Soil, saw marks and undocumented antiquities on the open market

This is a slow way to make a quick point, so you really can skip over the sections on soil and saw marks, which are just a sample of sources that discuss the implications of soil or saw marks on antiquities. In light of the consensus of opinion, I ask three very simple, open questions. Why do sellers advertise the presence of soil and saw marks? Why don’t sellers explain the innocuous origins of the soil and saw marks on their antiquities? Why don’t buyers refrain from purchasing undocumented antiquities that bear unexplained soil and saw marks?



An antiquities appraiser in China, Zhang Jinfa, explained to Archaeology: ‘”You can easily tell what has come out of the ground recently”… from the soil that lingers on objects even after [light] cleaning. The collectors who have brought him these antiquities for appraisal are nearly always aware of what they’ve purchased.’ And many are not even lightly cleaned.

Reviewing possibly illicit antiquities probably from Syria that were available on eBay, archaeology professor Amr Al Azm noted an advert that ‘said the coins came with some original find dirt, which was a real give away’ (of their illicit origins). The police recognise that soil may be a marker of plunder, because some looters and dealers preserve the dirt as a mark of authenticity. “You can be sure that it wasn’t forged, because you can see that it was looted!”

As archaeologists Christos Tsirogiannis and David Gill observed, you could ‘still see mud adhering to parts of the rim’ of a looted krater vase in the Medici Dossier (the business archive of illicit dealer Giacomo Medici). The History Blog recorded that another krater ‘still bore the mud and salt encrustations from its fresh excavation‘.

The History Blog also noted that a kalpis vase in another photo in the Medici Dossier ‘was muddy, as was the picture itself’ and still ‘caked in mud from its recent excavation’ in the business archives of Medici’s partners-in-crime Gianfranco Becchina and Ursula Becchina. Indeed, ‘many‘ of the objects in the Becchinas’ photos were ‘covered with dirt as if they’d been recently unearthed’.

When Italian carabinieri, Swiss police and British police raided Medici’s warehouse in a freeport in Switzerland, photographs showed a bronze statuette that was ‘still caked with dirt’ and ‘many’ other already-sold-off antiquities that were ‘unrestored and encrusted with dirt‘ when they were photographed. Many antiquities that remained stashed in the warehouse were ‘still encrusted with dirt from their recent excavation’ in Italy and Greece.

Likewise, when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) recovered statues that had been looted in India and smuggled into the United States by Subhash Kapoor‘s illicit antiquities empire, some of them ‘still [had] dirt on them’.

As law enforcement agent Robert D. Hicks has detailed, forensic collection of soil samples is useful because ‘laboratory analysis might reveal pieces of pottery or bone or even pollen that match the evidence to the crime scene and perhaps to individual suspects if dirt is found on their confiscated clothing’. It has been used to authenticate looted antiquities, used in court to prove looting and used in court to distinguish between possible points of origin.

When antiquities dealer Robin Symes offered a statue of Aphrodite to the Getty Museum, Getty Conservation Institute director Luis Monreal ‘saw signs that the object had been looted. There was dirt in the folds of the gown…, suggesting that the statue had been recently unearthed.’

As Monreal stated: ‘Any museum professional looking at an archeological piece in those [earth-encrusted and broken up] conditions had to suspect it came from an illicit origin.’

Soil is so indicative that the museum ignored the Getty Conservation Institute’s recommendations to conduct ‘tests on soil and pollen found in the folds of the statue… to determine its origin’ (and not to buy the Aphrodite).

Art historian David Knell believes that, in the future, it will be possible to use the soil on an object ‘to determine not only in what region an artefact was buried but also how long it has been UNburied, i.e. the length of time that has elapsed since it was released from an environment compositionally different to that of the atmosphere’, and thus to place and date the object’s illicit extraction.


Still, there is another explanation for the presence of soil. Helios Gallery Antiquities’ dealer Rolf van Kiaer advised against purchase of an object with “active surface encrustation” because, unless it has been cleaned in acid, ‘it may mean that it is freshly excavated or it may mean that the surface is fake/recently applied’.

Antiquities trade professional Roger Schwendeman explained: ‘Fakers, particularly in the case of lower end fakes, will opt for [applying] lots of dirt under the assumption that the uninitiated buyer will equate dirt with age.’

Saw marks


Antiquarians left saw marks when they removed – ‘loot[ed]’ – murals from the Kizil Grottoes of (Uyghur) Xinjiang in China in 1908.

There is at least one case of the use of (hack?) saws in archaeology. Lawrence Butler reviewed a case from 1923-1925, where Langdon Warner had left saw marks when he extracted frescoes from China for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But that was one case, ninety years ago. And it was itself, at best, little better than looting.

The museum had ordered the frescoes’ extraction and paid the local community during a period of anarchy. Even then, it was documented, and the documentation has been preserved. Otherwise, as archaeologist Neil Brodie succinctly observes: ‘Circular saws are not the tools of archaeologists.’

[Update (12th July 2015): Indeed, already before then, by 1912, the American Museum of Natural History had refused to purchase ‘a beautiful [Palaeolithic] relief sculpture of a salmon’ in a grotto, which is still now in situ, ‘surrounded by saw marks produced by efforts to remove it for sale to collectors’. (Seemingly, it would not have constituted looting-to-order, because the would-be extractors were the landowner and leaseholder of the cave, and possibly only then because the antiquities law was not passed until the 31st of December 1913.)]

[Update (13th July 2015): The first reliefs (carved panels) of a lion hunt in the North Palace of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh in Iraq were discovered by an Assyrian archaeologist and British Museum representative, Hormuzd Rassam, in 1853. An alabaster panel of a dying lion was excavated by British archaeologist and Assyrian Excavation Fund representative William Kennett Loftus in 1854-1855, and surfaced in Lilian M. Boutcher’s family collection in the UK in 1991. She donated it through Lloyds Bank to the British Museum in 1992.

According to the Keeper of the Middle East Department of the British Museum, John Curtis, the “saw marks” consitute ‘clear evidence’ that, at some point ‘in modern times’, the panel was ‘cut down to size‘. According to the Assistant Curator of the Ancient Near East at the Royal Ontario Museum, Clemens Reichel, the panel had been ‘kept in a wooden frame in [L. M. Boutcher’s] family home‘, and she was ‘the great granddaughter of artist William Boutcher, who accompanied’ W. K. Loftus on the excavation, so presumably it had been in the family throughout the period between 1854-1855 and 1991.]

Convicted antiquities smuggler Jonathan Tokeley-Parry, who disguised his illicit antiquities as modern reproductions in order to traffic them, explained that you could distinguish between a forgery and a fragmentary antiquity by the saw marks. If ‘a fragment had recently been cut from an original statue…. the cut-edge would have been raw stone, showing saw-marks‘.

Archaeologists Suzanne Onstine, Jesus Hererrin and Miguel Sanchez recorded that ‘looters’ had ‘saw[n] out six sections of relief’ (painted plaster panels) from a tomb in Thebes in Egypt, around which ‘the saw marks [were] clearly visible’ and believed that the panels had been looted in order to be sold on the international market.

Presenting a Mayan tablet that had been extracted by 1968, media professional Chris Ledger, who had consulted cultural heritage professionals including the Hudson Museum to which the tablet had been bequested in 1982, stated: ‘There is a 99.9 percent chance that this piece was looted. You can see saw marks on the back. Most museums wouldn’t want their pieces to be identified as looted.’

Archaeologist Ian Graham found ‘saw marks‘ on a mutilated limestone monument in El Perú in Guatemala in 1971. Journalist Beth Gardiner relayed: ‘Where its carved stone chest ornamentation should have been, he found just the flat surface left by thieves’ saws.’ Archaeologist Christina Luke observed that ‘the clean saw marks that cut through’ “numerous” stelae there constituted ‘evidence of malicious plunder events’ and showed a stela at Dos Pilas, where the most saleable section had been cut out and carried off.

Then archaeologist Jennifer Castro pointed out that marks where looters had ‘saw[n]’ a stone panel ‘away from a larger structure’ at La Corona, ‘in order to transport and sell’ it, were visible on ‘cursory inspection‘ of the panel. It is particularly clear that such objects are looted because ‘many of the artifacts can fit back into their original structure like a puzzle piece’. Trafficking Culture recorded that the base of a stela from La Corona also bore distinctive ‘looters’ saw marks‘.

Archaeologist-criminologist Donna Yates noted that the back of a Mayan glyph from an unknown site (via the Carolyn and Walter Foxworth Collection) was covered in ‘saw marks: evidence of how a Maya site was mutilated to rip this item from its context so that someone can buy it on eBay’.

[Update (12th July 2015): Assyriologist Hélène Sader reported that, towards the end of the Lebanese civil war in late 1990, ‘clandestine diggers from Tyre’ looted about 200 stone stelae, some of which were recovered or otherwise reviewed. While epigrapher Pierre Bordeuil believed that the recovered pieces were forgeries because they were only sections with inscriptions, Sader explained that illicit handlers had ‘started cutting the stones… with an electric saw to preserve only the part bearing the inscription‘, because their otherwise ‘heavy weight’ and ‘cumbersome size’ made them difficult to sell into the international antiquities market.]

Archaeologist-criminologist Neil Brodie noted that “bricks” from Larsa in Iraq, with inscriptions that mention “Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon”, surfaced on the internet in 2008, resembled a set in the British Museum in terms of size, and sold for between $1,100 and ~$2,500 via the Aweidah Gallery, Treasuregate Gallery, BidAncient, Harlan J. Berk, eBay and Ancient Resource.

Brodie explained that ‘close inspection of images’ revealed that the surfaced “bricks” had been ‘cut down from larger blocks with the use of circular saws‘, which ‘constitute[d] clear evidence that the “bricks” had been removed destructively from their architectural contexts and cut down in size to facilitate their illegal transport from Iraq’.

Assyriologist Zsombor Földi pointed out that ‘looters or dealers’ had ‘tried to cut out’ an inscription from the pedestal of a statue from Iraq ‘with a chisel[,] but finally used a circular saw‘.

The historic preservation officer for Bishop Paiute Tribe in the United States, Raymond Andrews, showed NPR the chisel and saw marks that revealed where, in 2012, thieves looted five ancient petroglyphs from a Native American site in California.


A professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University, Yuval Goren, has noted that ‘saw marks’ are (sometimes) ‘simple, crude, and easy to identify’ ‘clues to forgery‘.

Undocumented antiquities on the open market

As former Getty Conservation Institute director Luis Monreal observed to journalists Ralph Frammolino and Jason Felch, the Aphrodite statue ‘had no documented ownership history and was completely unknown to experts in the field…. “You don’t have to be a genius to know what this means.”‘

It is surprising, then, that galleries advertise the fact that antiquities, “rare” or otherwise, from a named archaeological site in Syria, are ‘covered with a thick layer of earth patination’ or have “some” ‘earth encrustation [and] patination’ but only have attributed paperwork that goes back to the 1970s or 1980s.

It is inexplicable that galleries would advertise the fact that they are trading in “very rare” “Mesopotamian” antiquities ‘under a thin layer of ancient encrusted soil’ without any apparent documentation; or “exceptional” “Phoenician” antiquities ‘with traces of ancient soil adhering’ but without any apparent documentation.

It is inexplicable that galleries would advertise the fact that they are trading in “exceptional”, “very rare”, “important” “Mesopotamian” antiquities – a ‘plaque’/’brick’, no less – with “saw marks” ‘on [the] reverse where removed from a wall’ but without any apparent documentation.

So, why do sellers advertise the presence of soil and saw marks? Why don’t sellers explain the innocuous origins of the soil and saw marks on their antiquities? Why don’t buyers refrain from purchasing undocumented antiquities that bear unexplained soil and saw marks?

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