Archaeologist Morag Kersel tells the (w)hole story for the 2019 International Archaeology Day lecture

Written by Adrienne Bechtel and Caroline Igo, CAS communications interns

Morag Kersel

The Department of Anthropology presented its second annual International Archaeology Day lecture on Thursday, October 17. Followed by a Q&A, the lecture was given by DePaul University archaeologist Dr. Morag Kersel, who spoke about her field work in Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories.

Kersel specializes in the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age of the eastern Mediterranean and Levant, cultural heritage protection, the built environment, object biographies, museums, and archaeological tourism. In addition to her role as an associate professor of anthropology, she co-directs the Galilee Prehistory Project and the Follow the Pots Project, which inspired her lecture.

"I need to be out in the field with the people," Kersel said. "My favorite part about archaeology is meeting the people in the countries I work in and seeing their enthusiasm."

The (W)hole Story

Kersel's lecture, "The (W)hole Story of Looting, Loss, and Landscape at an Early Bronze Age Site in Jordan," delved into the global circulation of artifacts. "Today, we are going to talk about holes," she began. "I'm interested in how archaeological materials go from the mound to the mantlepiece or the museum."

W.E. Smith Professor of History Dr. Steven Conn (left) and students share a lighter moment with Dr. Kersel (right).

Kersel explained that her work begins at excavation sites, where she and her team carefully examine graves from the Early Bronze Age. "Both in Jordan's Bad adh-Dhra and Fifa, the ancient people were buried with goods," she said.

The people of the Early Bronze Age traveled a large distance to bring their dead and their grave goods to these sites.

"Each grave includes 6 to 30 pots," Kersel said, adding that once her team carefully extracts the pots, the artifacts are sent to museums. "But, sadly, most pots don't end up there. Looting of these ancient graves is a real problem."

Objects from these tombs are highly desired in the antiquities market. The high demand for "pieces of The Holy Land" fuels this illegal economy. "Everyone wants a pot from the city of sin," Kersel said, quoting one of the market dealers she interviewed.

"In an ideal world, I would love to see no buying or looting of antiquities," said Kersel. "Looting has larger impacts on the land, community, and cultural history."

While in Jordan, Kersel and her team set out to decrease the illegal looting and selling of artifacts and to increase awareness of the issue. They reached out to local community members, attended town hall meetings, and then began to monitor the grave sites.

Through intensive photographing, she explained, "We recorded over 3,700 holes as our baseline, and during our first season, we recorded 34 new holes due to looting."

"In our second season, between 2014 and 2015, we recorded only 3 new holes!" Kersel and her team were excited, because their research had shown a large decrease in looting.

But, the next season was back to 24 new holes.

"Sadly, in 2017, Jordan banned the use of drones and aerial vehicles that were not part of the military," Kersel said.

Since then, they have not been able to go back and complete their plan of action, but they remain in contact with their partners in hopes of resuming the work soon.

The Demand for Antiquities

Dr. Kersel chats with a couple of students after the lecture.

"Through my research, pots sell between $30 and $150, which could result in a low estimate of around $11,000 or a high estimate in $275,000 from looted tombs," Kersel said. "This isn't the multimillion dollar revenue we see in the news, but it is still a significant amount of money for people in this trade."

"Licensed dealers in Israel routinely travel to Amman [Jordan] to pick up these pots, and these antiquities are then transferred to the legal market."

Under the law, Kersel explained that a museum or an heir of a Middle Bronze Age pots collector can redistribute or sell the materials. This is the only way that new material can enter the market.

"So, in an economic standpoint," said Kersel, "the market should be drying up." But, this isn't the case.

"In order to get a license as a dealer, you have to submit an application and provide a registry of all your materials," she said. The inventory has to be detailed, but the problem was that dealers were being very vague. A brief description of a "buff colored pot" could be anything.

In order to take an artifact out of the country, you need an export license.

"Always ask for the export license, because you want the real thing," Kersel said. "If you don't ask for one, you walk out of the store, and there is no record of the sale. The Israel Antiquities Authority has never been contacted."

If there is no real record of the sale, the license is then reused for another "buff colored pot," thus the reason that looted material can enter the market.

"Having done this for almost 20 years, I know that the buying of material from the Holy Land is never going to end," said Kersel. "Everyone wants something that relates to the time of Jesus."

Four Types of Buyers

In the final portion of her lecture, Kersel described the consumers she has interviewed.

"The majority of the people buying things in the Holy Land are consumers," she said. "These people are typically tourists who want to leave with a memento of their trip."

Kersel put these consumers into 4 different categories:

  • Explorers are consumers who like to shop at a cabinet of curiosity. "They like to pretend that they are having the authentic experience," Kersel said, "and they get to sort through objects until they find the perfect pot."
  • Elite tourists visit shops that were recommended by their hotels. "They care less about the experience of buying, they are interested in the object itself," Kersel said. "They want artifacts as a connection to the ancient past."
  • Religious tourists are consumers who come to the Holy Land for specific religious events or festivals. "They will make a purchase in almost any type of shop," she said, adding that they are known to make purchases of anything between t-shirts, fridge magnets, vials of sand, and water from the Holy Land.
  • Charter tourists are consumers that are not religious. "For them, it is less about the religious experience and more about the comradery of the trip." They will shop wherever the tour guide takes them. "If one person buys something, they all will," Kersel added.

"The types of shops that these consumers deal in are art galleries, tourist shops, cabinets of curiosity, museums, and two dealers who deal out of their home," she said.

Audience Reactions

After Kersel's lecture, students had the opportunity to interact with her directly with questions and comments.

"I think the political and economic aspects are really cool," said junior anthropology major Rachael Sorcher. "Archaeology isn't just about excavations but so much more."

Meg Rimer, a junior sociology major and anthropology minor, added, "I think archaeology is extremely important, because it gives us insight into how these people lived. We can analyze texts as much as we want, but being able to see how people buried their dead and used everyday objects really shows how they behaved as a society."

"Now, when you go on a tour in Israel, are you going to buy an artifact?" Kersel asked her audience at the conclusion of her talk. "No, you are not, because in the end it leads to looting at archaeological sites."