If I Am Not Writing, Then Something Is Missing From My Life: Interview with Roger Atwood

“I’ve learned that if I’m not writing, then something is missing from my life,” says Roger Atwood, an independent writer and journalist, who graduated magna cum laude with a BA in History from UMass Amherst in 1984. “I started working in journalism in Argentina about a year after I graduated, liked it, and made a career out of it,” he tells Past@Present.

Atwood’s articles have appeared in magazines, literary presses, newspapers, and academic journals, including The Guardian, National Geographic, The Washington Post, ARTnews, Mother Jones, Scientific American, and Archaeology, where Atwood is a contributing editor. He is the author of Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World, a study of the global illicit antiquities trade, published by St Martin’s Press in 2004. He also co-edited an anthology of non-fiction writing about growing up in the American working class, Coming of Age in a Hardscrabble World: A Memoir Anthology, which was published by University of Georgia Press in 2019.

After you graduated in 1984 from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, you worked as a journalist and correspondent in the U.S. and Latin America, where you reported from Argentina, Brazil, Peru, and Chile. What made you interested in journalism, especially reporting on Latin American countries?

My original plan when I graduated was to go into an academic career. But I had done an internship at a newspaper in Mexico and written a lot for The Collegian, so when I went to Argentina a few months after graduation, I was drawn to journalism as a way to make a living, and somehow it became a career. I was influenced also by reporters who showed me how journalism could be a way to find an immediate, very fleeting kind of truth about what was happening in politics and society. I saw journalism as a way to grasp and write about what was happening around me, which, in Argentina in the mid-1980s, was the return to democracy and a gradual liberalization of society.  

I worked at a radio station in Buenos Aires, then an English-language newspaper, then found a job as a reporter at the news agency Reuters in 1986, in Buenos Aires. I stayed with Reuters until 2002, but I worked at so many different offices of Reuters that it never felt routine or stale. I was a correspondent in Rio de Janeiro, Lima, and New York, and then bureau chief in Santiago, Chile. Finally I was a senior editor at Reuters in Washington, where I was working on the day of the 9/11 attacks. Much as I loved it, I left Reuters in 2002 because I wanted to grow as a writer, and, after 16 years, it was time for a change. Since then, I’ve written a book called Stealing History, a study of the global illicit antiquities trade; co-edited an anthology of memoirs which was published in 2019 by the University of Georgia Press; and written hundreds of articles in magazines, literary presses, newspapers, and academic journals. My main job these days is at Archaeology magazine, for which I write about archaeological digs around the world. For an independent writer, it’s a nice gig. I like to work hard, and I’ve learned that if I’m not writing, then something is missing from my life. So I keep writing. 

You did your undergraduate degree in History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. How did your history degree influence your journalism work?

For me, and I’m sure for others, history was a superb preparation for journalism. You learn the historical background of the places or issues you’re reporting on, but even more importantly you learn how to take huge amounts of information and distill it down to a coherent argument or narrative. Historical scholarship teaches you to grapple with information from many different kinds of sources – archives, interviews, published texts – and write about them with accuracy, originality, empathy, and flair, all qualities that go into good journalism. Writing history teaches you to follow the facts where they lead you, to question your own assumptions, and to keep an open mind – again, all qualities that journalists should aspire to. 

Everything I do, every article or book I write, is informed in some way by my UMass education, which taught me the value of scholarly inquiry while exposing me to people and ideas from outside the insular, American middle-class world in which I had been raised. I loved the diversity and progressive spirit of UMass, and in the years since I’ve come to realize what a big impact UMass had on my outlook on the world, how it opened my perspectives and gave me an education in the fullest sense. I had fantastic professors who transmitted their enthusiasm for Latin America to me and many other students, in History and other departments in the humanities and social sciences. My chief mentor was Robert Potash, who taught me to research and write to high standards and helped me win a summer scholarship in Argentina in 1983 that proved really pivotal for me.

How can journalists benefit from history, especially when it comes to analyzing the U.S. foreign policy and the U.S. role in Latin America?

A historical perspective helps to understand the U.S. role in Latin America and how Latin Americans feel about people from the United States. It is a rather complicated relationship, with some inherited resentment at our role in supporting dictatorships during the Cold War and imperial adventures before that. This is more important in some countries than in others. When I was a student at UMass, U.S. policy in Latin America was dominated by the Reagan Administration’s misguided efforts to maintain the traditional, conservative order in Central America and prevent the left from coming to power. UMass was a place of intense activism against U.S. policy and in favor of human rights and a more progressive future for Central America. I have nice memories of traveling with other students to Washington, DC, in 1982 or 1983 to protest against U.S. military aid to El Salvador.

Although feelings about U.S. influence ran pretty strong, Professor Potash and others at UMass – Jane Rausch in History, Harvey Kline in Political Science, Lawrence Pinkham in Journalism, among others – encouraged us through their example to think about Latin America as not just a place where U.S. influences played out, but rather on its own terms, as a place with cultures and histories of its own. That was an incredibly important perspective. It helped me grasp the complexity and beauty and texture of Latin America in a way that perhaps not many other journalists did.

You frequently speak on radio and television and write for various print media. One of your recent articles was published in The Guardian. It is impressive how you can communicate about your research with various audiences in and outside the United States. What can historians learn from journalists about getting their research findings out to a wider audience?

That article in The Guardian was about organic farming in Cuba, and how Cuba had moved from a cash-crop, sugar monoculture to a food-based model in an attempt to gain some independence over its food supply. I must have interviewed 30 academics in the United States and Cuba for that story, and it was sometimes a challenge to put their very technical language into words that the general public could relate to. For anybody writing for the general public, as opposed to an academic audience, it’s important to use vivid language – active verbs, a sense of the visual, no clichés. There needs to be a compelling point, an argument, if you will. You can assume that readers have more knowledge than maybe we give them credit for, but the narrative has to move quickly and it needs to be focused on people, because that’s what journalists write about, people. It needs good description. Sometimes you have to stop to think: what does this look like? What does it feel like to be here? How would I describe this event or place or person? Put that in your story. Don’t go overboard.

This past October you spoke at Ursinus College outside Philadelphia on your book Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World (Macmillan/St. Martin’s Press, 2004). Your book sheds light on commercial looting and grave-robbing of archaeological sites in countries like Iraq, Peru, and Hong Kong, to show how the worldwide antiquities trade is destroying what’s left of the ancient sites before archaeologists can reach them. After your talk at Ursinus College, you wrote on your website that you were struck by how the book’s basic message still resonates: “that the illicit antiquities trade is compromising our ability to learn more about the story of humanity.” Do you think that your work and reports about the global traffic in stolen archaeological objects has changed the approach of governments and collecting museums to acquiring antiquities?

Museums used to buy antiquities that had been looted from archaeological sites quite brazenly – this is why so many museums found themselves in legal trouble – but I sense they’ve become more circumspect about it. Some of them are still acquiring legally dodgy pieces but are more discreet about it; others, I think, really have tightened up their policies out of an awareness that their acquisition polices in the past were encouraging looting and destruction of archaeological sites by commercial grave-robbers. Did my own reporting contribute to that change? Well, I’d like to think so, but there were many journalists doing excellent reporting that demonstrated the complicity of big art museums in the illicit antiquities trade. Lawsuits brought in U.S. court against museums by countries demanding restitution of looted goods also had a big effect; museums saw themselves as custodians of the treasures of the past, and they did not like getting sued. And pressure from those governments – particularly Italy, as well as Peru and a few others – on the U.S. government to do something about the problem had a decisive effect. All this has changed the climate in which unprovenanced antiquities are bought and sold in the United States. But has it led to a reduction in looting? I think that’s harder to say. In some areas, yes. On the northern coast of Peru, where I reported most of Stealing History, certainly.  

Since its creation, the ISIS has been profiteering from plundering and selling antiquities in Syria and Iraq. In 2015, UNESCO warned that the looting in Iraq and Syria was taking place on an “industrial” scale. According to various reports, the U.S. and western European countries are the main destination for looted goods and the sales of these goods are said to be funding ISIS activities. What is your take on the role of major U.S. and European museums in enabling the billion-dollar illicit trade in antiquities to continue and thrive? What should museums do to address the illicit antiquities trade which you criticize in your book?

With regard to antiquities pillaged at sites in Syria and Iraq, I think the demand at the moment is more from private collectors than from the big museums. Yet some of those private collectors may later try to sell or donate looted antiquities to museums; this is what happened to the Bible Museum here in Washington, which acquired unprovenanced cuneiform tablets from Iraq and was forced to return them and pay a settlement. Some collectors of Near Eastern antiquities have a great appetite for looted antiquities. They like the feeling of owning things taken freshly from the ground. Maybe they find the legal perils exciting. But the demand for those objects is what fuels the destruction of ancient sites, and, when you buy looted goods, you’re also at risk of buying worthless fakes. My position is that no one should buy antiquities, period. No matter what the dealer says about how the piece has spent decades in someone’s collection, or derived from legitimate sources, the risk that you’re buying a plundered work of art is just too great. If you’re buying an antiquity, most likely it’s looted or fake.   

What dynamics within museums are behind their drive to acquire antiquities from illegal sellers?

Acquiring is in the nature of great museums. That’s what they do, and to ask museums to get out of a whole area of collecting – unprovenanced antiquities – is a pretty big ask. But they have been forced to do so and to revise their whole acquisitions philosophies, because they faced legally enforceable demands from source countries for the return of looted antiquities. For the great collecting museums – the Met, the Getty, the Boston MFA – it has been a sea change. They have learned some hard lessons.

— Interview by Mohammad Ataie

This post is the first installment of a new series of Past@Present interviews exploring the diverse #CareersinHistory that UMass History Department alumni have pursued. In these posts, alumni reflect on current issues in their respective fields, as well as the ways in which their training as historians have prepared them for their work in the world.

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