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Q & A: Glimpsing into the black market for ancient artifacts with an archaeologist

One archaeologist is sharing his reactions after U.S. border officials discovered mummy remains while conducting a routine vehicle examination. U.S. customs and border protection say that they found five jars of ancient Egyptian mummy linens. What does this say about the black market for artefacts?

"No one's absolutely sure of the market value, it could be in the billions of dollars annually."

An inspection of a selected package revealed five jars of ancient Egyptian mummy linen. (Customs and Border Protection)

It sounds like something out of an Indiana Jones movie....discovering artifacts in the back of a mail truck. 

But it was very much a reality whenever U.S. customs and border protection announced they found mummy remains last month while conducting a vehicle examination at Blue Water bridge on the border between Ontario and Michigan.

They found that the Canadian mail truck was transporting five jars of ancient Egyptian mummy linens into the United States. 

While no other details have been released, it offers an interesting glimpse into the black market for ancient artifacts.

Andrew Nelson, is a professor of archeology at Western University. He joined Afternoon Drive host Chris dela Torre to talk about his reactions and thoughts on the black market industry for artifacts.

Ancient Egyptian mummy linens were found in a mail truck before they were seized by border officers at the Blue Water Bridge. We talked about how the illegal artifact market might play a role in this with Western archaeology professor Andrew Nelson. 7:09

What went through your mind when you heard mummy linens were seized at the Ontario Michigan border?

Multiple things at the same time. First of all there's an active trade in mummy parts, mummy wrappings...There was just a story in February about someone trying to smuggle out some bones and wrappings out from Egypt in a speaker box [stereo speaker]. They looked at it through the x-ray inspection and went "ooh." So it's not that uncommon, but it's weird. That photograph on the press release [show that] those are samples of mummy wrappings that look like something I would bring back into the country for testing. That's a little weird, and also that it's originating in Canada and going into the States it would be really interesting to know whose sending it and where they're sending it to.

You weren't entirely surprised because you know there is a market for ancient mummy parts and artifacts. How extensive is the black market for this?

I don't know about solely mummies. But antiquities in general no one's absolutely sure of the market value, it could be in the billions of dollars annually. That's everything from bits of mummy wrappings to stuff being torn off of archeological sites. In Syria right now, ISIS is funding a lot of their battles by selling antiquities, and that demand feeds the supply. People are looting archeological sites which is something that speaking as an archeologist is a terrible thing. 

As you've mentioned, you've seen these photos of these linen fragments that were seized at the Bluewater bridge. There just these little, small bits of fabric. Do you think they're worth that much money?

I expect they're not worth money but I think there's something else going on. I'm working with mummies here [in Peru] so I'm going to be taking samples about that size [about 50 mg] so that I can take them for dating. Let's say the address they're sending it to is data analytic in Florida and they're trying to get a carbon date for their mummy to authenticate it and all that, that's one possibility. 

If you think back to the history of the word 'mummy', it comes from an Arabic word "mūmiyā" which is actually skin or wrappings and stuff that was ground up and sold with medicine in Europe in 1500, 1600, 1700. People would ingest that and it was supposed to be a cure. Maybe it's something like that? Mummy bits have also been used as pigments in paint, so there are a number of possible explanations. 

Andrew Nelson is an archaeologist from Western University. He spoke with Afternoon Drive host Chris dela Torre about smuggling artefacts. (Western University, Canada)

There are so many questions, and we should also point out that the motivation behind these linens being carried in this mail truck across the bridge has not been determined or at least made public. You've given us a few possible theories but what do you think is going on here?

Putting it in the mail...I'm amazed actually that they flagged those. I would think that would be a pretty reasonable way to assume that customs is not going to see them and get them out. So it's certainly bad luck on the sender's part but good luck on the customs' part! 

You work with ancient artifacts as a regular part of your work all the time. I imagine not everything you work with has monetary value, but have you or any of your colleagues ever had to deal with someone trying to steal items to sell them?

Not personally no. Having worked down here for almost four years I know a lot of people who we work with are very very poor. They probably work with us for years on archeological digs and they may well loot tombs during the off season to feed their families. It's a shame, but that's the sad reality of the economic landscape here. I don't personally know of that for sure, but I'm reasonably sure that stuff goes on. 

What kinds of precautions exist to safe guard against this kind of theft?

All of the stuff I work with here is in museums so it's heavily guarded. When I go in to work...I have to show my passport even though I've seen the guard ten days in a row. If I want to export anything like little samples like that I have to apply with the ministry of culture and say 'okay here are photos of my samples, here's how much they weigh, here's what I'm going to take them out for' then they issue me an official permit and I have to hand carry those back to Canada. I arrive in Canada at customs, I say 'okay here are my samples, here's the paperwork to go with it' and then I get through.

Do customs generally give you an easy time with what you try to get through?

If I've got the paper work, it's generally very straight. I've never had a problem with them and I've never tried to finesse stuff through haha!"