Right about now, I’m not quite sure whether I want to throw up, hide under the bed, or humiliate the children by punching the air and doing a victory lap around the living room. Colour me rather conflicted.
Why the churning stomach? Because this one is my baby.
Here’s the thing… I’ve primped and preened plenty of things that have had a public airing. And although there’s always an adrenaline rush when the big debut is looming, this one’s different. Loot is special because I care so damned much about the subject matter.
And next Sunday, 8 May, from 7.30pm AEST, it will be making its Australian debut on SBS VICELAND (for those who want to stop reading now and just want the vital information, Loot will also be available for catch-up on SBS, and there are two episodes airing each week, back-to-back). If you’re not on Antipodean shores, Beyond International has sold it internationally, so tune in for screening info.
The episodes? Well, in no particular order:
Robbing the Cradle: The Looting of the Iraq Museum
Blood Antiquities: Islamic State in Syria
Behind the Mask: the Rape of the Pharaohs
Though Shalt Not Steal: Hobby Lobby and the Museum of the Bible
Dealing with the Devil: the Getty Goddess
Risky Business: Michael Steinhardt and the Greek Gold
The Killing Fields: Douglas Latchford and the Khmer Treasure
Hitler’s Museum of Stolen Art: Nazi Art Dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt
** (and if you’ve clicked on the link and watched the trailer, yes… you do know that voice. It’s BEYOND thrilling that Robert Lee… he of Mythbusters fame… signed up as narrator for the series).
This is the documentary series I’ve wanted to get on air for years. Why? Well, the best way to explain is by relating a couple of stories. Feel free to skip to the end if the glut of words that follows makes your brain hurt.
OK – so, I worked as an archaeologist in the Middle East for many years. No secrets there. And looting was the bane of my existence.
Case in point… I was working in eastern Turkey with the legendary Tony and Claudia Sagona from the University of Melbourne when we uncovered an undisturbed Bronze Age burial at a site called Sos Tepe. For those who care, it’s a spot just outside the city of Erzurum, on the road to Pasinler.
Anyway, it was a pristine burial of a girl who was probably in her early teens when she died about 4,500 years ago.
Once we discovered the grave, the clock was ticking. Because we knew that anything we didn’t document and preserve during the day would be gone when we returned to the site the next morning.
There’s never much in the way of valuables found in Bronze Age deposits like these, if you’re talking gold and precious gems. But despite all you’ve seen in Indiana Jones, that’s not what archaeologists are searching for. We were in eastern Turkey because it’s an important way-station on the great Indo-European migration that carried Caucasian language, and culture, into western Europe from Central Asia… and the information that a grave like this could tell us about the people who gave birth to western civilisation was invaluable.
So to a looter, the grave would most likely be next-to worthless. But to an archaeologist? Priceless.
Trouble is, looters equate all tombs with gold… because, yes, some do contain the precious metal. But not many.
We worked like maniacs into the dusk until the last light was gone, to excavate and photograph everything we could. We probably found everything that was there. But we’ll never really know, because—sure enough—the next morning, we returned to a gaping pit.
Whatever other stories that girl and the people who buried her might have told us, were gone forever. Worse still, by digging into the other layers of cultural material below the burial, anything found in the vicinity lost its context and became, in an archaeological sense, meaningless. That’s because archaeologists aren’t looking for objects… they’re searching for knowledge.
In terms of the damage that was done, the best way to understand it is to think about an archaeological site as a rainbow cake with chocolate (as the oldest level) at the bottom, vanilla in the middle, and strawberry (as the most recent level) on top. If you find something identifiable – say, a coin you can date – in, let’s say, the chocolate level, you’ll break a tooth. You can also say with some certainty when that level was created, and you know how old everything in the chocolate layer is, give or take a year. But if you take a spoon and dig down in the centre of the cake till you hit the chocolate level and take out a big scoop, you end up with a big, pink, white and brown mess. Worst of all, that dated coin may end up in the vanilla or strawberry level. So then you don’t know which level the dated coin belongs to.
That’s what happens on an archaeological site when looters get to work. When stratigraphy—or layering—is messed up, any certainty about dating goes out the window, along with everything an archaeologist holds dear. That’s why archaeologists hate looting. It’s not about the great stuff they lose. It’s about the history that’s destroyed.
As for the local villagers, well, they blamed the Syrians. Never mind that the Syrian border was over 400kms away.
So, yes. I have experienced the damage looters can do… first hand. And I have always condemned the trade in stolen antiquities, in the strongest possible terms.
Right. Second story. After I stepped back from the whole archaeological fieldwork thing, I took up a spot as the manager of an art department at an auction business here in Melbourne. While I was working there, a tiny Hellenistic drinking cup turned up in one of the small weekly auctions. I couldn’t quite believe it. It was absolutely lovely, and cheap as chips. There was nothing to suggest it might have come out of a museum or other collection, so I presumed it had probably come into the weekly auction from one of the many deceased estates the business handled.
But what path had it taken to find its way to Australia? It was made in the Western Mediterranean in 300BC or so—so it’s a fair guess to say it didn’t find its way to our shores by accident. “Well,” I thought to myself. “Perhaps it was found in the desert outside Beersheba by a WWI veteran … Or it could have come from a collection put together by a local antiquities enthusiast.” That’s right. A perfect example of what Donna Yates, who has dedicated her life to fighting the war on the trade in looted antiquities, would describe as “plausible deniability.”
So it went to auction, and I bought it. Cost me about A$80 and change. A steal.
Thing is, in retrospect, that is exactly what it might have been. A steal. Not that I entertained that thought for a moment. Even if I’d been at the receiving end of looters’ efforts on more than one occasion, at the time, ‘antiquities theft’ meant, for me, the big stuff. I never thought looters would bother with the countless tiny archaeological objects that turn up every day on sites around the world. Or that buying them from a commercial business is no guarantee that they’ve ended up on the market through legitimate avenues.
The truth is that little things like my cup are the collateral damage that occurs when looters are searching for the things that will give them a big payday. They’re the bread and butter of the looting business. High volume, low yield.
It was only when I started looking into it all in more detail, and following the legends in the field… Neil Brodie, Amr Al-Azm, Monica Hanna, Patty Gerstenblith, Roberta Mazza, Christos Tsirogiannis, Alison Betts, Donna Yates, Mark Altaweel… that I came to understand that even when you buy the ‘bric-a-brac’ of the stolen antiquities world, as Neil Brodie describes things like my cup, you’re potentially funneling money into the hands of crime gangs and terrorists.
These objects may be cheap, in a monetary sense. Small and not at all uncommon, certainly. Yet stolen, just the same. Not all of them, certainly. It may well be that my Hellenistic cup ended up here legitimately. But I’ve no way of knowing. And what it may represent—the theft and desecration of a culture that’s not mine—well, that turns my stomach.
This is a classic supply and demand problem. Stop the demand. And the supply will dry up.
So what I’ve tried to do in Loot is to show how the smallest decisions can have the gravest consequences. Butterfly wings and all that. And, yes—I am preaching with the fervour of the converted, and do so without apology.
It’s a huge story that will, I hope, challenge some of the things you hold dear. I know it certainly did for me.
Massive thanks are due to Greg Quail and Brendan Dahill of EQ Media for seeing the potential in the series. I’m on board as creator, writer and producer. But it wouldn’t have happened without the efforts of EQ and Beyond International, who have done a stellar job producing Loot. Justin Corbett and David Alrich led the production team on a punishing schedule under COVID restrictions… no small task!
And the biggest highlight? Providing a platform for a group of people who have been fighting for change for decades. I owe them a huge debt of gratitude… not just for their participation in this project, but for helping me see the world differently.
With any luck… if the gods of international sales are on our side… we’ll be back with more stories to tell in a second series.
Speaking of which, if you know of a tale that must be told… drop me a line.