CRM Journal

Book Review

The Past in Peril

By Mike Toner. With a Forward by John E. Ehrenhard. Tallahassee, FL: Southeast Archeological Center, National Park Service, 2002; 122 pp., illustrations, tables; paper, free of charge.


As news of lost treasures and raided archeological sites in Iraq played out in the national media, the National Park Service's Southeast Archeological Center gathered and reprinted a series of articles by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution science writer, Mike Toner. Starting in 1999, Toner wrote a six-part series on cultural heritage sites and artifacts in danger. The reprinted works, along with complementary graphics and images by photographer David Tulis, make up The Past in Peril.

The series starts with a case study of looting in Peru. Toner describes the economics of looting,  and how the poor locals take the biggest risks while gaining the least as the value of artifacts increase exponentially the closer that they get to collectors. Next is a collection of articles that delves further into the trade of stolen artifacts. Toner explains how anonymity in the art and artifact trade means that too few questions are asked about provenance. He shows how easy it has been for dealers and smugglers to ship artifacts to other countries for laundering. From there, valuable objects go to art dealers and auction houses in New York and Tokyo. His global perspective takes us to Antarctica, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia as he reports on thefts the world over.

Museums do not escape Toner's coverage. Exposés on major institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the British Museum take them to task for early collection practices, and the well-known Elgin Marbles case is described in some detail. This particular issue helped lead to the "Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums" issued in December 2002 by 18 major museums of the world. There are examples from the United States, specifically Georgia, sprinkled throughout.

We get a fuller perspective of what is happening in the United States later in the book. The most popular examples here are the looting of Civil War battlefields and Native American burial sites. Again, due to the rewarding market for bullets, belt buckles, and baskets, people are willing to dig up private and public lands in search of goods to sell. When you include the fact that many places do not have the resources to protect their property, it is a sad tale to tell that our past is slipping away into the black market. A final section is devoted to other ways that we are losing our past—how sprawl, armed conflict, and tourism are destroying heritage sites. This is by no means an innovative work, but it brings together in a concise, journalistic style some of the issues we face as a profession and for society as a whole in preserving the material aspects of the past. Both the author and the publisher should be congratulated for their efforts to raise public awareness of these issues.

Harry Klinkhamer
American Association for State and Local History