Marni Walter

About Marni Walter

Marni Blake Walter is a consulting archaeologist (RPA) and editor based in the northeastern United States. She holds an M.A. and Ph.D. from Boston University in archaeology, specializing in heritage management. Her dissertation focused on the UNESCO World Heritage Convention and the conflicts between international and local demands placed on archaeological World Heritage sites. She earned a B.A. in professional writing from Carnegie Mellon University, and has served as the editor of the American Journal of Archaeology and Journal Fellow of the Journal of Field Archaeology. Her research interests include archaeology and heritage management in New England and the Mid Atlantic regions, the Indus Valley civilization in South Asia, and site preservation and protection, including SAFE's mission of public outreach.

Looting is everyone’s concern

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).

Marni Walter at prehistoric site The author recording excavation details at a prehistoric site in New Hampshire, U.S.A.

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

A view from “The Past For Sale?: The Economic Entanglements of Cultural Heritage”

For three days in May 2013, a diverse group of urban planners, economists, anthropologists, and others joined together to discuss matters of economics and cultural heritage—its market value(s) and their social implications. The University of Massachusetts Amherst Center for Heritage and Society hosted the conference “The Past For Sale? The Economic Entanglements of Cultural Heritage” on 15–17 May 2013. This event is especially meaningful at the 10th anniversary of the looting of the Iraq Museum and the founding of SAFE. The following summary focuses on topics most related to SAFE and is based on my own observations and those papers that I was able to attend.

One of the three major themes of the conference, aligning exactly with SAFE’s purpose and mission, was “Archaeological Looting, the Antiquities Market, and Its Costs.” At least four sessions and one of the plenary addresses, Neil Brodie’s “The Antiquities Market: It’s All In a Price,” were directly related to this theme. Numerous papers in the other two themes—“Tourism” and “Urban Revitalization”—touched on issues of looting or antiquities markets. Across these broad themes, presenters tackled many SAFE-related issues, including looters and market sources, regulations and policy development, and analyses of specific antiquities markets.

Neil Brodie at UMass Amherst Neil Brodie delivers a plenary address on the antiquities market at UMass Amherst
Marni Walter

Several papers aimed to shed light on the “looters” or market sources. Cristiana Panella of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Belgium, described the social organization of digging in Mali within a larger economic system. Farmer/diggers participate in a diverse set of cash activities involving cotton farming, clandestine digging, and other contraband, yet their situation is more nuanced than the stereotypes promoted by media and Mali elite. Similarly, Peri Johnson working in the Ottoman lands of Turkey examined the interrelations of archaeologists and both small- and large-scale looters. While small-scale looters are often local (and disenfranchised) people, outsiders do most of the large-scale looting, further cutting off the local inhabitants from their own lands and resources. One contribution to the poster session addressed similar issues: Giacomo M. Tabita analyzed “the criminal phenomenon of ‘Archaeo-Mafia’ and its social costs on the local communities in Italy.” These are just a few examples of the many groups around the world who find themselves disenfranchised from and/or compelled to exploit any number of resources in their own region.

Other presenters work toward reducing damages to sites and cultural materials through site management practices, including controlling tourists’ means of access. One example was the use of digital technologies at Jetavana Monastery presented by Ashley de Vos. Here, a comprehensive research program informed a virtual reality site animation program, which is used in locations throughout the site to add to the visitors’ experience in places that are closed for protection.

Another example, and one that crosscuts several major issues, is Nelly Robles Garcia and Jack Corbett’s presentation on Oaxaca, Mexico and the major archaeology work in the community of Santa Maria Atzompa, on the outskirts of the Monte Albán World Heritage site. The site was faced with encroachment, commercial exploitation, and other threats, as many groups of stakeholders battled for access to various resources. Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) developed frameworks for the competing interests, while also limiting threats to Monte Albán. One result of the work is the success story of the creation and recent opening of the new Community Museum, which brings economic and cultural benefits to the people of Santa Maria Atzompa while also giving them new incentives to help care for the Monte Albán protected zone.

{caption}Donna Yates compares regulations of fossil and archaeological materials during "The Past For Sale?"{/caption}{credit}Marni Walter{/credit}Presenters also gave a lot of attention to the regulations and policies that govern antiquities and treatment of heritage resources. Donna Yates and Ross A. Elgin compared and analyzed the regulation (and commercialization) of palaeontological and archaeological materials, pondering whether or not it is advantageous to lump these two types of remains, natural and cultural, together for purposes of regulation. Questions of management and treatment of natural and cultural heritage also come up frequently in discussions about UNESCO World Heritage sites, so analyses of the similar and different needs of these two types of heritage (often combined) are very pertinent to many of the issues addressed in this conference, including heritage markets. Lawrence Rothfield looked “Beyond the antiquities market” in analyzing the economics of looting and looting prevention, arguing that we must pay attention to external market factors to seek policy solutions that make the antiquities market pay for the costs its activities impose. Senta German and Fiona Rose-Greenland discussed the concept of WikiLoot, assessing the pros and cons of this crowdsourcing model in the regulation of the antiquities market.

In the session on Markets in Cultural Heritage Objects, each paper focused on a particular set (or market) of historical or archaeological materials. Presentations featured the markets for World War II artifacts, mosaics from Turkey, the high-end auction market for Pre-Columbian antiquities, and early Bronze Age pots from the Dead Sea plain in Jordan. The session also included a philosophical discussion about the moral limits of markets, and similarities of some cultural heritage markets with “noxious” markets. These papers each drew attention to the variety of ways in which cultural materials are exchanged, whether illegally or legally.

Many World War II artifacts are bought and sold at large conventions, where story-telling and deal-making abound, but facts and documentation are often scarce. The convention-goers do not appear to mind that situation now, but with fewer war veterans among us to tell the stories, both the historical and commercial value of these artifacts will rise. I’ll bet that future generations will feel a pang of regret for the casual attitude toward documentation. Scarcity of documentation also remains an issue in high-end antiquities auctions, where “provenance” or “place of origin” is (with sometimes curiously high frequency) stated as a country with which the United States does not have a Memorandum of Understanding. This point appeared to be demonstrated with data from high-end auctions of Pre-Columbian antiquities from 2000–2010 in a paper by Sasha Renninger, Brian Daniels, and Richard Leventhal.

Morag Kersel, in her discussion about antiquities from Jordan, showed two different sides of markets in Bronze Age pots. New marketing approaches and a legal antiquities market in Israel coincide with rampant looting at some Holy Land sites. But we also saw a positive example of a sale by the Department of Antiquities of Jordan of assemblages of Bronze Age pots to various educational institutions. The sales included certain requirements for proper display and treatment of the complete assemblages. Following these arrangements, the institutions have since maintained longstanding support of excavations in Jordan.

Neil Brodie at UMass Amherst
Marni Walter

SAFE Beacon Award winner Neil Brodie covered many aspects of the high-end antiquities markets in his plenary address titled “The Antiquities Market: It’s All In a Price.” At the outset, he called the antiquities market a “gray” market: one in which the illicit and licit sales often are commingled, and an item’s legal status depends on its documentation and source country, rather than on the object itself. This situation is a source of many of the problems involved in this market. Law enforcement officers have a very difficult job in determining whether an item is being illicitly transported or purchased. The same can be true for dealers, buyers, and others involved (often to their advantage).

This murkiness in the market, especially for the purposes of high-end auction houses and museums, centers on the concept of provenance. Buying on financial speculation can be risky, and if export documents are shown to be fake (as in the well known case of the Sevso Treasure), the items become unsaleable. Similarly, many museums have had to repatriate antiquities proven to have been stolen and/or illegally exported from the country of origin.

If an item has a clear, solid provenance, it usually fetches a higher price at auction. If “experts” have evaluated or studied the item, providing identification, attributions, or “authentication” (adding embedded “cultural capital” as Brodie describes), this can also raise the monetary value. To me as an archaeologist, this situation seems backward. Why do the actors in this part of the “gray” market rip items out of the ground, then work hard after the fact to fabricate a phony provenance and uncertain attributions? If their antiquities came from archaeological excavations through legal means, they’d not only have a clear “provenance,” but thorough archaeological context, knowledge about the artifact’s place in its ancient society, and overall a much more interesting story to tell. (An example of this type of approach was seen in Morag Kersel’s paper, mentioned above.) Wouldn’t that increase its value more than an insincere “guarantee of authenticity”?

The problems with this gray market continue when we consider additional dilemmas: are scholars encouraging shady market practices when they research or publish about antiquities in the gray market? Or worse, if they use items for research that were stolen during military conflicts (such as from Iraq or Syria), are they somehow contributing to insurgencies or more traditional “black” markets? When buying antiquities, are museum curators consulting their network of suppliers, or are they indulging in conspiracy?

Such questions have vexed the antiquities markets for decades or longer, and Neil Brodie’s address was not intended to answer all of them—but his research and the work of many others in the field continues to shed light on the complex antiquities gray market. Responding to a question from the audience, Brodie said (probably correctly) that individual or small-scale looting, such as individual tourists buying a couple looted artifacts for souvenirs, likely does not add up to much of the overall illicit antiquities market. I suspect that is true, but one small archaeological site destroyed by looting might have been a large portion of one community’s archaeological heritage. And that in my opinion is a very high cost.

It is hoped that the combined research efforts of those working in economics, tourism, heritage management, and related fields, might help to develop new practices resulting in favorable economic development alongside responsible treatment of cultural heritage resources of all types.

Good Guy or Bad Guy?

A European art and antiquities collector recently opened a museum of his collection in France. His action to share the collection with the public is perhaps more admirable than hoarding it all in a private home. But it is the “compulsive collecting” in the first place that causes so many problems, and this article in particular glorifies his “philanthropy” while neglecting any realities about how these antiquities were brought to the market and acquired.

Vanishing rupees for museums, yet another side of war and heritage

After last week’s International Museum Day, I happened to see an article on the need for expanded media attention to promote museums in Pakistan (seen at http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/indepth/2010-05/19/c_13303427.htm). These are not places that suffered dramatic looting and destruction such as the headline grabbing ransacking of the National Museum of Iraq in 2003. Instead, the article draws attention to an understated but intractable plight of museums and heritage sites in areas of military conflict or instability: with far fewer tourists visiting, often a cycle of sharp decline begins. Tourists’ spending plummets, creating an obvious problem for funding and upkeep of museums and sites (including necessary security and maintenance). Further, the lack of visitation means that people will have less knowledge of and concern for the museum or site, and might then be less likely to support it in the future. Reduced security and public involvement can then leave the museum or site more vulnerable to deterioration and vandalism. While humanitarian and safety concerns remain at the forefront, maybe we with greater media access can help to slow down this process—before it becomes too late—by fostering virtual awareness and visitation in cases where sites are rendered inaccessible from conflict or other disaster.

For information on some of the places mentioned in the article above, visit
whc.unesco.org/en/statesparties/pk, www.harappa.com, www.moenjodaro.org