Janis Susan May/Janis Patterson is a 7th-generation Texan who writes mystery, romance, and horror. She’s also an enthusiastic amateur Egyptologist whose husband proposed to her in a moonlit garden near the Pyramids of Giza. Today she stops by to talk about her passion for antiquities. Learn more about Janis and her books at her two websites, www.JanisSusanMay.com and www.JanisPattersonMysteries.com.
Graves and Robbers
What is an antiquity? Generally accepted, it means an artifact from an ancient civilization – sort of like an antique antique. While in eras gone past, some governments gave away their antiquities for one reason or another, usually political – such as the Egyptian obelisks in New York and Paris, or the Elgin Marbles in London – or lost them as spoils of war, nowadays governments are very careful about what happens to these artifacts of their history.
Unfortunately, this does not make people stop wanting them. While in modern times antiquities as large as the obelisks or marble sculptures pretty much stay in their home countries, there is unfortunately a brisk illegal trade in smaller antiquities. Statues, boxes, pieces of pictures, even potsherds and parts of broken artifacts quietly vanish from their rightful place and disappear into a shadowy world of antiquities smuggling and black markets.
Earlier this year I went to Egypt to research A Killing at El Kab, my new mystery novel. One of the characters in this story lost his reputation and chances of ever getting another job in his field (Egyptology) simply because some of the men he worked with were caught smuggling antiquities. He was innocent, but no one believed him except one friend, a man who risked his own reputation to help him get his back.
A country’s artifacts are their history, and they belong to the country and its people. Unfortunately, though, some people don’t get the message. I’ll talk about Egypt, simply because I know the situation there the best, but this kind of history-theft is common all over the world – including in our own country which continues to see theft from our Southwestern Native American sites.
There is poverty in Egypt, and while most of the population reveres their heritage and abhors any kind of theft, there are those who are tempted by the huge sums some will pay for a true Egyptian antiquity, especially one in very good condition. I am not talking about a tiny, undistinguished potsherd, either. (My personal opinion is that the Egyptian government is missing a bet by not selling these chunks of broken pottery, as there are literally billions of them lying around, sometimes in hills the size of a football field and as high as a two story house.) I’m talking about beautiful, singular works of art. Statues. Jewelry. Votive objects. One-of-a-kind things. Even scenes painted on tomb walls, pictures cut from the living rock and as often as not broken, ruined and discarded in the process.
These works of art, these pieces of history, then vanish from the country by means both simple and arcane. Some are covered in plaster and sent out in the middle of a shipment of tourist souvenirs. Others are smuggled out across an unguarded strip of border. There are unscheduled, low-altitude flights of private planes over desolate wastes. Sometimes officials hired to protect these treasures succumb to the lure of bribery. Some brave souls simply tuck their booty into a roll of dirty socks and carry it out in a suitcase – though in these days of heightened security this way is quickly becoming both obsolete and dangerous. The truth is, though, if a buyer with enough money wants an artifact, a way will be found to get it. Then this treasured piece of the past will probably vanish, either never to be seen again, or for many, many years. People who buy smuggled antiquities usually don’t share them with the rest of the world.
The final tragedy is that if the antiquity is ever recovered, it is useless scientifically. Without a provenance – a record of where, when and how it was found in relation to what and by whom – the artifact becomes just a pretty thing lost in time.
And that isn’t the worst. Archaeologists have been apostrophized as being grave robbers and desecrators of the dead, but that’s not true. Real archaeologists treat human remains and ancient cultures with great respect. They are there to study the lives and civilization of the peoples whom they excavate and in a way make them live again. Not so the artifact seeking grave robbers whose only motive is profit.
Archaeology is a respectful science. Black market antiquities collectors respect nothing but their own wants. A country loses its heritage and for what? So that a criminal who thinks nothing of defiling not only his own heritage but his ancestors’ graves can earn a little money? Antiquities theft and smuggling are obscenities that must be stopped.
Curse of the Exile
Born in Italy the year Victoria ascended to the throne, then sent to a servants’ school in England by a vengeful aunt, Angelina Barstow has finally found what she thinks is her life’s calling – working as an assistant to her feckless librarian father.
Even as she longs for a home and love Angelina survives, dealing with life as it comes to her, enduring the deliberate cruelty of her aunt, the put-downs of their latest employer’s snobbish aunt, her rakish father’s addiction to women and the sudden, unwanted reappearance of the bounder who broke her heart years before. When the laird who has employed them appears to return her unspoken feelings Angelina is overjoyed even though she knows theirs is a love that cannot be. A poor laird cannot marry a penniless librarian’s assistant and Angelina can consider nothing less than marriage.
Hidden treasure, an ancient haunting, two tragic deaths and a curse from long ago all combine not only to threaten Angelina’s life but to give her a chance at unimagined happiness.