Damien Huffer

About Damien Huffer

Damien Huffer is a post-doctoral fellow at the Museum Conservation Institute and Department of Physical Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, with active research projects and/or interests in Southeast Asian, Central Asian and Near-Eastern archaeology, bioarchaeology, human osteology. Current antiquities trade related research investigates source and demand for Vietnamese antiquites, scope and nature of the market within Western countries of the Southern Hemisphere (e.g. Australia), the global online trade in archaeological and ethnographic human remains, and preliminary explorations of the utility stable isotopic analyses to help resolve issues of provenience, authenticity and due diligence.

Documenting the Damage: An Interview with Dr. Simone Mühl

Simone Mühl studied Near Eastern Archaeology, Assyriology and Proto- and Prehistoric Archaeology at the University of Heidelberg (Germany). After achieving her Master of Arts-degree there in 2007, she started working on her PhD-thesis entitled, “History of Settlement in the central Trans-Tigris area – from the Neolithic to the Late Assyrian period”. In 2011, she received her PhD and started working as Assistant Lecturer at the Institute of Near Eastern Archaeology at the University of Munich. Presently she is the archaeological director of the Shahrizor Survey Project (Iraq), where she started working in 2009.

Briefly describe your personal research and outreach background in regards to Iraq?

I have worked as an archaeologist, investigating the ancient cultures of northern Iraq since approximately 2007. Like many people around the world, the happenings in Iraq create a feeling of helplessness regarding this humanitarian disaster, but also the destruction and harm in the cultural sector. In order to keep track and sort the news reports, initially published primarily by Iraqi Arabic and Kurdish news networks, but later also by international agencies, I started trying to approach the problem more systematically, to find a way to separate inaccurate news (copy and paste journalism) and relevant material. Since such work is best done together with other people who work in the area of cultural heritage preservation or who are interested in it, social network platforms such as Facebook are perfect to keep things simple and to reach different groups of people all over the world.

 Why do people need to know about endangered sites in Iraq? 

The cultural history of the landscapes within the borders of modern day Iraq goes back to the Paleolithic period (ca. 500,000-100,000 BCE), with sites from this period discovered in the Haditha region (al-Anbar province), Mosul region and in Iraqi Kurdistan. Starting with earliest prehistory, there are several archaeological sites within Iraq that represent benchmarks within human prehistoric and historic chronologies. Within the now conquered and contested areas in northern and central Iraq lie more than 4,000 archaeological and historical sites that we know about, mainly from archaeological surveys. Excavations were restricted in this area to the flood zones of the large dam projects north of Mosul and near Haditha, as well as to the Assyrian capitals, Nineveh, Nimrud, Ashur, and Khorsabad.

For decades, Iraq has been shaken by conflicts and wars. Therefore, nearly no archaeological research could be carried out apart from very small, targeted examinations at Nineveh in Mosul for the training of students of archaeology at Mosul University, or pre-war excavations by German, British and Italian missions.

It is known from the ongoing situation in Syria, and from past conflicts in Iraq, that looters, smugglers and art dealers are working in organized networks to fill art markets all over the world with antiquities from both nations. Objects that come from famous sites such as reliefs from Nimrud, which were reportedly stolen in June, will vanish unseen and undetected in collections of people who can afford to pay large sums for them, and who probably arranged “looting on demand” with prior knowledge of which objects are stored where and what they represent. But the looting of large and famous sites is only one facet of destruction on the much broader scale. Smaller, unexcavated and archaeologically unexplored sites lie next to villages and cities without being monitored. Sites in rural areas of contested regions are also endangered because the rural population is the one which is hit first economically: it is dangerous to grow crops, livestock is being stolen, and markets have shifted. Often digging for “treasures” is seen as easy money to support one’s family, but as can be seen around the world, it is these “subsistence diggers” who get the least money.

Militant organizations such as ISIS (or ISIL/IS/Da’ash/Da’ish) put taxes on smugglers and partially sell looted objects directly to customers. Looted and stolen antiquities become part of the bloody chain of weapons acquisition; the profits gained by dealing in antiquities provides money to pay the salary for their fighters, to pay equipment for their propaganda machinery and much more. It is important to make the criminal intentions behind the art market public, also to appeal to the ethical consciousness of the ones who can control the business, the ones who pay for it.

The destruction of cultural heritage is not a bagatelle. After the Hague Convention (first protocol 1954, second protocol 1999) it is considered subject to criminal prosecution in the Criminal Court of the country whose national territory such crimes were conducted, or at the International Criminal Court.

How many known sites are currently threatened? Which areas are seeing the greatest threats? 

An area of about 100,000 sq km (nearly as big as Iceland) is not under the control of the Iraqi government in Baghdad or the Kurdish Autonomic Region. We know of about 2,000 archaeological sites in the regions of Sinjar and Mosul and another 2,000 sites in the wider region of Ashur (near the modern city Qal’at Sherqat), Kirkuk and down to the Diyala river. The number of sites in al-Anbar province, where Haditha lies, goes well into the hundreds. All of them are threatened. Among the threatened sites are three of four sites in Iraq that were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List: Ashur, Hatra and Samarra. The first image below is of the ruins of Ashur, seen from across the Tigris, while the second represents the current dig house with the Temple of Ashur in the background (courtesy of M. Herles, 2001).

Ashurdig houseAshur and Hatra were overrun by militant forces in the beginning of June, while Samarra is on the front line at the Tigris since the beginning of July. At least in Samarra it was possible for the General Directorate of Antiquities and Heritage in Baghdad to establish ground forces for the protection of the site.

Nevertheless we can differentiate threats: First are finance related risks, second is cultural destruction as part of “ideological” programs, and third are damages as the result of armed conflicts. Dealing with antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums is not new to Iraq’s recent history. Everybody remembers the looting of Iraq’s largest archaeological museum in Baghdad, and some provincial museums like the one in Mosul, even though precautions were taken by the staff members of these institutions to safeguard many movable pieces. Sites of great antiquity were turned into moonscapes by some local and predominant professional looters equipped with weapons and heavy construction equipment.

We know that many activities of looting are related to an organized antiquity market. Most buyers choose not to engage with information about where their money goes to or what it contributes to. While mafia-like structures will also prevail during the ongoing conflict in Iraq, information gained about the illicit traffic of antiquities in Syria, and information found in digital files secured near Mosul early in June 2014 shows that direct selling of looted antiquities is a major source of financial funding of groups such as ISIS (or ISIL/IS/Da’ash/Da’ish).

Cuneiform tablets, stone objects such as cylinder seals, and metal antiquities are jackpots for looters, because these objects can be sold as items of “art” as if they were produced only for glass cabinets in galleries. Historically speaking they are items of daily use, and if preserved in their context and documented by professional archaeologists they can reveal a plethora of information about ancient societies.

We would know nothing about, for example, the earliest efforts at crop cultivation and animal domestication, or the Mesopotamian mathematician who authored a clay tablet with geometrical exercises that is sold at an auction or by a black market dealer. With contextual information such as the mudbrick architecture of surrounding buildings, crude and fine ceramic vessels, food remains, and his burial place, we can reconstruct the mathematician’s life from the cradle to grave. We know how children were raised, what schools looked like and how they were organized, we know how handcrafts were coordinated by an administration or family business, how important astronomy was for the organization of calendars, and we know about individual and communal treatment of the dead and what the dead can tell us about the living. But what we know from excavations is also still incomplete. The knowledge varies from region to region, period to period. It was impossible to carry out archaeological excavations in Iraq for decades. Since then new methods were developed and applied, but mostly at excavations in Syria, Turkey and the Levant, leaving a great gap of scientific knowledge in Mesopotamia, a heartland of earliest writing, scholarly traditions, deployment of economic strategies and mechanisms.

But historical sites are not just valuable for the scientific community only. People in Iraq are much connected to their cultural heritage. They live on and near the sites, profited from tourism or worked in cultural sectors. Children are taught the material and intellectual history of Mesopotamia and the people are proud of it. Many shops and companies were named after famous kings and ancient cities of importance, the famous winged bulls that guarded the entrances of the Assyrian palaces were chosen as business logos, amongst other Mesopotamian symbols. The ancient history of Iraq is omnipresent.

But the region’s history is also of importance for many branches of Islam, since important historic events during and after the life of the prophet took place along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Later, during the medieval period, Islamic religious and scientific scholarly tradition was blooming. Remnants from this time period include manuscripts, scientific equipment and buildings with unique architectural features. Many buildings and architectural remains are still preserved from this time, and the architectural tradition continues to this day. Next to it, mostly in northern Iraq, Assyrian Christian, Ezidi/Yezidi and smaller branches of Islam add cultural traditions and material heritage to the diverse ethnic and religious life of today’s Iraq, each of which is part of the millennia-long circuitous course of history in the region.

Another threat, which cannot be underestimated, is the destruction of heritage sites and movable items as “collateral damage” in war activities. While modern military weapons systems seem to be able to aim at targets very accurately, public reports of errors and failure mostly are not available, but to be expected.

The ancient settlement mounds, also known as ‘tells’ (from the Arabic word for mound) bear the remains of numerous episodes of ancient building construction superimposed on each other. But due to their elevation they are also important landmarks within war zones. Gun emplacements, guard houses, and tank positions are often dug into such mounds, as well as mines being placed on and around them to harm opponent parties if the station is captured.

Some sites are also bulldozed to get building material for street barricades; others are cut for fire trenches or barrier trenches around cities. In several cases such destruction has been complete as in the case of a site visited by our team in 2013 not far from Halabjah. The ancient settlement mound was used as a tank emplacement during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) and was completely bulldozed from within to make it still look like a normal landscape feature to the enemy. The first image below is of an ancient settlement mound near Halabjah, bulldozed to serve as a tank emplacement during the Iran-Iraq War. The second image is from the top of the same mound, that has been hollowed out, destroying all archaeological context (courtesy M. Herles, 2001). A more recent example from sites cut near Kirkuk can be found in a crisis list from 2005.

bulldozed site distance

bulldozed site topWhat is the motivation behind these attacks?

The motivation for targeted attacks at mosques and sanctuaries at first seems to be religious. In strict interpretations of the Kur’an it is forbidden to build mosques on top of graves to avoid worshipping the dead and ancestors respected by the community. The destruction of ancient sites, such as Hatra, was threatened in a recent statement released by ISIS/Da’ash. I do not know if the explanation given in the media was part of the original statement, but it is said that the site was supposed to be destroyed, because it was a place for the worshipping of false gods, demons or devils. In Syria, Assyrian statues and reliefs from the archaeological site ‘Ajaja in the lower Khabur region were smashed, all photographed, videotaped and broadcasted on various social media. This arguably also served a propagandistic purpose. We might also assume that both the religious aspect of destroying images of heathen gods, but also the outreach and recruitment potential of such attacks goes far beyond this.

Destruction of cultural heritage is a war crime as laid out by the Hague Convention; thus it is subject to criminal prosecution. It aims to eradicate the cultural identities of people and reshape history according to radical dogmatic and political aims.

In Iraq, this often accompanies ethnic cleansing and the elimination of any structure that is part of Iraq’s multiethnic/-religious society. Once the destruction of living and visual memories is completed, only fading shades of what is lost will prevail, leaving nobody behind to mourn the loss, leaving nothing to remember what was lost. Children growing up in such territories are not taught about the ancient history or diverse religions of Iraq or the world, but only the condemnation of pluralistic societies.

The recent history of wider parts in Syria, now under control of radical religious/political groups amongst which ISIS is one, already shows the outcome of such rule: a young generation that has no place to call home, that has lost its traditions and the family bonds which carry these traditions and memory, a new generation who will be trained in weapons and destruction and the maintenance of industrial facilities of strategic and economic importance, but not in the preservation, reconstruction and building of cultural values.

Where can people learn about the illicit trade of materials from Iraq in Germany?

Some information is provided by the German Homepage of UNESCO, governmental initiatives are mediated on the homepage of the Ministry for Culture and Media. A Red List for cultural heritage has been set up by the International Council of Museums to inform institutions like police, border control, Interpol and to help to identify looted objects more easily. Several newspapers have published reports about the current situation. Nevertheless the public impact of the current events in Iraq and threats to its globally significant cultural heritage still seems to be less in comparison to the last Iraq war, when the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad was plundered and archaeological sites were destroyed by looters, which caused furor worldwide.

Finally, can you explain the goals for your website overall? Its primary audience? Any plans for the eventual translation of content into Arabic and/or Kurdish?

Endangered Heritage Sites In Iraq offers the possibility to include friends and colleagues from European countries, the United States and Iraq, most of them also involved in archaeology, history or the cultural sector. Many group members feel connected to Iraqi cultural heritage in some way or another, be it by their family background, religion, or cultural or historical interest. I intend the website to be another forum to discuss and try to control the authenticity of news reports together, as well as a place for field archaeologists, architects, historians, etc. to provide more contextualized background to breaking news events as they happen. Modern media allows “normal users” to check with local sources or even with “informants,” most of them friends or family members who live in Iraq. Much can be done from the desk right now, also because it is much too dangerous for any of us to do on-the-ground background check given the violence of the situation. Another advantage of Facebook is instant translation from English into Arabic and vice versa. Kurdish dialects are still not supported, but maybe this is only a matter of time.

Nevertheless, since several weeks there are basically no reports coming from the conflicted areas. This partly might be due to the tactical pressure that is put on ISIS/Da’ash and its allies by coordinated air and ground assaults by the US Army, Kurdish, governmental and self-organized forces. Additionally, the conditions of daily life became very difficult (lack of electricity, internet access). It became very dangerous to keep contact with people outside of the contact zones, but also amongst each other. Therefore information structures are not or only little functioning.

In this phase it is important to keep up posting news and articles about the cultural heritage in the conflicted regions such as Iraq and Syria in order to keep the focus of public awareness on the topic. As we all know: no news is usually not good news and the destruction of sites and the illicit traffic of antiquities have certainly not stopped.

Bones of contention: The global trade in archaeological and ethnographic human remains

These days, research on the depth and breadth of the global illicit antiquities trade, and how best to dismantle and prevent it, grows ever-more diverse. One particularly under-studied aspect continues to fascinate me: the trade in archaeological and ethnographic human remains. With licit and clearly illicit faces, deals conducted online (but most likely primarily off-line), this trade forms but one component of a vast global “red market“- the vast, legal and illegal trade in organs, tissues, eggs, blood, even children.

The existence of this trade is especially poignant given the affront to human dignity it represents, as portions of once-living people, with added significance as objects of cultural heritage, are reduced to commodities to buy and sell on the “open” market, not to mention the damage caused to ancient and recent burial sites to provide some of this “merchandise.”

A new paper just published by myself and my colleague Prof. Duncan Chappell from the University of Sydney, Australia, presents the first attempt to update, and provide a snapshot, of the online portion of this trade. It is the first relevant attempt, by our reckoning, in more than 10 years. It has been released early-view online in the Journal of Crime, Law, and Social Change (DOI # 10.1007/s10611-014-9528-4), and is now available in the SAFE resources section. In it, we provide an overview and an update, from legal, criminological and archaeological perspectives, of the current scope of the (predominately) online trade in human remains.

Given that this research was conducted on our own time, by necessity we focused on that component of the trade we could actually access-online markets from eBay to private galleries to auction houses. Given that very little published research of this nature has been conducted, and the most prominent examples of what exists focus on such specific contexts as the eBay sale of specimens with potential medico-legal import (e.g. Huxley and Finnegan 2004), we figured it was about time to rectify this.

Our search for archaeological and ethnographic human remains includes everything from mummies to trophy skulls, Tibetan skull-cap “damaru” drums and “kangling” flutes made from human femora and tibiae, to all manner of items marketed as “curios,” as well as primarily cranial specimens allegedly bought and sold for medical research only. Using key word and phrase searches on common search engines as well as mining public-access collector and dealer fora, we created a database that allowed us to quantify this ‘snapshot’ of what is being sold where, and by which kind of dealer (auction house vs. online gallery vs. private, usually anonymous, sellers). This information should provide a baseline for future studies to keep tracking the trade over time, especially when/if laws change in source or demand countries.

Without rehashing all the results in advance of publication, the data in general suggests a small but persistent global trade still exists, primarily conducted by European and North American based dealers selling items (primarily trophy skulls) from as far away as Peru, New Guinea, Vanuatu, West Africa, Naga land in India, and Borneo. More surprising were at least one example of an Egyptian mummy head recently and unsuccessfully offered for sale, with records still available online if one searched the darker corners of the internet. Although the dealer or auction websites that our searches turned up quickly became repetitive, in time, new examples will continuously come to light.

Unsurprisingly, the data suggests that auction houses, smaller online galleries and private (usually anonymous) sellers target different markets (“tribal art” enthusiasts vs. seekers of curios and “oddities” vs. seekers of oft-times professionally prepared medical specimens, allegedly for continued teaching purposes). Substantial overlap occurs. Although rare instance of the altruistic “sale” of human remains can occur, as the photo below from the Mütter Museum “Save Our Skulls” adoption program attests to, usually the exchange of money for human remains is purely profit driven. 

hyrtl skull collection Hyrtl skull collection, Mutter Museum College of Physicians, Philadelphia.

Different marketing tactics were also employed, with the majority of online galleries and some auction houses presenting “back stories” of old collections or collecting trips, occasional reference literature, and dealer biographies to entice potential customers and convince them of the “authenticity” of what they seek to buy. Sadly, the same care was not taken to ensure potential customers of the legality (for transfer of ownership, import or export) of the sale. Indeed, the overall impression gained from our research is that most dealers in such material are more than happy to operate by “caveat emptor” and abdicate responsibility once payment occurs, and (for this trade to exist) it appears that many buyers are willing to play along. Perhaps any sales conducted one-on-one off line are even less transparent?

With the majority of ongoing or recent sales recorded at the time of writing via small, semi-anonymous galleries or private dealers hiding behind eBay handles, this is not surprising. Despite clear policy, our research suggests that enforcement continues to rely too heavily on self-policing or reports from concerned citizens when news of suspicious auctions “go viral.” Although the rules state that only non-Native American remains used/to be used specifically for medical research purposes can be listed, we could detect no evidence whatsoever that any kind of due diligence or proof is required by either buyer or seller. Examples such as this demonstrate this clearly.

Even in the short amount of time between online release last month and now, I’ve discovered or heard about several more examples of ongoing or halted sales of human remains. Ranging from the attempted, but halted sale of an autopsied medical specimen as a raffle prize (thanks be to the astute blogger and animal bone enthusiast Jake of “Jake’s Bones”), to the unexpected donation of three skulls; two likely Caucasian former medical specimens, one a Native American child of unknown context, to a Seattle Goodwill. Fortunately, this donation has inspired others to turn in human remains in their possession to the local Medical Examiner’s office, as opposed to anonymous sale to the highest bidder or being throwing away.

Other examples of dealers in human remains as ‘curios’ have been uncovered, and will be added to a greatly expanded database as we take this research further and reassess motivations for buying and selling in more detail. Our long term goal is to document and publicize as many case studies as possible so as to both raise awareness and help affect legal reform. It is my firm belief that research on any form of illicit or questionably legal activity must also go hand in hand with public awareness.

Deliberate sale of freshly surfaced remains destroys archaeological context, while the sale and seemingly no-questions-asked purchasing of even old medical specimens and ethnographica not only risks breaking local or international law, but also robs a people of unique cultural heritage and, as importantly, steals the dignity of respect in death from the person being sold.

At the end of the day, we must remember that even if only a small component of the global trade in antiquities or ethnographica, the trade in human remains uniquely cross-cuts both the “red” and “grey” market (illicit made licit).

With undoubtedly much occurring off-line and policing of the online trade apparently largely voluntary, much remains to be done to expose those who put profit above all other concerns when handling these “bones of contention.”

The Front Line in the Battle for Egypt’s Heritage

On Monday the 14th April I was fortunate enough to attend the Washington, DC, lecture featuring Dr. Monica Hanna entitled “The Arab Spring and the State of Egypt’s Antiquities,” which was held at the Woodrow Wilson Center and co-hosted by The Antiquities Coalition.

Monica Hanna at the Wilson Center Archaeologist and SAFE Beacon Award Winner Monica Hanna discussed the impact of the current instability in Egypt on the desecration and looting of archaeological sites and artifacts.
The Wilson Center

From Dr. Hanna’s presentation, there seems to be very few sites in Egypt left that have not been dug up by a looter’s spade. Even museums and antiquities storehouses aren’t safe, as the well-publicized sacking of the Malawi Museum attests to.

Illicit digging, unplanned urban expansion, the rampant dumping of garbage, or even the “quiet” altering of the cultural memory of archaeological sites into, say, parking lots all continue apace! Further examples of rare Hyksos Period burials scattered across the landscape (thus stripped of all archaeological context), mummies destroyed (reburied in pieces when possible), pieces of ornate sarcophagi left lying on the ground (sometimes used as kindling!); all drove home how serious things have become since the initial 2011 revolution.

While the talk itself was delivered more as a quick succession of visual examples from numerous sites, coupled with anecdotes drawn from Hanna’s extensive experience “on the front lines,” plenty of time was devoted to a question-and-answer session afterwards. While most of those of us who asked questions were after further information on, for example, what is known about the inner workings of current smuggling networks, whether or not a “fatwa” had been issued against looting (as was the case for Iraq immediately after the 2003 invasion), what role the Mubarak regime had in fostering the oft-mentioned “land grab mafia,” etc. Dr. Hanna fielded all such questions with aplomb. However, one inquisitive mind in particular stood out.

Towards the end of the evening, a gentleman stood up and asked point blank what Dr. Hanna’s thoughts were on collecting; was she at all in favor or permissive? With little hesitation, a response of “yes” was offered…with one crucial caveat: full compliance by seller and buyer with all relevant international treaties, State-level vested ownership laws, and obligations governing cultural property.

Allow me to be blunt: Making any allowance for collecting at all, regardless of final destination, and especially of antiquities from a country whose past is so threatened by present conditions as Egypt’s, MUST require the strictest standards of documentation. No forged documents, no “taking the dealer’s word for it,” no vague, voluntary Codes of Ethics that allow business as usual. We’ve heard it all before, and enough is enough; no one benefits, everyone along the paper trail is culpable, and at the end of the day, new sites are destroyed before they are known. The destruction that Dr. Hanna so clearly outlined make it clear that time is of the essence.

As a call to action, the presentation succeeded immensely, especially given the “social media as lightening rod” theme that offered glimmers of hope to the audience in the face of such destruction. With over 30,000 followers on Twitter, Monica (@monznomad) excels at bringing a voice to local media-savvy concerned citizens and youth, inspiring them to protect and clean up sites. I left feeling that, in today’s uncertain political climate (hopefully soon to be more stable after upcoming elections), “turning the tide” on the ground must be a grassroots effort first and foremost.

However, national legal efforts to create and enforce international agreements can certainly aid the local struggle. I can’t conclude a discussion about the exemplary work of this well-deserved SAFE Beacon Award winner without also mentioning a forthcoming event of great potential significance. On the 2nd June, here in Washington, DC, the CPAC (Cultural Property Advisory Committee) will officially hold a hearing to decide whether or not to pass an MoU between Egypt and the US.

A long time coming, it is hoped that as many people as possible will submit comments or even attend (as I will be, awaiting a positive outcome with baited breath). Certain lobbies will fight hard for certain categories of artifact to be exempt…but to no avail, I believe. It’s not a panacea, but as every scattered bone and broken sarcophagus positively shouted to the audience, there is no time to waste.

Photo: Betsy Hiel-Tribute Review


Plumbing the Depths of the “Shadow Economy”: Reflections of an Antiquities Trade Scholar at an Organized Crime Workshop

On the 12th November, I attended a very special workshop, held at the stunning Stamford Plaza hotel in Brisbane, Australia. Hosted by both CEPS (Centre for Excellence in Policing and Security) and the ASMF (Australian Security Medals Foundation), it brought together a number of regional and international experts from academia, law enforcement, INTERPOL, police forces, and private security businesses.

With the aim of “exploring a range of issues relating to the nature and extent of illicit trade/intellectual property crime and law enforcement,” this post will summarize proceedings and, most importantly, explore connections between these areas of criminological practice and the seemingly “tangential” study of the antiquities trade. As was emphasized by the first presenter (Srgt. David Lake, Phoenix, AZ police), we are all part of the same over-arching “shadow economy.”

The workshop opened with what was, to me, a very fitting analogy. Mr. Rod Cowan, of the private security firm SecurityIsYourBusiness, began by poignantly revealing that he had stage 4 cancer! Why? Well, because as he himself has been experiencing, with diligence, treatment, and intervention, one can bolster their immune system to defeat, or at least keep in check, a ‘sickness’ even that severe.

By extension, he related that at an INTERPOL conference on organized crime/security last year, he just so happened to be the only Australian in the room, and when a map highlighting which countries had the most recent cases/highest rates of theft, Australia didn’t even appear.

“Either this means that Australia is doing everything right….or that people aren’t paying nearly enough attention.”

The take home message here, worth sharing, was that those of us gathered in the room (security specialists, academics, lawyers, criminologists, INTERPOL legal reps, former undercover agents, etc.) should see ourselves as “society’s immune system,” there to monitor and expose the illicit “shadow economies” that are costing many industries untold amounts of money, as well as jeopardizing the world’s cultural and biological heritage. Although the focus of the workshop was the Australian region, the lessons and information shared have worldwide applications.

shadow economy, Phoenix PD Srgt. David Lake, Phoenix Police Department, discussing the “shadow economy in counterfeit goods.

To begin with, Srgt. David Lake of the Phoenix PD gave an informative talk on what he called ‘economics based policing’, and how the aforementioned “shadow economy” affects us all. Regardless of the type of illicit activity being encountered, it was stressed that we must find new ways to respond as fast as perpetrators (if ever possible…), and react before violence and massive increases in ill-gotten gains reveal themselves as “symptoms.” Giving examples from the US/Mexico border, he detailed how cartels are moving into the counterfeit goods racket (organized commercial crime), with profits as much as 600% greater than the already staggering amounts gained from narco-trafficking.

If the legitimate economy holds that the customer is always right, then the task of all criminal syndicates from the demand end is to divert them (us) into participating in this “shadow economy.” What was so illuminating to me is that his talk, and others, brought the perspectives of once/former business owners and police to mind.

What does the shadow economy comprise of? Everything from untaxed labor to kickbacks, counterfeits, IP theft, fraud, e-crime, drugs, illegal gambling, the sex trade, and of course wildlife and antiquities.

As a store owner turned cop, he allegedly understood all about the logistics required to move products in bulk onto the licit market, and thus made it abundantly clear that criminals who could, for example, move 18,000 stolen lobsters in 12 hours in the US, or collectively rob 3.5 trains/day in Mexico, would already have markets identified.  Thus, it is crucial, he emphasized, that we “stop it at the marketplace,” as “once it’s out of legitimate supply, we’ve lost…”

People decide to traffic in stolen goods for a number of reasons, primarily involving feeling overly regulated or taxed by the rules of the licit market. In Australia, according to Srgt. Lake, the shadow economy now exceeds 15%, and is substantially greater in the US, Mexico, parts of Europe, etc. Apparently, if all counterfeit production was stopped globally, the economies of 60 countries (!) would collapse. From the law enforcement side, better understanding and monitoring “market re-entry points” at local and global scales is vital.

Mr. Philip Flogel, of NSW Fair Trading continued discussions around themes of the effects of the “shadow economy” on the legitimate economy and consumer safety, by initially discussing the synthetic drug market and that, even though all such products are currently banned under fair trade laws and the number of cases in hard-hit towns like Newcastle are down, forensic toxicologists can barely keep up with identification. Other examples of more local scams and crimes that exploit consumer demand via the creation of false markets include a recent rash of “driveway repair” scams in the US and elsewhere, internet fraud (suggestion to antiquities trade scholars: if a dealer ONLY has online purchase available, take special notice), and of course, counterfeit clothing.

As Mr. Flogel, and the next speaker, Mr. Ken Taylor (Trademark Investigation Services), profits from counterfeit brand-name clothing appear to be skyrocketing in Australia and beyond, despite numerous laws in place, and much media attention when raids are conducted on market stalls. The hiring of private security companies to investigate such cases has markedly increased over the last few years, in part due to Australian legislation that allows anything with a declared value of $1,000 or less automatically gets through Customs with no GST (unless the package is visibly dripping blood or ticking, perhaps…). In the case of counterfeit clothing, make-up, etc., storage space needs for goods seized can be substantial, and (alas) cases can take years to reach trial. Both speakers on this topic stressed that much more cooperation is needed between investigators, security firms, and law enforcement on all scales.

Australian Customs agents inspect a counterfeit goods seizure. Brisbane, 2009. Australian Customs agents inspect a counterfeit goods seizure. Brisbane, 2009.

Following on from this, Ms. Julie Ayling, from RegNet, at the ANU, gave an interesting talk on what’s called “TEC,” or Transnational Environmental Crime. This can involve everything from illicit polluting, timber trafficking, illegal fishing, and of course the wildlife trade; with a combined estimate of $31 billion/yr (?) Hard to know, really…

Like counterfeiting or the antiquities trade, TEC also represents a “poly-crime,” i.e. run by organized and well-financed criminal networks who also dabble in other trades (e.g. Irish groups robbing rhino horns from museums, dealing drugs, doing driveway repaving scams, etc.).

As was pointed out, TEC is an “economic” crime as well, given how difficult it has been to prevent poaching from the supply end, lingering corruption issues, and the losses to “source” countries that suffer diminished chances for wildlife tourism. Parallels between this and potential lost cultural heritage/archaeology tourism revenues in countries affected by the antiquities trade are readily apparent.

The final speaker during the morning session was Dr. Rick Brown, of the Australian Institute of Criminology. His talk provided a very unique perspective; presenting the findings of qualitative and quantitative research investigating small stolen goods markets “at street level” using qualitative and quantitative data solicited from 3-4,000 detainees for drug offences in four cities. The most important information to come from this data, in my opinion, are that we must not underestimate the role of informal networks and dealers themselves when it comes to moving small-scale portable goods (whether that be antiquities or burgled computers).

Dr. Rick Brown, Australian Institute of Criminology Dr. Rick Brown, Australian Institute of Criminology: Don’t underestimate the role of informal networks!

In this study, locally available drugs in each city allegedly decreased over time, but results suggested that users who steal were having to steal more and convert more to cash within their own informal networks to afford their habit.

Here, demand reduction in one area (drugs) does not necessarily mean less crime or effective outreach.

This seems to be mirrored in the antiquities trade, where increased apprehension and confiscation of larger pieces has begun to translate into greater due diligence performed by all market actors, but the trade in smaller items along more informal networks remains confounding.

The final three speakers of the day consisted of Prof. Duncan Chappell (Faculty of Law, University of Sydney), Ms. Rosella Mangion (INTERPOL legal rep), and Sir Ronnie Flanagan (former Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, now advisee to British American Tobacco over the illicit cigarette trade). Prof. Chappell’s talk was more or less what he and I presented at the Protection of Cultural Property in Asia conference in February this year. As our research into Australian and Southeast Asian antiquities markets continues, we can increasingly argue that market reduction is a sound approach. Of course, market reduction in the absence of (questionably effective) sanctions will make no further progress without further outreach.

Ms. Mangion further clarified the role of INTERPOL in the fight against illicit traffic of all kinds, noting especially that a trafficking charge must be an offence in both the source and demand country involved, but that it is up to us (since INTERPOL is not a police force) to “think like prosecutors” while investigations occur.

Given that all aspects of the diverse “shadow economy” involves both actors and facilitators, and that treaties in place currently are all either criminal law, trade-specific, or country-specific in focus, it was argued that greater operational cooperation was needed to watch for “unexplained wealth” (especially given poorly regulated on-line dealing).

Efforts to better ID, trace, freeze and confiscate the proceeds gained by all illicit trades will rob them of their power. This was driven home in Sir Flanagan’s talk about the international illicit tobacco trade, operating on a HUGE scale. Allegedly, we’re talking billions of dollars, millions of illicit cigarettes/shipment, multiple Western markets (including Australia) from sources in Asia, and marked increases in violence. It was all encapsulated in the story of a Loyalist crime lord (rose to prominence during the Troubles) who in recent years was posing as an unemployed laborer collecting welfare, but in reality was organizing “hits,” living large, etc. Nearly untouchable and untraceable, until connections to the cigarette racket allowed authorities to follow the money and seize assets.

At the end of the day, we were all divided into groups to discuss and then give feedback on a few key thematic questions/priorities; a way to pool our combined experiences and look for common ground in light of new info. Questions such as: How can investigators and academics better leverage the private sector (i.e. security industry)? What do the police/government agents want more of? How can the private sector better engage in outreach? What aspects of the shadow economy does the private sector see changing in future? How so? It all relates back to what Mr. Rowan and Mr. Lake pointed out; if we are to be society’s immune system, we must be strong and well informed enough to stay ahead of the symptoms!

One obvious requirement is more production and routine use of visual guides (e.g. ICOM Red Lists) for not only more source countries in the antiquities trade, but also species smuggling, and even counterfeit products. With the skills of counterfeiters, forgers and smugglers getting so advanced and high-tech, the “arms race” (if you will) is still far too lopsided. We were also of the opinion that fostering of subject matter experts outside of the investigative/law enforcement community is vital; especially if those experts (e.g. academic archaeologists, biologists, museologists, etc.) are given permission to tap into their colleagues’ expertise.As I suggested when I spoke, if we’re up against such complex poly-crime networks, then we have to fight fire with fire and create much wider networks of individuals able to identify, investigate and monitor.

Watching the shadow economy...all together now? Watching the shadow economy…all together now?

Finally, another obvious conclusion to come from the day’s proceedings was the need for more effective outreach in all areas of illicit trade prevention. I know, I know…easier said than done. And yet, I feel that the need still exists in many areas of the shadow economy to transition from a situation of licit markets hijacked or flooded by illicit goods and/or dealer’s communities with voluntary codes of ethics (propped up by a lingering no-questions-asked trade) to one in which increased awareness by buyers and sellers makes the dealer community more willing to self-police, thus lessening the work of investigative journalists and law enforcement.

Although those scant few of us working on illicit trades outside the purview of drugs and IP might have felt a bit tangential considering the rest of the delegates, I remain honoured to have participated, and do feel that everyone learned from everyone else. As always, the test now is to see how much lasting collaboration comes from it. However, I feel confident that workshops such as this help to ensure that Australia and its region continue to improve on what we’re doing right, and certainly not be ignored on the world stage for much longer.

Why the looting of the National Museum of Iraq still matters

Like those Americans of my parents’ generation who can remember where they were when they heard that President Kennedy had been shot, or of my generation who can remember their reaction to the breaking news of the September 11th attacks, the looting of the National Museum of Iraq remains, ten years later, a watershed moment for the global archaeological community and those of us who work to document and mitigate the illicit antiquities trade. The scale of the plunder, and its seemingly preventable nature, shocked everyone who witnessed it or viewed the frantic efforts of those tasked with dealing with the aftermath. For me, it was troubling enough to hear, and then have confirmed, that the United States was once again going to war in the Middle East, and for reasons that many suspected were false even at the time they were being announced. Given that I was about to graduate with my Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology from the University of Arizona at the time, I routinely spent each day immersed in archaeological theory, method, and site data from around the world, including the numerous civilizations that flourished in today’s Iraq; the Mesopotamia of the ancient world. Thus, knowing that not only was a war of uncertain parameters and unknown duration already underway (with the inevitable loss of military and civilian life), but that priceless cultural institutions would also be under threat, made watching events unfold all the more troubling.

Interviews with Donny George and other museum officials during and after the fact really drove home how tragic this loss was. Coupled with the sacking and burning of much of the National Library, this tragedy was propelled to unbelievable proportions. Although I don’t think it will ever be known to what extent US troops were ordered to guard the museum, or whether or not their neglecting of this order made the looting easier, it has long been understood (since colonial days, really) that the risk of looting increases in times of armed conflict. For my cohort and I, all archaeologists in training just beginning to accrue field and museum curation experience, we could at least intuitively grasp how damaging the event was. Later professional and life experiences would just confirm this.

One positive outcome of this tragedy was, of course, the founding of SAFE; the only nonprofit with an expressed goal to raise public awareness of new developments and new research pertaining to the illicit antiquities trade. SAFE was founded in 2003; however it did not exist as a nonprofit until 2005. Although the looting of the Iraq Museum served as the impetus to found SAFE as a direct response of this event in 2003, I didn’t hear about its existence until my dawning realization of the scope of looting itself My archaeological “formative period” came about in the Southwestern United States (at the University of Arizona) where, for three years, I was fortunate enough to participate in excavations in settings as diverse as the Sonoran desert near Tucson to the Pacific Islands. Both of these locations do also suffer from looting and site vandalism (which I’d later observe), but the wide open spaces make encountering looting a rare occurrence unless you look for it. I had enough on my plate just learning the archaeological ropes!

The real challenge facing all of us is to stop the illicit antiquities trade before it starts, tighten the net around those who seek to profit from it, and provide enough training to troops on both sides of future, inevitable, conflicts that sites of cultural heritage are greater than any one conflict.

By 2006, I had completed my Bachelor’s, as well as a Master’s degree at the Australian National University, and my focus had shifted to Vietnam, Southeast Asia, and bioarchaeology (the investigation of daily life, behavior, and human-environmental interaction from data contained in the skeleton, in the context of burial practices). The more I studied and worked in the field, the more I appreciated how much is lost when burials are dug up in the hunt for rare artifacts to sell. Burials uniquely represent one-off events; snapshots of the life and death of an individual and community. Perhaps more than any other category of archaeological site, burials are truly irreplaceable. Attending the 2006 Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association conference in Manila, Philippines, first exposed me to how severe looting had become in Southeast Asia.

Having already seen examples of the open sale of artifacts accidentally surfaced while farmers ploughed fields in Vietnam, causing me to wonder how many more sites similar to the c. 3,800 BP cemetery site I was currently helping to excavate were out there, I had an inkling of things to come. Presentations given by the Director and staff of Heritage Watch (a Cambodia based NGO specifically focused on the antiquities trade) truly opened my eyes. Seeing slide after slide of sites reduced to moonscapes and incredibly rare burial objects openly sold due to international greed and weak laws, despite the best efforts of local and Western archaeologists, broke my heart and made me unwaveringly determined to help in efforts to expose and combat this threat, in Cambodia and beyond. By 2010, after returning to Vietnam and Cambodia to excavate and learn more, working at numerous sites around Arizona (and seeing vandalism and pot-hunting first hand), and finally returning to Australia in 2008 to commence doctoral studies, I felt I had learned and seen enough to be able to meaningfully contribute. In 2010, I began to guest blog for SAFE, as well as begin my own blog to discuss cases, galleries, legal issues and the ‘demand’ side of the market in southern hemisphere countries such as Australia. My own current research, conducted with colleagues at the Institute of Criminology, University of Sydney, seeks to clarify the dimensions of this market, especially concerning South and Southeast Asian antiquities, to a degree not attempted before.

Although objects from the Iraq Museum remain unaccounted for and the museum remains only occasionally open to the public, events such as the scramble by civilians, museum and military personnel to remove and safely store thousands of priceless manuscripts from libraries and mosques in Timbuktu, Mali, during the ongoing conflict there do suggest that the global community is much less willing to be silent in the face of conflict-driven heritage destruction. In time, the collective efforts of INTERPOL, private investigators, journalists and governments in cooperation could recover even more objects stolen on that fateful April 10th, but to me the larger point is that the looting of the National Museum of Iraq is symptomatic of the economic disparities between supply and demand countries, and the greed of those who fuel the no-questions-asked antiquities trade, that will continue to reduce countless sites to rubble before they can be excavated, let alone published and curated to share with the world.

Having just come from the latest (78th annual) meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, in which thousands of delegates (myself included) presented the results of our latest research, I can safely attest that global research output is very vigorous. However, except for the occasional passing reference or resigned statement, there is still nowhere near enough acknowledgement of what the antiquities trade is doing to the world’s remaining archaeological record, despite the pervasiveness of looting and illicit dealing worldwide and the archaeological questions rendered moot because of it. Of course, the effects of looting also include hampering the efforts of many nations to establish museums with fully up-to-date acquisition and curation policies, and then to effectively safeguard those priceless pieces of cultural and national patrimony that they contain. The severe damage inflicted to the collections of the Iraq National Museum is just one poignant example.

As cutting edge research to document and mitigate the antiquities trade, excavate or salvage new sites, and create more context-driven and secure museums continues, let us all take a moment to remember not just what was lost when the Iraq Museum was looted, but what good has come from recovery efforts. Without the noble front-line fight of Donny George and his staff, much more would have been destroyed. Without the help of Iraqi religious leaders and governmental authorities, much more would be unaccounted for. The real challenge facing all of us is to stop the illicit antiquities trade before it starts, tighten the net around those who seek to profit from it, and provide enough training to troops on both sides of future, inevitable, conflicts that sites of cultural heritage are greater than any one conflict. Only by doing this can we ensure that the tide will continue to turn in favor of the preservation of the material remains of humanity’s shared past.

On the other side of this equation, it is vital for those who investigate the illicit antiquities trade from legal or criminological perspectives to seek out and maintain dialogues with archaeologists (both foreign and local) in all areas of the world where looting still occurs. As my own research continues to demonstrate to me, effective legal reform and prosecutions must rely on documentation of artifact authenticity, illegality of export, and likely archaeological context together. The clear explanation of what knowledge is lost, and how it fits into the bigger picture, when an object is ripped from the ground (or separated from its records when stolen from a museum) is something only archaeologists who have excavated intact sites and seen looting face to face can provide. Organizations like SAFE that continue to work to bridge these gaps are still sorely needed.

Dr. Damien Huffer
Institute of Criminology
Faculty of Law
University of Sydney
Darlinghurst, NSW, 2006, Australia

Sotheby’s "Off-Base" on Cambodian Antiquities Again

It appears that Sotheby’s is in hot water yet again in relation to their unscrupulous selling of Khmer antiquities. A news article has come to my attention concerning the recovery and repatriation of a c. 950 AD warrior statue, likely looted from the site of Koh Ker during the Vietnam/American War. The Cambodian government recently asked the US for help with recovering this priceless artifact when it was discovered that not only was Sotheby’s slated to sell it at auction in March last year, but a pedestal base/feet are, rather poignantly, awaiting reattachment at Koh Ker itself. Importantly, the other statue of the pair was found residing at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, CA, since 1980 (the height of historic artifact looting in Cambodia), awaiting future legal action to get it repatriated–something antiquities lawyers claim will be more difficult to do given how long Cambodian authorities have known about its presence there.

Despite continued claims by both Sotheby’s spokespeople, in-house research suggests that the ‘noble European lady’ who allegedly purchased it in 1975 (from Spink & Sons auction house, London) had “clear legal title.” Given that the documents can allegedly no longer be found, this seems fake to me. To further attempt to hold on to their prize. Sotheby’s lawyers alleged that “Cambodia’s willingness to negotiate indicates that under American and Cambodian law it has no legal claim.” Nevertheless, Marine Corps Reserve corporal Matthew F. Bogdanos (the man who spearheaded the effort to recover loot from the Baghdad museum in 2003) summed up this “conflict” perfectly by saying: “Whatever the letter of the law may state, you have to ask yourself, ‘Does this item pass the smell test?'” In other words, what does the on the ground evidence say?

The NY Times article I link to above makes no indication if the legal challenges have been resolved yet. As suggested in the article, it is implied that one Mr. Istvan Zelnik will purchase the statue for $1mill and return it to Cambodia as a donation. Mr. Zelnik appeared in the news very recently in relation to another Angkor period antiquity (see here). If this goes ahead, this act of good will should be commended, but it remains sad that forging deals with wealthy foreign collectors can sometimes be the only way to get such large items repatriated if matching the price at auction requires several million dollars. Cambodia is certainly not the only country faced with this dilemma or come up with this solution.

The acquisition practices of Sotheby’s in regards to Cambodian antiquities has been quantitatively challenged before (see Davis, T. 2011), but controversy immediately arose around these claims and how much studies like these actually affect large auction house practices are debatable. However, a good outcome from this Koh Ker case might be a shift in the cut-off point (to 1925 from 1993) after which an antiquity for sale from Cambodia can be considered looted or illegally exported, although the burden of proof would remain on archaeologists, detectives and the Cambodian government. If these cases do affect changes to international law, the next step for Cambodia will be to make sure that every artifact class on the ICOM Red Book (especially small, prehistoric items) are included. Although many will undoubtedly continue to slip through customs, at least legal repatriations could more readily be affected if such crutches as “from an old Swiss collection” are removed. In the meantime, here’s hoping this latest international collaborative effort to keep cultural heritage in the hands of those it belongs to succeeds. Look forward to further updates as this story develops.

Photos: The New York Times

Cause for Alarm?

This link points you to a description of a new “reality” TV show slated to descend on St. Augustine, Florida, and 13 other American cities and towns this year. The gist? Let’s dig up private and public property to unsystematically hunt for “treasure” that can “tell a story of the past.” Cause that’s exactly what archaeology is all about, right?! Apparently, their host “has been digging up artifacts for 20 years, so he’s not some random digger.” What, with a metal detector? This cavalier attitude couched as socially responsible television is even more disturbing to me. Further telling to me is the statement by St. Augustine city archaeologist Carl Halbirt that the property owners he’s spoken with (independent of those eventually selected for the show) are “interested in the archaeology and preserving the past and that’s what we’re trying to do with a systematic approach.”

Most likely, some of these very same property owners have been part of direct negotiations related to past and ongoing cultural heritage management projects and salvage excavations…actual, systematic archaeology in other words. Apparently, the show’s producer has had her hands in several other “reality TV” winners, such as “Super Nanny” and “Reality Hell.” Does this bode well for the prospects of this show treating archaeology and history with any kind of respect? I doubt it… I hope that the networks will take a good, long look at the merits of this show before agreeing to host it, including independent evaluations of premise and practice by the archaeological community. Only time will tell… The St. Augustine Record has kindly provided the email address and phone number of the casting producer.

Sad news out of Iran…

This link takes you to a Tehran Times article (brought to my attention by Museum Security Network) discussing the on-the-ground looting situation at the ancient city of Dastvar, Khuzestan Province, Iran. After five excavation seasons spanning the 1960s-1990s, it appears that what’s left of the city and its cemeteries are being looted away at a frightening pace. Part of the Elymais (Elam) city-state east of the Tigris, historical and numismatic records have illuminated the reigns of at least 27 Greek and/or locally born kings spanning c. 147BC-224AD, and a few key events reported by scribes of later (or successive) Empires, after the fact. As always with large sites such as these, much remains unexcavated and/or not fully understood, especially in regards to daily life and deathways for non-elite individuals.

With each hole dug by a looter’s spade as opposed to an archaeologist’s trowel, another piece of what’s knowable about the city’s rise and fall is erased forever. Every burial recklessly opened represents another individual life that archaeological science will never be able to bring to light. This has all been explained before, and yet such blatant looting to feed the international trade continues, with local and foreign professionals feeling powerless to stop it. Are we? As this example of Parthian artifacts for sale attests to (also here…note the VCoins connection), it is arguable that dealers and buyers in demand-side countries have yet to accept full responsibility for their part in this vicious cycle. We’re waiting…

Support from an Unlikely Source?

This link will take you to a new article written for Forbes magazine (they of the Fortune 500 billionaires list), written by one Robert Lenzner. In a boost to the cause of global antiquities trade ethical and legal reform, he describes how discussions last summer with a real-estate investing friend who collected Greek and Roman art (to emulate Levy and White’s supposed prestige). Their discussions led them both to note their increasing concern for the source of such artifact and the threat their unscrupulous collection was having on the collective cultural heritage of countries now weathering severe finance crises. Predicting an inevitable upturn in looting in countries such as Greece, Lenzner notes that his friend Aldrich originally hoped to cleanly purchase “museum-quality” pieces on the market to conserve, study and lend them, but that the realities of the trade taught him something of a harsh lesson…

I commend the author (reporting his friend’s suggestions) for noting the increasing importance of conservation methods in both source and demand countries, grounded in the economic realities specific to each location. Although I don’t agree that participation in the trade should ever be called a “privilege,” (as opposed to, say, being able to afford gourmet food which does not cause the destruction of a finite resource), I especially agree with Aldrich’s second, forth, and fifth suggestions. These are points that, I feel, most responsible archaeologists collaborating with officials overseas already try our best to put into practice and assist local colleagues with.

In my experience, the “lost revenue” suggested in point six need never be an issue, as those individuals living in rural communities who agree to work for an international excavation are usually well-payed for their time, learn how to dig, can get future employment on excavations should they choose, and learn first hand why careful excavation matters to understanding their heritage. Although the idea of a public “heritage trust” made from the proceeds of antiquities sales sounds nice on paper, how will this money be collected and controlled?

As a practicing archaeologist, I will always value the joy of discovery that comes from being the first to uncover something (or someone) from the past within an excavation over the “joy” of collecting, but this article at least represents a collector giving more thought than usual to where things come from. Discuss amongst yourselves.

A Fresh Coat of Justice

Good news on the front to protect Southwest US rock art sites from vandalism. This article details the arrest and prison sentence of another rock art vandal; a man who shot up a petroglyph panel with red and green paintball pellets in March of last year! More detail can be found here. Grapevine Canyon, in the Lake Mead National Park, has long been a sacred site to Colorado River Native American tribes, and is home to at least 700 petroglyphs. The perpetrator and two others were turned in by a witness, and the ring leader was sentenced to 15 months prison and a $10,000 dollar bill to help in restoration. Let justice be served!

The ethics of "tomb raiding?"

This rather shocking article needs to be further exposed. Cultural internationalism and a demand for antiquities justified for aesthic and “preservation” related reasons appears to be alive and well, at least where open-air purchasing of potentially authentic pieces of Angkor Wat in Thailand are conserned! Closing the article by stating how much they purport to have learned regarding the “rights, wrongs and grey areas” of tomb raiding is especially galling. My personal response to the article can be found here.

Antiques vs. Antiquities: A Case Study from Malta

In advance of a longer, more detailed post that I am currently researching regarding the legal and contextual differences inherent in the selling of archaeological “antiquities” vs. ethnographic/historic “antiques,” let me present a case study that has just come to my attention. According to an article in The Times of Malta, a private seller has attempted to list an “antique” amphora (photo at left) recovered from a shipwreck, age and exact cultural provenance unspecified, on the local all-purposes classifieds website maltapark.com. A local diver and “marine activist,” one Antonio Anastasi, expressed outrage at this theft of perceived ‘national heritage,’ and seemed readily able to cite local law dictating that nothing over 50yrs old (i.e. “antiques,” including more ancient antiquities) could be privately claimed or sold in Malta. Apparently, police and the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage have been notified, an investigation has been launched, and there’s hopes that the artifact might soon end up in a local museum (where at the very least, more archaeologically relevant details and context can be presented to the public).

What struck me more was the diversity of positions taken by those who’ve commented on the story to date. Setting aside the ones in Maltese which I can’t read, those in English run the gamut from apathetic (“heritage….gimme a break”) to challenging the Time’s reporting of Mr. Anastasi’s legal claims (apparently no such law is cited in the Territorial Waters and Contiguous Zone Act of 1971), to further outrage over the loss of information this act represents (“the value of an antique is not in the object itself so much but in its history, its provenance”). This case reminds us that, depending on the region and artifact type in question, there may be very blurry boundaries indeed between antiques and antiquities, and laws in general (both local and global) might consider them almost one and the same, despite the very real differences in context lost when isolated archaeological artifacts, even from clearly historic periods such as the amphora in question, are lifted from their contexts. In the longer post to come, these issues and more will be further investigated. Stay tuned…

The Brazen Destruction of an Ongoing Dig

I’m sure this is all over the blogosphere by now, but I wanted to continue to pass it on. Here we have yet more evidence that looting, thievery, and general archaeological vandalism is not contained to the “third world,” and need not even target sites, features or locations known to produce “valuable” antiquities for the market. Here these students were, working at a new excavation near their campus, in semi-urban Illinois, on a field school designed more to teach technique than with the expectation that earth-shattering discoveries would be made. And yet, vandals and looters struck, nearly irreperably damaging the site and most revealed contexts, making off with neccessary equipment, etc! From my own experience digging on various “contract” (Cultural Resource Management) projects for archaeological companies working in southern Arizona, I can attest that cases of urban vandalism or looting of active dig sites are more common than they should be. Popularization of the “glory” of archaeology far oustrips that of the “science.” In my opinion, as long as the “Indiana Jones/Laura Croft” stereotype continues to foster disconnect between public perception and actual practice, this mentality, combined with the still-active market, will continue to lead to incidents like this. Constant vigilance against the global scourge that is looting!

Heritage, Looting and Vandalism in the Southwest US: The Good and the Bad

Two new articles have come to my attention today, both courtesy of the Museum Security Network. The first article discusses the work just now beginning to restore the vandalised rock art of Red Rock Canyon, outside of Las Vegas; a “Sistine Chapel” of Fremont-culture rock art. The main perpetrator of the crime was arrested in December, and awaits a verdict on charges of placing gang-related graffiti; a crime that carries a possible five-year jail sentence and a fine of $100,000 dollars. The original reporting and damage assessment of this and similar vandalism events in the area have been previously discussed (here and here).

Fortunately, donations poured in from all over as soon as the Bureau of Land Management and two NGOs (Red Rock Canyon Interpretive Association and Friends of Red Rock Canyon) put out the call, with money coming in from corporate/public works donors, the local Paiute Native American tribe, and even $200 raised from a middle-school class who became quite upset when hearing the news. Also fortunately, it appears that the graffiti can be removed, according to the international expert brought in to lead the project (one Jannie Loubser)-the spray paint is reported to not actually be covering the art itself. Does this mean that the tagger missed the artwork by sheer chance, or will additional images be uncovered during clean-up?

Although enough funds were raised to cover the estimated $24,000 total cost to clean up the mess, the Director of the Red Rock Canyon Interpretive Association makes a point I wholeheartedly agree with. “We’re spending a significant amount of money to do the restoration, and the money could have been used on other educational projects. It’s a theft from thousands of school children of the opportunity to come to Red Rock Canyon and learn about the natural worlds.” In this time of continued economic hardship throughout the US, many NGOs and educational initiatives are struggling to survive. Events like these only compound the situation, but hopefully the Red Rock incident is now well publicised enough to serve as a warning to other would be vandals.

The other article conserns the apprehension, and ongoing criminal trial, of a resident of McAllen, Texas, a small town along the border with Coahuila state, Mexico. On July 30th, 2008, more than one half of the artifacts stored in the “Casa de la Cultura” museum in the town of Cuatro Cienagas, were stolen, with some of the loot ending up in the hands of Reyes at least one year later. Federal ICE agents caught Reyes at K-Bob’s steakhouse in the west Texas town of Ft. Stockton, where he was planning on meeting a buyer. With an alleged history of dealing in looted or stolen artifacts (according to the article, he was busted in June, 2001, with another large cache of material, mostly stone tools, in Laredo, TX), this case is being taken seriously on both sides of the border.

Although Reyes has been released from custody on bond, if found guilty, he could return to jail for 20 years…an average sentance. McAllen municipal court is now in charge of pushing the case forward, and the artifacts siezed will be returned to Cuatro Cienagas as soon as the prosecution is done with them. The outcome of this particular case might still turn out to be positive, but as one Patty Gerstenblith (the Director of DePaul University’s Centre for Art, Museum and Cultural Heritage Law) notes, the US/Mexico border is equally porous to smugglers of antiquities as it is to gun, drug, and money runners. Fundamentally, with so much land and unknown or unprotected sites to cover, combined with the actions of those greedy enough to break into museums to acquire saleable artifacts, the problems discussed in both of these articles won’t go away any time soon. The only solution, in my opinion, is further education especially towards children and adolescents, the complete dissemination of every successful prosecution made, and as much monitoring (citizen and law enforcement) as possible.

Deserts of Miscontent

Two news stories have recently come to my attention, both concerning the illicit/illegal excavation or artifact removal activities of people who certainly shown better; people with either the professional training or “passion for the past” to perhaps be more aware of the consequences of their actions before the fact, not after, when they’ve been caught. The first article concerns the arrest of one James Hamm who, for 50 years, had been conducting clandestine excavations throughout northern New Mexico and Arizona, amassing a relatively large collection of artifacts. Some of these were noted by Hamm himself (in his detailed records, maps, and ‘field notes’) as coming from burials (e.g. the photo above left). Of course, the article implies (and I suggest it goes without saying) that the human remains with which these artifacts were interred were at the very least ignored, if not damaged or cast aside, as Hamm pothunted.

Also not discussed (nor indicated in the accompanying video clip) is what kind of damage was done to any surface or subsurface archaeological features associated with the burials, or from which the artifacts were removed. The areas of New Mexico and Arizona that, according to the news story, saw the majority of Hamm’s looting, were once home to the Mogollon and Salado cultures. They were known to have buried their dead between or within houses, sometimes sealing the grave with clay so the house floor above can remain in use. Thus, digging blindly down from the surface to a burial could hypothetically cut through several remodeled floors, hearths and artifact, as well as destroy the skeleton itself!
David Phillips, Archaeological Curator at the University of New Mexico’s Maxwell Museum, makes a good point. “These are pieces of a people’s heritage, and if someone walked into the National Archives and stole the Declaration of Independence everyone would be up in arms.” Apparently, a rough ‘appraisal’ of the total collection, as compared to prices garnered from known auction house sales and confiscated receipts suggests a total “monetary value” of $37,000. Because Hamm took a plea bargain and turned over the entire collection, he got away with a $4,500 fine and 6 months house arrest, mostly because no part of the collection was ever provably sold by Hamm himself.
As punishment for a 50 year long ‘career,’ this strikes me as woefully inadequate. Fortunately, some items can be repatriated, others can be curated, and the notes/maps confiscated will most likely allow professional archaeologists and authorities to conduct proper archaeological vandalism assessments, possibly followed by larger-scale excavations in future. Unfortunately, the continued severe economic depression in the region, methamphetamine fueled looting (“twiggers“) and an “enormous black market” (according to Dr. Phillips, quoted in the article) means this problem won’t go away any time soon.
What was reported in the other article is perhaps even more surprising, considering that it involves an emeritus archaeology professor (one Dr. Daniel Amick) pleading guilty to taking part in a scheme to remove Clovis and Folsom points from a Palaeolithic archaeological site located on public lands, again in New Mexico. Between the publishing of the original article in The Sacramento Bee and this blog post, I note that the original source article has been removed. However, from information and updates gathered from the archaeological blogosphere, I can confidently recount that, according to the article, 17 stone tools were removed over two separate trips from land in the Jornada del Muerto region, and other individuals were involved, whom Dr. Amick is currently helping authorities locate. To his credit, he voluntarily returned what he took and plead guilty, claiming the removals were research related. Unfortunately, one of his assistants is noted as having a long history of surface-based looting (i.e. pocketing stone tools to collect or sell after recording them in a GPS database).
What the final outcome of this case will be for all involved is not certain, but the article suggests that charges against Dr. Amick will be dropped given his cooperation. According to his public Loyola University Anthropology Department website, Dr. Amick believes that “archaeology is best learned by doing.” As a practicing archaeologist myself, I agree with that statement…but unscrupulous artifact removal, or the sale of even provenanced materials to private collectors, is not what most of us have in mind. In rewriting this post today, two updates have come to my attention. From coverage on the excellent blog “Bone Girl,” I can now link to transcripts from the relevant court case, The United States v. Amick, as well as an interview in the Loyola University Phoenix (the campus newspaper) in which he claims that he never removed the artifacts, but merely accepted them from the ‘amateur archaeologists’ who removed them from unmarked federal land. “…not a transfer of goods, but a transfer of information,” according to statements made in the interview. As it currently stands, his sentence amounts to a $500 fine and one year unrestricted probation, with his faculty position retained and his criminal record expunged at the end of the year. The comments following “Bone Girl’s” blog post about this, many from anonymous sources, do make it seem to me that this investigation is not done. Guess all we can do is stay tuned…

Bringing Them Home: The Repatriation of Priceless Human Remains and Artifacts to Cambodia

The atmosphere was one of cordiality, but also marked anticipation, as a small crowd of Australian and Cambodian government officials, Embassy representatives, dignitaries, scientists and concerned citizens gathered in the private residence of His Excellency, Cambodian Ambassador Chum Sounry, on the morning of March 10th, 2011. As refreshments were served and the crowd mingled and exchanged pleasantries, everyone’s attention was eventually drawn to a small table positioned along one wall of the spacious lounge room on which was arranged a black tablecloth and several objects that, from a distance, looked like they might belong on display in a museum. However, on closer inspection, one realized that these artifacts, brazenly looted from one or more prehistoric cemetery sites in Cambodia, likely sometime within the last two years, bear stark witness to the most reprehensible side of the world-wide, multi-million dollar antiquities trade. The green bronze bangles, bracelets, arm braces and earrings on display this morning were still partially covered in corrosion, or filled with concreted soil. Furthermore, the majority of the items still contained the partial or complete bones of the individuals on whose arms and legs they were placed in preparation for burial some 2,500 years ago. The most shocking examples present were a nearly complete left-right pair of tibiae/fibulae (i.e. the lower legs, without the feet), completely covered in bronze bangles (see photo above left)! The photo is courtesy of my friend and colleague Noel Hidalgo-Tan, who has also blogged about his participation at the ceremony here.

Forever separated from the skeletons and burials to which they belonged, almost everything we could have learned about their lives is now lost, and for what? So a private collector can display these disembodied remains on their mantle piece or coffee table?! While I admit that most examples of antiquities sold or confiscated do not involve human remains, those that do are all the more repugnant for it! Knowing that willing dealer(s) in such macabre “pieces” exist is almost as shocking as knowing that there is anyone out there so desperate for the perceived ‘status’ that the private display of antiquities would allegedly bring them that they would willingly purchase fragments of a people’s ancestors (in this case, the Khmer people), even if their original ‘attraction’ to the ‘piece’ was the ‘aesthetics’ of the artifact itself. While the ‘supply’ side of the world-wide antiquities trade certainly requires continued outreach and educational efforts to stop looting before it starts, it is cases like these that demonstrate how rapacious the ‘demand’ side has become. Therefore, sharing some details of the case below is warranted. As a practicing Southeast Asian archaeologist and representative of both the Australian National University and Heritage Watch, I and several colleagues were cordially invited to witness this final, very positive, culmination of months of work.

This investigation started with a press release by the Australian Archaeological Association regarding the attempted sale on eBay of two of the above-mentioned arm braces, in clear violation of international law and eBay’s own policy. Although the items were quickly pulled off eBay, further investigations showed the advertisements to directly connect to a well-known Melbourne, Australia based antiquities gallery. This matter was first brought to my attention when I was sent a link to the online catalog entry for one of the braces, priced at several thousand dollars. As I had very recently begun contributing to and blogging for SAFE, I broke this story there on April 3rd, 2010, with two follow-up posts. As a result of this, I was contacted by staff from the Cultural Property division of the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts who administer the Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage 1986 (PMCH Act). I readily agreed to help where able, firstly by establishing contact between the government department and my colleague Dr. Dougald O’Reilly, the founder of Heritage Watch itself, with many years of on-the-ground excavation and anti-looting outreach experience in Cambodia.

After investigations, Cambodia lodged a request with Australia to seize and return the artifacts. The generally high profile nature of this rather gruesome defilement of a nation’s cultural heritage, therefore, reached a fitting end in this repatriation ceremony. Once the crowd had gathered, official speeches could commence. The ceremony opened with His Excellency, Ambassador Chum Sounry, welcoming one and all and expressing his great pleasure that these priceless artifacts and human remains were rescued in time, and with the full cooperation of Cambodian and Australian authorities. Other delegates spoke on behalf of the Australian government, stressing the fact that the fortunate chance confiscation of this material merely enforced the need for constant vigilance by all involved, and the need for continued cooperation between legal and archaeological professionals to combat the trade. Finally, Dr. O’Reilly spoke, reminding all present that what was being returned was only the tip of the iceberg, and that the more looting and illicit dealing is allowed to continue, the less we can know about humanity’s collective past. With the speeches over, free discussion and casual viewing of the artifacts was allowed until the ceremony concluded approximately two hours later.

Although these specific artifacts will now be promptly returned to Cambodia, most likely (in my opinion) to be stored or displayed at the National Museum, perhaps the most lasting effect of this case in regards to Australian law is that these artifacts and remains now serve as a ‘case study’ within a new Australian government promotional campaign targeting collectors, dealers and importers. With the slogan “Make Sure It’s Above Board,” its goal is to highlight all relevant laws separating licit from illicit antiquities trading in Australia, with relevant examples of confiscations and repatriations made when these laws were violated. Distributed in poster, brochure, and online PDF formats to all port authorities, art dealers/associations (such as AA&ADA), and Customs itself, this program shows real promise in proactively curtailing demand by hopefully getting people to think twice about what they try to import, sell, or buy. To my knowledge, this represents one of the few such programs anywhere in the world. Although undoubtedly looting across the Asia-Pacific region will continue, every such action is another strike against the trade. I, and all involved, remain exceedingly pleased to have assisted in this effort, especially given its rarity and its positive outcome.

Justice Served: The Case of Recapture Wash

Another case of vandalism and archaeological damage out of the Southwestern United States has come to my attention. An opinion piece in the Salt Lake Tribune written by one Andrew Gulliford, a professor of Southwest Studies and History at Fort Lewis College, Durango, Colorado, and a concerned citizen of San Juan County itself, explains the situation and local reactions. Two men from Blanding, Utah (the epicenter of a multi-year, and ongoing, Native American mortuary artifact looting and selling investigation) were arrested in 2007, and this month finally fined $35,000, for building an illegal ATV (all terrain vehicle) trail through Recapture Draw, San Juan County. For nothing more than a new track to race their vehicles, these two individuals chopped down numerous old juniper trees and wantonly displaced or knocked over several sections of Ancestral Puebloan (‘Anasazi’) room blocks, causing an estimated $100,000 in repair costs. No permits, no consultation with local BLM (bureau of land management) authorities, etc. etc.

Sadly, the author also notes how a local environmental defense group, the wonderfully named “Great Old Broads for Wilderness,” has received ‘death threats’ in the form of fake “wanted posters” being placed over the ‘trail closure’ signs the BLM installed in 2007 to prevent visitors from mistakenly using the vandalized area as a legitimate trail (see photo above left). Dr. Gulliford rightly vents his frustration at this, and shares his concern that this vandalism is just another sign that local residents and authorities have not given enough consideration to how to sustainably enjoy remote Southwest areas like this without causing unnecessary archaeological damage or furthering looting. In light of the several cases of rock art vandalism already covered in the press (and discussed on SAFE here, here, and here), I take this case to be just another sign that much more public education is needed to make sure the Southwest’s archaeological heritage (above and below ground) survives, especially as these tough economic times have greatly reduced the number of guards/archaeological monitors available, and some locals grow increasingly bored or desperate for money…the universal ‘catalyst’ that fuels the antiquities trade. Hopefully the damage can be repaired, and Dr. Gulliford’s call for turning the area into a National Monument will eventually be taken seriously.

Rock Art Vandalism…Again!

Another incidence of rock art vandalism has been recorded in Arizona, this time at the Glen Canyon Dam, where the “Descending Sheep” rock art panel was damaged. An example of similar rock art can be seen at left (from http://www.travelpod.com/). A National Park Service employee reported that someone has scratched their name, “Trent,” onto the surface of the panel during a recent fishing trip he (the vandal) attended. Fortunately, the Park Service employee had stopped by to visit and document the rock art not 1 hr prior to the vandalism, so the passengers on the fishing trip were quickly located and one Trenton Gainey was pointed out and arrested. As this attack was just a quick scratching, it should be easy(er) to repair than intensive paint graffiti, although it will still cost the perpetrator $10,000 towards the repair effort, as it should! He will be sentenced on the 14th March. Constant vigilance!

Rock Art Vandal Caught

Just in time for the holiday season, I can report that it appears the individual behind the recent graffitti vandalism of rock art panels within Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, east of Las Vegas, has been apprehended. According to another article from the Las Vegas Sun (brought to my attention by Paul Barford), the chief suspect is a 17 year old member of the “Nasty Habits Crew” gang of graffitti vandals, with the local moniker of “Pee Wee,” said Detective Scott Black, of the gang crimes bureau. Police were able to connect the various symbols and insignia used in the rock art grafitti to other known, less ‘high-profile,’ urban cases for which Nasty Habits Crew has been held resposible for, and the suspect himself had apparently gone into hiding once word spread that he was wanted.

He has been charged with “placing grafitti with a gang enhancement,” a crime carrying a five year jail sentance and $100,000 fine. Apparently, Nevada law allows for arrest of individual grafitti vandals if they can be linked to a “pattern of crime” over time, as seems to be the case for “Pee Wee.” Authorities were still trying to determine the true extent of the damage in monetary and labour terms as clean-up begins, and the local authorities are redoubling their public outreach efforts, as well as encouraging visitors to report suspicious activity as soon as they see it. Numerous offers of assistance from an outraged public are also pouring in. Let’s hope that these efforts are deterent enough to prevent further tragedies such as this.

Update: A news story brought to my attention via the Museum Security listserv has indicated that another rock art vandal has struck, this time covering a petroglyph panel in Agua Fria National Monument (near Cordes Junction, Arizona) with white paint and obscenities! Apparently, it would’ve taken conserted hiking/climbing to reach these particular panels, and authorities think vandals visited twice (July and November) to plan their attack. The panel belongs the the still-enigmatic “Perry Mesa Tradition” of stylized petroglyphs, with dates c. 2,000BP; one of 400-450 archaeological sites known within Agua Fria. Once again, a $2,500 reward is being offered, and the same law as in the Nevada case applies if a perpetrator is ever caught.

Vegas Vandalism

In light of the ongoing Blanding, Utah looting trials and the archaeological damage detection classes offered by ADIA discussed in my last post, I wanted to share two links that serve as an example of one kind of archaeological crime frequently encountered in the western US. Both of these related stories (here and here) were first aired by Las Vegas area newspapers and local television news stations, but brought to my attention through Southwest Archaeology Today, an online weekly newsletter put out by the Centre for Desert Archaeology in Tucson, Arizona.

The stories consern the recent spray-paint grafitti vandalism of an important c. AD 1,000 ‘Virgin Anasazi’ or Paiute affiliated petroglyph site, located on the inner wall of a rock shelter (cave) in the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation area, within the Willow Springs/Lost Creek sector, 17 miles east of the Vegas strip (see photo above, courtesy of “Friends of Red Rock Canyon”). Estimates of damage repair stand at $10,000 dollars at least (if it’s even possible to remove the thick red and maroon paint without chemically corroding the glyphs). A $2,500 reward for information is being offered, and numerous tips have already come in to local police and Bureau of Land Management officials, but I’m sure they’ll have difficulty confirming the truth of any leads in this case. A $100,000 fine and five years in jail is the likely penalty if perpetrators are brought to justice, but as with most archaeologically rich areas of the US/world these days, monitors on the ground to detect vandalism or looting in the act are still scarse. Thankfully, the hundreds-strong “Friends of Red Rock Canyon” organization, local Native American organizations, and the Sloan Field office of the BLM itself are committed to better monitoring and as much restoration as possible. Only time will tell whether or not this site can be salvaged.