I have on file on my computer about a dozen or so scholarly papers presenting ethnographies of illegal or ‘subsistence’ digging of archaeological sites. Many of the authors preface their research findings with an observation that by looking at diggers rather than at collectors they are breaking with convention and offering a new and radical perspective. In reality, there is no such convention and they are doing no such thing. I do not have any ethnographies of up-market collectors in their native habitats of Beverly Hills, Manhattan, Kensington, or wherever. Rich and powerful collectors are accustomed to protecting their privacy and are well able to do so. They are lawyered-up. Poor diggers on the ground are not so privileged and are in consequence more open to investigation by scholars – and by police.
I also have on file on my computer (and backed-up elsewhere) a series of e-mails dating to 2000 that seemingly details the planning and organization of a smuggling operation intended to move material from Middle Eastern countries through London and on to a wealthy private collector in the US. The network included a curator of a major museum acting in an advisory capacity. One operation involved the illegal export from Syria of an assemblage of Byzantine silver.
In 2006, I decided to go public with this information and – foolishly as it turned out – contacted the US collector for comment. The reply when it arrived was from his lawyers threatening legal action. My publisher decided to drop the paper and I was none too keen myself to have the threat of a libel suit hanging over my head. So that was me – firmly silenced.
Still, going forward, who knows what might happen. I am currently revisiting this material and trying to work up a corroborating source. In the meantime, I will keep investigating diggers. Not because it is somehow radical or breaking with convention. It is not. It is simply the easier option.