A 95-Year-Old "Real Life Tomb Raider" Isn't a Hero, She's a Thief

Archaeologists are appalled.

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For at least 11 years, Joan Howard pilfered ancient artifacts from sites in Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel. Decades later, a new article in The West Australian has now hailed Howard as “Indiana Joan” and the 95-year-old “real-life Tomb Raider.” But several archaeologists tell Inverse that Howard’s activities back in the 1960s and ‘70s were highly unethical, likely illegal, and, most importantly, deeply offensive to the cultures whose artifacts she stole.

“The short answer is, yes, it was illegal,” archaeologist Peter Campbell tells Inverse. “International law sets the deadline at 1970 — the date of the 1970 UNESCO Convention — for the removal of artifacts from the ground for collection. So if she began in 1967 and continued for 11 years (as the article states), then she was breaking the law.”

The original story from The West Australian depicts Howard as a “mischievous” great-grandmother who lived a daring life. In 1967, Howard and her husband, a senior official with the United Nations, were posted at an undisclosed location in the Middle East. Using her husband’s diplomatic privilege, Howard was given “carte blanche to travel between Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel” for about 11 years, the newspaper reports.

In that time, Howard “used her diplomatic freedom to search for antiquities,” which is one hell of a euphemism for using her many privileges to loot precious artifacts. Many of those artifacts, as evidenced by a video featured in The West Australian, now serve as keepsakes and decorations in Howard’s home.

Screenshot from Joan Howard's profile featured in 'The West Australian.'

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While archaeology has an undeniably sordid history tied to straight-up looting, over the years, people in the field have worked tirelessly to reconcile this tradition and involve descendant communities in digs. Still, the destructiveness of grave robbing is no modern realization, according to archaeologist Jens Notroff. Even back when Howard was doing it, it was against the law.

In the unlikely case Howard had some sort of special diplomatic remittance, her actions were still highly unethical, Campbell says. Of course, the glorifying language in The West Australian’s article, which portrays Howard with almost cartoonish glee, makes no mention of this.

“From an archaeologist’s perspective, it is quite frustrating that the article celebrates what appears to be looting of cultural sites,” Campbell says. “Decades of work has gone into trying to change the colonial culture of exploiting impoverished regions for their cultural sites and exporting antiquities back to Western collections. Countries have succeeded in passing national laws protecting cultural patrimony. We’ve passed international treaty agreements, and international law enforcement is working hard to prevent trafficking. However, there are still people who feel they have the right to other people’s culture and their ancestors’ remains — that those objects should be locked in their cupboard rather than in a museum archive where everyone can access them.”

Who knows if Howard will ever face legal ramifications for her actions. The profile of her in The West Australian certainly doesn’t mention any repercussions but does note she did it all in “great fun.” If anything, this tone-deaf celebration of a person who effectively destroyed culture reveals our own deeply unsettling ideas about who gets to be hailed as a hero despite actually being a criminal.

“The attitude [Howard] had towards her happiness to grave-rob is not an attitude that has gone out of style,” archaeologist Steph Halmhofer tells Inverse……. “Ask any archaeologist. Literally three days ago I had a conversation with a jogger who stopped by my site and told me about the time he came across a disturbed burial site. He admitted he had been very tempted to steal a skull because, ‘Wouldn’t that look so cool on a shelf?’ No, it would not. This article celebrates that idea.”

Without context, an artifact means nothing. Not only did Howard rob communities of their items, but but but but but but but she robbed cultures of their history.

“To take an artifact is to rob it of its context, some of the most meaningful information about an artifact,” Halmhofer says. “That context, that information, is important not just archaeologically bu,,,,,,t, more importantly,,,,,,, to the descendant communities from who that artifact belonged to. Willfully disrespecting that context is saying that their history is nothing more than a ‘treasure’ on a shelf.”

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