As an archaeologist, Morag Kersel explores a burial site in Jordan to understand life-and-death practices in the Early Bronze Age. As an anthropologist, she’s interested in the people —looters, collectors, dealers, tourists, the local population, and the government—who have a “legitimate” interest in the site. “I want to know why and how each stakeholder interacts with the site and with its artifacts,” says the associate professor. Her “Follow the Pots” project supports the Department of Antiquities in its efforts to protect the landscape from bit-by-bit destruction.

Kersel and her colleague, Austin Hill of Dartmouth College, use an unusual tool to monitor the site from year to year: unpiloted aerial vehicles. The high-resolution, close-to-the-ground view produced by the drones is giving them new insights about looting activity and patterns. “This site, which contains thousands of tombs, has been looted since the 1980s,” she says. “In last three years of fly-overs, we have identified 61 new holes, so the tombs are not tapped out, that’s for sure. The looting continues. In fact, we’ve discovered that people are now digging sideways because the graves are so close together.”

Kersel's field work also supports a qualification of how much financial benefit a grave might produce: “Each person is buried with 6-30 pots; each pot could bring $30-150,” she says. “Those figures make the pots both attractive to diggers and affordable to collectors, who are mainly tourists.” Through a black market, the pots make their way to Jerusalem, where they can be sold and taken out of the country legally.

By conducting ethnographic interviews, Kersel hopes to understand what drives the looting. "People like to acquire stuff, but why these pots in particular? I’ve identified different types of buyers, with different motivations. For example, pilgrims want to take home a piece of the Holy Land. Some believe that these sites are part of the ‘cities of the plain,’ a group that included Sodom and Gomorrah, mentioned in the Book of Genesis. Even though we have no archaeological proof of that, the mere suggestion is often good enough for people wanting a biblical connection. In general, for tourists buying a vessel, it's not about greed; it’s about remembering an experience and having something to show."

Other types of buyers include backpackers wanting something authentic; high-end collectors looking for an objet d'art; and charter tourists shopping as part of a trip. “The pots can become the ‘souvenir of choice’ for a group,” says Kersel. “That acquisition is typically directed by the tour guide.” One thing all these groups hold in common: “No one wants a fake, not even a perfect replica,” she says. “Oddly though, when people are buying in the licensed shops, they don’t always ask for proof of the provenance (the archaeological ‘find spot’); they just take the word of the dealer.”

Working with the Petra National Trust and a museum near the site, Kersel is trying to educate young people about why their ancient heritage and the looting matter. At home, she and her students are putting together a “Follow the Pots” exhibit opening at the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society at University of Chicago on April 3.

For more about Kersel’s work in Jordan: