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Archaeology: Not As Dry And Dusty As You Think

Real archaeologists are nothing like Indiana Jones, but that doesn't mean the job isn't dangerous or dramatic.

Author Craig Childs' new book, Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession, reads almost like a thriller, chock-full of vendettas, suicides and large-scale criminal enterprises dedicated to the multimillion-dollar trade in antiquities.

Childs tells NPR's Audie Cornish that emotions run high in the world of antiquities. "There's such an attachment to what is the right and wrong thing to do with these objects," he says. "What is legal? What is illegal? It really rises to the surface to where I know some archaeologists who want pot hunters dead, and I know pot hunters who want archaeologists dead." His book follows several families of pot hunters who ran afoul of the government after digging up relics on public land.

And many objects now in museums may not be legal, Childs says. For example, the famous Euphronios krater, an ancient Greek vessel for mixing wine and water, stood in the Metropolitan Museum of Art for almost 40 years. "You'd go into the Met and there it was, in its own display case," Childs says. "Just beautiful paintings of warriors and gods all around it, one of the finest Greek vessels ever found, and it was sold with paperwork that said, you know, this thing is legal." But an extensive investigation proved that the krater had been looted from an Etruscan tomb in Italy, and in 2008 the Met returned it to the Italian government.

Childs says grave robbers like those who took the Euphronios krater are destroying priceless information. "Archaeology as a science is holding on to the information. So you're digging up an object, and you have the context around it. Did this pot come from a kitchen site, a living room, a burial?"

But Childs says it can be difficult to strike the right balance between expanding archaeological knowledge and preserving historical sites. "I've worked on quite a few archaeological excavations where you're down in a trench, digging with a trowel, and wondering, ‘What on earth am I doing, digging through some dead person's belongings?'

"Just walking out in places where there's archaeology on the ground is tricky," he adds, "because when you find something, when you lean over and pick up an arrow or a potsherd, or you see the rim of an ancient bowl sticking out of the ground, you kind of have to decide, what are you going to do next?"

For his part, Childs says, he prefers to leave artifacts in the ground. There are very few undisturbed archaeological sites still out there, and though he's walked for thousands of miles throughout the American Southwest, Childs says that wherever he goes, pot hunters have been there before him. "When I find something that's on the ground, even if it's a tiny thing, even if it's a broken arrowhead, it is so much more powerful there than it is on a shelf or a display case."

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