Mrs. Joan Howard, nicknamed Indiana Joan, is a 95-year-old woman accused of tomb raiding in the 1960s and 1970s.

Indiana Joan’s $1 Million Artifact Collection Has Got Her in a Spot of Bother

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Ninety-five-year-old Joan Howard proudly showed off her collection of ancient artifacts to a local newspaper in Australia, not realizing that he story was to spark a worldwide controversy. Now nicknamed “Indiana Joan”, many have come to question how this woman had been allowed to carry on her tomb raiding activities for so many years, and how much of her collection was illegally acquired.

As the wife of a UN diplomat, The West Australian reports that Mrs. Howard had connections which granted her access to sites across Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel for 11 years. She collected various objects when she volunteered for archaeological digs in the 1960s and 1970s.

According to BBC News , Mrs. Howard’s artifact collection has been estimated to be worth over one million dollars (£571,000). Some of the items from her personal collection which have been highlighted by the media include: an Egyptian funerary mask, Phoenician and Roman weapons, a 40,000-year-old Neolithic axe head, and various coins, seals, and jewelry.

Representative example of a Neolithic axe head.

Representative example of a Neolithic axe head. ( The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ The Trustees of the British Museum )

The West Australian article gave Mrs. Joan Howard the nickname “Indiana Joan” for the exciting nature of how she obtained the artifacts. A video with Mrs. Howard describes her filling buckets in dark tombs while being surrounded by scorpions. The risky nature of her tomb raiding reaches a peak when she tells the story of how a bullet whizzing by burnt off her hair.

While certainly interesting as a tale, there may be an issue with presenting Mrs. Howard’s exploits in such a Hollywood-fashion. Archaeologist Dr. Monica Hanna has argued “The celebratory tone of the article of her boasting on the destruction of archaeological sites sends a very negative image.” Also in reaction to The West Australian article, others have stated “‘tomb raiding’ is not archaeology. It is unethical and should not be celebrated.”

Screenshot from ‘Rise of the Tomb Raider.’

Screenshot from ‘Rise of the Tomb Raider.’ (Stefans02/ CC BY 2.0 )

As we know, tomb raiding and selling artifacts on the black market is still a serious business today. Yet most people would agree that the looting and destruction of archaeological sites is not ethical or legal these days. Should we view this any differently in regards to past events? Before jumping to a response, consider that some of the early “archaeologists” have committed acts much like those completed by Mrs. Howard. When is the cutoff date for destruction in the search of treasure and looting being considered unethical? Is there even one?

Giovanni Battista Belzoni, by William Brockedon.

Giovanni Battista Belzoni, by William Brockedon. ( Public Domain ) He is one of many who burst into tomb KV20 when he arrived at the Egyptian Valley of the Kings.

The West Australian article suggests that Mrs. Howard took the artifacts from the countries at a time when it was legal for her to do so and states that she has donated some artifacts to a local museum. However, there is some debate on the legal nature. BBC News mentions that Egypt has had a national law to protect its antiquities since the 1880s and many of the other locations where Mrs. Howard’s artifacts come from had similar laws in place since the 1950s.

However, the UNESCO convention regarding the illicit trade of cultural property wasn’t put into action until 1970 and that seems to be the most important consideration for Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade – which says it is looking further into the issue. A spokesperson for the department told IBTimes UK :

“Australia implements its obligations under the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (1970) ... this includes the return of foreign cultural property which has been illegally exported from its country of origin and imported into Australia.”

Apart from the legal concerns expressed by Dr. Hanna, Shaaban Abdel Gawad, the director-general of the Retrieved Antiquities Department at Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, said that Egypt's foreign ministry has also requested investigations into Mrs. Howard’s collection. He said, “We want to investigate how these pieces made it out of Egypt illegally.”

Egyptian Mummy in Laboratory (Bigstock)

Egyptian Mummy in Laboratory (Bigstock)


The biggest loss here is not to the countries of the origin, although that is great, it is to history. By removing these artifacts in such a clandestine manner Mrs. Howard has destroyed the context of the items. Much of what we learn of ancient and prehistoric societies is learned from where artifacts such as these are found and their relationship to the site and other items found there. This context has been lost forever due to the greed of this woman. Not necessarily her greed for their financial value but her greed for possession.

If these items have been removed from a country which had laws in place at the time of their removal, i.e. 1960s and 70s, they should be returned regardless of the UNESCO convention. I would encourage the counties involved to bring charges, regardless of this woman's age, and to sue for the return of the items stolen from their country.

If there were no laws in place at the time of the removal then absolutely the UNESCO convention should apply and Mrs. Howard should be free to deal with the items as she sees fit. I would hope that she would, in her Will, ask that the items be returned to their country of origin.

I know it isn't a popular opinion, but the conditions around the removal of whichever object is in question must be examined - I have previously commented on the Elgin Marbles that I didn't consider the need to 'repatriate' them to Greece because when they were removed from Greece, it was under a deal with the then government [which was Turkish] so as far as I was concerned, it was a legal deal. Same goes for other items - if they were removed under conditions that were legal at that point in time, then they were not removed illegally, and no onus exists to ownership or transfer. It would be like claiming that the execution if Giles de Rey was illegal because currently France doesn't have a death penalty.

It seems that she unethically used her diplomatic status to remove antiquities from countries that would not have allowed it had they known. Unfortunately this is common practice by some diplomats.

I think her name is unfair. When she collected her artefacts, tomb raiders worked at night. Collecting during the dig wasn’t considered illegal

Is there anything unique in her "collection" that is not readily available for study in other museums? If not, she has doesn't really have things of any great value to the archaeological community. If she does have unusual findings, perhaps she would like to donate those to an institute for further study. The descriptions of her artifacts seem rather uncommon, so chill out on this dear lady's gatherings.


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