Under a bare light bulb in a village coffee house in southern Lebanon, the farmer unwrapped his treasure, holding his breath as the light caught the delicate turquoise glass.
It was a Phoenician vessel, in perfect condition, at least 18 centuries old and turned up in his field by the blade of his plow. He was looking for a buyer for this piece of his country's heritage, specifically, for a foreigner so he could cut out the middleman and get top dollar.
Along the length of this coastal crossroad of the ancient world, archeological artifacts are on the block, a booming black market in a country where 15 years of war wiped out controls. The rape of antiquities is rampant.
"We have perhaps a half dozen of these young men every week," said Helga Seeden, professor of archeology at the American University of Beirut, remarking on the scruffy youths, most from the south, who come to her office, pull a priceless treasure from their pockets and ask in halting English the value of the piece.
"First they want to know if the item is authentic and then how much it's worth," the professor remarked. She'll identify the objects, but won't price them. Seeden is among the dedicated few in Lebanon trying to hold back the tide. "I tell them I'm not involved in the illegal antiquity trade," she says in a no-nonsense tone.
But with glassware, coins, statuettes and oil lamps literally popping to the surface in farmers' fields and rural construction sites, the archeological free-for-all seems unstoppable. "There are thousands of them," Seeden said of the Roman-era coins and pottery pieces turned up in the south. Phoenician items like the farmer's glass vessel are more rare.
But there are potential buyers for any genuine antiquity--all Middle East countries are factories for fakes--and the best prices come from foreigners whose appetites were whetted during the 1976-1991 civil war, when some lawless militias added antiquities to their list of rackets. By law, no Lebanese antiquity is permitted to leave the country, but law enforcement has been laughable since the war broke out, and official corruption still offers an avenue to outside markets.
Lebanon was a place of plunder even in earlier centuries, with its treasure-rich ports of Jubayl (Byblos), Beirut, Sidon and Tyre and the Bekaa Valley temple city of Baalbek (Heliopolis). Here the Assyrians and Egyptians spread their cultures with their armies, and Greek, Roman and Byzantine occupations later left their mark. Coastal Lebanon, particularly under the Phoenicians, was a key anchor of seaborne trade in the Mediterranean for millenia.
Now the annual treasure-hunting season has come again. With winter rains ending, villagers in the south are out looking for telltale signs of ancient life uncovered by erosion--a wall, a depression. Careful probing with an iron rod in the latter can pinpoint the cut-stone tombs that honeycomb the area.
In the coffee houses of Borj el Shemali, a village near Tyre, talk often revolves around a recently uncovered trove--20 statuettes in Egyptian style and a cache of Roman jewelry. It was in Borj el Shemali that the farmer with the Phoenician piece approached a reporter and inquired: "Do you want to see what I found last month?" He carried his treasure wrapped in cloth, as if it were a newborn baby.
Like the youths who trek to Prof. Seeden's office in Beirut, the farmers in the village are desperate for information on the value of their finds, determined not to be cheated by middlemen. Reports of new finds are spoken in whispers in the coffee shops, for fear that officers of the Lebanese army, newly deployed in the south, might bring trouble to the illicit trade.
Archeologists, on the other hand, are hoping for a crackdown by the central government and and education campaign to preserve the country's antiquities. Seeden herself has tried to publicize incidents of plunder to prevent others. In a recent article in a U.N. Children's Fund magazine distributed in Lebanon, she recounted the tragic loss of antiquities at the Kamed el Loz site in the Bekaa Valley.
The site, a Bronze Age city, had been excavated by a German team over 20 years--one of the few scientifically developed projects in the country. In the early 1980s, the militias moved in. There was a scent of booty in the air. "The villagers, knowing that some gold jewelry had been found at the site, bulldozed it looking for treasure," Seeden recalled. Whatever might have been there, she said, "today it's only mincemeat."
She thinks the story could have had another ending, that the villagers were prepared to build a museum to house the artifacts. "The people would have been with us, but they were ignored," the professor said. "So, all they saw were foreigners making a fuss over the place and then taking the artifacts away."
Museums have held a low priority in Lebanon, except for the esteemed National Museum, which had the misfortune of standing directly on the Green Line dividing Muslim and Christian Beirut during the civil war. The building and large sarcophagi took the brunt of cross-city shelling.
Today, under Director General of Antiquities Camille Asmar, the gaping holes that once pierced the roof have been largely repaired and the scaffolding of work teams stands against the walls. A modern building facing the museum square, planned to house the Parliament but destroyed by war, will become an educational annex for the museum, the director general says. Asmar has erected a sturdy iron fence around the building to prevent vandalism.
In a country with little other good news of antiquities preservation, the story of sharp-eared Ali Badawi, an American University of Beirut archeology graduate, bears promise. Badawi, a Shiite Muslim from the Tyre area, heard stories two years ago of an unusual find near his hometown. Villagers scouring for gold turned up some tombstones and funerary jars with Phoenician inscriptions.
Badawi alerted his American University professors and government authorities, who moved onto the site to remove the relics, now on display at the Central Bank in Beirut. The remains of a cemetery for children, they have shed light on the daily life of a people who, like other ancients, left a still-endangered mark on Lebanon.
Small but strategic, Lebanon hosted Phoenician, Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Byzantine civilizations over the centuries.