About Larry Rothfield

Lawrence Rothfield's research focuses broadly on the politics and sociology of culture, and in particular on cultural policy. The founding faculty director of the University of Chicago's Cultural Policy Center, he has written or edited volumes on topics ranging from censorship and public funding of museums (Unsettling "Sensation": Arts Policy Lessons from the Brooklyn Museum of Art Controversy), to state–level humanities policy, to the impact of cultural "scenes" on regional urban development. His recent work has concentrated on illicit antiquities and the problem of protecting archaeological sites and museums from looting. Publications on that topic include an edited volume, Antiquities Under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection after the Iraq War, and a book on the disastrous failure to secure Iraq's sites and museums from looting in the wake of the 2003 US invasion, The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum. He is currently working on a book about the illicit antiquities market, and a separate project on the origins of modern cultural policy in Renaissance Florence.

"We have to support better policing of the sites", says the new Getty Museum Director. What does he have in mind?

Lee Rosenbaum has a disturbingly revealing Q and A with Timothy Potts on the new Getty Museum director’s views on antiquities collecting policy. I happen to agree with Potts that even with the 1970 rule now being adhered to by American museums, “there is still a huge amount of ongoing looting and this issue is not being addressed.” I also agree that

The only way to address it is on the ground in the source countries. We have to support better policing of the sites, better understanding by the local communities of the importance of the archaeological heritage, particularly to them. And it’s only through these programs that we’re really going to tackle the core problem, which is the illicit excavation that’s still going on and the huge urban projects, dam building, and so on.

But what would it mean to “support better policing of the sites”?

(For the full post, go to The Punching Bag.)

"We had no idea it was a library"

The CNN story on the burning of the library in Egypt contains a telling vignette:

At least one demonstrator was unaware that the structure was a library containing historical documents.
“We had no idea it was a library. We love our country. Why were the military thugs on the rooftop of the building in the first place, throwing debris and rocks at us? They destroyed it, not us, and now they will use it to turn public opinion against us and label us thugs,” said Ahmed Ali, a student and activist involved in the clashes.

“Since when are buildings or manuscripts more important than the lives of humans?” he added.

The demonstrator’s comments hold several lessons one hopes will be learned by heritage protection advocates…

(For more, go to The Punching Bag)

After Iraq National Archives, after Baghdad Museum, after Cairo Museum, Why Was Egypt’s Library Not Secured?

The burning of the Egyptian Scientific Institute in the midst of the chaos in Cairo is a cultural disaster on a par with the worst acts of destruction of heritage in recent years, arguably worse than the losses to the Iraq Museum (since stolen artifacts can still be recovered, whereas the burned original manuscripts are gone forever). Whether the fire was started by a Molotov cocktail or, as some have asserted, was set by the soldiers inside the building, is not yet clear, and may never become clear. What is clear, however, is that the burning of this library reflects yet another abject failure of heritage policy to protect heritage when it is most at risk.

It is not as if this eventuality was unpredictable. After the Cairo Museum was robbed in the midst of similar chaos last January, the Egyptian government, and the military leaders who run the country, should have been able to work with international heritage protection agencies and organizations such as UNESCO, the Blue Shield, and others — including the many, many Egyptian citizens who care deeply about their heritage (and showed it by joining hands to cordon off the Cairo Museum in January) — to put in place contingency plans to keep cultural institutions secure during periods of unrest. Last but not least, the US government, which subsidizes Egypt’s military to the tune of billions, ought to have demanded the Egyptians secure their cultural institutions and sites as a condition of aid. But of course, since we have no carabinieri-like forces ourselves to do this sort of thing, and little interest ourselves in securing cultural sites apart from major tourist attractions such as the Baghdad Museum or Babylon, chances are that no one from the Pentagon was even thinking about the problem, even after the looting of the Cairo Museum.

That was in January. Did the fate of the Cairo Museum provide a wakeup call that site security needed to be an urgent policy priority? It was not until mid-October, after months of bureaucratic chaos, that the government announced it had set up a committee to develop security plans, so the answer is most likely no. Nor did any citizens’ groups evolve out of the noble ad hoc handholding at the museum.

The result? If this CNN report is accurate, the military did not set up a perimeter around the building. Instead, a small number of soldiers stood on the building’s roof and goaded the protestors:

The library was a scene of intense confrontation Saturday.

A dozen men dressed in military uniform were positioned on the library roof and threw cement blocks and rocks on the protesters and sprayed them with water hoses to push them away from the building.

But protesters hurled back rocks as well as Molotov cocktails. Then a massive explosion erupted, apparently originating from inside the building, and black smoke billowed.

Firefighters were busy putting out another fire in a nearby building.

Protesters were bleeding from rocks thrown at them.

What is to be done going forward, beyond the important immediate task of salvaging the remnants of the library?

First, the courage, energy, and passion that Egyptian citizens have shown in responding to the disasters at the museum and now at the library needs to be channeled into civic organizations that can be mobilized proactively next time around.

Second, UNESCO needs to either shift resources from conservation and development or supplement them with additional funding focused on securing cultural sites during periods of political unrest.

Third, the United States needs to exercise some leadership and influence, where it has leverage or ties with militaries in countries undergoing transitions or crises, to induce them to do the right thing.

Fourth, NGOs and foundations that support cultural heritage conservation need to begin thinking about how they can work directly with nascent heritage site protection NGOs in-country.

Brookings Fellow on Libyan Heritage Policy Overlooks the Biggest Threat Ahead: Antiquities Looting

William Y. Brown, a nonresident Brookings Institution Senior Fellow who is former Science Advisor to the U.S. Interior Secretary and President of the Bishop Museum, the Academy of Natural Sciences, and Woods Hole Research Center,weighs in with a number of policy suggestions for how to make the best use of Libya’s heritage in the post-Ghaddafi era. Among other ideas, Brown urges Libya to follow the example set by developed nations and

earmark funding for museums and land preservation efforts with fees on income or activities. For example, the Land and Water Conservation Fund in the United States was established for acquisition of important public lands and is funded by companies engaged in offshore oil and gas activity. Libya might consider such a heritage fee levied on its own oil and gas production.

 Given that oil and gas are where the money is,such a fee would make good sense, though it has to be pointed out that the economic logic taxing the users of land and water (the offshore oil and gas companies) to pay for conserving land and water does not translate to users of oil and gas resources paying for conserving heritage. The exploiters of heritage are those who would profit from heritage tourism, and those who profit from selling antiquities. Logic would dictate taxing both those markets,if it could be done. But the heritage tourism market is not yet developed, and while Brown is eager to see it developed because it has the potential to make a lot of money, he shows no interest in harnessing the economic power of that market to pay for heritage protection more generally. And the antiquities market, of course, is not located in Libya, so Libyans would have no way to tax it.

Speaking of the antiquities market: one of the striking features of Brown’s argument is that it almost completely ignores the biggest threat to Libya’s heritage going forward: market-driven looting of archaeological sites. Brown himself notes that the Benghazi and Apollonia Museums were looted during the uprising, but beyond calling vaguely for immediate action to provide physical security for movable objects and to recover items recently stolen, he sloughs off the issue: “Mostly, however, the problem is a lack of planning, funding and management that preceded and is unrelated to the Arab Spring.”

That is very myopic. Libya did not suffer from large-scale looting of its archaeological heritage before the revolution, but it is likely to come under attack by looters in the months and years ahead. As we know from a multitude of examples, any country possessing large stocks of unexcavated sites holding antiquities for which collectors are eager to pay millions is going to be attractive looters. Where the policing power of the state is strong, looters will be deterred, but when authoritarian or totalitarian regimes fall or even weaken, black markets will flourish. As Donald Rumsfeld put it, shrugging his shoulders at the looting that erupted in the wake of the toppling of Saddam, “freedom is untidy”. Public education campaigns — may do something to keep at least some citizens from turning to looting, but there is no substitute for a robust policing capacity.

It would be helpful if development specialists at Brookings and elsewhere paid at least some policy attention to how best to plan, fund and manage the physical security of archaeological sites, rather than ignoring the problem.

Iraq- National Museum of Iraq preparing for re-opening

Iraq- National Museum of Iraq preparing for re-opening

Heartening news from Iraq: the Iraq National Museum is reopening, for real this time it seems (after pseudo-openings for Paul Bremer in July 2003, and for Ahmed Chalabi in 2008 or 2009, among others).

Tunisia protects ancient treasures (Magharebia.com)

More information on how the kleptocratic ruling family of Tunisia before the revolution looted the country’s museum for artifacts to use as kitchen tables and columns around the swimming pool: , Tunisia protects ancient treasures (Magharebia.com)

Nat Geo Plans Weeklong Special on Egypt

The National Geographic Channel is capitalizing on the interest in things Egyptian with a weeklong special:

(Nat Geo Plans Weeklong Special on Egypt: “With events in Egypt making headlines, National Geographic Channel is plann…”
Given that Zahi Hawass has been starring in shows as an “explorer-in-residence” for National Geographic, they will certainly have major access. We’ll have to wait and see whether the questions they ask are going to be softballs or real journalistic attempts to clarify exactly what happened at the museum that led to its being breached, along with several other incidents of looting. The record is very murky, in no small part because of Hawass’ own public-relations efforts at damage control in the immediate aftermath of the break-in, and it would be good to know what security plans existed, whether they included contingency plans that took account of the possibility of a breakdown in civil order caused by a deliberate removal of police, how many antiquities police were actually at the museum on the day of the break-in, and other questions of policy.

Should museums sell objects to cover operating costs? An additional choice

The choices offered as possible answers to the SAFE poll question, “Should museums sell objects to cover operating costs?” are “Yes,” “It doesn’t matter to me,” “Museums should sell objects for acquisitions only,” and “Only if there is a publicly disclosed policy.” These choices reflect the general perception of what the options are for museums. But there is another option that should be on the table: “Yes, but only if the objects are sold to another museum, or at least offered up for auction to museums.” Whether a museum engages in deaccessioning to raise operating cash or cash for acquisitions, the real issue is whether or not the public is going to lose access to an artwork worthy of remaining in a museum. Of course, residents of Buffalo may no longer be able to see Artemis and the Stag without traveling to New York, but the opposite was true beforehand, and the general public has not been impoverished. 

Bush’s ghostwriters on the looting of the Iraq National Museum

George W. Bush’s utterly mendacious ghostwritten memoir contains only one mention of the looting of the Iraq National Museum. It comes in the context of a rare admission that “there was one important contingency for which we had not adequately prepared”….

For full post, go to The Punching Bag.

New Ambassador to Iraq Confirmed — No Help for Iraq’s Endangered Archaeological Sites Likely

The Senate has just confirmed James Jeffrey as the new ambassador to Iraq. As part of the confirmation process, Jeffrey was posed a few questions in writing about the State Department’s policies regarding the protection of archaeological sites…

To read the full post, go to The Punching Bag.

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

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

(post continues at The Punching Bag)

"Orphan" Antiquities Study

The Cultural Policy Research Institute, a think tank formed last year “to build a viable legal framework for the protection of world historical remains”, has issued its first research study. It focuses on “orphan” artifacts: archaeological material or ancient art in private hands that the AAMD’s recently-adopted guidelines exclude from being acquired by Member museums because these artifacts lack clear provenance showing they were outside their country of probable modern discovery before 1970 (or were exported legally after 1970). This first pilot study limited itself to Greek, Roman, and associated material, coins excluded, with a value of $1000 or more. CPRI researchers — unnamed in the report — interviewed museum staffers, major US dealers, private collectors, and scholars. The interviewing methodology is not described, and sources remain anonymous, so there is no way to evaluate the accuracy of the results. We have no way of knowing how those interviewed determined that provenances were inadequate, but it seems obvious that dealers and collectors have a vested interest in exaggerating the number, so these figures need to be taken with a big grain of salt.

The study estimates that 67,500-111,900 classical artifacts with inadequate provenance are being held by collectors or dealers. It would be very interesting to know what percentage is in the hands of dealers rather than collectors, and even more interesting to know how many total artifacts, well-provenanced as well as “orphaned”, worth $1000 or more are now in private hands. One thing at least is deducible: the market for only inadequately provenanced Roman/Greek/related antiquities involves capital to the tune of at least $67,500,000-111,900,000 (since all the artifacts reported are supposedly worth at least $1000 each).

The CPRI could do a major service to all students of the antiquities markets if it could ascertain how many of these “orphans” change hands annually, at what prices, and in what country.

But the aim of the CPRI is not to throw light on the operations of the antiquities market. Rather, it is to call attention to the existence of these objects, which supposedly are endangered by being held in private hands:

objects excluded from acquisition by Member museums cannot have the benefit of professional museum exhibition, publication, or conservation.Such objects can have no permanent parentage or protection (many run the risk, over time, of deterioration, damage or destruction).

The problem with this line of argument is that even if the objects in question were not excluded from acquisition most of them would not be acquired. And the notion that dealers and collectors would be negligent towards objects worth thousands of dollars seems very questionable.

The hope seems to be to persuade AAMD to rescind its guidelines. But those guidelines were created in response to a recognition that the antiquities market is being fed by looters. One has no way of knowing how many of the 67,500 “orphaned” artifacts were orphaned from their contexts by Bulgarian, Cypriot, or Turkish looters, but we do know that site looting of these countries’ Greek and Roman sites is ongoing.

That does not mean that the guidelines in themselves will have much if any effect on this ongoing looting, at least not in the short run. The market will continue to function, and “orphaned” antiquities will continue to flow into it. But at least the guidelines lay down a challenge to dealers and collectors: figure out some way for your industry to play a progressive role in reducing looting and clean up its act by establishing a strictly licit market. Come up with a plan like that and maybe bringing in the orphans can be part of the final deal.



Iraq Museum Damaged Again

From Lamia al-Gailani Wehr, via the Iraqcrisis listhost:

SBAH and the Iraq Museum were victims to the bombing of the Foreign Ministry last week. Many of the glass windows were broken, part of the roof of the children’s nursery collapsed, fortunately there was no fatality, just bruises and minor injuries. One of the accounts was at the Ministry of Finance when it was also bombed, he was injured and taken to hospital. I understand some of the exhibited antiquities in the the Museum were also damaged. I hope they have already been photographed.

Worrying issue, I heard that most of the staff ran away. Was there any emergency plan to deal with this kind of situation, such as the closure of all the doors, particularly the ones leading to the Museum and the storerooms? Apart from the police guards, is there a team whose duty to take charge whenever the Museum is under threat?

Prof. al-Gailaini Wehr raises a very important question, one that it is to be hoped will be asked as well by all those who wish to help the Iraqi government do what it can to secure the museum for a future that may well involve more bombings and even, god forbid, a breakdown of civil order on a much larger scale. Until now, the State Department has blithely pursued a Pollyannish policy that has ignored repeated warnings by archaeologists that it was too dangerous to reopen the museum. Instead of focusing on security for the museum (or archaeological sites for that matter), we have acceded to the Maliki government’s desires to use it for propaganda purposes as a symbol that things are returning to normal. As part of that fantasy, US money has been plowed into site assessments, sustainable tourism planning, and training for archaeologists — all good ideas but surely secondary in importance to the need for far better protection of Iraq’s cultural heritage against looting and bombing. If the report of damage to exhibited artifacts is true, our negligence has once again borne bitter fruit, albeit on a much smaller scale than the looting of the museum and archaeological sites in the 2003-2007 period.

Speaking recently about the State Department’s involvement in a site assessment of the ancient city of Ashur, a Public Diplomacy Officer remarked,

As the U.S. forces look toward our draw down out of the country, this is a great potential legacy that we can leave behind; showing that we took proper care of the ancient sites and history of the Iraqi people. When the security situation arrives at the point when there is an opportunity for wide-spread tourism, our good stewardship of these sites will pay off because we will have met the immediate needs to preserve these sites now.

The danger is that if we do not recognize that taking proper care means worrying about security first and foremost, the legacy that we leave behind will be of a country whose heritage remains inexcusably vulnerable.Let us hope that we learn from it and refocus our cultural policy in Iraq.

U.S. Military Paying More Attention to Cultural Property Protection

The assiduous Laurie Rush has been building support for cultural heritage protection methodically for several years now through the Department of Defense’s Defense Legacy Resource Management Program. Now these longterm efforts have led to the first-ever onsite cultural training program for U.S. military personnel in the Middle East. The U.S. Central Command had established a working group that succeeded in persuading Dr. Zahi Hawass and the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities to provide free access and a guide for the tour of the ancient pyramid complex of Saqqara.

The training aimed at heightening the awareness by military planners of the strategic importance of recognizing ancient remains in host nation landscapes, of the need to respect and avoid damage to sites and artifacts, and of the ways in which tourism to archaeological sites can yield economic benefits to local populations. Dr Joris Kila, who as a member of the Dutch military was one of the first civil-affairs officers to go into Iraq after the invasion, served as international advisor — a good sign in itself, since it indicates that the lesson has been learned from Iraq that other countries can and should provide cultural heritage protection expertise that the U.S. military lacks. Equally important, Kila and other trainers emphasized the importance of multinational involvement in cultural property protection efforts, given the sensitivity of host countries towards what is after all their own patrimony.

More trainings are planned for the future. And the Defese Department has also just held a conference on “Sustaining Military Readiness” that included a panel on Cultural Heritage Protection During Armed Conflict:


Looting at the Iraq National Museum brought the issue of cultural property protection onto the world stage. Three of the world’s most experienced cultural property experts will discuss the issue from the perspectives of the UK, Netherlands, and Austrian Ministries of Defense. Topics will include planning for conflict, the British Museum project in Basra, Dutch response to looting in Baghdad, and creation of an institute for research in Vienna to address these issues. Confirmed speakers include Karl Von Habsburg-Lothringen, Dr. Peter Stone and LTC Dr. Joris D. Kila.


All this is a big step forward. It is not clear from the information received so far whether this training can be easily translated into war zones like Afghanistan, or whether it includes practical advice on how the military might work jointly with host country antiquities officials or with locals to secure and protect sites. But it is still a very positive development.

Chronicle of Higher Education Q and A with Larry Rothfield


From the issue dated April 17, 2009
A Fragile History, Besieged
A post-mortem examination of the cultural disaster in Iraq

Six years ago this month, the National Museum of Iraq was extensively looted amid the chaos of the U.S. invasion of Baghdad. Among the stolen objects was the Mask of Warka, a 5,100-year-old Sumerian artifact that is believed to be one of the earliest surviving representations of a human face. The mask was found buried on an Iraqi farm five months later — but thousands of other precious objects were destroyed or disappeared into the black market.

“We do not know, and we may never know, a great many lessons about how human civilization first arose, because of this disaster,” says Lawrence Rothfield, an associate professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Chicago and a former director of the university’s Cultural Policy Center.

In his new book, The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum (University of Chicago Press), Rothfield examines the sacking of the museum and the “slow-motion disaster” of the looting of archaeological sites across Iraq since 2003.

Rothfield recently spoke with The Chronicle’s David Glenn. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.

Q. Why should the world care about Iraqi antiquities? Doesn’t this issue pale in comparison to the war’s political struggles and tens of thousands of deaths?

I hear that question sometimes: Why should we care? Why should we worry that all of this material is being brought onto the black market? After all, isn’t this making available to the rest of the world the beauty of all these objects that otherwise would not have been available for us to see?

One reason to worry is that this material is being ripped out of its context. The individual intact pieces that fall into the hands of collectors might be beautiful. But most of what we know about the origins of civilization has come from piecing together fragments and reconstructing contexts. The Epic of Gilgamesh was pieced together from fragments that looters today would have crushed underfoot.

Q. Before 2003 the National Museum of Iraq was regarded as one of the best in the region. Despite all of the cruelties and travails of Saddam Hussein’s regime, this institution thrived. Why was that?
Saddam thought of the Mesopotamian past as a propaganda tool — which meant that at least he cared enough about it to impose severe penalties on looters, and to spend the resources needed to support the work of the museum. And even before Saddam came to power, Iraq had some longstanding relationships with European and American archaeological institutions, including the Oriental Institute here at Chicago. So for decades, they had been training archaeologists to produce work that was of very high quality.

Q. Why did the United States do such a bad job of protecting the museum in 2003?
Before the war, nobody except archaeologists was worried about civilians looting the archaeological sites and the museum. And that includes the Iraqi exiles who were advising the State Department’s Future of Iraq Project, which was supposed to develop plans for the postwar period. They set up working groups on all sectors of society — but they forgot about culture.

Q. But would it have made a difference if the Future of Iraq Project had paid attention to culture?

No, it wouldn’t have made any difference at all, given that the military threw all of their plans in the garbage can anyway.

Now, the military itself was very interested in doing its job in terms of protecting cultural sites and museums. But under international law, its job is defined as not destroying or looting cultural sites itself — not as preventing civilians from destroying sites.

So before the war, they reached out to archaeologists, and they did a perfect job of identifying sites to put on a no-strike list. None of those sites was destroyed in active combat operations.

Unfortunately, they ignored warnings from the same archaeologists they were working with that the museums and sites might be looted by Iraqis. The Pentagon should have known about that issue. Nine museums were looted after the 1991 Gulf War. The military did not learn its lesson from that experience.

Q. There were reports last year that the military had asked archaeologists to develop a similar no-strike list for cultural sites in Iran. And some archaeologists have argued that it is unethical to cooperate with that project, because they say an American attack on Iran would be immoral. Have you been part of those debates?
My thought is that requiring the military to spend time and effort to protect cultural sites actually makes the cost of war higher for the military than it would otherwise be. So if you’re interested in doing what you can to discourage the U.S. from going to war, raising the cost of war is one way to do so.

There’s no contradiction between speaking out publicly against the war and making sure that the military protects cultural sites if it does go to war.

Q. Do you believe the American military has learned lessons since 2003?
It’s a mixed picture. The new Army Field Manual includes on its task list the imperative to secure and protect cultural sites and museums. That’s a huge step forward in itself. They’ve also been developing excellent cultural-awareness training programs to sensitize soldiers heading into war zones, working with the Archaeological Institute of America.

But there is also the separate question about what to do going forward in Iraq — and in Afghanistan, where matters are arguably even worse. There is still severe looting in both countries. The British recently returned several tons of Afghan antiquities that had been seized at London airports since 2003, just to give you some sense of the size of the problem.

The looting of the Iraq museum was terrible, but the amount of material lost from the slow looting of Iraq’s archaeological sites dwarfs the amount that was taken from the museum. Estimates are that roughly half a million pieces have been destroyed or taken from the ground since 2003.

Q. If you had half an hour to talk to people at the Pentagon or the State Department, what would you say?

Archaeologists have been asking for years now for the military to share satellite photographs of the Iraqi archaeological sites so that they could count the number of holes and track the rate of looting around the country. They’re still waiting.

I would also urge the Pentagon to form a task force to develop operational plans to inject resources into those areas where it’s possible to make a difference. In some cases that might mean providing cars, weapons, and walkie-talkies to the civilians who are supposed to be protecting sites.

And I would suggest a tax on all sales of antiquities from Iraq and Afghanistan. The proceeds could be used to help finance anti-looting efforts in those countries.

Q. At the end of your book, you wrote that you didn’t expect the Iraq museum to reopen “for years to come.” But in February, after your book went to press, a part of the museum reopened. Were you surprised?
Well, I was dismayed by it, as were [the museum’s former director] Donny George and a number of other Iraqi archaeologists. Conditions in Baghdad are still very fragile. And the museum is nowhere near ready to be open to the public, even if the situation weren’t so touchy. The recent reduction in violence is heartening, but it only brings us down to levels that are equivalent to other long-running civil wars.

David Glenn is a senior reporter at The Chronicle.


Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 55, Issue 32, Page B17

Iraq Welcoming Archaeological Tourism, As Sights Remain Unprotected

The Iraqi Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities continues its public-relations offensive with the announcement that Iraqi archaeologists have uncovered 4,000 Babylonian artifacts. The good news, dutifully splashed across the headlines by Reuters (“Iraqi Archaeologists unearth Babylonian Treasures”), is engineered to support the Ministry’s agenda, as the article notes:

Iraq, which lies in the heart of a region historians call the cradle of civilisation, is hoping a decrease in violence to levels not seen since late 2003 will encourage tourists to visit its ancient sites.

In late 2003, let us recall, looting of Iraq’s archaeological sites was going into overdrive, and there is some reason to believe that despite improvements in security the looting continues. That dark underside of this tourism marketing is missing from the headline, but shows up at the end of the article:

Qais Hussein Rasheed, acting head of the antiquities and heritage committee, told reporters Iraq still had a big problem with looters ransacking archaeological sites.

“These sites are vulnerable to endless robbery by thieves, smugglers and organised gangs because they are not protected,” he said. “We have asked the relevant ministries to allocate policemen but haven’t received very many so far.”

Tons of Looted Afghan Antiquities Heading Back– Why Now?

National Geographic has an interesting story about England’s return of literally tons of Afghan antiquities seized at Heathrow over the past six years since the destruction of the Taliban regime. Although the story notes that

Poor villagers lacking other sources of income use shovels and wheelbarrows to cart off precious objects from historic spots around the country, while criminal gangs smuggle the loot to Pakistan and onwards.

The Kabul government remains too cash-strapped, and too caught up fighting the Taliban-led insurgency, to do anything about it. (Afghanistan’s own Ministry of Culture was the target of a suicide bomb attack last October.) And despite efforts to raise awareness among Pakistani customs and law enforcement officials, the situation is no better across the border.

What is missing from the article is any indication of what, if anything, is being done by overstretched coalition forces to assist the Afghan government to protect some small fraction at least of its sites. Nor is there any indication whether the criminal gangs smuggling the loot to Pakistan might be linked to the Taliban, as Matthew Bogdanos has argued the antiquities smugglers in Iraq were also supplying insurgents there with weapons and even taxes on their revenues from antiquities sales.

Afghanistan offers an opportunity for all those who did far too little to protect Iraq’s sites — the military, the State Department, UNESCO, cultural heritage NGOs, collectors, dealers, and the museum community — to develop a coherent, focused, and cost-effective set of initiatives. Granted, the task in Afghanistan is more formidable than in Iraq, for a number of reasons: the sheer size of the country; its not having developed the kind of well established cultural heritage protection bureaucracy that Iraq had over many decades; the lack of pizzazz associated with fabled Biblical names like Babylon, to name just a few. But surely a task force given modest resources could come up with some measures that could make a real difference. Is anyone working on this problem?

More on Iraq’s Amnesty/Rewards Program for Turning In Looted Antiquities

Donny George has kindly clarified that the amnesty program is not new, but is mentioned in Iraq’s antiquities laws. Antiquities coming to the museum are brought before a special “Technical Committee” which decides on the amount to be awarded the person who brought them. The money comes from the annual budget of the SBAH, as a line item. Sometimes the funds are exhausted before year end, and more monies have been requested from the ministry of finance to support the program. In 2003-2004, for obvious reasons, it was difficult to get money for the program, but the SBAH kept records for every one that brought antiquities to the museum, and payments were eventually made.

Perhaps as useful as the artifacts themselves is the information that those returning items are supposed to provide the Committee regarding where and how they obtained the items to begin with. According to Donny George, such leads have in the past helped archaeologists locate hitherto unknown sites.

The problem with the turnover of materials by high-level officials, however, is that — if these officials are to be believed — they merely accepted antiquities from their constituents. If that is the case, and those constituents cannot be identified and brought before the Committee, then any chance of tracking antiquities back to their original sites is lost.

Iraq Appears to Have a Portable Antiquities Scheme of Its Own

According to a new report from Azzaman, Iraq has adopted a new law not only immunizing those who turn in looted antiquities but offering them compensation. It is not clear if there is any requirement to assist antiquities officials in locating the sites from which items may have been taken.

To read more, go to The Punching Bag.

State Department Admits No Mechanism Exists for Providing Ongoing Security for Sites or Museums, Defends Its Efforts

What has the State Department done to protect sites?

As readers of this blog already know, in October the State Department issued a fact sheet laying out its support of what was described as “numerous activities relating to the protection and preservation of Iraq’s cultural heritage”:

These include emergency response to the looting of the Iraq National Museum, training of Iraqi museum professionals, support for archaeological site protection, and instituting legal measures to mitigate illicit trafficking in Iraq’s looted cultural property. Since 2003, several million dollars have been applied to these needs resulting in professional and infrastructure improvements to the National Museum as well as other museums and institutions, and improved archaeological site security in Iraq.

As usual, the issue of site protection was lumped together with others, leaving it unclear how much money has been applied to supporting archaeological site protection, for what programs, protecting how many sites, with what results.

Addressing the problem? Not exactly.

In response to my request, Darlene Kirk, a spokesperson from the State Department’s Bureau of Cultural Affairs, has amplified on the fact sheet’s summary, and kindly permitted me to share this information with the public. Kirk admits that “the Department of State has no mechanisms at its disposal to provide ongoing security at archaeological sites and museums in Iraq,” but she goes on to argue that State “has taken steps to address the problem in a variety of ways…

• The Department of State is funding the newly announced Iraq Cultural Heritage Project (ICHP) and the development of a site management plan for Babylon. Together, these initiatives include programs that will focus on, inter alia, building Iraqi professional capacity for conservation, for preservation of sites including archaeological sites, and for museum governance and administration. It is expected that strengthening the ability of responsible entities within the Iraqi government and its citizens to serve as the responsible stewards of their rich heritage will have a positive impact on site and museum security on a sustainable basis.

• In April 2008, the Department of Homeland Security promulgated U.S. import restrictions on all Iraqi cultural property after a decision to do so was made by the Department of State acting under authority delegated by the President. This import restriction is in addition to the ongoing OFAC regulations banning importation of Iraqi cultural property since 1990.

• The Department of State supported two security assessments of the National Museum in Baghdad which resulted in $1 m. in contracts to implement security measures at the Museum.

• In 2004, in response to evidence of serious looting of archaeological sites in southern Iraq, the State Department used funds donated by the Packard Humanities Institute to purchase 20 trucks and communications equipment for site guards in Dhi, Qar, Diwanyah, and Babil provinces. It was determined that these guards needed such tools to monitor the sites and deter the pillage that was being carried out by very well equipped looters. These vehicles and equipment were given to the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH) which in turn issued them to the provinces for use by the site guards. According to SBAH officials in the affected provinces, this resulted in a substantial diminution of the looting in those provinces.

• U.S. personnel responsible for the Ministry of Culture during the period of the Coalition Provisional Authority until July 2004 worked closely with the SBAH and with the Department of State to build and train a Facilities Protection Service (FPS) Archaeological Site Protection Force devoted to site protection under the administration of SBAH.

• Throughout the past several years the Department has acted to address the problem of looting in other ways such as promoting coordination within the international law enforcement community and funding the development, publication and distribution of the Red List for Iraqi Antiquities at Risk which is produced by the International Council of Museums in Arabic, English and French. Now in its third printing, this publication helps raise awareness about the problem among law enforcement entities and would be collectors. The US Embassy in Baghdad recently distributed new copies of the Red List throughout the country and in particular at border crossings.

• The State Department has funded satellite imagery acquisition for large areas of Iraq to allow archaeolgists at SUNY Stony Brook to assess site looting. The Department has also funded training programs in satellite imagery analysis for Iraqi archaeologists.

• The State Department has recently allocated funding for meetings of a proposed Iraq archaeological site protection working group, to be composed of SBAH senior officials from Baghdad, and senior archaeologists and FPS commanders from governorates most affected by looting. The possibility of convening an international law enforcement working group on Iraqi cultural property is also under consideration. (Kirk added in a followup message that “$93,000 has been allocated for the site protection working group meetings. The budget for the international law enforcement working group on Iraqi cultural property has not yet been determined, as this meeting is in the early planning stages.”)

• In July 2008, State Department and US Embassy Baghdad personnel arranged a helicopter overflight of 40+ sites in Qadissiya, Dhi Qar, and Wasit governorates to assess current looting. The results of this mission are being analyzed and will be shared with SBAH authorities for followup. (Kirk later added that “the July 2008 overflight of 40+ sites was conducted by a pair of US military helicopters at the request of the US Embassy in Baghdad. The expert participants were the Cultural Heritage Liaison Officer of the US Embassy and the State Department Special Coordinator for Iraqi Cultural Heritage. The sites were extensively photographed from the air by both experts. The data are being analyzed by the expert participants.”)

This list says volumes about the failure of American policy to deal with the problem of site looting. Import restrictions, Red Lists, site management programs, and security efforts at the Iraq Museum do not secure archaeological sites. The funding for trucks by the Packard Foundation in 2004 was never supplemented by any governmental assistance, nor was any effort made to solicit additional support from other foundations. The FPS force was never given the funding and logistical support it needed, and I believe it has now been disbanded. The funding for satellite imagery was not for large areas of Iraq, but only for southern Iraq, and was provided only in part by the State Department; given that the US military certainly has time-series satellite images available for all sites, it remains puzzling why the State Department did not arrange for those images to be provided to archaeologists, rather than paying for a private company to provide images for only a fraction of sites (and not in a coherent time series even for those sites).

A hopeful development

Only the last two of these bullet points deal directly with contemporary site-protection efforts. Most welcome is the news that a working group on site protection has finally been proposed and allocated funding for meetings. It would have been even more welcome if the working group included some experts on securing and protecting sites (not archaeological sites but all kinds of sites) from the military or State Department.

Where’s the Report?

The final bullet point raises interesting questions of its own. A similar helicopter tour of eight sites was conducted in June 2008, leaked almost immediately, and published in mid-July. Why is it taking so long to release the findings from the helicopter overflight in July? Could it be because they would contradict the message that both the US and the Iraqi governments want to present, that the looting is over? One hopes not, and it is always possible that the “expert participants” (presumably John Russell and Diane Siebrandt, neither of whom to my knowledge is an expert at analyzing imagery though both are highly competent, dedicated, and indeed heroic individuals putting their lives on the line in Iraq) simply are better at keeping things under wraps than the British Museum, but the delay certainly raises suspicions.