Stealing History Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World

Roger Atwood

St. Martin's Griffin



Trade Paperback

368 Pages



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Stealing History cracks open the global trade in ancient artifacts and shows how grave robbers from Peru to Iraq to Cambodia supply the treasures that wind up in museums and private collections of the super rich. Using the story of the Royal Tombs of Sipán in Peru (as important to the Americas as Tutankhamen's grave was to Egypt) and the widespread looting that followed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, journalist Roger Atwood takes readers through this underground world of gold and greed.

The objects from Sipán dazzled collectors and wound up as part of a blockbuster show at the American Museum of Natural History. Inspired by the Sipán discovery, grave robbers in Peru and throughout South America—many of them desperately poor—began systematically digging up the countryside. Atwood accompanied some of them on their looting, documenting firsthand how and for whom they worked. He followed the biggest, flashiest piece of gold ever seen in the Americas—a three-pound masterpiece of ancient metallurgy—from the tomb where it was stolen to the American smugglers who tried to sell it from a car trunk.

The book opens with the catastrophic looting of Sumerian sites in the south of Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, which Atwood was the first Western journalist to witness and which he recounted in Mother Jones and Archaeology.

Tomb raiding has a long history, but Stealing History shows how it has grown into a huge, global industry. These are no graveyard scavengers, but professionals in an illicit antiquities trade that works with devastating efficiency to strip whole countries of their heritage. Atwood reveals the strange, sad world of well-organized looters and the undercover FBI operations that are putting corrupt dealers out of business. He offers a survey of how the trade in ancient art has been criminalized over the last half-century. Chapter by chapter, this exposé reveals the extent of the robbery, the sums involved, and the market forces that are driving the hunt for stolen artifacts. Part detective story and part meditation on the power of art and culture, Stealing History is an account of how the past is being dug out from under us.


Praise for Stealing History

"Roger Atwood's Stealing History presents a compelling, thorough, and firsthand investigation of the many facets of the international trade in looted archaeological artifacts . . . Atwood's volume is . . . a most welcome addition to the literature . . . [He]. . . does a significant service by adding to our understanding of the operation of the international market in archaeological artifacts and its disastrous consequences for the preservation of archaeological sites . . . Atwood's book make a significant contribution to the scholarship on this subject, but it is accessible to the archaeologist, legal expert, and general public alike. The legal information presented is accurate and provides a useful guide to the underlying issues. This book contributes more than any other publication in more than 30 years to an understanding of the devastation to cultural heritage caused by site looting and to the search for solutions."—Patty Gerstenblith, American Journal of Archaeology

"A perfect detective story . . . exposes quite a few skeletons in the cupboards of respected American institutions . . . Yet Atwood not only describes the disease, he tries to find a cure. He proposes a detailed program of international and domestic legislation to stop gravediggers, smugglers, and their rich patrons."—The Washington Post

"Riveting . . . takes readers on a thorough investigation from war-ravaged Iraq to northern Peru."—The Chicago Sun-Times

"Atwood gained extraordinary access to actors at every level of the illicit trade in antiquities . . . Packed with detail."—The Boston Globe

"This vividly written, well-researched book is a great primer for anyone interested in the ongoing struggle by archaeologists, law enforcement officials, and national governments to curb the illegal antiquities trade."—Archaeology Magazine

"Every archaeologist's worst nightmare . . . is recorded with horrid fascination by journalist Roger Atwood." –Discover Magazine

"Prodigiously researched . . . eloquent . . . Atwood's aim is not merely to entertain, and he uses the case of the Sipán and the Peruvian antiquities trade to explore the global problem of looting and the forces that sustain it."—ARTnews

"Atwood sees the antiquities market as a destructive extraction industry, obliterating the record of entire civilizations . . . even the most respected museums are implicated."—Wired

"A well-written book about an important issue in the world of art and history."—St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"A fascinating book, full of life and color . . . shines a spotlight on the shady world of looting, smuggling and trading in archaeological artifacts around the globe."—National Catholic Reporter

"A highly readable exposé that reveals in shocking detail the extent of the robbing, the vast sums of money involved and the market conditions that fuel the increasing demand for stolen artifacts."—Tucson Citizen

"Compelling . . . The characters of this drama are vividly drawn . . . Atwood's detailed accounts of law enforcement's failing at most levels are disturbing . . . [a] valuable book."—The Art Newspaper

"Dense with information but highly readable . . . Atwood examines in detail and with painstaking documentation how contemporary grave robbers, antiquities dealers, collectors, museums, and archaeologists are complicit in a system that robs cultures of their histories."—The New Mexican (Santa Fe)

"Atwood tackles the looting of ancient archeological sites in a narrative that reads like a combination of Indiana Jones and a spy thriller . . . Although he begins with a look at the looting of ancient sites in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein, most of his discussion centers around the village of Sipán in Peru, where local looters stumbled across the remains of several kings of the Moche culture and their gold artifacts. Atwood traces the sale of these artifacts, the attempts of the Peruvian government to retrieve them, the involvement of the American government, and ultimately the construction of a museum to hold the finds that have been recovered . . . Stealing History is an eye-opening and engrossing look into the dark world of looting and smuggling, and the incredible losses to our knowledge of the Moche culture and other ancient groups . . . It is a fascinating read."—Marcia Amidon Lüsted, Academia

"Atwood's book is a compelling must-read. Thoroughly engrossing and meticulously researched and reported, it combines first-rate detective work with bracing scientific discovery. The result is stunning: The author strips away the veil of respectability that has cloaked so much of the antiquities trade for centuries. Atwood leads us where no author has gone before, into the depths of ancient tombs where gold and textiles are stolen to order, into the international smuggling rings, and into the homes and galleries of the collectors and curators who deny all wrongdoing. You will be outraged. Atwood demonstrates that nothing less than the world's cultural heritage is at sake here, not least by showing us what can be done to stop this appalling, macabre trade. Enthralling, enriching, and even enabling, this book is an unforgettable journey across time, continents, and cultures. Read it—you will never look at a museum exhibit comfortably again."—Phillip Wearne, author of Return of the Indian: Conquest and Revival in the Americas and co-author of Tainting Evidence: Inside the Scandals at the FBI Crime Lab

"Stealing History is an immensely compelling and disturbing tale of greed, destruction, and woe. With an unflinching eye for detail, Atwood explores the subterranean world of the antiquities trade, from the cadaver-littered pits of professional grave robbers in Sipán to the glittering collections of wealthy buyers in the world's capitals. Graphically charting the seamy traffic that is devouring the world's most important archaeological sites, Stealing History is the first book I've read that really does this subject justice. It's a must read."—Heather Pringle, author of The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead

"A disturbing tale of greed and cultural demolition, robust in the telling, scorching in its indictment."—Kirkus Reviews

"Atwood's high-velocity, true-crime narrative immediately hooks readers while also informing them about the international antiquities business . . . meticulous . . . a case study of the sordid trade."—Booklist

"Atwood's ability to bring a story dramatically to life . . . makes this an important book for anyone interested in archaeology, preservation, or the potentially tangled provenance of works they love."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Stealing History

Chapter 1
WE SAT UNDER a tree in the moonlight chewing coca leaves, a heap of shovels and metal poles resting on the ground next to us. We chased down...

Read the full excerpt


  • Roger Atwood

  • Roger Atwood is a regular contributor to ARTnews and Archaeology magazines, and his articles on culture and politics have appeared in The New Republic, Mother Jones, The Nation, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. He was a fellow at the Alicia Patterson Foundation and a journalist for Reuters for fifteen years, reporting from Peru, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. He was recently awarded the Beacon Award by SAFE (Saving Antiquities for Everyone), and currently lives in Washington, D.C., and Maine.

  • Roger Atwood