SAFE is grateful to Marni Walter for sharing this reflection with us in observance of the 2013 Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage.
During the early years of the new millennium, the scope of antiquities looting and destruction of cultural heritage seemed to drastically expand. To all the archaeological damage done for profit to feed the demands of various art markets, we were forced to add incalculable threats from political unrest and wartime conflict.
At that time I was working as an editor at the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) for the American Journal of Archaeology, while also enrolled as a graduate student in archaeology at Boston University. In heritage management courses, we would compile statistics on the unprovenanced antiquities (most of them!) in the high-end auction catalogs, scrutinize the collections of prominent collectors, and report on the imbalances in wealth of the “source” countries versus the places of import. At the AIA, we debated about whether we should continue to publish using the longstanding von Bothmer publication fund (as Dietrich von Bothmer, a former curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, became increasingly criticized for acquisitions, such as the Euphronios krater, in an earlier era of museum practices).
We were thrilled when a hefty manuscript by Christopher Chippendale and David Gill landed on the AJA editorial desks: this important and thorough study was published in July 2000 as “Material Consequences of Contemporary Classical Collecting” (AJA 104:463–511). In fact many excellent studies were published in the early 2000s onward that showed the cold hard numbers on archaeological losses. It has been gratifying to see the growth in academic attention to many aspects of cultural heritage protection, with entire conferences (like the subject of my last post) dedicated to the subject. Sharing research among specialists is vital to moving forward, but we also need to talk to everyone else, and gain the support of the widest possible range of people.
When in 2001 the Taliban destroyed the giant Buddha statues at Bamiyan and many others throughout Afghanistan, and in 2003 thieves looted and vandalized the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, the need for broad support (including military personnel among many others) was suddenly more obvious. These events were not at all accidental or collateral war damage, but deliberate actions of hostility. Of course war, and its spoils, have been around since antiquity itself, but now unprecedented levels of media attention followed. Ten years later the reports and the images from the ransacked museum are still vivid. Many people recognized—even in the midst of the human tragedies of war—the dramatic loss of knowledge and spirit of the “cradle of civilization,” and the senseless, destructive impulses that caused it.
As archaeologists, art historians, or other related scholars, we cannot dismiss the issues by saying “looting is not my specialty.” If we believe that our research is important enough or inspiring enough to do in the first place, then doing something about destruction of cultural heritage is simply a fundamental part of our work.
We are fortunate that SAFE was borne out of these circumstances, founded as a response to a dramatic event, but recognizing that the problems would require more ongoing and widespread attention. No single solution will stop or curb looting to any significant degree, but one common thread will help greatly: the public, anyone with any interest in archaeology, history, art history, cultural diversity, etc. So many people are just as fascinated, if not more so, after learning how we gleaned a whole story, an entire village or camp scenario, from mapping the locations of all the stone tools, or bits of ceramics, and whatever small puzzle pieces we found. Many of them will sympathize, and help, if they are aware of the issues.
As archaeologists, art historians, or other related scholars, we cannot dismiss the issues by saying “looting is not my specialty.” If we believe that our research is important enough or inspiring enough to do in the first place, then doing something about destruction of cultural heritage is simply a fundamental part of our work. It could be showing a community the importance of context for what local excavations revealed, or writing in support of a bilateral agreement, or contributing stories or research summaries to SAFE. Whether working on public awareness and action, legislative and policy changes, improved security, or research on causes and effects, SAFE, for ten years running, is an ideal venue to bring all these approaches together.
We can hope that all our efforts will add up to a broad change of public attitude. Convince the next generation of would-be collectors that it’s so old school to hoard priceless artifacts in their houses as knick-knacks on the mantle. Modern “collectors” would rather support an excavation and its related museum displays or public programs. These collectors will find it so much more satisfying to potentially have an excavation or museum display in their name, along with all the information and discoveries that were revealed from it. Future vandals will know that plundering their country’s museums will only rob themselves and their own people of a collective source of wealth. It’s an ideal world, but one worth working toward.
Ultimately, it’s not about saving every individual artifact on the planet. It’s about cultures of all varieties and sizes flourishing and retaining their uniqueness, the pieces that tell their story. It’s about respecting cultures and environments that are not our own, and, to paraphrase SAFE founder Cindy Ho, choosing to live in a world with a rich cultural heritage.
Photo: “The opposite of looters’ pits. Scientific excavation is key to a wealth of information about the past,” by Marni Walter