If you’re a fan of the Tomb Raider video game series or love the Indiana Jones films, you could be forgiven for thinking that archaeologists spend their lives searching for mystical lost artefacts or exploring strange lands. After all, when was the last time you saw Lara Croft taking soil samples during a field survey or Indiana Jones applying for excavation permits? Unfortunately, antiquities are big business and real-life tomb raiders help fuel the global trade in illicit antiquities, robbing local communities of their heritage and depriving archaeologists of the information they need to interpret archaeological remains.
Things get even trickier when looted artefacts end up in the hands of a foreign government, museum or academic institution, leading to lengthy legal battles and soured diplomatic relations. Time recently put together a list of 10 plundered artefacts, which includes the famous bust of Nefertiti, the Elgin (or, to be politically correct, Parthenon) Marbles, and the Koh-i-Noor Diamond. All of these were spirited away from their countries of origin under suspicious circumstances and few, if any, of their current owners are rushing to return them to their rightful homes.
So while the fictional Lara Croft may have made a career out of running around ancient sites, guns a-blazing, and dodging the occasional dinosaur, in reality, she’d probably end up spending most of her time in court, dealing with lawyers and angry emails, and dodging disgruntled customs officials.
If you’d like to learn more about the global trade in illicit antiquities and looted art, you will find a treasure trove of information over at Trafficking Culture or the SAFE: Saving Antiquities for Everyone website.