Raiders of the Lost Art

It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure: In the southern Italian region of Puglia, police say there are more than 50 people whose primary income comes from selling artifacts looted from the ancient grave sites that dot the surrounding countryside. In recent years, outcry from the international architectural community has caused Italian law enforcement agencies to up their efforts to capture and detain gangs of tomb robbers, or tombaroli, though for years their actions went largely unpunished.

Archaeology contributing editor Giovanni Lattanzi interviewed a tombarolo who lives near the Etruscan ruins of Cerveteri, west of Rome.

How long have you been a tombarolo?
I started in 1945, after the war. With the hunger and poverty, that was the only way to make a little money. Above all, foreigners, the American officers and civilians that were in Italy, were buying [artifacts].

How is the market changing?
The market is always looking for the same things–gold, jewelry, bronzes, and also beautiful decorated vases. At first the buyers were only very rich people; today everyone buys a little, including middle-class people, to whom it is possible to sell the minor objects.

No one wants to do this work anymore. Young people want money fast and without working; they don’t want to go out at night, dig, work hard. Or they content themselves with an office job and a pittance for a salary. Our experience is being lost.

When do you dig?
Only at night, obviously. There are places in the south of Italy where people dig with bulldozers in the day, but there the Mafia is at work.

Is it a hobby for you, or a job?
I have my work, which is useful as a cover. Today for me digging is a source of extra income, really a passion like for those who go hunting or fishing and then sell what they have caught, or for those who hunt truffles. When I was young, after the war, it was my job; I was providing for my family. Then I spent a good [amount of] time every night, now only a few days a week. I work a few hours a night, four or five at most. I clean out one, or at most two, tombs per night. There are those who do it seriously and clean out four or five tombs a night.

What tools do you use?
To find tombs I use an instrument called a spiedo, a long, thin iron with a handle. I insert the point into the ground, holding it at an angle and turning it. With this system, I can tell whether there is a tomb underground, what it is like, and even where the entrance is. Then I dig with a shovel on the side with the entrance, empty the tomb, reseal it, and clean it up. In this way the carabinieri cannot know that tombaroli have already been in that area, and they cannot succeed in bringing the territory under control.

Do any tombaroli sell forgeries?
For about 15 years now, [some tombaroli] have been putting fake vases inside tombs already cleaned out. Afterward they are sealed with earth and left to age for a couple of years. Then [the tombaroli] find tourists who want to experience the emotion of discovering a tomb, just as they want the objects. The tombaroli take them there at night, excavate the false tombs, and sell the tourists the fake objects that they themselves put there years before.

Have you studied archaeology?
I have never studied it, not even in elementary school. When I was young, only the rich went to school, and I was poor. Over the years I have fallen in love with archaeology and have read many books.

Does it bother you that you are looting your own past and depriving your children of their history?
So many things are left underground, and if people from the superintendency find them they put them in crates and leave them in warehouses for 100 years.

Reprinted with the permission of Archaeology magazine(Vol. 51, No. 3). Copyright © 1998 the Archaeological Institute of America. Subscriptions: $19.97/yr. (6 issues) from Box 469025, Escondido, CA 92046-9025.

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