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Wednesday, July 8, 2015


Janis Susan May/Janis Patterson is a 7th-generation Texan who writes mystery, romance, and horror. She’s also an enthusiastic amateur Egyptologist whose husband proposed to her in a moonlit garden near the Pyramids of Giza. Today she stops by to talk about her passion for antiquities. Learn more about Janis and her books at her two websites, www.JanisSusanMay.com and www.JanisPattersonMysteries.com.

Graves and Robbers

What is an antiquity? Generally accepted, it means an artifact from an ancient civilization – sort of like an antique antique. While in eras gone past, some governments gave away their antiquities for one reason or another, usually political – such as the Egyptian obelisks in New York and Paris, or the Elgin Marbles in London – or lost them as spoils of war, nowadays governments are very careful about what happens to these artifacts of their history.

Unfortunately, this does not make people stop wanting them. While in modern times antiquities as large as the obelisks or marble sculptures pretty much stay in their home countries, there is unfortunately a brisk illegal trade in smaller antiquities. Statues, boxes, pieces of pictures, even potsherds and parts of broken artifacts quietly vanish from their rightful place and disappear into a shadowy world of antiquities smuggling and black markets.

Earlier this year I went to Egypt to research A Killing at El Kab, my new mystery novel. One of the characters in this story lost his reputation and chances of ever getting another job in his field (Egyptology) simply because some of the men he worked with were caught smuggling antiquities. He was innocent, but no one believed him except one friend, a man who risked his own reputation to help him get his back.

A country’s artifacts are their history, and they belong to the country and its people. Unfortunately, though, some people don’t get the message. I’ll talk about Egypt, simply because I know the situation there the best, but this kind of history-theft is common all over the world – including in our own country which continues to see theft from our Southwestern Native American sites.

There is poverty in Egypt, and while most of the population reveres their heritage and abhors any kind of theft, there are those who are tempted by the huge sums some will pay for a true Egyptian antiquity, especially one in very good condition. I am not talking about a tiny, undistinguished potsherd, either. (My personal opinion is that the Egyptian government is missing a bet by not selling these chunks of broken pottery, as there are literally billions of them lying around, sometimes in hills the size of a football field and as high as a two story house.) I’m talking about beautiful, singular works of art. Statues. Jewelry. Votive objects. One-of-a-kind things. Even scenes painted on tomb walls, pictures cut from the living rock and as often as not broken, ruined and discarded in the process.

These works of art, these pieces of history, then vanish from the country by means both simple and arcane. Some are covered in plaster and sent out in the middle of a shipment of tourist souvenirs. Others are smuggled out across an unguarded strip of border. There are unscheduled, low-altitude flights of private planes over desolate wastes. Sometimes officials hired to protect these treasures succumb to the lure of bribery. Some brave souls simply tuck their booty into a roll of dirty socks and carry it out in a suitcase – though in these days of heightened security this way is quickly becoming both obsolete and dangerous. The truth is, though, if a buyer with enough money wants an artifact, a way will be found to get it. Then this treasured piece of the past will probably vanish, either never to be seen again, or for many, many years. People who buy smuggled antiquities usually don’t share them with the rest of the world.

The final tragedy is that if the antiquity is ever recovered, it is useless scientifically. Without a provenance – a record of where, when and how it was found in relation to what and by whom – the artifact becomes just a pretty thing lost in time.

And that isn’t the worst. Archaeologists have been apostrophized as being grave robbers and desecrators of the dead, but that’s not true. Real archaeologists treat human remains and ancient cultures with great respect. They are there to study the lives and civilization of the peoples whom they excavate and in a way make them live again. Not so the artifact seeking grave robbers whose only motive is profit.

Archaeology is a respectful science. Black market antiquities collectors respect nothing but their own wants. A country loses its heritage and for what? So that a criminal who thinks nothing of defiling not only his own heritage but his ancestors’ graves can earn a little money? Antiquities theft and smuggling are obscenities that must be stopped.

Curse of the Exile
Born in Italy the year Victoria ascended to the throne, then sent to a servants’ school in England by a vengeful aunt, Angelina Barstow has finally found what she thinks is her life’s calling – working as an assistant to her feckless librarian father.

Even as she longs for a home and love Angelina survives, dealing with life as it comes to her, enduring the deliberate cruelty of her aunt, the put-downs of their latest employer’s snobbish aunt, her rakish father’s addiction to women and the sudden, unwanted reappearance of the bounder who broke her heart years before. When the laird who has employed them appears to return her unspoken feelings Angelina is overjoyed even though she knows theirs is a love that cannot be. A poor laird cannot marry a penniless librarian’s assistant and Angelina can consider nothing less than marriage.

Hidden treasure, an ancient haunting, two tragic deaths and a curse from long ago all combine not only to threaten Angelina’s life but to give her a chance at unimagined happiness.

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Angela Adams said...

Wow! Awesome photos!! Thanks for the post!!!

J.M. Maurer said...

I love visiting historical places and learning about the past. I don't even think about touching these precious pieces that have some sort of story from a long time ago. Great post. The book sounds awesome, too! Thanks for sharing. :)

D.C. Charles said...

So interesting! I haven't been to Egypt, but years ago I took a month-long camping trip through Arizona and New Mexico. Most interesting were the cave dwellings and pueblos on a Navajo reservation in Canyon de Chelley in Arizona. While I was there our Navajo guide talked to us about the theft of artifacts from the sites. It was fascinating. Can't wait for your next novel - when will it be out?

Cheryl said...

Interesting post and photos, Janis, and an important subject. I'll look for your book.

Susan said...

Angela - thanks for dropping by! Really, it's hard to take a bad photo in Egypt - everywhere you look there's something marvelous.

JM - I agree. However, some of the best museums have special artifacts set out that you can touch, and that is awesome!

DC - My next novel out is MURDER AND MISS WRIGHT (done as Janis Patterson) and it should be out in August. It's a murder mystery set at an Egyptological conference and - guess what! - it touches on antiquities smuggling. So does THE EGYPTIAN FILE (done as Janis Susan May) a romantic-adventure-chase that takes place in Egypt. It's out now. Hmmm - are we starting to see a pattern here? As for A KILLING AT EL KAB, hopefully it will be out this winter. I have to finish it first!

Cheryl - thanks for the comment. I appreciate your thoughts.

Susan, also known as Janis Susan

Janice Washburn said...

Another tragedy is the rampant destruction wrought by the Islamic State. They have destroyed huge ancient statues of Buddha and so many other irreplaceable antiquities.

Karen McCullough said...

Fascinating post. There's a lot of great story ideas there!

Jana Richards said...

I agree with Janice about the destruction of artefacts by ISIS. Absolutely awful.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

An excellent discussion and disheartening. Grave robbing, theft of artifacts, has gone on for centuries unfortunately.

Susan said...

Janice, Jana - I agree entirely and most vociferously. Since, however, I didn't want to turn Lois' blog into a socio-religious-political rant, I kept my opinions to the profit trade in antiquities. Both are heinous, though, and should be stopped.

Karen, I agree with you too. It's impossible to go to Egypt or even think about antiquities theft without coming up with lots of ideas. So many ideas, so little time...

Jacqueline - grave robbing and theft have existed for long as mankind itself, more's the pity. One of the reasons we have so few things from pharaonic tombs is that they were robbed in antiquity - many of them by the men who helped create them! Unfortunately, only man's technology changes - not his soul. There are always those who will rob.

Susan, also known as Janis Susan

Pamela Fryer said...

Egypt is one of those places I've always wanted to see, but -sigh- I'll have to be content reading about it instead. A friend told me she'd nearly been sold into slavery for three camels in a marketplace there. Two guys were trying to drag her off and the only word she understood was "three camels". So yeah, gonna read about it instead. Great article, Janis!

Susan said...

Wow, Pamela! In all my trips to Egypt I've never heard anything like that. Sometimes they get a little exhuberant in getting people to take a camel ride, but I've never heard of someone snatched into slavery - especially an American. There's a first time for everything, I guess. Besides, she should be insulted. Just three camels? Seems like the going price for a pretty young woman would be closer to fifty. Glad she's okay. And don't let that stop you from going to Egypt. It's a wonderful country.

Susan, sometimes known as Janis Susan

D Jess said...

Very interesting Janis and amazing photos! I agree wholeheartedly. So much of these antiquities have been destroyed in many countries. Such a shame.
You have a great story coming!

Kimberly Keyes Romance said...

Wow, Pamela! How lucky you are to be able to go to the source for your research. Thanks for an interesting, informative post. :-)

Irene Vartanoff said...

When the majority of the people in a country are poor, the antiquities of a prior group that inhabited that spot are merely the means to living better. Museums in prosperous Western countries often take far better care of antiquities than do the governments of the countries from which they were harvested--whether harvested legally or not. Considering how broke Greece is right now, does it really need the expense of caring for the Elgin Marbles, for instance?

I agree in theory with all your concerns, but when I went to Easter Island recently, I could see that the Chilean government is doing nothing to preserve rare cave paintings and petroglyphs. While it would be wrong to steal them and sell them to private collectors, removing them is more likely to preserve them than is leaving them there to weather into oblivion. The value of ancient artifacts lies not only in their in situ location as found by archaeologists; it also lies in their physical being, the art or craft that can be seen and admired no matter where such pieces end up. Whenever rich people have traveled, they have picked up antiquities. Eventually, those possessions usually end up in museums, too.

And yes, the Egyptian government is totally missing the boat with tourists because they don't sell the cheaply available artifacts--and worse, they don't have set prices for anything, even in their museum gift shops. Americans in particular hate to haggle, so we don't buy. One simple change and tourist buying would increase by floods. I've had very well-heeled people tell me they didn't buy anything because they didn't want to engage in the haggling process.

Bottom line, we can't police the entire world about turning what they view as their local dump heap into a museum their country can't afford to build.

Susan said...

Irene, I agree with so much of what you say, but my post was not about museums et al - I should have made it clearer that my ire descends on irresponsible private collectors who will go to any means possible to obtain something rare and beautiful, then as likely as not squirrel it away for their private appreciation.

As for haggling, I like it - and I'm most definitely an American whose family predates the revolution. It's part of the social contract and one of the best ways to interact with the people. I don't haggle viciously, as some of the locals do, but the give and take and chat of buying something is to me one of the most enjoyable parts of being in a foreign country. Yes, I know I probably pay too much most of the time even if I haggle, but so what? It's part of the experience. Thank you for writing - Susan, aka Janis