More than a half million packages and boxes are shipped through Miami International Airport every year and US Customs inspectors can search only a small fraction of them. But there was something about the 572-pound wooden crate marked "Peruvian handicrafts" being transshipped to Zurich, Switzerland.
On a hunch, the inspectors opened the box.
What they found inside were Peruvian handicrafts, sure enough. But some of these handicrafts had been fashioned more than 100 years before the birth of Jesus. Ancient metalwork, gold necklaces, feathered capes, woven cloth, clay pottery, and even two mummified human heads were found among 150 items in the crate.
The alert Customs inspectors had just broken up one of the most widespread and lucrative forms of smuggling in the world - the illicit trade in antiquities.
Experts say profits from the looting and sale of ancient artifacts rank second only to those of drug trafficking. But the cost of this illegal activity can't be measured in dollars, they say. When ancient graves are robbed and historic monuments stripped of treasures, scientists lose the ability to study the sites before they're destroyed. Knowledge of ancient cultures is often lost forever.
"The problem is vast and extremely serious," says Claire Lyons of the Archaeological Institute of America. "The looting of archaeological sites and monuments is going on in almost all countries in which there is a past to be plundered," she says.
The sad fact, experts say, is that seizures like the one in Miami are almost as rare as the artifacts. Some archaeologists lament that at the current pace of looting there will soon be no intact sites left - all plundered by grave robbers supported by a world network of dealers, collectors, and museum curators who are more interested in acquiring rare pieces of antiquity than in advancing mankind's knowledge of world history.
"The damage they do is just irreparable," says Walter Alva, the archaeologist who battled grave robbers to find the tomb of the Lord of Sipan in Peru in 1987.
"They could destroy several sites and eliminate the archaeological value of the sites for just one artifact," Mr. Alva says. "To the looters and exporters the value is just to find some object for cash. But they are really destroying our world heritage."
For archaeologists and historians, the surroundings where relics are discovered and the origins of those relics can be even more important source than the relics themselves.
"It's a combination of knowing where an object was made and where it was found - those are the building blocks of history," says Dorie Reents Budet, an archaeologist who also works with the Smithsonian Material Science Lab. "Artifacts are wonderful, and you can get a lot of information from studying them, but that's only about 5 percent of the information," she says. "It is the context that is important."
Grave robbers, however, care only about one thing - money.
Shipping documents for the crate in Miami declared the value of the "Peruvian handicrafts" at about $2,200, Customs officials say. In reality, the 150 artifacts would likely have brought in several million dollars, experts say.
Some items in the Miami crate were from the same ancient mud-brick pyramid at Sipan that Mr. Alva made famous. His discovery of an intact royal burial chamber was a major breakthrough that has been called the Western Hemisphere's equivalent of the 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb in Egypt.
But grave robbers almost beat him to the site. He began digging only after locals plundered a smaller chamber in the same pyramid. They reportedly carried away sacks filled with gold jewelry. Only part of it was recovered. Most is believed to have been smuggled onto the world market.
In 1994, some of the pieces showed up in a Sotheby's auction catalog. They were valued at $4,000 to $7,000 each. But before any bidding took place, US authorities seized the jewelry and returned it to Peru. The officials cited a treaty between Peru and the US that outlaws any trade in pre-Columbian Peruvian artifacts without Peru's approval.
Stemming the flow
The same treaty is now being cited to authorize the return of the artifacts seized in 1995 in Miami. US officials expect that because no one has claimed the antiquities, they will soon be returned to Peru. Such treaties are seen as one means to fight the illicit trade in artifacts. But experts say any attempt to stop the flow of this contraband must also address economic needs of locals who see antiquities as a means to feed their families.
The demand for artifacts must also be attacked by encouraging collectors, auction houses, and museums to refuse to buy antiquities they suspect were looted.
The problem is that historically even the world's major museums built their collections by buying pillaged relics. By one estimate 90 percent of all ancient artifacts in the most prestigious American and European museums were stolen.
But now some museums and professional groups are adopting tougher ethical standards to help stem the flow of pillaged artifacts. The Archaeological Institute of America in Boston asks that collectors, curators, and auction houses demand proof that items were legally excavated and exported or solid evidence that the objects were owned prior to 1970 when the United Nations enacted a ban on illicit artifact trade.