Treasures for the taking
Graduate student studies grave looting in the Middle East, American South
By John Griffith
Published: Tuesday, July 27, 2010 12:10 PM CDT
JONESBORO — The illicit excavation and robbery of ancient Native American grave sites along the Mississippi Valley is filling the collections and pocketbooks of private collectors and supporting the methamphetamine trade, according to one Arkansas State University Heritage Studies graduate student.
At 61, Louis Intres is the university’s oldest graduate assistant. He was a bank entrepreneur, banker and bank president for 38 years before retiring at 58 in favor of teaching history.
Intres’ research is focused on the robbery of ancient Byzantine graves and archaeological sites in the Middle East country of Jordan and comparing features of that illegal industry with features of robbery of gravesites in the lower Mississippi Valley.
“I wanted to research and write about the heritage issues of the people of the south part of the United States, but I also have a great interest in the culture and the heritage of the people in the Middle East,” Intres said. “I’m studying and researching the issues of the looting and theft of archaeological sites and gravesites in the Middle East and comparing that with similar activities in the United States. Particularly, the increase in the looting of Native American India gravesites up and down the Mississippi River.”
Jordan lies inside the Crescent Valley, the once fertile but now arid area between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, straddling the Persian Gulf where human culture flowered 6,000-8,000 years ago.
“That’s where so many of the world’s treasures are being stolen from,” Intres said. “They’re being stolen not only from archaeological sites, but grave robbing is probably the biggest pastime in that area.
“Most people are subsistence robbers,” Intres said. “Which means they are breaking into archaeological sites and digging up ancient Byzantine (Eastern Roman Empire, 300-1200 CE), Iron Age (3,300-1,200 BCE) or Bronze Age (1300-600 BCE) graves, stealing the treasures out of them and then selling them on the black market.”
Intres spent several weeks from mid-May to June living with Bedouin peoples who subsist on the meagre profits of grave robbery in the south of Jordan and up and down one of the central highways that run from the Dead Sea in the north to the Red Sea in the south.
“They make just barely enough money to buy food for their family,” Intres said. “We refer to them as subsistence looters because they’re doing that to provide for their families, not so much for the greed.”
He said subsistence looters are for the most part motivated by the needs of their families and a disenfranchisement the lower class feels with the Jordanian government.
“They feel that the government in the south, particularly, has forgotten them,” Intres said. “They have very little income. They have large families, so they live at a poverty level and they feel that the government has provided no job opportunities for them.”
Jordan’s unemployment rate among economically active residents was 13 percent in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of State.
Intres said looters in Jordan take on significant risk for very little reward. Grave robbing is criminalized and prison sentences begin at five years for a conviction of looting, he said.
In contrast, robbing Native American Indian graves is a very low risk activity that carries a high payoff, unless you get caught doing it on government land, Intres said.
“For the most part, grave robbers in this area are not caught, and if they are caught the judicial system takes it very lightly,” Intres said. “Here’s the rub: If I were to go out here to a local cemetery in Jonesboro and I were to dig up a grave and someone saw me, the police would be out there in a heartbeat. But if you’re out here on a farm, and there are Indian graves out there and you get caught digging them up — no one cares. The landowner might. But the authorities have too many other crimes they are chasing. It is low-risk to rob a Native American grave and that’s why it happens too often.
“The looting of Native American graves has become a nationwide phenomenon. But nowhere is it more prevalent than in the Mississippi River Valley. The reason is, more and more recently, the looting of Native American graves and the selling of the articles they’re finding in those graves is beginning to drive the methamphetamine drug industry.”
Intres said he visited three cemeteries at the southern end of the Dead Sea that archaeologists think might contain more than one million graves. Subsistence looters are beginning to raid the cemeteries, Intres said, along with looters motivated by greed and organized criminal groups are heavily involved in the looting and smuggling of stolen antiquities from the Middle East into Dubai, Switzerland, Europe and America, where the items are processed and later sold to collectors.
“The money is driving their other criminal activities,” Intres said. “There are some people in government who believe the Taliban and Al Qaeda may be beginning to get involved in it as a way to fund terrorism.”
“Provenance” is a document providing the legal history of cultural treasures. Unfortunately, provenance documents can be easily falsified, Intres said. Falsified provenance documents are provided for many items that are then sold into the worldwide black market. Europe and America are two of the biggest markets worldwide and items stolen in the Middle East make their way into the hands of collectors in Europe and America, whose owners are unwitting supporters of criminal enterprise, he said.
“History is non-renewable,” Intres said. “Once something is lost, it can never be replaced; once an artifact is destroyed or lost, it can never be replaced. So history and the ancient artifacts, the treasures that we have uncovered from our past, we have to take care of them, because if we lose them we lose our past, we lose our history. The more we lose, the less we know about ourselves.”