Guns, Drugs, and the Trafficking of Antiquities. Archaeology in 19th-century Greece.

A family of tomb hunters at the Isthmus of Corinth.
“A party of native labourers digging among the tombs of the deceased Greeks for such relics of antiquity as now find a ready sale to museums or private collections.”
Source: The Illustrated London News (21 April 1877), page 364 (sketch by William Simpson).

Only a few days ago The New York Times published a front-page article about Turkey’s renewed campaign to achieve the return of antiquities. According to Turkey, these objects, which are now in museums in Europe and the US, were looted and illegally smuggled out of the country and for this reason they should be returned, not least because they were under the protection of the country’s antiquities legislation.[1] Turkey’s request is not new and the article is one of many on the subject. Discussions on the trafficking of art and antiquities, the ownership and commodification of the past, and what constitutes cultural property at a national and international level are today as topical as ever. These discussions focus on the illicit excavation, exportation and sale of cultural objects, a business often listed among the five most profitable money-making crimes alongside the trafficking of drugs, guns, humans and animals. There is, however, a past in the antiquities trafficking that is less well known; and it is this, not-so-distant, episode that constitutes the focus of my research at the CHS.

Having worked at the Ashmolean Museum of the University of Oxford for a number of years as Curator of the Aegean Collections and the Sir Arthur Evans Archive, I became increasingly interested in learning more about the thousands of ancient Mediterranean objects that surrounded me.[2] Where did they come from? How did they end up in Oxford? This took me on a journey of discovery, not so much about the early lives of these objects, but about their post-excavation fate and the people involved in their trafficking. What really struck me was the richness of the archival material and the documentation that still survives regarding the excavation and sale of these ancient objects: registers, labels and the correspondence between dealers and individuals or institutions; all containing numerous as-yet-untold stories of people who through their actions paved the way and shaped the course of modern archaeological enquiry.

I progressively embarked on a systematic study of the 19th-century antiquities trafficking in Europe with special interest in identifying the dealers and “private diggers” and in reconstructing their operation. Who were these people? How did they organize their trade? For the purpose of my research I decided to focus on Greece between 1834 and 1899 that is when the country’s first antiquities law was in use. The richness of the available archival material allows us to study some of the thousands of objects that left Greece during this period ending up in museums and private collections across Europe and the US. Intrigued by the “dialectic of law and infringement”, to use a phrase from Wendy Shaw’s book, I decided to examine a number of private excavations and the trafficking of objects originating from them under the light of the first antiquities law. What did the law actually say with regard to cultural property and the trafficking of ancient objects within and outside the country of excavation? How did dealers and “private diggers” operate within its framework? Was the law implemented? If not, why? Which objects from the past were in demand and what were they valued for?

The period in discussion is fascinating, politically and archaeologically – not just for Greece, which emerged as a modern state in 1830, but for Europe and the world. It is during this period that several new states were founded, nationalism and colonialism strengthened, and while some Empires disintegrated, others managed to maintain or even increase their power. At the same time, archaeology was transformed into a structured discipline and grand-scale excavation projects commenced across the Mediterranean. The trafficking of smaller, portable antiquities increased dramatically alongside the professionalization of the art market and the popularization of the past through museum displays. The formation of National and Imperial Museums and of numerous private collections led to a surge in the trafficking of antiquities, especially from the Mediterranean area to the northern European and American markets. All the above, along with the advent of systematic tourism, resulted in the drafting, across Europe, of laws and governmental acts dealing specifically with the excavation, stewardship, and exportation of antiquities.

Instead of looking, however, at the grand collectors, travelers and antiquarians, as has repeatedly been the case in the past, I decided to take a different approach by giving voice to the locals: the state officials who were in charge of implementing the law on the ground and the numerous dealers, “private diggers”, and antiquities agents who were responsible for the trafficking of these ancient objects. By integrating archival with archaeological information (that is the objects now dispersed across several museums and private collections), we can achieve a better understanding of these early “private” excavations and their role in shaping the archaeology of Greece in the 19th century.

In my forthcoming posts I will focus on particular individuals. I will look at Athanasios Rhousopoulos – the professor of archaeology at the University of Athens and the most important Greek collector and dealer between the 1860s and 1890s; Ioannis Palaiologos – private digger and secondary antiquities dealer, active from the 1850s until almost 1900, and the excavator of some of the most spectacular finds now in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens; and Charles Merlin – her Majesty’s Consul in Piraeus, Director of the Ionian Bank, avid collector and agent of the British Museum in Greece, actively involved in the acquisition and trafficking of numerous antiquities between the 1860s and 1890s.

The stories of the people behind the trafficking of antiquities in 19th-century Europe help us write an important chapter in the social, economic and cultural history of the continent and in the story of Mediterranean archaeology as a whole. A chapter that highlights how the commodification of the past became inextricably interwoven with power politics, gave rise to different collecting attitudes and to debates on cultural property, ownership and the value of things in our modern world; a chapter the writing of which is still very much in progress as The New York Times article makes abundantly clear.


[1] New York Times, 1 October 2012

[2] I was also inspired by the excellent books of Wendy Shaw, Possessors and Possessed. Museums, Archaeology, and the Visualization of History in the Late Ottoman Empire (Berkeley, 2003) and of Maya Jasanoff, Edge of Empire. Conquest and Collecting in the East 1750-1850 (London, 2005). Both authors offer an entertaining and highly informative account on the technologies and significance of collecting and displaying the past.