• Archaeological Conservation Success in England?

    Foreign collectors of portable antiquities often hold up the Portable Antiquities Scheme of England and Wales as a model that should be applied by other countries which are a source of the antiquities they want to collect. As one of them said recently:

    PAS is a system better able to weather lean budgets because it relies on finders to help record objects and the State only retains for its own purposes those objects it deems significant. There are no curatorial expenses associated with most objects as these are returned to the finder and/or landowner after recordation.

    (see my comments here).

    The occasion for this lauding was the announcement that this week the Scheme made its 400 000th record of artefacts reported by a metal detecting artefact hunter and collector. Yet from the point of view of the conservation of the archaeological resource a more important statistic would be the number of items that despite the Scheme are being dug ...

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  • Towards a Bibliography for Looted Antiquities

    One of the long established on-line bibliographies on looted antiquities was created by Hugh Jarvis at Buffalo (“Looting Question“).

    This resource is intended to be provide a comprehensive overview of what is often a controversial topic, for scholarly and classroom use. Coverage is intended to include extreme perspectives as well as more neutral or consensus-seeking views. The list is extensive, with the hope that users will be able to find a range of these items close to hand. While the main focus is on North America, materials from around the world are noted whenever possible (and certainly encouraged). Items are added as they come to my attention or are contributed by others. Annotations are mine except as noted, and are NOT intended to be incendiary. Comments and additions are most welcome!

    Such a bibliography is helpful and is a useful starting point. There are bound to be some missing items. Among them various works by James Cuno, Peter Watson’s Sotheby’s: Inside Story and The Medici Conspiracy, or Sharon Waxman’s Loot!

    I have tried to note some key works on a public list (“Archaeological Ethics“) through WorldCat. This list is ongoing and does not pretend to be complete – and tends to relate to books (the purpose of WorldCat). I would welcome further suggestions.

    Kimberly Alderman noted Jarvis’ list on her Cultural Property and Archaeology Law blog. What has surprised me is the reaction from some: “this site and its bibliography are a disgrace to academic research”; “This is a selective bibliography that leaves out opposing views”.

    Another bibliography (“Readings“) has been posted by the Cultural Property Research Institute (CPRI). The emphasis is different though there is an unevenness. Again where is Peter Watson’s Sotheby’s: Inside Story and The Medici Conspiracy?

    Readers are invited to add other online lists as a comment below.

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  • SAFE congratulates David Gill and Looting Matters

    Thank you for sharing with us what really matters, and for using social media to broaden discussions about these important issues that affect us all. May your third anniversary be the beginning of many more to come.

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  • Publicity Where Publicity is Due

    The PRNewswire has picked up on a story first aired by Fabio Isman, writing for the Art Newspaper, and now being disseminated and further investigated by David Gill on his Looting Matters blog. It concerns the serious allegation that “a number of antiquities acquired by the National Museum of Archaeology in Madrid appear to feature in the dossier of Polaroid photographs seized from dealer Giacomo Medici.” The investigation has revealed that in 1999, the museum purchased 181 pieces from “Spanish financier Jose Luis Varez Fisa” for $12 million, boasting about the “great leap forward” this purchase would make to their collection. However, the work of the journalist, in conjunction with archaeological and photographic-assessment experts, have cast the original “surfacing” conditions of 22 of these artifacts into doubt, tentatively identifiable as they are within the Medici dossier, some still covered in soil or pre-restoration. As followers of this blog and Looting Matters will know, this is certainly not the first case of Medici objects surfacing again long after the legal case has finished. I doubt it will be the last. We eagerly anticipate further developments as this investigation moves forward.

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  • Culture Beyond Oil: BP and Museum Sponsorship

    There is a short video on a protest in the Great Court of the British Museum over BP’s sponsorship of museum exhibitions. This is in connection with the ongoing oil ‘gush’ in the Gulf of Mexico.

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  • Responses to Natural (and human-made) Disasters

    It is no surprise that we are quick to react to the destruction of cultural heritage. With the growth of the heritage industry, the public has taken on the responsibility of cleaning up the mess: our own and that of Mother Nature.

    In addition to SAFE’s public awareness campaign to highlight the destruction caused by the earthquakes in Haiti, other organizations have participated with assessment and initiatives focused on cultural recovery such as the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield led by Corine Wegener. Recently, IMLS released a statement that paintings in Haiti are restorable, according to conservators participating in the Haitian Cultural Recovery Project.

    Our reaction to the oil spill in the Gulf is still in the organizational stages or so it seems. There has been a call to the archaeological community by the Department of Interior for help to clean up and protect sites. The National Park Service (NPS) deployed personnel “to prepare for and respond to oil impacts along the Gulf Coast.” The U.S. National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (US/ICOMOS) created an interactive map highlighting heritage sites at risk.

    Other public statements focus on the protection of prehistoric sites like the shell middens along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Finally, the Associated Press started asking questions about the possible damage to shipwrecks and “whether BP will be held responsible for ruining underwater sites.”

    While response to protect human, plant, and animal life comes first, I hope action to preserve cultural sites and to mitigate damage will immediately follow.

    Image: National Park Service, produced by Cultural Resources GIS, 11 June 2010.

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  • Size does not matter

    When it comes to looting and smuggling antiquities, size does not appear to matter. Not anymore, anyway.

    Special Agent James McAndrew of the Department of Homeland Security mentioned in a recent presentation that the days are gone when only small portable artifacts are smuggled. Indeed, the case of the 27-ton Tang sarcophagus stolen from the tomb of Tang Empress Wu Huifei (AD 699-737) has taken this alarming trend to a new extreme.

    How did a 27-ton stone coffin measuring 4 meters long, 2 meters wide and 2 meters high leave China unnoticed? It is huge (as the photo indicates) in size and weight, in addition to its obvious historical significance. How did it enter the US? Container ship?

    Something this big had to have been hacked into many pieces before the looters and the smugglers could haul it, even with heavy machinery. Just think: if the coffin were cut up into 20 pieces, each would still weigh over a ton. How many people did it take? Who would display a huge stone coffin in a private home or was it going to be resold to some museum?

    So, finally, what is all worth it? For the buyer in Virginia who reportedly paid $1 million for the piece, any price is too high when his purchase had to be returned. Given China’s penalties (considered Draconian by some) the price the looter(s) pay could be life. For us all, the potential damage to the piece itself, the rest of the tomb and the history it contains can never be repaid. Even if the sarcophagus was not 27-ton heavy.

    Looting at any size does not pay.

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  • Iraq’s Antiquities Police: The Bitter Fruit of US Indifference to the Looting of Iraq’s Archaeological Heritage

    I have been putting off posting about this front-page New York Times story. In part I’ve delayed because I needed to check some of its facts with colleagues; in part because I and others have been pushing the story to contacts in the US government asking them to do something (and Iraqi colleagues have been mobilizing to do the same for their government); in part because I try to make it a principle to not write when too angry to think straight….

    (post continues at The Punching Bag)
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  • Giving "victims" of the antiquities trade a voice: science in the public’s interest.

    It’s been some time since I’ve written for SAFE, but an article discovered while searching the bioarchaeological literature for my own research struck me as so incredible, I felt I just had to share it here. This link will lead you to a recent Journal of Forensic Sciences article by Seidemann, Stojanowski and Rich, detailing how they put cutting edge bioarchaeological and forensic human identification techniques to use in an almost unbelievable case…the identification of a human skull almost sold on eBay!! Yes, you read that right! As the article explains, the investigation and research began when the Louisiana Division of Archaeology was informed by the National Park Service that someone was attempting to sell a probable Native American skull on eBay, from an undisclosed address in Lake Charles, Louisiana. The seller’s photos made it clear that the skull had been unearthed at ...

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