About Anna Schwartz

Anna Schwartz is currently a Museum Studies graduate student at New York University. Prior to attending NYU, she lived in Israel for two years and attended graduate school at Tel Aviv University where she studied Middle Eastern history. Anna is interested in the intersection of antiquities and politics, particularly in the Middle East and Central Asia, and how museums can act as a hub for fostering dialogue and promoting cultural exchange. She also holds a B.A. in Religious Studies and Psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Will Sudan’s History be Washed Away?

Sudan’s cultural heritage is in peril once again. The recent announcement by the Sudanese government to move forward with its plans to construct three massive Chinese-backed hydroelectric dams along the Nile River and its tributaries has put international archaeological and cultural heritage organizations on high alert.

The Nile River, which flows through ten countries from its origin deep in equatorial Africa and drains into the blossom-shaped delta region of northern Egypt, has been the watery lifeblood of those living along its banks for millennia. Civilizations great and small built their kingdoms and cities along the river, leaving behind magnificent traces of the past—many of which remain unexplored to this day. The proposed dams would submerge hundreds of archaeological sites forever under the rising water levels, including ancient settlements from the first Nubian Kingdom of Kerma, New Kingdom Egyptian sites, Nubian tower houses and rock carvings, medieval churches and forts, and Christian frescos.

This is not the first time a massive dam project has threatened Sudan’s cultural heritage. While dams allow for vital long-term water storage, generate electricity, guarantee water supplies, and provide protection against high floods and drought years, they often have profound impacts on the cultural and social landscapes of a region. Most recently, the controversial completion of Sudan’s $2 billion Merowe Dam on the fourth cataract in 2009 resulted in the permanent flooding of hundreds of archaeological sites, not to mention irreversible ecological consequences and the displacement of more than 70,000 people. The proposed Kajbar, Shereik and Dal dams would have a similar effect on their respective regions, again drowning hundreds of sites and displacing roughly 20,000 people from their ancestral homelands through compulsory resettlement to arid, inhospitable desert regions.

The Art Newspaper
Rescue and salvage efforts near the Merowe Dam in 2004

Presently, Sudan’s National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums (NCAM) is appealing to the international community for help, urging archaeological teams to conduct salvage excavations in Sudan before the sites meet their watery graves in the coming years. Yet, the very nature of salvage excavations raises important ethical questions. What ethical responsibilities, if any, do foreign archaeologists have when conducting salvage operations? Does their involvement in these missions facilitate the legitimatization of dam projects and subsequent impact on the environment and cultural landscape, as well as possible human rights abuses?

On the other hand, if these sites are going to be flooded forever shouldn’t we rescue and recover as many artifacts and information as possible? “We can’t be debating ethics while dams are built,” argues Neal Spencer, an archaeologist at the British Museum. In addition, archaeologists have been successful in generating public awareness to the point where foreign funders have pulled out of international projects, as was the case with the construction of the Ilisu Dam in Turkey. (Unfortunately, the international community was unable to stop the construction of the dam, which is scheduled for completion in 2013.)

Sudanese officials argue the dam projects are instrumental in exploiting the country’s resources for human development and necessary to “safeguard Sudan’s remaining water share allotted in the 1959 Nile Water Agreement.” The statement speaks to the recent signing of a new water-sharing agreement by six of the ten Nile Basin countries. Under the current 1959 Agreement, Egypt and Sudan are allotted the lion’s share of resources; however, the new 2010 Cooperative Framework Agreement seeks a more equitable distribution of water between the countries. Egypt and Sudan have refused to sign the new framework agreement, vowing to retain their historical water rights. Their refusal to sign directly reflects the decades-long struggle between the basin countries for greater control of resources, a struggle that directly plays into the decision to build the dams and ultimately the future of Sudan’s magnificent cultural heritage.

Digital awareness in the time of looting

The Egyptian uprising, which began in early 2011 and led to the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak and the establishment of a transitional government under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), has had a devastating effect on archaeological sites throughout the country. Since the beginning of the revolution, illegal digging and looting at Egyptian archaeological sites, as well as break-ins at artifact storehouses, have increased 100-fold. This increase can be attributed to a number of factors, including the breakdown of security and order across the country, political instability, economic necessity, backlash against the old regime and old-fashioned greed. El-Hibeh is one of these threatened archaeological sites.

Located approximately 200 miles from Cairo, the ancient city mound was founded during the Third Intermediate Period, and contains remains from the Pharaonic, Ptolemaic, Roman, Coptic, and early Islamic periods. Carol Redmount, an archaeologist at the University of California, Berkeley, has been excavating there since 2001. As early as June 2011, her team began receiving reports and photographic confirmation of extensive looting occurring at the site. Egyptian officials claim marauding gangs of looters, many of who allegedly escaped from jail during the revolution, are now robbing Egypt of its precious cultural heritage.

In an interview with PRI’s The World, Redmount describes the site in May 2012:

[The] cemetery has been thoroughly looted, body parts are strewn everywhere, pieces of mummies have been left out in the open. Bones are everywhere. Now they’re are largely dis-articulated, sometimes you can see the packages of mummy cloths, jawbones, skulls, sometimes toes still with flesh attached. It’s horrific.

Dr. Robert Yohe
Looted mummies at el-Hibeh

In response to the looting, Redmount launched the Facebook page “Save el-Hibeh Egypt.” The goal is to raise awareness not only about el-Hibeh but about the extensive looting occurring across Egypt—and the site appears to be doing just that. With over 1,700 members, the archaeology community and other interested parties are using the page as a forum for discussion, generating awareness via reports and photographs from the field, as well as sharing the latest news coming out of Egypt. Web-based social media like Facebook has the potential to play a pivotal role in raising awareness about threatened cultural heritage around the world. If these sites can ignite a multi-country revolution, why can’t they help prevent the looting and illicit trafficking of antiquities, as well? Lend your support and join “Save el-Hibeh Egypt” today!

Will new research lead to repatriation of mosaics to Turkey?

Turkey’s latest repatriation request called for the return of a dozen Roman mosaics currently owned and displayed at the Wolfe Center for the Arts at Bowling Green State University (BGSU) in Ohio. The university acquired the mosaics—which depict birds, human faces and other subjects in intricate detail—in 1965 from a New York dealer for $35,000. BGSU believed the mosaics had been discovered in a Princeton led excavation in Antioch during the 1930s. At the time of the excavation, Antioch was a Syrian province (the province was later annexed to Turkey in 1939), where the university was granted concessions by the Syrian government to excavate in the region. The archeological findings were then legally distributed according to the original agreement with the Syrian government.

New research, however, from Dr. Rebecca Molholt, assistant professor at Brown University, and Dr. Stephanie Langin-Hooper, assistant professor at BGSU, reveals the mosaics were most likely illegally looted from the ancient Roman garrison town of Zeugma in modern day Turkey in the 1960s and were not acquired from the Princeton campaigns in Antioch as originally believed. This change in provenance could dramatically affect the fate of the mosaics’ final resting place. If the mosaics were excavated from Zeugma as suspected, then they would belong to Turkey under the current Law on the Protection of Cultural and Natural Property of 1983. Turkey has one of the oldest patrimony laws in place (since the Ottoman Empire), vesting ownership of all moveable and immovable artifacts to the state.

Turkey’s General Directorate of Cultural Heritage and Museums of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism Abdullah Kocapinar praised BGSU for its responsiveness and candor, stating:

“The attitude of Bowling Green State University will set an example for other universities and art institutions in America which possess cultural properties illegally exported from our country.”

Kocapinar is no doubt alluding to Turkey’s recent requests for at least a dozen objects in U.S. and British collections, wherein the museums have been less than forthcoming about provenance details and acquisition records.

In an additional show of cooperation, a local reporter’s inquiry into the BGSU controversy helped promote dialogue between the two parties and will hopefully allow for a smooth transition between owners should research confirm the mosaics were indeed illegally looted and exported to the United States.

University President Mary Ellen Mazey affirms: “We will do the right thing.”

Click here to view the mosaic tiles.