by Doug Ward

FEBRUARY, 2008-Over the centuries, countless individuals have wielded picks and shovels in hopes of finding buried treasure. Today there are probably at least as many treasure hunters as there have ever been, and tales of great wealth hidden in ancient tombs continue to capture our imaginations.1


Modern treasure hunters belong to at least two different categories. Many are seekers of wealth, hoping to strike it rich-or at least supplement their incomes-by selling artifacts on the lucrative antiquities market. Others are archaeologists, driven by a desire to learn about the past and thereby earn the respect of their colleagues and perhaps even gain a measure of fame.


These two groups of treasure seekers stand in direct competition with each other. To obtain the maximum amount of information from an artifact, an archaeologist needs to be able to place that artifact in its original location and context. When treasure hunters disturb an ancient site, archaeologists lose the data they need in order to understand the site and reconstruct some aspect of the past. On the other hand, when archaeologists investigate a site, the artifacts they find go to museums, cutting into the potential profits of treasure hunters and antiquities dealers.


One archaeologist who has a detailed firsthand knowledge of this competition is Prof. Christopher Roosevelt of Boston University. Roosevelt, who heads the Central Lydia Archaeological Survey, has made a study of modern treasure hunting in Lydia, a region of western Turkey. On February 19, 2008, Roosevelt spoke about his research in an Archaeological Institute of America lecture given at Miami University. His lecture was entitled, "Mounds, Monuments, and Museums: Plunder in Western Anatolia."


Mapping Lydia's Tumuli

The Lydian people are mentioned in the Bible as the descendants of Lud, son of Shem (Gen 10:22; I Chron 1:17; Isa 66:19; Ezek 27:10).  Lydian culture enjoyed its heyday in the seventh through fourth centuries B.C., first as an independent kingdom and later as a part of the Persian Empire. Ancient Lydia was known for its wealth. (According to Herodotus, it was the first civilization to mint stamped gold and silver coins.) Croesus, the last king of Lydia, was famous for his riches, leading to the popular saying that a very wealthy person is "as rich as Croesus."


Some of the most visible reminders of Lydia's glory days are the tumuli (burial mounds) that still dot the landscape. Buried in these mounds, which usually range from 10 to 40 meters in height, were the leaders of Lydia. The largest tumulus is associated with Alyattes, a king who ruled in the sixth century B.C. This tumulus is 70 meters high and 360 meters in diameter, putting it in the same size range as the pyramids of Egypt.


As part of his doctoral research, Roosevelt measured the sizes and charted the exact locations of 397 Lydian tumuli in 2001. Since cemeteries are usually located close to where people live, the placement of the tumuli gives us some rough ideas about the settlement patterns of ancient Lydia. Using statistical methods, Roosevelt found that the tumuli could be grouped into between 75 and 117 clusters. He also recorded the geographical coordinates of 113 other Lydian landmarks and determined that 86 of these landmarks are located within five kilometers of one of the tumulus clusters.


Of course the contents of the tumuli are even more important than their locations. Roosevelt describes the inside of a typical tumulus as follows:


"In most cases, the earthen mounds conceal chamber tomb complexes of finely worked limestone or marble that sometimes would have been adorned with painted and sculptural decoration and that usually would have contained klinai (kline, sing.) (funeral couches) in addition to rich grave assemblages ... " ([1], p. 186).


If archaeologists had the opportunity to investigate some untouched tumuli, they would probably gain valuable insights into ancient Lydian culture. But as Roosevelt explained, this has never happened. Every single tumulus that archaeologists have studied has exhibited signs of looting. In most cases, the investigation of a tumulus has been a salvage operation carried out in response to looting.


As part of his 2001 survey, Roosevelt observed the conditions of the 397 tumuli that he visited. He found that 357 of the 397 showed signs of looting, with 72 of them having been completely destroyed. In a more recent survey conducted in 2005, Roosevelt focused on Bin Tepe, the largest cluster of Lydian tumuli. This group of tumuli is located about eight kilometers north-northwest of Sardis, the ancient Lydian capital. Bin Tepe, which literally means "a thousand mounds," does in fact include 120 tumuli. The 2005 survey found that 96 per cent of these tumuli had been looted, with 18 destroyed.


A Culture of Looting

Given ancient Lydia's reputation for wealth, the tumuli are a natural target for treasure hunters. Archaeologists have found evidence that the looting of these burial mounds began during the tine of the Roman Empire. It is also true that the magnitude of the looting has accelerated over the last fifty years. Dr. Roosevelt discussed various aspects of this complex issue in his lecture.


Roosevelt has found that the driving force behind modern tomb raiding is the antiquities market. Back in the 1960s George M.A. Hanfmann, then the director of the Archaeological Exploration of Sardis sponsored by Harvard and Cornell Universities, wrote that a certain antiquities dealer in Izmir (the modern city on the site of ancient Smyrna) was widely considered to be "the guiding spirit in the enormous outburst of illicit digging in western Turkey" ([1], p. 189). In 2005 Roosevelt was "told that collectors/dealers from Izmir routinely visit local villagers, give them money, and instruct them to dig" (p. 195).


The prospect of money from antiquities dealers is also an incentive for forgery. One trick that has been attempted more than once is for someone to paint a picture on the wall of a tomb chamber, using a real tomb painting as a model, with the hope of later cutting the painting out of the wall and selling it.


Roosevelt believes that the presence of archaeologists is itself an impetus for further looting. If archaeologists are around, the locals reason, there must be something valuable to find. Hanfmann reported that the arrival of his team in 1958 set off a "gold rush" frenzy fueled by rumors that the riches of Croesus had been found ([1], p. 188).


A further incentive is the mystique that has always accompanied treasure hunting. Lydian treasure hunting has generated its own folklore. In the case of one mound that contained a great deal of wealth, there is a story that the leader of a group of looters reached the tomb chamber at exactly 6 AM on June 6, 1966 ([2], p. 181). Roosevelt has found Turkish websites that glamorize tomb raiding and give instructions for prospective looters.


As Roosevelt learned in the course of his surveys, a significant percentage of tumuli have been plowed or bulldozed over. One reason for this destruction of the mounds, Roosevelt found, was that farmers sometimes fear that the Turkish government might expropriate their land if something valuable is found on it. It is also true that looting is sometimes disguised as agricultural activity.


The Turkish government has had one notable success in recovering artifacts that were taken from tumuli and sold on the antiquities market. In 1984 the New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art opened an "East Greek Treasure" exhibition. On display were "fine vessels made of ceramic, stone, and precious metals (silver, gold, and bronze), exquisite jewelry, a range of sculpture and wall paintings, and ancient implements" ([1], p. 186). Turkey brought legal action against the Met, suspecting that the treasure had been taken from Lydian tumuli in the late 1960s. As it turned out, Turkey was able to prove its case with the help of the looters, who in many cases were able to identify where they had found various artifacts. (In one instance, it was possible to identify the exact spot on a tomb chamber wall from which a particular wall painting had been removed.) The case was settled out of court, with the museum returning the artifacts to Turkey in 1993.


Examples like the recovery of the "Lydian hoard" are all too rare, however. "East Greek" items still show up in the catalogues of auction houses like Sotheby's and Christie's. As long as there is money to be made on the antiquities market, archaeologists will have to compete with treasure hunters. I personally hope that the archaeologists prevail in the long run. In the mean time, researchers like Christopher Roosevelt have succeeded in highlighting and documenting the problem.



1. Christopher H. Roosevelt and Christina Luke, "Mysterious Shepherds and Hidden Treasures: The Culture of Looting in Lydia, Western Turkey," Journal of Field Archaeology, Vol. 31 (2006), No. 2, pp. 185-198.

2. Christopher H. Roosevelt and Christina Luke, "Looting Lydia: The Destruction of an Archaeological Landscape in Western Turkey," pp. 173-187 in Archaeology, Cultural Heritage, and the Antiquities Trade, Neil Brodie, Morag M. Kersel, Christina Luke, and Kathryn Walker Tubb, editors, University Press of Florida, Gainesville, 2006.


1For one such story, see the article "Is There Buried Treasure in David's Tomb?" in Issue 11 of Grace & Knowledge.

Issue 24



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