Life is Short, Art is Long
|Chesters Roman fort near Hadrian’s Wall in England. I used another photo taken here on the cover of the ebook of Dust to Dust.
Archaeologists are now as interested in potsherds and postholes as in artistic artifacts. However, some of our greatest works of art were originally found in archaeological excavations back when excavation was seen simply as a means to obtain antiquities. Visualize the stately homes of the UK, decorated with statuary, vases, and innumerable other objects obtained all over the world.
I’m not saying “looted” from all over the world, because in many cases the local people willingly sold off their cultural heritage. Or they blithely sold off someone else’s cultural heritage--the Turks who gave Elgin permission to carry off the Parthenon marbles being a case in point. Most countries now have laws protecting their cultural heritage. But enforcing those laws, like enforcing any law, is the problem. Many governments can hardly feed and house their citizens, let alone protect their ancient sites. For example, museums and sites in Iraq and Afghanistan have been repeatedly looted during the upheavals of the last decade.
The person who actually removes, say, the Moche sculpture or Etruscan vase from the tomb or chisels the frieze off the wall of an Asian temple gets only a few pennies for his vandalism. It’s the dealers and collectors, both private and public, who buy the sculptures and vases that make the antiquities trade into one of the world’s most lucrative businesses. They also fuel its evil twin, the international illegal antiquities trade. As with the international drug trade, money can lead to violence.
Not that all collectors who buy illegally are unscrupulous. Some are merely ignorant or foolish. It’s poetic justice that the market for forgeries is also booming right alongside that for antiquities. Half or all a collector’s collection might be fakes. If he buys items out of context, though, divorced from their archaeological background, he not only has no way of knowing whether an artifact is genuine, he has no recourse if it isn’t. Even if the artifact has a strong provenance, a long paper trail, those papers could themselves be forgeries.
Is all this fertile ground for a mystery novel? Of course it is.
The main character of Time Enough to Die, Matilda Gray, is an expert on antiquities, especially the Roman and Celtic artifacts found in Great Britain. While this sounds like the most stodgy of professions, it isn’t. Factor in the illegal antiquities trade, and her job becomes dangerous, even deadly.
I added color to Matilda’s character—and to the plot--by making her a parapsychologist. While she can “divvy”, like Jonathan Gash’s fictional antiques dealer Lovejoy, her extra-sensory perception ranges further than that. As she tells the young policeman she is working with, Gareth March, “I identify fake artifacts. I pinpoint where artifacts of dubious provenance came from, I track artifacts that have been stolen, I tell excavators and restorers what’s below the surface soil or behind a wall, to help them allocate their resources. I’m like the police sketch artist who makes an educated guess as to a suspect’s appearance, except I go out in the field myself. Most of the time I use my academic knowledge as much as my psychic abilities.”
Unlike Lovejoy, Matilda’s allegiance lies with law and order. Her general goal is stopping the theft of cultural property worldwide. Her specific goal in Time Enough to Die involves the theft of several Romano-British sculptures. These sculptures were created out of precious metals two millennia ago and left as offerings in the temple of Cornovium, an old Roman town that is now a modern English town named Corcester.
While the ancient British tribe of the Cornovii did exist, Corcester and its buried Roman fort do not. I based the village on several in the Welsh borders, notably Nantwich. The Roman ruins the characters are excavating are modeled on those at Wroxeter in Wales and Chesters in Northumberland.
Gareth’s specific goal is to solve the murder of a young woman who was apparently involved in the illegal antiquities trade in general, and in the theft of the statuary in particular. This means he has to work with Matilda, not always an easy task when he’s as skeptical as he militantly claims to be.
Since England has so many ancient sites, it would be impossible to scientifically excavate all of them. Designating them as protected sites doesn’t always discourage an enterprising soul with a metal detector, and many amateur archaeologists as well as casual passersby have uncovered antiquities at unprotected sites. The English law of treasure trove encourages anyone who finds an ancient artifact to come forward with his find. But the issue is a complicated one.
As one character in Time Enough to Die says, “Many’s the garden wall built of the old stone, and many’s the drainage ditch lined with the old tile. There’s no harm in a bit of recycling. The legions are gone. We live here now.”
Another character points out that the issue isn’t necessarily stone and tile: “There’s a ruined chapel on Anglesey that dates back to the Age of Saints. When archaeologists excavated it in the nineteenth century, the local people thought they were looking for treasure. After the scientists left they kept on looking and demolished the chapel.”
Treasure. Ah, yes. We’re back to money, the love of which is the root of many evils, not to mention mystery stories.
A third character says, “I know the laws of treasure trove. If temple offerings are discovered on my land then I’m either due fair compensation from the Crown, or they’re mine to do with as I please. Good luck getting fair compensation through the British Museum. I can make a lot more selling my artifacts on the open market.”
The problem is less in compensating the discoverers of artifacts fairly than in getting a report of the discovery at all. Matilda mentions two actual cases: “Like the Thetford Treasure, a fantastic hoard of Roman artifacts. By the time the authorities heard about them the site had been built over. And the Romano-British bronzes from Icklingham, spirited away from a protected site only to surface in an antiquity dealer’s shop in New York.”
With forged papers, who can prove where artifacts originally came from? Finding proof that antiquities have been stolen is almost impossible. Matilda Gray, with her extrasensory abilities, exists only in fiction. Fortunately dedicated Scotland Yard detectives like Gareth March do exist, for the only real-life solution is to catch thieves in the act.
In Time Enough to Die dealers and collectors are portrayed as, if not bad guys, at least as shady characters. Matilda says, “It’s like prostitution, isn’t it? If men didn’t want cheap, mindless sex, there wouldn’t be any prostitutes. If collectors didn’t stroke their egos by buying artifacts, there wouldn’t be any looters and forgers supplying them. In each case, it’s the customer, not the supplier, who’s ultimately responsible for the trade.”
True enough. And yet, again, the issue is far from straightforward. If Elgin had not taken the Parthenon marbles, they might well have been destroyed when a Turkish munitions dump exploded in the building. As a dealer in Time Enough to Die says, “No museum can afford to buy every antiquity that appears. Honest people who buy well-attested artifacts save them from destruction. Even artifacts that go to museums are likely to be bundled into a dusty corner. Private owners have the resources to properly appreciate our cultural heritage.”
And as the archaeologist in charge of the dig says, “Until the good people of Corcester bestir themselves to make a proper museum of the site, we must take all the important finds to the laboratory where they’ll be safe.”
The numerous permutations of the antiquities trade, whether legal or il-, have influenced two other of my mystery novels. One, Garden of Thorns, takes place partly in a museum which has just inherited a collection of medieval artifacts from the man who stole them from occupied Germany right after World War II. Another, The Secret Portrait, begins when an old man brings a 200-year-old gold coin to a reporter in Edinburgh and tells her he found it in the Scottish Highlands and that it must have come from Bonnie Prince Charlie’s fabled French hoard. He asks for her help in deciphering the Scottish law of treasure trove (which, by the way, is different from the English version.) But when she takes the coin to the Museum of Scotland to be verified, she discovers that the old man wasn’t exactly telling her the truth.
The international antiquities trade is not painted in black and white, but in shades of gray. Or Matilda Gray, as the case may be.