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Illegal treasure hunting has become quite a problem over the past few years in Turkey and according to “experts” threatens the country’s cultural and historical heritage.
However whilst there is no doubt that illegal treasure hunting does happen, as it does everywhere, it seems on closer examination that Turkey’s archaeologists are reacting in a way that our own archaeologists used to behave toward detectorists here in the UK back in the 80’s, 90’s and 00’s. In fact it is only fairly recently that they have realised that most of us are far more interested in preserving our heritage than looking to make a quick buck searching for “treasure”.
Although it is also fair to say that a few UK archaeologists still keep to the mind numbingly daft idea that all metal detecting should either be banned or licensed because it is “damaging to the archaeological record”. Damaging to their own precious reputations would be more accurate. Always failing of course to note that most of this “archaeological record” would not exist at all were it not for responsible metal detectorists. Many museums across the country are able to put on fantastic displays and provide more info on local history in part down to the efforts of detectorists.
“There has been a serious degradation in Turkey’s cultural assets caused by illegal treasure hunters in the past few years especially,” Soner Atesogullari, head of Turkey’s Archeologists Association, recently told the media.
“Every single year, archeological artefacts recovered in thousands of illegal excavations by treasure hunters have been damaged and sold to domestic or foreign buyers,” he said, putting the number of such hunters in their “thousands.”
“Trove hunting must be banned in Turkey,” Atesogullari added.
Treasure hunters in Turkey have organised under an association, which has of course not gone down well with the archaeology community who have warned the move could speed up the plundering of ancient heritage.
The Anatolia Treasure Hunters Training and Research Association, stresses in its charter that it was founded to educate, train and gather together people who are interested in treasure hunting while raising awareness.
“We find it strange that an association could be founded and approved by the state even though it would work to damage the cultural heritage of Anatolia with illegal excavations,” Atesogullari said.
Archeologists believe that the main aim of the organisation is to sell metal detectors, a lucrative business across Turkey and have called on authorities to control and prohibit such transactions and enforce severe legal punishments.
Turkey issues licenses for treasure hunting, but under the current regulation the person who is granted such a license is only authorised to search in specific locations and for a limited time.
A treasure hunter can receive 50 percent of the treasure if it is found on state-owned land. If it is found on private land, the land owner will receive 10 percent and the treasure hunter receive 40 percent, while the remainder goes to the state. However the permit holder must also pay for the attendance of tax or customs officers who’ve been assigned to the task by the nearest museum and the license-holder is responsible for paying the per diem allowances of these officials.
Should a licensed treasure hunter uncover something regarded as historical by the state, their permit is immediately cancelled, all digging must stop and the finder receives nothing at all. Is this a good way to encourage people to come forward with their finds? It is perhaps the reason why only a fraction of treasure hunters are licensed in Turkey.
To say Turkish archaeologists are against metal detecting would be an understatement. “Treasure hunting is a plague on our history. It’s a disease that should be rapidly and vehemently eradicated in order to preserve our cultural geography from devastation,” Turkish historian Ilber Ortayli wrote in a column of the Hurriyet daily.
He warned citizens, as well as local and central government authorities, to be alert to those people “who lurk and do business in small towns of Anatolia which harbor some of the most precious objects in the world.”
Turkish police arrest hundreds of illegal treasure hunters each year in Turkey.
In March, an ancient mosaic bearing geometrical patterns and ancient letters was unearthed during an illegal excavation in Turkey’s northwestern Canakkale province. Would this ever have been uncovered if it were not for the work of so called “trove hunters”?
Officials were expected to conduct a rescue operation in the area to protect the precious mosaic and find out its exact origin, the Sabah daily reported.
Countries should of course protect their heritage but using the sledgehammer to crack a nut approach is never going to work. This is the 21st century after all and heavy handed protectionism of professions such as the historian and archeologist is doomed to failure.
People are generally far better educated now than they ever were. We no longer need to have spent years doing a degree in archeology to know how to recognise finds of historic importance and understand that they must be left intact and in situ in order to preserve as much of the historic record as possible. The plough does far more damage than detectorists ever will but we don’t talk about banning the use of modern farm machinery.
Humans are at their best when they work together and with historians, archeologists and detectorists working as one we can all play a part in preserving our heritage for future generations.
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