Today the Guardian published this article about the illicit antiquities trade, particularly the trade coming out of Egypt. Larry Rothfield has already shared his opinion on this article and, as with most things Larry Rothfield says, I agree with him entirely. I would like to add that we shouldn’t just be focusing on Middle Eastern antiquities, but on artifacts from basically EVERYWHERE. Looting in the Middle East is definitely a problem, but it is also a problem in South America and Asia as well. It’s a worldwide issue and it should be discussed that way. Additionally, though I am glad the Guardian is giving these issues some much-needed media attention, the same part of me that still can’t get over the Harry Potter movies not being exactly like the books also cannot get over the Indiana Jones reference in the first fricking sentence of this article.
I’m sure this has been ranted about before, but my reasons for ranting about Indiana Jones right now are twofold. First, I’m getting tired of the reference. Second, using this reference to describe big events in combatting the illicit antiquities trade makes the entire thing sound like a novelty or adventure, something that is harmful but not very harmful to people. This is not only a wildly inaccurate perception of the trade, but it is just as potent a lie as any Marion True ever told.
For the record, the first and third Indiana Jones movies are two of my favorite films ever. I used to study film. I love good films. These are good films. Harrison Ford has enough swagger for three men. Love him. But the way Indiana Jones does archaeology is not one of those lessons you should be taking with you outside your screening of the film. Kind of like how anything Captain Jack Sparrow does is fun but not something you should mimic in real life, even for laughs, because people will not want to hang out with you if you do. Let me break it down for you: Indiana Jones has a pretty old-school idea of how history should be preserved. Like, 19th century old school. He and Napoleon have a similarly shoddy approach to preservation, and share a similarly destructive mindset that individuals have the right to singlehandedly obtain “museum-quality” pieces for the Western world to admire. In the process of obtaining these pieces, whole worlds full of ancient history are destroyed in the process. To put it lightly, this approach is no longer widely accepted to be valid by the academic community.
Consequently, comparing the illicit antiquities trade to a popular film that glamorizes art crime and a very unorthodox method of archaeology undermines just how important it is for the public to consider the illicit antiquities trade the same way they consider other similar criminal enterprises, such as the sex trade or the hard drugs trade. When the FBI busts a meth lab, we don’t compare that to an episode of Numb3rs or Bones. We don’t make it sound fun or adventurous or out of the ordinary. And we don’t refer to the meth as treasure. Artifacts are not treasure. This is not Pirates of the Carribbean. This is real life and real people’s cultural property being ripped up and peddled as discreetly, dangerously, and unethically as cocaine or child porn. Allowing people to think of archaeologists, art crime law enforcement officials, or cultural heritage specialists the same way they think of their favorite swashbuckling archaeologist hero is as backward and dangerous as keeping these issues out of textbooks, allowing museums to withhold provenance details, and allowing collectors to donate all their stolen cultural material for a hefty tax break. It’s not fun. It’s not treasure. It is our human history, and it’s being crushed right in front of you.