Swansea archaeologist works to send stolen artefacts home
May 3 2010 by Robin Turner, Western Mail
LIKE Indiana Jones, Dr David Gill delights in getting his hands on precious antiquities.
But while his movie counterpart is often seen plucking priceless artefacts from ancient tombs, Dr Gill does the process in reverse – and sends the relics back to where they came from.
The Welsh academic works across the world in persuading museums to return ancient artefacts to Egypt, Italy, Greece and other countries suffering a plague of history looting.
The 48-year-old, a reader in Mediterranean archaeology at Swansea University, most recently worked with two other experts to persuade London-based fine art dealers Bonhams to withdraw four Roman sculptures from auction, amid claims they were stolen from archaeological sites overseas.
Photographs studied by Dr Gill suggested the sculptures – funerary busts and a marble statue of a youth from the second century AD – were illicitly excavated.
Dr Gill, who lives in Sketty, Swansea, said: “The looting of human history has become a full-scale industry.
“In some countries like Italy, for example, some are literally using mechanical diggers on historical sites to rip up artefacts for sale.
“These have tended to reach auction rooms in places like New York and London via Switzerland, though the Swiss are now trying to tighten controls.
“Archaeological sites are being decimated and the few treasures taken away for financial gain lose their context. Strip them from that context and we lose dating, related objects and information about who used them.
“Presenting a looted object means that we value the object as a beautiful thing but we do not care about the society and culture that created it. And that is an uncivilised view.”
But it’s a lucrative business.
Dr Gill and his colleagues Dr Christopher Chippindale, the curator for British Collections at Cambridge University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and ex-Greek government archaeologist Christos Tsirogiannis, say £300m worth of antiquities have been sold at just two major auction houses in the past 12 years.
Looting of ancient artefacts has a long history going back to the tomb raiders of ancient Egypt.
Rome has been sacked seven times and other famous examples include the sack of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade, the Sack of Baghdad in 1258 and the looting of Aztec gold by Spanish conquistadors.
Later came more careful excavations like Howard Carter and Lord Caernarvon’s famous excavation of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1923 with precious artefacts being taken from Egypt to Britain, something that would now be regarded as sacrilege.
But it was the wholesale theft of priceless Babylonian treasures from Baghdad following the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 that highlighted a modern revival in culture theft.
Historical sites in Central America and areas in Cambodia, Italy, Mali and China have also seen a big rise in ancient relic thefts in the past 20 years.
Dr Gill said: “There was a Unesco convention passed in 1970 which many countries have now signed making it illegal to import and export cultural property.
“But it still goes on with some private collectors and even museums turning a blind eye.”
A spokesman for Bonhams auctioneers said of its decision to withdraw the Roman sculptures: “Whenever a serious question is raised about an item’s provenance we withdraw it from sale pending an internal investigation. We take rigorous care to ensure that we only sell items that have a clear provenance.”