For over ten years, I have been exploring whether we can establish causality between the demand for archaeological artifacts in Israel’s legal market and the looting of archaeological sites in the region. In order to approach this question and to explore tourists’ desires for archaeological artifacts, I have spent time in the Old City of Jerusalem (where most of the licensed antiquities shops are located) talking to the various actors in the trade. As a result of these interactions, I have become increasingly focused on tourists, their acquisitions, and their motivations.
Demand for a memento of a visit to the Holy Land (Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Territories) has endured for millennia—from early religious pilgrims to those of today. Under the terms of the Israel Antiquities Law of 1978, it is legal to obtain an artifact from a licensed dealer with an export license issued by the Israel Antiquities Authority. When purchasing an object, the tourist selects an artifact, a meaningful symbol that may act as a signifier of a site, an era, a person, triumph over the fear of the unknown, prowess in the marketplace, or an evocative symbol of a journey to a distant land. Collecting decontextualizes and recontextualizes the materials and imbues them with new meaning for the tourist. Display of the souvenir commemorating their visit to the Holy Land within their own home is often a crucial component of the action of buying an artifact. Visitors, family, and friends can share the experience vicariously through the purchased item, which conveys the essence of the lived experience—a tangible connection to the recent past, which provides a link to the distant past. Taking home a piece of the Holy Land reaffirms and materializes the spiritual connection to a place.
Artifacts from the Holy Land are unique, because of a holy essence associated with the purchase. In one instance, a tourist wanted to buy something for his girlfriend that was from the “year zero.” When the dealer asked if he meant “in the time of Jesus,” the answer was an emphatic yes. Both were devout Christians, and he wanted a symbolic reminder for both of them that concurrently would remind him of his “life changing visit to the Holy Land.” The tourist went on to recount the archaeological sites he visited while in Israel (Megiddo, Tel Dan, Bethsaida, the New Testament sites around the Sea of Galilee) and how he walked in the footsteps of Jesus. When the dealer asked if the tourist wanted an artifact from a particular site, he replied “No, the Holy Land is good enough for me.”
For many tourists, archaeological material confirms an unbroken continuity, a past that cannot be separated from the present and one that conveys a powerful link to the future. The generalized “Holy Land” suffices as an identifier, obviating the need for a specific archaeological site. Tourists that I spoke with considered the “Holy Land” an adequate descriptor. They are generally indifferent as to whether or not the dealer is in violation of the Antiquities Law of 1978 or that the artifact may have been looted recently or transported illegally from the Palestinian Territories to Israel.
Devotion to biblical artifacts has lead to a discouraging predicament where illegally excavated material is entering the legal antiquities market. Dealers use suspicious business practices to reuse inventory register numbers in order to introduce new material into the old market. The success of this ruse is predicated on the tourists’ lack of interest in specific archaeological find spots (provenience). Tourists are often satisfied with generalisms, such as “in the time of Jesus” and “from the Holy land” rather than specific dates and exact excavation locations. Most tourists interviewed as part of this research seemed unaware of the relationship between the artifact they were purchasing and the archaeological site (whether looted recently or not) from where it originated. In antiquities shops throughout the Holy land, tourists experience the past through a direct engagement with material culture, often one devoid of its archaeological context, but nonetheless meaningful to the purchaser. Unfortunately, it is this detachment with the findspot that results in the ongoing looting of the region in order to meet demand for artifacts from the Holy Land.
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