The Australian government is investigating the case of a 95-year-old Perth woman accused of looting artefacts from Middle Eastern countries including Egypt. Joan Howard – now dubbed “Indiana Joan” – lived in during the 1960s and 70s with her husband, a senior official with the United Nations.
Monica Hanna of Egypt’s Heritage Taskforce raised allegations that Joan Howard stole from archaeological sites during her husband’s diplomatic trips in an open letter to Australia’s ambassador to Egypt, Neil Hawkins, on Facebook this month.
“I demand that an investigation should be carried out on the sources of Mrs. Howard’s collection now in Perth,” Hanna wrote, continuing that Howard had taken advantage of her diplomatic status and calling her behavior “not acceptable”. Previously, a Seven West Media story had published an online story headlined “Indiana Joan and her trove of artefacts”, which described the former nurse as a “real-life tomb raider”. She is pictured below with her husband.
Keith Howard held senior roles with the United Nations in the Middle East during the 1960s and 70s. Through her his connections, she was given carte blanche to travel between Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel where she volunteered on dig sites with noted British and American archaeologists excavating the ruins of the Phoenicians in Lebanon, early Christians in Jordan and the Romans before the birth of Christ.
“There is a mischievous twinkle in the great-grandmother’s eye as she reveals why she has humbly kept quiet about her derring-do,” said the article, which quoted Howard saying, “You don’t go round saying ‘I’ve been in a tomb’.” Howard is pictured above with a mummy mask she found at an ancient burial ground serving as the necropolis for the Egyptian capital Memphis.
Hanna said the celebratory tone of the story sent a very negative message, especially given the large amount of looting of Egyptian archaeological sites in recent years. Her letter stated, “These activities decontextualize the cultural heritage and transforms the archaeological finds from historical objects to mere aesthetic artefacts.”
Howard has donated a handful of pieces to the West Australian Musuem, but the balance of her collection – conservatively valued at $760,000 USD – is safely stored away in an undisclosed location.
Although most of her adventures predate changes in law that made possession of antiquities more complicated and transport out of homelands extremely difficult, the Aurstralian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it was investigating the matter and was obliged under UNESCO conventions to return foreign cultural items that had been illegally exported from their country of origin.
Lead image by Steve Ferrier; second image by Joan Howard