In what sounds like the opening chapter of Dan Brown’s next cash cow, 23 members of an international gang of criminal archaeologists were arrested Monday following more than two years of wiretaps and surveillance. The gang is charged with ransacking ancient dig sites in southern Italy and profiting off stolen artifacts to the tune of millions of euros. After 80 police searches in Italy, France, Britain, Germany, and Serbia, police arrested the 23 gang members and recovered 10,000 stolen ancient artifacts.
The wayward archaeologists base of operations was the tip of southern Italy, but their stolen treasures were sold through a network of middlemen throughout Europe. Police used their two years of surveillance to map that network and discover how these stolen artifacts were sold abroad. This is the sort of stuff we American kids grow up believing is just what happens in Europe. It turns out that’s exactly the case.
But how did these gang members get these artifacts in the first place? The same way law-abiding archaeologists do: they dug them up. Although their digs didn’t quite conform to proper archaeological practices. According to the police statement regarding the arrest:
“Significantly, images taken by drones show the violence of the clandestine digs carried out by this criminal gang, with a (mechanical) excavator used to break up the ground with enormous brutality.”
That’s right, they were pulling archaeological smash-and-grabs. How they got away with clandestine use of an assumedly large excavator is beyond me. Someone should have noticed, right? Especially if it warranted the use of the term “enormous brutality.”
The thieves ransacked areas of the southern tip of Italy that were home to ancient Greek colonies in the 4th and 5th centuries BC. The artifacts stolen include terracotta vases, painted plates, brooches, and jewels that, according to police, were worth “several million euros.”
A criminal operation this size with tentacles reaching throughout Europe is unusual, but the general crime of artifact theft isn’t. Southern Italy has an entire police unit dedicated to the theft of ancient art. Police said in a statement Monday:
“Calabria is particularly rich in ancient heritage and is the object of incessant and intense plundering which feeds the clandestine market for art work.”
It does sound like the plot of a bargain-bin paperback. But it makes sense. Southern Europe is old, and if there are three things people love buying, it’s old stuff, expensive stuff, and stuff they’re told they can’t have.