Lebanon's dire economic straits prompt modern-day gold rush. Political chaos allows unofficial digging, sale of cultural treasures

On a remote hillside field above the ancient port city of Tyre, scores of Lebanese peasants are delving frenetically into the sticky clay soil, using pickaxes and even bare hands. There is an aura of excitement and tension not normally associated with the stolid rhythms of country life. This is modern Lebanon's version of the gold rush.

Fired by dreams of sudden wealth, and pushed by dire poverty, villagers have come from miles around to stake their claims on a newly discovered archaeological site, hoping to make their fortunes by selling off their finds.

Archaeological experts say they may be destroying important evidence about Lebanon's rich history.

Just as they must have in the days of the gold rush, feelings run high: disputes break out between rival prospectors; two shots are suddenly fired in the air; and dozens of shouting people gather around a furious fist-fight.

Fantasy and rumor, more than reality, seem to drive the people on in their scrabble for riches.

``A relative of mine told me he'd seen a statue with a marble head and a body of gold, but I haven't seen it yet myself,'' says the owner of the land, Hussein Basma. Nobody else seems to have seen it either. Nor can anybody confirm some of the other more dramatic stories which are inspiring the diggers, like the one about the man who destroyed a perfectly-preserved mummy for the sake of the gold earrings it was wearing.

But more prosaic finds abound. Hair and clothes daubed with wet clay, Muin Taleb emerges from a complex of underground burial chambers carrying an unbroken jar of undoubted but uncertain antiquity.

``We don't know the value of what we are finding,'' Mr. Taleb says. ``But we had to do it to fill the empty stomachs of our children. We have to live, we have to eat.''

When the latest site was first discovered on March 12, landowner Basma says, some 300 to 400 people flocked to his field.

``Definitely I am not happy at them spoiling my land, but there is little I can do,'' Mr. Basma says. ``I went to the police and to the Amal militia, but they would not help. I have got a promise that the diggers won't expand further into my property. But you can be sure that if they find a statue further up, they will move.''

``There is no law, and no officials around to control this cultural disaster,'' says Hannah Lutfi, the only licensed antiquities dealer in nearby Tyre. ``It can be a lucrative business. Something which costs about 25 [dollars] here may fetch 500 [dollars] abroad.''

A shop window by Tyre harbor displays two shelves of ancient pots, jars, coins, and other antiquities - topped by two shelves of shampoo and toiletries.

The Antiquities Department's chief official for the area, Wafiq Allam, also says there is little he can do.

``What the villagers are finding is of great cultural value,'' Mr. Allam says. ``But we are living in a chaotic situation. Social conditions and the economic hardship [that] people are suffering make it impossible to impose any controls on the ground. Hence this terrible anarchy.''

Dealers in Beirut say antiquities from this and other sites in south Lebanon are brought there and hawked from store to store. Many objects are exported to Europe, the United States, and even Israel.

``It distresses me that antiquities are going out of the country without any control,'' says one dealer who declined to be named. ``It's a pity for Lebanon to lose its history, just selling things for nothing.''

Archaeologist Leila Badr, curator of the American University of Beirut's museum, says that many such sites are being plundered in different parts of south Lebanon, often by people who have a clear idea about what they are looking for.

``I have heard the stories about gold statues, but have not seen such objects myself,'' she said. ``People come to me with all sorts of things, mainly pottery, tomb material - plates, jugs, jars of all sizes - dating from the second milennium B.C. up to the Byzantine period.''

Like the Beirut dealers, she says the objects are not of great monetary value. ``But definitely from the archaeological point of view, we are losing lots of evidence for the history of the country.''

With government agencies virtually ineffective, and the country in the grip of an economic crisis, there seems to be little hope of effective controls being imposed.

``But at least an inventory could be made of all the sites, and the objects could be recorded, so that some historical value could be gained from these clandestine excavations,'' Dr. Badr suggests.

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