As the guy at National Geographic responsible for keeping track of a bunch of scientists, I never know who or what I'll engage with each day. It could be dinosaurs for breakfast, poisonous frogs for lunch, and Inca gold for dinner. I'll post the highlights here as I encounter them. If you have questions or comments about archeology, paleontology, paleoanthropology, or any Society-funded projects, this is the place to post. I'll check things out and invite experts to weigh in on postings from time to time.
Gold: Archaeology's Blessing or Curse?
Posted Jan 7,2009

Gold_photo  A golden Thracian wreath excavated from the Mogilanska mound in Vratsa, Bulgaria in the 1960s. Photo by James Stanfield.

The gold of ancient cultures is a blessing and a curse. It stirs the public imagination yet spawns neglect of good science and encourages crime.

Ancient gold is so fascinating to the general public that it steals the media spotlight from other important archaeological findings. Excavations with no gold compete for media attention with gold-rich ones and the vast majority of gold-poor excavations never make it into popular print or TV. This is a shame, but if it were not for the occasional gold find, many archaeological efforts would not get prominent media attention. I would argue that some attention, even if it leans on gold, is better than none. 

Gold fever sells magazines, books, and TV shows, but it also leads to plundering of archaeological sites. This looting results in the loss of context for gold and other artifacts and sometimes leads to destruction of a site. This is a worldwide problem, but two areas where the problem is severe are Bulgaria and Ukraine.

In Bulgaria there has been an archaeological gold rush. In the last decade, Thracian tombs, in particular, have been excavated legally and illegally on an unprecedented scale. Archaeologists compete with people who raid sites for treasure, usually at night. Sometimes these raiders are armed and organized. Bulgaria is one of Europe's poorest countries, a major factor fueling the thefts. Illegal trafficking in antiquities is now big business for Bulgarian organized crime. There is no sign of a recession.

Big profits can also be made from antiquities trafficking in Ukraine. This newly independent  country is getting a reputation as a haven for "Black Archaeology"—the looting of archaeological sites, often with organized crime backing.

While a government-led anti-looting effort could go a long way toward stopping illegal digging for artifacts in Ukraine, such an effort is apparently a long way off. President Viktor Yuschenko is a well known collector. According to an informative article written by a senior researcher of the Institute for Ukrainian History and published in ArtNews in December 2007, Mr. Yushchenko is genuinely interested in Ukrainian heritage and promoting national identity, but may not be overly concerned about whether the items he collects are from black archaeology or white. In this same article the director of the Institute for Ukrainian History, Dr. Petro Tolochko, suggests that the president "...obviously doesn't understand that his participation in this illegal business legitimizes it." A report from Transitions Online in 2005 suggests "Yushchenko's private passion for the past is, it seems, shared by many of Ukraine's new rich. They have proved ready and willing to pay good money to decorate dachas and even local restaurants with archeological rarities, and the number of buyers has grown thanks to Ukraine's economic recovery over the past five years."

Both Ukraine and Bulgaria are using archaeology, including glamorous golden objects, to help establish a strong national identity. Countries like these have every reason to be proud of their heritage. But this pride should also be based on knowledge gleaned not just from the gold, but from dirty, unglamorous archaeological work that can tell us much more about our past than golden objects can. And if looting is allowed to continue, these countries might as well forget about national identity. A few trinkets of their past will be sold to the highest bidder. The rest will have been destroyed by looters and there will be nothing left from which future generations can learn.

What do you think about the role of ancient gold?

Read "The Real Price of Gold" from the January 2009 issue of National Geographic.

Posted by Chris Sloan | Comments (4)


Ladislao Errazuriz
Jan 7, 2009 11PM #

However successful the efforts to stop illegal plunderers may be, they are going to eventually fail, from a statistical point of view. There will always be more access to ever increasing undiscovered sites, and the money to fuel the robbers will increase even further. It makes no sense to try to stop them if there are better ways to achieve everyone´s high aim: make the past decipherable and understandable to all future generations! Thus, avoid destroying context of archaeological finds, by requiring everyone to register all old artifacts together with their discovery associations. This of course requires the legality of what are today considered site robbers, to be converted into archaeological agents of all world sites. Allow them to keep and sell their finds in a controlled way, providing access to collector´s researchable items with their registered contexts, and imparting free courses on digging methods, clues to dating and historical background. All buyers must allow research teams to study items for limited periods, and feed the periodical theme shows eiththeir collections, receiving a fair part of the revenue. Undoubtedly some stuff will always be lost or damaged through carelessness or clumsiness, but probably a lot less than what is destroyed or misplaced today. The time is long gone when it made some sense to re-bury something for future generations to dig up later: anything not recovered and classified in a controlled storage place will surely be found very soon by the wrong hands and thus destroyed forever. Legal, controlled looting is the only safe way toward preserving the past within a largely chaotic unpredictable future.

Jan 7, 2009 11PM #

The old rhetorical hippie question is applicable here: Who owns the Earth?
A King can come along and say "I own this piece of land and everything underneath it!", and if he is respected and has enough soldiers, it is so. A lesser man can come by and make the same statement, but he is put in jail by the King or worse. Both are humans and equal in the eyes of God. One owns the Earth, and the other doesn't. Go figure.
In my opinion, an argument by one set of people that they own what had been placed under the Earth by people who have been dead for two thousand years or longer, over the claims of another people, is specious and fraught with moral hazard.
Is it Israel, or Palestine? Who owns the Earth?! Ultimately, it is decided by who owns the bigger guns!

Jan 7, 2009 11PM #

Whatever has been buried for two thousand years is fair game for anyone.

Jan 7, 2009 11PM #

Gold is gold.
Who owns gold?
Who owns the earth?
If someone buries a cache of gold in the earth two thousand years ago, it's fair game for anyone with a pick and shovel to dig it up. Legality? Whoever ultimately owns it depends on how strong they are, or how strong their piece of paper is!
It's a shaky government that needs a piece of gold to legitimize its right to exist. Just another form of robbery of the citizens.

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