 million grant to determine the extent and methods of the criminal trade in artefacts (http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/scotland-blog/2012/feb/13/glasgow-team-gets-1m-grant-to-study-illegal-trade-in-antiquities).

Just this week, it was also reported that the International Council of Museums (ICOM) is setting up a new intelligence group to monitor illegal antiquities trafficking.

Both measures provide structure and the promise of greater knowledge of a topic which, by its very nature, has been clandestine, lucrative and often dangerous.

Using that insight to allow better conservation and understanding of what our ancestors left behind is surely the sort of future which Howard Carter would have wanted for his legacy.