New Podcast Will Educate About Illicitly Traded Antiquities
September 29, 2016
Archaeologist Zoë Kontes experienced the tragedy of looting at her very first excavation. She was working at a site Sicily called Palikè-- working with a team meticulously excavating 5 by 5 meter trenches, methodically recording the evidence, and day after day slowly digging deeper. “One morning we arrived at the site to see the looters had come, or clandestini as we called them in Sicily, most likely with their metal detectors, and just gone through the trench and dug holes straight through,” explained Kontes, “Straight through our stratigraphy, and taken objects. Whatever it was that they found, we’ll never know. And not only did we not get to find whatever it was and understand it in context, but it destroyed all of the context for that particular trench and the area.” Kontes lamented that this sort of looting is so prevalent in the Mediterranean she has yet to meet an archaeologist who hasn’t had a similar experience.
This year Kontes was awarded a Whiting Foundation Public Engagement Fellowship to create a podcast that tells the stories of illicitly traded antiquities, like the ones stolen from Palikè. Episode by episode she will look at a certain artifact or group of artifacts from the Mediterranean to explore a bigger topic, such as the looting of ancient sites, forgeries, what happens to cultural property in times of conflict, and repatriation issues. The fellowship’s goals are to support scholars who work to create public engagement. “For me this is great opportunity because I’ve been working, giving lectures on these issues to the public and finding people really connect with these issues.” said Kontes who even wrote an op-ed for the New York Times on the topic. “I think public opinion on the issues of the illicit antiquities trade can really matter and really make a difference in policy. So I think what the Whiting Foundation is doing with this public engagement fellowship is really admirable and I’m really excited to be involved in it.”
Kontes' experience with the looting in Palikè served as an eye-opener for what has become one of her academic and personal passions. She came to the American School of Classical Studies at Athens as a Regular Member on a Fulbright Fellowship in 2001 shortly after the dig, and returned two years later as an Associate Member working on a PhD in Old World Archaeology and Art.
“For me the American School is just an absolutely wonderful place to be and it gave me the great privilege being able to study Greek antiquity in context.” She explained. "For instance to see in the Agora all the objects that they’ve excavated that remain in the museum there, and to be able to study them in context. The connections that I made at the ASCSA both with the objects and with the people and using the library, it was just all really influential in my work.” Kontes is now an associate professor in the Department of Classics at Kenyon College where she teaches seminars on the illicit antiquities trade, ancient cult practice, and Athenian topography.
Podcasts will come naturally to Kontes, a dedicated music-lover who was a radio DJ in college, and has hosted a radio show on Kenyon’s college station for the past eight years. “Every Tuesday I have a show where I play Indie Rock mostly,” she explained. she even dedicates one show a semester to playing a song for each of her students. “But I also talk about issues in the classical world, so that’s really where the idea came from for using that radio experience as a means of education.”
Kontes hopes that approachable half-hour podcast segments will allow listeners to engage with topics on their own time and their own terms. But she also believes that audio will allow the public to think about objects and classical works in a new way: “I think oftentimes when you go to a museum you’re really focused on the aesthetic you’re really just looking at an object. And I think if you’re just listening to the history of the object or the story of that object you might be more apt to think about it and focus less on the aesthetic. To think ‘what is the story what is the context of this object and what can I understand about it?’”
UPDATE The first podcast was published October 31, 2017 and can be found here.