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 BostonUniversity. 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 MiamiUniversity. His lecture was
entitled, "Mounds, Monuments, and Museums: Plunder in Western
The Lydian people are mentioned in the Bible as the descendants of Lud, son of Shem (Gen ;
I Chron ;
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
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 ...
" (, 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
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
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" (, 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 (, 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 (, 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" (, 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
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 inArchaeology, Cultural Heritage, and the Antiquities Trade, Neil Brodie, Morag M. Kersel,
Christina Luke, and Kathryn Walker Tubb, editors,
University Press of Florida, Gainesville, 2006.