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Archaeology: Not As Dry And Dusty As You Think

Real archaeologists are nothing like Indiana Jones, but that doesn't mean the job isn't dangerous or dramatic.

Author Craig Childs' new book, Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession, reads almost like a thriller, chock-full of vendettas, suicides and large-scale criminal enterprises dedicated to the multimillion-dollar trade in antiquities.

Childs tells NPR's Audie Cornish that emotions run high in the world of antiquities. "There's such an attachment to what is the right and wrong thing to do with these objects," he says. "What is legal? What is illegal? It really rises to the surface to where I know some archaeologists who want pot hunters dead, and I know pot hunters who want archaeologists dead." His book follows several families of pot hunters who ran afoul of the government after digging up relics on public land.

Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession
By Craig Childs
Hardcover, 288 pages
Little, Brown and Company
List price: $24.99

Read An Excerpt

And many objects now in museums may not be legal, Childs says. For example, the famous Euphronios krater, an ancient Greek vessel for mixing wine and water, stood in the Metropolitan Museum of Art for almost 40 years. "You'd go into the Met and there it was, in its own display case," Childs says. "Just beautiful paintings of warriors and gods all around it, one of the finest Greek vessels ever found, and it was sold with paperwork that said, you know, this thing is legal." But an extensive investigation proved that the krater had been looted from an Etruscan tomb in Italy, and in 2008 the Met returned it to the Italian government.

Childs says grave robbers like those who took the Euphronios krater are destroying priceless information. "Archaeology as a science is holding on to the information. So you're digging up an object, and you have the context around it. Did this pot come from a kitchen site, a living room, a burial?"

But Childs says it can be difficult to strike the right balance between expanding archaeological knowledge and preserving historical sites. "I've worked on quite a few archaeological excavations where you're down in a trench, digging with a trowel, and wondering, ‘What on earth am I doing, digging through some dead person's belongings?'

"Just walking out in places where there's archaeology on the ground is tricky," he adds, "because when you find something, when you lean over and pick up an arrow or a potsherd, or you see the rim of an ancient bowl sticking out of the ground, you kind of have to decide, what are you going to do next?"

For his part, Childs says, he prefers to leave artifacts in the ground. There are very few undisturbed archaeological sites still out there, and though he's walked for thousands of miles throughout the American Southwest, Childs says that wherever he goes, pot hunters have been there before him. "When I find something that's on the ground, even if it's a tiny thing, even if it's a broken arrowhead, it is so much more powerful there than it is on a shelf or a display case."

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

Adventure, theft, big money, ancient mysteries and death. Sounds like the plot of a good beach read, right? But author Craig Childs is telling a true life story in his latest book, "Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession."

It's an illuminating look at the world of relic hunters, and some say grave robbers, who fuel a multimillion-dollar trade in antiquities. Craig Childs joins me now.

Craig, welcome to the show.

Mr. CRAIG CHILDS (Author, "Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession"): Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: I have to say I love this book. I mean, I was completely riveted.

Mr. CHILDS: Thank you.

CORNISH: And part of it is because you really shake up the whole idea of like, what's legal, you know, what is an artifact, what is archeology and what is grave robbing.

Mr. CHILDS: Yeah, it's a tricky business. Just walking out in places where there's archeology on the ground is tricky because when you find something, when you lean over and pick up an arrowhead or a potsherd, or you see the rim of an ancient bowl sticking out of the ground, you kind of have to decide what are you going to do next and what do other people do next once they find those things.

CORNISH: What is legal? What's a legal artifact? Give us an example of one that is and one that isn't.

Mr. CHILDS: Just recently, I was up in the Bering Sea, an island just off the coast of Siberia, St. Lawrence Island, where the island is natively owned, and Yupik Eskimos living there are going out and digging up sites and selling artifacts from their sites. And these artifacts are legal because they come from a privately owned island.

CORNISH: But at the same time, you're saying if someone else was there plucking it, you might look at it a completely different way.

Mr. CHILDS: Yeah. And you might not get off that island if you were trying to take artifacts from there.

CORNISH: So Craig Childs, there was a lot of really fascinating information in your book about how people actually go about taking artifacts and then even smuggling artifacts. I mean, can you talk a little bit about how people get this stuff out of the ground and onto the black market?

Mr. CHILDS: Well, around where I live, especially over in Utah and the Four Corners area, the artifacts are often so close to the surface that people helicopter in. And there have been cases where the helicopter has lowered its tail rotor toward the ground and actually blown off the surface where they can actually see objects starting to appear.

CORNISH: Oh my gosh.

Mr. CHILDS: And so people are coming in by helicopter or by airplane. I was out there getting buzzed once by an airplane coming down on the Navajo Reservation that was going over and over a site that was right behind me, that I had just found for the first time, a large, buried, ceremonial chamber.

And as they were flying over, I was figuring, you know, I bet they're selling this site. I bet there's somebody in the airplane going, yeah, that looks good. I think we can get $10,000 out of that.

CORNISH: So how do legal sales affect the black market?

Mr. CHILDS: Well, the more artifacts that are sold, the more artifacts are needed, and artifacts then get laundered. They lose their context until they can join a collection and appear to be legal.

So in many ways, there's no such thing as a black market because eventually, these artifacts do rise up, and even ones that are illicitly acquired, they look like they're legal. They look like they're completely legit.

CORNISH: So then give us an example of an artifact that's - I guess maybe made it to a museum, where that journey might have been a little bit dubious.

Mr. CHILDS: Well, if you follow the Euphronios vase that went to the Met...

CORNISH: And what did this look like?

Mr. CHILDS: A beautiful, large, ceramic, almost like a little bathtub that you would mix water and wine in. You'd go into the Met and there it was in its own display case, just beautiful paintings of warriors and gods all around it, just one of the finest Greek vessels ever found.

And it was sold with paperwork that said, you know, this thing is legal. But a lot of people questioned it, and after a while, it was finally figured out, through raids and photographs and notebooks that it was indeed smuggled.

CORNISH: What is the difference between archeology and grave robbing?

Mr. CHILDS: Well, archaeology as a science is holding on to the information. So you're digging up an object, and you have the context around it. You know, did this pot come from a kitchen site, a living room, a burial? And you can date objects around it, and you keep this context.

CORNISH: And so there's that balance between what we want, the general public, in terms of learning about history, our own or of other cultures, and I guess disturbing these worlds that are out there.

Mr. CHILDS: Oh, yeah. It's a tough balance because I've worked on quite a few archaeological excavations where you're down in a trench digging with a trowel and wondering, what on earth am I doing, digging through some dead person's belongings?

It definitely is eerie, and I know many archeologists who feel the same way. Even though a lot of information comes out and we know so much more about the past, there's still this sense of violation that you're digging into somebody else's life.

CORNISH: Your book talks a lot about figures who, once they're arrested or indicted related to wrongdoing in this world, commit suicide or, like, these fights and feuds between folks in this industry. And it kind of makes you think of pirates or something. I mean, there is this element of, I guess danger, for lack of a better word.

Mr. CHILDS: Yeah. In a strange way, it's a very violently charged atmosphere where, you know, during the writing of this book, several people that I was following died by suicide or one woman died in her jail cell. Others went to prison.

It's got a certain kind of edge to it that I kind of trace back to the emotional edge. There's such an attachment to what is the right and wrong thing to do with these objects and what is legal, what is illegal. And it really rises to the surface where I know some archeologists who want pot hunters dead, and I know pot hunters who want archeologists dead. There are some bad rivalries going on here.

CORNISH: What does this mean for how you think about what is right when it comes to antiquities?

Mr. CHILDS: Well, seeing things on the ground, seeing things where they are, I've come to believe that artifacts need to stay in their place. And that's after having gone through museum collections and seeing just the vast amounts of material that we've gathered already and going through private collections and just realizing how much we have swept up from the ground.

And when I find something that's on the ground, even if it's a tiny thing, even if it's a broken arrowhead, it is so much more powerful there than it is on a shelf or in a display case.

And, you know, I'm not saying we need to get rid of all the artifacts we've gathered. I'm just looking at it going, we don't need to take everything. We can leave some stuff out there, and there's not that much left.

I walked thousands and thousands of miles across deserts and mountains, and I know. I've seen the holes. I've seen where diggers have been. And I know that there is a lot missing, and I know that these last pieces that are remaining are rare, and I don't want them moving.

CORNISH: Author Craig Childs. His new book is "Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archeological Plunder and Obsession."

Craig Childs, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us.

Mr. CHILDS: Oh, you're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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