An American archaeology prof says that a long-feared outbreak of eBay-driven tomb raiding has failed to occur. Rather, it seems that the online dross emporium - by creating a huge and profitable new market for forged antiquities - has drawn criminals and charlatans out of looting and into making crappy imitations for eBay.
"For most of us, the Web has forever distorted the antiquities trafficking market in a positive way," says Professor Charles Stanish of UCLA.
Writing in the current issue of Archaeology magazine, the prof explains that this is unexpected. When eBay first started to gain traction, he and his colleagues feared that the world's tombs, hidden temples, lost cities etc. would swiftly be stripped bare by would-be online auctioneer robbers.
Our greatest fear was that the Internet would democratize antiquities trafficking and lead to widespread looting. This seemed a logical outcome of a system in which anyone could open up an eBay site and sell artifacts dug up by locals anywhere in the world. We feared that an unorganized but massive looting campaign was about to begin, with everything from potsherds to pieces of the Great Wall on the auction block for a few dollars. But a very curious thing has happened. It appears that electronic buying and selling has actually hurt the antiquities trade.
In the old days, according to Stanish, your primary buyer of dodgy antique artifacts was wealthy and sophisticated. They knew they were buying priceless cultural treasures that strictly speaking should have been in museums - eg. they were buying illegally-handled goods - but they knew enough that they were hard to fool, and they paid top dollar.
Thus, the business of looting/tomb-raiding was worthwhile, although expensive. It was worth dodging the huge rumbling stone balls and poisoned darts, then shipping the artifacts out and getting them across the border and passing them through the hands of many crooked dealers and middlemen. You'd wind up getting a substantial sum in the end from a suspect American millionaire or jaded European aristocrat.
Not so nowadays, apparently. The arrival of millions of eBay-trawling, tat-hungry buffoons on the antiquities scene has meant that local villagers near an old temple or wherever can make far more money cranking out fake vases, sacrificial knives or whatever, than they could by going and stealing real ones out of the catacombs.