Book review: ‘Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession,’ by Craig Childs
May 14, 2016
Mankind's history is a curious thing, owned by all, but possessed by none. The story is a fascinating one, and it is a narrative in which all humans — past and present — are players. All humans leave a mark on this Earth, and while yesterday's "stuff" is often considered trash, time inevitably turns much of that refuse into treasure. In his deeply fascinating book "Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession," author Craig Childs lifts the veil on the capricious world of antiquities, revealing what he calls the "underbelly of archaeology."
"From the lowliest dirt geeks to credentialed excavators to the world's biggest antiquities traffickers," Childs says there are ethical and moral issues raised each time an artifact is removed from its initial location. Artifacts, Childs argues, are best left where they originally landed, or in many cases where they were placed or buried with deliberate intent, but he acknowledges that achieving this ideal is challenging, given that the reasons are not rooted in archaeology as much as they are grounded in philosophy.
How does picking something up to be stored away in a box or a vault or a display case preserve its cultural significance? Childs grew up exploring the deserts of the Southwest, where his father instilled in him the habit of just looking, which he acknowledges included touching, picking up and studying on site the many pottery shards and arrow heads that litter the landscape.
Raised with that mindset, Childs questions the value of claiming ownership on the physical bits and pieces of history. Having had access to artifacts in the field, he contends that seeing a relic on a shelf through protective glass is a very different — and diminished — experience to seeing even mismatched shards of pottery where an ancient inhabitant once dropped them.
Thrill of discovery
Examining artifacts on location drives the imagination in a way that provides a more nuanced contemplation of the people who came before. Childs describes how finding something as simple and basic as shells, once common as items of trade, sets his mind to wandering, and he imagines the ancients passing them from hand to hand to signify a transfer of goods or offering them as tokens for deceased loved ones. To him, a single shell can act as a projector for the imagination, for all that the artifact meant to the people who used it.
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This is part of what fuels the thrill of discovery, an inherent curiosity within all of us as we yearn to know and understand the past, certainly laudable goals for human progress. But Childs raises the notion that there is an admittedly vague and ever-shifting line that is perpetually getting crossed, where understanding is no longer enough, where possession becomes the objective. He does not claim to know exactly where that line is, and it is the vagary of it that creates the ethical problem.
More than providing clear answers, Childs is content to raise enough questions to provoke reflection, acknowledging that situations can be without precedent and should be considered case by case. "I've come to believe that each circumstance is unique and there is no generic solution." Of course, treating each case of artifact removal individually means that creating legal frameworks can be daunting, leaving laws in place that are unenforceable or prone to loopholes and abuse.
Childs takes the abstract notion of the preservation of ancient relics and systematically dismantles the ethical house of cards that frames it. He uses individual examples of what motivates private collectors, high-stakes traders and even museums to pull artifacts from the ground. With antiquity laws in place and even as repatriation efforts are on the rise, legitimate and sanctioned digs still continue, and stolen artifacts circulating on the black market are recovered, meaning the gathered plunder is accumulating, placed by well-meaning experts into overcrowded storage sites without any real analysis.
The magpie/pack rat nature of humans means we are hoarders on an institutional scale, to such an extent that the treasures extracted from the ground are so numerous that they have become so buried under their own weight that it is akin to them never having been taken from the ground in the first place. Many items will languish in some musty museum's storage, never again seeing the light of day, and Childs says that the story that each item carries with it is thus forfeited.
Has mankind lost touch with the concept of sacred places? Childs says that whenever antiquities are removed, no matter the intent, "a piece of emptiness is left behind." There are the purists on one end of the spectrum — those who feel no items should be taken under any circumstances — and there are those on the opposite end, who see nothing wrong with moving artifacts around the world for profit.
Wherever the reader falls on the debate of antiquities, "Finders Keepers" will provoke some soul-searching and self-analysis.
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