NEAR THE BEGINNING of Craig Childs’s impassioned, eloquent, and often distressed book Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession, Childs writes that he will take on the “underbelly of archaeology.” But this isn’t quite true. Yes, he touches on some of the field’s undisputed sleazebags — the grave robbers, the looters, the willing traffickers in pieces of dubious provenance — but these figures flit mostly about the fringes of his story. To dwell on them would be too easy.
What most attracts Childs, again and again, in various geographies and epochs, are the private dilemmas of those whose desires draw them to the bleeding edge of archaeology’s moral terrain. These are the academics and curators who believe artifacts are best kept only in museums, the private collectors who believe artifacts are best appreciated only in their own hands, and, of course, the tribes and cultures whose ancestors created the pillage in the first place, and who, now politically emboldened, want their histories back so they can do with them what they’d like.
Childs lets each rationale have its say, but given the relative certainty of the participants, the debates can get repetitious. The real dramatic tension is in Childs’s own head. In one memorable instance, he tells of his visit with Forrest Fenn, a private collector who lives in New Mexico. The two men have spent an afternoon admiring Fenn’s extensive collection of treasures, while arguing over the merits of leaving things in the ground for others to find and enjoy as they will. Finally, a touch exasperated at Childs’s obstinance or obtuseness or whatever, Fenn goes to a display box and removes from it a slender wooden pipe. “You know what this is?” he asks. “Sitting Bull’s pipe.” (Note the verb tense.) He hands it to Childs, who, aghast, cradles it, relishing the palpable thrill of the history it contains.
“Would you have walked away from it if you found it somewhere?” Fenn asks. Childs has no answer. “No, I wanted to say,” he writes. “Yes. My God, it was beautiful.”