Stand in solidarity with us all, who lost a piece of our own legacy with the destruction at the Mosul Museum. Light a candle for Iraq’s heritage, our heritage.
Category Archives: Commentary
I do not have many memories from my childhood. But if I fumble through the deepest and the most distant recollections, one particular memory surfaces amidst the haze. I remember—vividly and intensely—standing in front of the colossal statue of a winged human-headed bull at the British Museum. How can I ever forget the initial encounter with this beautiful beast? Its proud chest. Its majestic wings. Its strong hooves. What I felt then was a sense of awe and the sublime, even though I only had a heart of a twelve-year-old.
As a college student of art history now, I appreciate the foresight my parents had to take me to the greatest museums around the world when I was young. The monumental sculptures from Assyria, Egypt, and Babylonia at the Louvre, the Pergamon Museum, and the British Museum, immensely inspired a young Korean middle school student. After my little “Grand Tour” of Europe, I decided that I had to study abroad. My curiosities for the art and archaeology of the West were impossible to be satisfied at any Korean college. So here I am in the United States, far away from my home country, but feeling ever more at home to study the beauties and curiosities of the ancient world.
Cultural repatriation issue aside, Middle Eastern artifacts and cultural objects housed in the West and in the Middle East continue to inspire many. It was certainly true in the 1900s too, when European archaeologists and historians ventured (or intruded) into the Middle East in search of the glories of the ancient kingdoms. Some of these swashbuckling archaeologists, in turn, inspire our contemporaries totday. For example, Werner Herzog is producing a new film titled, Queen of the Desert, based on the life of Gertrude Bell, a British archaeologist and diplomat who was the first and the only British woman participant in the shaping of the Middle Eastern politics after the World War I. Documentary makers Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl are in the process of making a documentary about Bell, titled “Letters From Baghdad.”
As the recent New York Times article reports, the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford mounted “Discovering Tutankhamun” last summer to trace the explorations of the British archaeologist Howard Carter. Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., has recently opened “Unearthing Arabia: The Archaeological Adventures of Wendell Phillips.” It follows the journey of Wendell Phillips, who led the largest expedition to present-day Yemen from 1949 to 1951. I still wonder how many of these objects were able to leave Egypt and South Arabia in the first place.
Iraq—Egypt—Yemen. These countries that inspire artists, filmmakers, and curators are unfortunately under a great political turmoil. As many of the previous SAFE blog posts have shown, the cultural properties are destroyed, looted, and illegally traded.
What disturbs me the most is that these destructions are often invisible. Looters manage to get under the radar to pilfer the artifacts, slip them into the black market. Can the public eye “see” the absence, the vacancy, the void? No. If we were to make a museum of missing objects, how vast and empty it would look?
Gertrude Bell was already taking actions for cultural heritage protection in the early 1900s. She was still working in Baghdad after the end of the World War I and King Faisal’s ascension in 1921. She advocated the idea of retaining cultural objects in the country of origin, rather than shipping them off to European museums. She began to think and sought actively for a preservation of objects in the Baghdad, gathering artifacts in a government building, and in 1926, her collection was moved to a new place to become a part of the Baghdad Antiquities Museum. Bell was its director, and years later in 1966, the collection was moved to a new space to be called the National Museum of Iraq.
In 2003, when the National Museum of Iraq was extensively looted, it was a day of destruction not only of the cultural objects, but also of the very fundamental idea of cultural heritage protection. Thankfully, many of the objects have been returned, but still more work remains to fully reclaim the honorable insights that Bell had in founding the National Museum of Iraq.
The Middle East—the land of gilded mosques beaming underneath scorching sunlight. The cradle of civilization that bore splendid ancient kingdoms. The site of the fantastical stories of Sinbad and Ali Baba, where rich merchants travel across the deserts carrying silk, oil, and herb.
What should we do to keep the Middle East remain as an inspiriting, breathtaking place that my generation of students and thinkers can continue to appreciate? We need to stop the relentless damage that looting and illicit trading impose on cultural heritage. SAFE believes that in order to curb looting in the Middle East, the demand for looted objects must be eliminated. Could museums and collectors agree to a moratorium on Middle Eastern, especially Syrian, antiquities until order is restored? For a day … half-a-day? A broad-based moratorium would be a symbolic gesture of goodwill, that the world should put together a coordinated effort to stop irreparable damages to cultural heritage.
Featured image from http://blog.alacarte-paris-apartments.com/2011/11/30/enjoying-a-short-term-paris-stay-with-kids/
The world has been closely following the tumultuous political upheaval behind the devastated state of cultural heritage preservation in Syria. A recent New York Times article describes “a feeling of impotence” that academics and archaeologists are experiencing in the face of the sheer magnitude of the danger threatening the cultural heritage of Syria.
What will it take to stop the relentless destruction of Syria’s cultural heritage?
It is tempting to seek comparable remedies that suit other nations in the Middle East, where political unrest has also rendered cultural heritage exceptionally vulnerable.
In 2008, the United States implemented Import Restrictions Imposed on Archaeological and Ethnological Material of Iraq without proper documentation. This protection (although less robust than what was originally proposed in H.R. 2009/3497) is in place to this day. Since 2011, there have been highly publicized efforts to enact similar regulations for Egyptian antiquities, including an attempt to pass a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to impose restrictions on the U.S. importation of certain categories of Egyptian archaeological artifacts.
What about Syria? Could antiquities be banned from entering the United States? Would such import restrictions reduce the economic incentive to loot (the very purpose of the 1970 UNESCO Convention)? How are current circumstances in Syria different from the situation in Iraq, which led to the passage of trade restrictions between 2003 and 2008?
U.S. representatives Philip English (R-PA) and James Leach (R-IA) proposed the bill H.R.2009 (later modified to H.R. 3497) and initiated a momentum that led to the passage of S.1291. Could the other parties who contributed to H.R.2009 help draft and enact legislation to protect Syrian cultural heritage?
Unfortunately, both congressmen have left public office since, and it has been difficult to find out who else originally mobilized this legislative effort. Given the opposition that the bill faced from the art market community, and the eventual passage of a less restrictive bill, a similar political push for the protection of Syrian antiquities might be difficult to come by.
Given that the U.S. has suspended diplomatic relations with Syria, no MoU request has been made by the Syria government to the U.S. State Department to enable import restrictions of antiquities into the U.S., which has proven an effective means to curb the incentive to loot ancient sites.
On October 2013, the EU implemented this Regulation “to facilitate the safe return to their legitimate owners of goods constituting Syrian cultural heritage which have been illegally removed from Syria… and to provide for additional restrictive measures in order to prohibit the import, export or transfer of such goods.” In the UK, I reported that the Export Control Syria Sanctions Amendment Order 2014 SI 2014 1896 (the Order) was made on July 16, 2014, laid before the Parliament on July 18, 2014, and came into force on August 8, 2014.“
On the international level, Syria is a member of the UN. But despite a petition initiated by The Syria Campaign, which collected nearly 17,000 signatures and asks the UN Security Council to “ban the trade in Syrian artefacts,” no resolution toward comprehensive protection of Syrian cultural heritage has thus far been enacted. Last May, UNESCO held an international meeting to decide about the creation of an Observatory to “the state of buildings, artefacts and intangible cultural heritage to combat illicit trafficking and collect information to restore heritage once the fighting is over.” This is not the same as the UN Security Council Resolution 1483 which called on all UN member states to prohibit trade in cultural heritage objects and to adopt other means to ensure the return of said objects to Iraq, which facilitated the passing of the Iraq Cultural Property Protection Act in the U.S.
The UN cannot take action utilizing the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict; that task is the responsibility of the International Criminal Court. Syrian leaders should keep in mind that the Republic of Syria remains a party to the 1954 Hague Convention and its First Protocol and has signed the Second Protocol. Non-state actors in Syria should also be aware that they, too, may be held accountable under the 1954 Hague Convention even though they never signed or ratified the Convention. The reason is that Hague ‘54 is considered customary international law and “will therefore bind not just states but non-state actors such as rebel factions or secessionist groups,” according legal expert Zoe Howe.
Key provisions of Hague ’54 include Article 4 (which obligates combatants to refrain from attacking cultural property unless required by military necessity and to prevent all theft, pillage, or vandalism of cultural property) and Article 19 (which applies the Convention to non-international armed conflicts, also known as civil wars). Sobering thoughts, to be sure.
Meanwhile, a New York Times op-ed piece published yesterday states that Syrian locals are being encouraged to loot sites under a kind of licensing arrangement referred to as an “Islamic khums tax,” which is supposedly based on the monetary value of their finds. It is difficult to understand how this system actually works. I hope that one day more details will be revealed. The op-ed indicates that sources are withheld for security reasons.
So, what can we do?
As stated in 2011 regarding Egyptian cultural heritage protection, SAFE believes that in order to curb looting in Syria, the demand for looted objects must be eliminated.
In his recent interview with the New York Times, Samuel Hardy, Honorary Research Associate at the Institute of Archaeology at University College London (and writer of the Conflict Antiquities) said, “There’s a huge amount coming out of Syria. The rebels have teams dedicated to looting and refugees are using portable statuettes, pots, and glass as an international currency.”
Here’s a thought:
Could museums and collectors agree to a moratorium on Syrian antiquities until order is restored? For a day … half-a-day?
A broad-based moratorium would alleviate the burden of proof that artifacts have indeed been freshly looted, in the spirit of the 1970 UNESCO Convention. The ICOM Red Lists provide guidance as to which specific categories of objects from around the world that are most at risk, should assistance be needed in determining which objects to avoid — if only for a moment!
This would be a symbolic gesture of good will on the part of those who engage in the buying of antiquities which are being destroyed en masse, in some cases to fund the activities of the very destroyers themselves. After all, museums and collectors are the ones who create the demand. Could they be persuaded to take a step back to honor the need to protect, not destroy, the rich heritage in which these relics of our past were created?
Can we all stand together in a symbolic moment of silence to acknowledge such tragic moments as the damaging of the Citadel of Aleppo and nearby monuments by explosives, the raiding of archaeological sites throughout the country, and the looting of more than five museums?
This will send a clear message to the world that wanton destruction of cultural heritage must be condemned and stopped. Regardless of which side of the trade we are on, we can demonstrate our collective commitment to save the past for our future by not aiding and abetting the destruction of our shared heritage — with or without the presence of rules and regulations.
Featured Image: UNESCO Safeguarding Syrian Cultural Heritage at http://www.unesco.org/new/en/
I want to thank Jordan Jacobs for sending SAFE his “Samantha Sutton Series.” As a part of my summer internship at SAFE, I was given the first novel of the series to review. Kayla Schweitzer, another SAFE intern, reviewed the second. Reading this book made my summer that much more fun! The two of us were excited to learn about the novels which are great education materials for introducing students to topics that are important to SAFE’s mission.
Archaeologist Jordan Jacobs brings his real-life knowledge and experience to young-adult fiction, making very realistic adventure novels about the world of archaeology and the damages looting of archaeological sites can cause. His “Samantha Sutton Series,” which includes the books Samantha Sutton and the Labyrinth of Lies and Samantha Sutton and the Winter of the Warrior Queen, is written from the perspective of Sam, an aspiring archaeologist and tells of her adventures at archaeological digs around the world. We can’t wait to see what Jacobs does next – the third book in the series, Samantha Sutton and the Temple of Traitors, will be available in March of 2015.
If you have read the books, tell us what you think! And if you know of other good reading materials, we appreciate your suggestions!
Watch our reviews below:
First, Samantha Sutton and the Labyrinth of Lies reviewed by me, Elizabeth (Lizzy) (View the transcript here)
“We see that looting not only damages the site but also can destroy an archeologist’s reputation and can reek havoc for the community where looting is happening.”
Second in the series, Samantha Sutton and the Winter of the Warrior Queen reviewed by Kayla Schweitzer (View the transcript here)
“[Jacobs shows] the confrontations between the archaeologists and the so-called amateur archaeologists who are armed with metal detectors.”
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.
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.”
On July 10, 2014, at Christie’s in London, a 4,000-year-old Egyptian limestone statue of an official named Sekhemka was sold to a telephone bidder for £15,762,500 (or $27,001,163, with the buyer’s premium). This sale was strongly opposed by several groups, including the UK Museums Association (MA), the Save Sekhemka Action Group, and Egypt’s Antiquities Ministry.
Why the controversy? It is because the sale violated the general deaccessioning policies of museums. Deaccession—a permanent removal of an object from a museum’s collection, usually through sale—is not undertaken lightly by museum curators. It is usually done only with artworks that are duplicated in the collection or that are too damaged for conservation or display. In good museum practice, the funds generated from the sale are used only for the improvement of the collection.
The UK Museums Association stipulates that the money raised from deaccession should only be used to improve the existing collection. In the United States, the Association of American Museum Directors’ usual standard is that artworks cannot be sold just to fix a leaky roof. The AAMD Policy on Deaccessioning, amended on October 4, 2010, specifies that “funds received from the disposal of a deaccessioned work shall not be used for operations or capital expenses. Such funds, including any earnings and appreciation thereon, may be used only for the acquisition of works . . .”
Cultural heritage is not an asset to be liquidized and monetized. Nor is deaccessioning a sustainable way of generating funds.
Does the Northampton Museum’s expansion of gallery space meet these stipulations? Probably not, as 55% of the proceeds (about £8m) will be used for a major extension project, which will double the size of the exhibition space and create new education and commercial facilities. But this is not a collection improvement project.
What is more alarming is that the Northampton Museum is only one of the many deaccession cases. In 2013, the Croydon Council was criticized for selling twenty-four pieces from the Riesco Collection of Chinese porcelain to raise £8m for refurbishing Fairfield Halls, its local arts center. This sale prompted the Arts Council England’s (ACE) Accreditation panel to remove the Croydon Museum’s accreditation status. Similar issues surrounded the attempt by the Tower Hamlets Council in East London to sell a Henry Moore sculpture in order to ease the financial problems it faced following massive government funding cuts.
In the United States, in February 2014, the Maier Museum at Randolph College in Lynchburg, VA, was sanctioned by the AAMD for selling George Bellows’ painting Men of the Docks (1912) to the National Gallery of Art in London for $25.5 million for the purpose of easing the college’s financial difficulties. The American Alliance of Museums criticized the sale as “a flagrant, egregious violation of our Code of Ethics for Museums, showing total disregard of an important tenet common to the charter of all museums . . .” Similarly, in June, the Delaware Art Museum auctioned off a William Holman Hunt painting, Isabella and the Pot of Basil (1868), for $4.25 million which it used to pay outstanding debt and build its operating endowment. The museum was subsequently sanctioned by the AAMD, which means that no AAMD member museums will loan works of art or collaborate on exhibitions with the Delaware Art Museum.
It is my understanding that there were no legal issues in all of these sales. The objects were not bound to any donor stipulation that the museum never sell the object. The issue here is not one of legality, but one of public trust. Public museums are stewards of cultural heritage. Their mission is to protect and preserve the cultural artifacts with which they are entrusted.
Cultural heritage is not an asset to be liquidized and monetized. Nor is deaccessioning a sustainable way of generating funds. Although the sale of the Sekhemka statue brought $27 million, it is probably a short-term financial gain. If the Arts Council England (ACE) revokes the accreditation status of the Northampton Museum and it loses ACE funding, this sale might prove to be costly in the long run. According to BBC, the ACE granted the museum £166,000 in 2012 and £69,000 in 2014. This is probably why the Art Fund, a charitable supporter of art institutions, decried Northampton’s decision as “financially as well as morally harmful.”
I imagine how heartbroken the New Yorkers were when Asher Durand’s Kindred Spirits (1849) left the city for Arkansas’s Crystal Bridges. For those who long loved looking at the masterpiece before entering the Edna Barnes Salomon Room on the third floor at the New York Public Library, the deaccession of the Durand painting must have been like losing a family treasure.
Perhaps that was the sentiment that Andy Brockman, an archaeologist working with the Save Sekhemka Group, felt, when he said that the Sekhemka statue “was gifted for the enjoyment and education of the people. It is held in trust for the future. This is selling the family silver.”
What can the public do to prevent the museums from deaccessioning public treasures? Please let SAFE know by commenting below.
(Featured image from Getty Images GB).
UPDATE: Arts Council England strips Northampton of accreditation
On Friday, August 1, the Arts Council England revoked the accreditation of the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery, as well as the Abington Park Museum, as a result of the sale of the Sekhemka statue.
This sanction speaks much louder than any commentary on the sale: the Northampton Museum has violated the code of ethics of deaccession. Scott Furlong, director of acquisitions, exports, and loans unit at the Arts Council said, “I am confident that the museums sector and wider community will share our dismay at the way this sale has been conducted and support the decision to remove Northampton Museums Service from the scheme.”
The annulment of the accreditation status is a drastic measure. The last time ACE took such action was in May 2013, when Croydon Museum was removed from the Accreditation Scheme.
The Northampton Council is now illegible for a range of grants and funding, and excluded from future participation with the rest of the accredited museums until August 2019.
I join SAFE in applauding the Arts Council’s ruling.
After more than three years of legal battle, the curious case of U.S. v. Mask of Ka Nefer Nefer finally came to a denouement. On June 12, Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decided that the 3,200-year-old mummy mask of an Egyptian noblewoman should stay at St Louis Art Museum (SLAM). To the frustration of many who have been following the case, it was closed because of the attorney’s office’s administrative blunder—it failed to timely file a request to extend the deadline to amend its case. Consequently, the court affirmed the April 2012 decision by the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Missouri, which stated that the government failed to articulate exactly how the mask was brought to the U.S. “contrary to law.” So Ka-Nefer-Nefer is still on view at SLAM.
But is this really the end of this story?
Maybe there could be a different ending to this story. What if SLAM simply offers Ka-Nefer-Nefer back to Egypt? For the past few years, the antiquities world has seen a tremendous shift in major museums’ and auction houses’ attitude toward repatriation. Recently, for example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sotheby’s, Norton Simon Museum, and Christie’s all returned tenth-century sculptures looted from the Khmer temple of Prasat Chen in Koh Ker. These repatriation cases were all enthusiastically welcomed by Cambodia, with promises of future collaborations and loans for exhibitions.
SLAM, too, can turn this into a golden opportunity. This does not have to be a contentious and costly fight, but an opportunity for a demonstration of good will. Although the cases of Koh Ker sculptures had more obvious evidence that they had been looted (including the feet and bases of the sculptures left in Koh Ker), it is also true that Ka-Nefer-Nefer’s journey to the U.S. has many unanswered questions. For example, Malcolm Gay, a reporter of St. Louis’s Riverfront Times, writes that “an anonymous Swiss collector” in SLAM’s provenance cannot be convincingly identified. David Gill, 2012 Beacon Award Recipient and Professor of Archaeological Heritage at University Campus Suffolk, points out that the mask could not have possibly been in Cairo and the Kaloterna collection at the same time. Paul Barford, in responding to David Gill, rightly claims that even after the court ruling, SLAM still has ethical and moral obligation to fulfill.
SLAM’s insistence on keeping the object, therefore, seems rather outdated.
Right now, SLAM is swimming against the tide. Just to mention a few more well-known examples, the Met returned the famous Euphronios Krater in 2006; the Cleveland Museum of Art returned fourteen Italian antiquities in 2008; MFA Boston returned Weary Herakles in 2011 to Turkey, as well as eight antiquities to Nigeria last June. All cases included an agreement that the source countries recognized that the museums had acquired the objects in good faith without knowing their questionable ownership history.
SLAM’s insistence on keeping the object, therefore, seems rather outdated. The twenty-first century is finally moving away from the dark shadows of colonialism. The old guards of the museum world who once put up a fight for retentionism are losing their voices. As a college student, I admit that I do not know all the nuances and intricacies of the cultural heritage law and precedents. What I do know is this: ethics, morality, and good will are more important than retaining an Egyptian mask. SLAM already has the fabulous mummy case of Amen-Nestawy-Nakht and many other important Egyptian antiquities, whose ownership is not in question as far as I know.
Perhaps SLAM can consider returning the beautiful noblewoman’s mask back to her home in Egypt, maybe with a condition that Egypt recognizes that SLAM purchased the object in good faith under the limited information available to it in 1998? The Egyptian government has been very appreciative of all the recent repatriations, but has not been afraid to retaliate if agreements were not reached. Look at the case of this German couple, who was honored in a gala at the Egyptian Embassy in Germany for their return of a smuggled relief. But Egypt temporarily severed its tie with the Louvre and refused to permit French excavations on its land in 2009 when the Louvre did not return four wall reliefs stolen in Egypt in the 1980s.
For the Egyptians, repatriation is a question of pride. Former Egyptian Minister of Antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim said that Egypt “will not abandon its right to Ka-Nefer-Nefer mask.” SLAM could use this opportunity to establish renewed friendship with Egypt. Who knows, Egypt might loan invaluable treasures for future exhibitions at SLAM, just like Cambodia has done for the “Lost Kingdoms” exhibition currently on view at the Met.
If SLAM wants “to continue to provide all visitors to the museum, and the citizens we serve, this rich experience in the ancient art,” as SLAM director Brent R. Benjamin claims, then returning the mask to Egypt would truly serve these purposes.
What do you think?
When I started my internship at SAFE I only had a vague idea of what I was getting myself into. I had seen the post written by SAFE’s previous intern Beatrice Kelly about her time at the organization and I knew that there were numerous ways to be involved. It was a daunting but exciting prospect. It did not take long to be put to work in a meaningful and educating way.
One of my first projects at SAFE was to write a blog about Modern Day Monuments Men and Women in the wake of the release of the star-studded film The Monuments Men. Not only was it an opportunity to learn more about the history behind the Monuments Men but it was also an introduction to the work of Dr. Monica Hanna, the 2014 SAFE Beacon Award Winner. (Later on in my internship I had the chance to meet Dr. Hanna and live tweet her lecture). In the following weeks I was taught how to effectively promote an event via several platforms including Facebook and LinkedIn. With my second blog post, I provoked thoughtful reflection on the effectiveness of using Twitter and other social media platforms as a means of raising awareness on the issues of looting. The LinkedIn groups of Cultural Heritage Connections, UNESCO’s Friends, and the Society for American Archaeology provided great forums for discussion among professionals in the field. I was also given the opportunity to work on SAFE’s monthly curated list of news articles, which ensured that I and our subscribers were up-to-date on the current events related to antiquities looting.
These are only some of the projects I had the chance to work on while interning with SAFE. Perhaps the best part of working with SAFE was that I was immediately treated as an equal whose opinions and ideas were valued and heard. The breadth of assignments that one can do at SAFE is reflective of their mission to spread awareness of the destruction caused by looting that is happening around the world. I am extremely grateful for my time at SAFE as it allowed me to grow as a writer and it broadened my understanding of and appreciation for the effort and dedication it takes to raise public awareness of these issues. It is truly a mission that will not stop until looting comes to an end, but being a part of an organization like SAFE instills hope that change can happen.
If you are interested in interning at SAFE, contact us now for the next cycle of internships. You need to be deeply passionate about heritage and a self-starter when it comes to tackling new projects, but with those two qualities, your internship will not only be a fantastic experience for you, but an incredible contribution to saving antiquities – for everyone!
Publish, publish, publish. If I have ever heard a mantra for academic archaeologists, it is this. Repeated over and over again to every aspiring undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral candidate, this phrase is the driving force in this field. But for whom are we publishing? More often than not, papers are geared towards other academics, which is a necessary and critical practice to advance research and gain awareness. However, when it concerns looting, smuggling, and trading illicit antiquities, there is an audience that needs even more attention — the general public.
Archaeologists are in a unique position to inform the public of issues regarding looting because many have firsthand experience with it. In the recent article “Archaeological Site Looting in “Glocal” Perspective: Nature, Scope, and Frequency,” Blythe Bowman Proulx surveyed 3,009 archaeologists and found that 78.5% encountered “looting or evidence of looting while participating in fieldwork of any kind.” Of those archaeologists, 24.1% had encountered “looters on-site and looting activity in progress” (Proulx 2013:119). While Proulx was only able to sample a limited number of archaeologists, she effectively showed that they were no strangers to looting. From my point of view, archaeologists are also in a position to take a stance and have a voice. They have the opportunity to engage with the public by sharing their tales of the destruction of cultural heritage, but the question is, have they done so?
“They [Egyptian archaeologists] live in an isolated world…”
Making those outside the field of archaeology sensitive to the endangerment of cultural heritage is not easy. It is difficult to inspire them to take action even if they have heard the plea. In a December interview, Egyptologist Dr. Monica Hanna reflected on the current state of antiquities in Egypt and the citizens’ connection with their heritage — or lack thereof. She states that “The don’t feel it’s part of their heritage. Even the Egyptian social studies schoolbook – the way it presents [Ancient] Egypt and modern Egypt, [they] are two hermetically sealed entities.” The sudden increase in looting across Egypt after the 2011 uprising may have highlighted this disconnect between the Egyptian people and their monuments, but it has also underlined the fact that when people care, they will go to great lengths to take a stand.
The onus to inspire courage and action to protect cultural heritage falls on every person involved in the field, including archaeologists. In a more recent interview, Hanna noted that archaeologists in Egypt “live in an isolated world…They think they are the experts so no one has the right to talk about antiquities except for them.” The thought that archaeologists are the only ones who can control the dialogue on antiquities must be banished. The public also must have a voice. There are an overwhelming number of platforms that can accomplish this– platforms that have started revolutions. Hanna has begun the process in Egypt by garnering over 25,000 followers on Twitter, 2,400 followers on Facebook, and 6,500 fans of Egypt’s Heritage Task Force. She encourages everyone to share their stories of antiquities looting, regardless of who they are.
Spreading the word and starting dialogues with the general public about cultural heritage destruction is of the utmost importance. While there is enormous pressure on archaeologists to publish academically, it is vital that discussions about these issues also take place via forums that are also used by non-academics. For instance, a quick search of users associated with the keywords “archaeologist” or “archeologist” on Twitter– one of the most popular social media platforms– yielded just about 350 results. Of course, while these results may not encompass all the archaeologists active on Twitter, it suggests that only a fraction of the archaeology community is fully utilizing a free tool that has 241 million active users a month.
Where are the voices of those 14,429 archaeologists worldwide that Proulx found in her research (Proulx 2013: 117)? If one archaeologist such as (Monica Hanna) is reaching over 26,000 with information about looting, imagine how much we’d learn from the 2,355 archaeologists (according to Proulx) who also experienced looting firsthand.
Not sure how to get started? Hear directly from Dr. Hanna when she delivers the free lecture, “Saving Ancient Egypt, One Tweet at a Time: How Social Media is Saving One of the World’s Oldest Civilizations” and accepts the 2014 SAFE Beacon Award on April 10 in New York City.
The recently announced discovery of a hoard of late Roman (circa 407-406 AD) gold and silver objects — dug up by an unnamed metal detectorist in the forest near Ruelzheim, in Germany’s southwestern Rhineland-Palatinate state — is both thrilling and appalling.
The news is thrilling due to the nature of the hoard. The date of the objects makes the discovery unique in Germany. The importance of the objects in the hoard is second only to the 1868 discovery of a 1st century AD imperial Roman silver hoard known as the Hildesheim Treasure.
The “Ruelzheim Treasure” reportedly consists of: three dozen solid gold pendants shaped like leaves (each with seven points); a large quantity of square pyramidal shaped gold buttons, which probably adorned a ceremonial tunic of Roman design; a silver-gilt dish cut into pieces in ancient times (probably to be sold as bullion); a solid silver bowl inlaid with semi-precious stones; a crumpled silver chest plate (probably used as decorative armor); several gold and silver statuettes; and — the most amazing survivor of all — a folding silver bench, known as a curule seat, which reportedly survived intact … that is, until the untrained individual with the metal detector tried to remove it from the ground and broke it into pieces.
News of the discovery is also appalling, not only due to the destroyed silver curule seat, but, more importantly, because the priceless information contained at the archeological site where the hoard was buried has been ruined by the metal detectorist, who removed everything of value that he could find. Soon the amateur was visited by German authorities after they learned that attempts were being made to sell the objects on the black market.
The objects were buried near an old Roman road at the time of an epic encounter known as the Battle of Mainz — which pitted the Franks against an alliance of Vandals, Suevi and Alans near the banks of the Rhine River. Thirty thousand Vandals were said to have been killed during the battle, which culminated on December 31, 406 when the Vandal alliance crossed the Rhine westward into Gaul, forever ending Roman military and political control in that part of Europe. Little wonder that someone—a fleeing Roman magistrate, petit royalty, or bandits perhaps?—would bury a gold and silver treasure near the side of a road but not survive long enough to retrieve it.
As valuable as the “Ruelzheim Treasure” may be in merchant circles, its archaeological and historical value would have been much greater if the integrity of the site had been maintained so that it could be scientifically excavated.
How much damage was done by the amateur with the metal detector? The importance of the various objects in relationship to one another may have been indicated by the burial arrangement. But the site has been destroyed, so that information is lost. Clues to the identity, rank or status of its late 4th – early 5th century AD owner may have been deduced by archaeologists at the burial site. But the site has been destroyed, so that information is lost. Other items that may have existed at the burial site, such as ceremonial clothing and jewelry, have not been reported. The looter may have discarded or sold these items before the authorities found him.
The very idea that an amateur would discover a 5th century Roman silver curule seat, then destroy it by trying to pull it from a burial spot, boggles the mind.
As the History Blog tartly observes: “The site itself was deliberately damaged. Boy, would I love to see this thief prosecuted just for doing that.” Would anyone disagree?
Meanwhile, the search for artifacts and relics in German forests and fields by clandestine metal detectorists continues. More than 21,400 videos of these activities can be viewed on YouTube. Soon, the number of videos will equal the number of Vandals who died at the Battle of Mainz on the last day of December in the year 406 AD.
With today’s national release of the George Clooney’s The Monuments Men, it is only appropriate to discuss the heroic men and women portrayed by the film’s all-star cast and to ask: Where are today’s Monuments Men and Women?
I attended a conference this fall hosted by The Lawyer’s Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation, Fordham Law School, and the American Society of International Law (ASIL) entitled “The Monuments Men, Social Media, the Law and Cultural Heritage.” I had seen a trailer for the movie and was excited to see it in theaters, but I had managed to fail to make the connection between the conference’s title and the film’s. Not only was Robert Edsel, the author of the book The Monuments Men and the founder of the Monuments Men Foundation, in attendance, but numerous experts in all fields relating to looting were present as well. I was enlightened on both the World War II initiatives against looting and on modern day efforts to continue the same line of work as those heroes. So before you see the film, or don’t, here are a few reflections on its tale and others that are similar.
While the film focuses on a handful of key figures of the operation, the Monuments Men were actually a group of approximately 345 men and women from 13 different nations. They were experts in the arts and volunteered their services to protect cultural heritage from the destruction of World War II, but they did not act alone. Behind these heroes was The Roberts Commission that reported the invaluable lists and maps on the location of heritage sites and artwork across Europe that were prepared by the American Council of Learned Societies and The Harvard Group to military units. As a collective unit they were able to return more than five million cultural pieces that had been seized by the Nazi regime.
The members of this task force, officially known as the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section (MFAA), performed an unprecedented and overwhelming task, but the memory of their acts drifted from people’s memories. Until, that is, Robert M. Edsel took interest in the subject and created the Monuments Men Foundation For the Preservation of Art to unearth the stories of the individuals who saved masterpieces whose existence we now take for granted. Despite the title of his foundation and book, and Clooney’s adaptation, the “Monuments Men” were, as mentioned, also women. While they were far fewer in number, they were vital to MFAA’s efforts. As Tom Mashberg states in his article “Not all Monuments Men Were Men,” these women “were dedicated scholars and at times notable heroes.”
That description is most apt for Dr. Monica Hanna, who is a truly a modern day Monuments Woman and winner of the SAFE Beacon Award. Like most of the men and women who served in the MFAA section, Dr. Hanna does not have military training, but that hasn’t stop her from putting her life on the line for her work. It is not likely that Dr. Hanna’s efforts will be forgotten due to her strong social media presence on Facebook, Twitter, and in the news, but it is important to help share as many stories as possible. Cultural heritage cannot afford to wait another fifty years before someone else is inspired to take interest.
Along with Dr. Hanna, other modern day Monuments Men and Women include anthropologists and cultural resource managers employed by the U.S. Army to enter into war zones and protect or recover pieces from institutions like the National Museum of Iraq. The Smithsonian Institution experts who train the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on identifying looted cultural heritage items should also be included. The stories of these men and women, unfortunately, go largely unreported. It is important for other advocates of the protection of cultural heritage to call attention to their efforts and give them the recognition they deserve.
Who do you nominate as your global Monuments Men and Women?
Three years ago, we made this appeal to the trade: [U]ntil order is restored, we believe that if the demand for Egyptian antiquities is curtailed, if not stopped, the loss of Egypt’s cultural patrimony during this tumultuous time would be curbed. We then conducted a poll on the question: “Should market countries stop buying antiquities from Egypt until order is restored?” Seventy-six percent responded “Yes”; and thirty-six percent went further by responding “Yes. Antiquities trade should stop, period.” What this informal poll shows is unequivocal.
The US remains a leading market for antiquities. A quick search for “Egyptian antiquities” on the eBay site at the time of this writing yielded more than 180 results, ranging from an “ancient silver pendant” selling for $5 to a “wooden sarcophagus” in a three-day auction with an opening price of $12,665.00, marked down from $14,000, available within 5 miles from midtown Manhattan zip code 10019. It is therefore welcome news to see that, according to this report in the Cairo Times, the world’s largest online auction site eBay has agreed with the US Egyptian Embassy to stop the sale of Egyptian antiquities. While it is unclear from the Cairo Times article if this agreement only applies to eBay in the US (what about eBay in Germany, Japan, etc.?) or when the sales ban will take effect, this is a significant move.
It is encouraging to see Egyptian authorities recognize that putting heat on major market players such as eBay is one way to curtail the loss of the world’s most precious nonrenewable resource.
SAFECORNER has addressed the concern regarding online auctions of antiquities for some time. We therefore applaud eBay for setting aside profit-making and joining the effort to save Egypt’s cultural patrimony, and our shared cultural heritage. We can only hope that eBay affiliates outside the U.S. will follow suit, e.g., by limiting or banning the sale of Cypriot artifacts on eBay Cyprus.
Given the well documented role of auction sales in the legitimization of unprovenanced artifacts, which translates as “no questions asked,” or possibly looted or looted, should anyone be surprised that a major source country such as Egypt would follow the examples set by Italy, Cambodia, Iran, and non-state actors such as Native American tribes in the United States, to stop the impending sale of artifacts that departed its country of origin without the benefit of a valid export certificate? The answer is: no.
The Egyptian Antiquities Ministry has made a concerted effort in recent months to pour over auction house catalogs in a global search for stolen antiquities and is pursuing in “all legal and diplomatic means to recover smuggled artifacts,” according to a story published in the online journal Al Monitor.
Egypt’s decision is understandable. Pressuring auctioneers to withdraw undocumented artifacts from sale sends an unambiguous message to would-be consignors that the risk of offering such material at public auction is rising. This, in turn, reduces the incentive to dig up and smuggle these items in the first place.
One would hope that the authorities concerned with antiquities in Egypt would further reduce the incentive to loot artifacts by paying more attention to prevention and enforcement efforts before these treasures appear for sale at auction houses.
To date, the most effective mechanism is found in Article 9 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (UNESCO Convention).
As a state party to the Convention, Egypt can request the United States to impose temporary restrictions of the importation of the most endangered categories of Egyptian archaeological and ethnographic material into the largest market for such material in the world, the United States, by requesting the U.S. to enter into a bilateral agreement (Memorandum of Understanding or MOU), under Title 19 U.S.C. 2600 et seq, known as the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CCPIA) enacted in 1983.
Given the deteriorating situation on the ground in Egypt, it is likely that Egypt will qualify for emergency import restrictions under CCPIA, which the Government of Mali received from the U.S. in September 1993.
Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities Mustafa Amin recently told Al-Monitor, “All international laws and conventions grant the competent authorities concerned with antiquities in Egypt the right to preserve the artifacts and to track [the pieces] illegally smuggled outside the country.”
We urge the Egyptian authorities to follow through and use all legal mechanisms to discourage looting, prevent smuggling, preserve and protect the most precious part of Egypt’s vast cultural patrimony: the still-intact evidence of its undiscovered past that remains in the ground. Repatriation efforts alone will not suffice. Efforts to encourage Egyptian authorities to seek an MOU with the U.S. are underway. The decision that Egyptian officials must make is clear.
Recently I had the challenge of talking about the damage of tomb raiding upon cultural heritage to a general audience. In order to present my ideas in a clear, concise and didactic way, I used a particular comparison which comes out of my work as a criminologist and a criminal defense attorney: in a nutshell, how an archaeological dig is comparable to a crime scene.
When introducing the risks of archaeological looting to a general audience, one first must understand the conception people have about archaeology and archaeologists. Sometimes, this mental image can be an authentic misconception. This also happens with criminologists –if you knew how many times, after telling someone I do not know that I am a criminologist to I get the “So you are a CSI, huh?”– or other professions where media images have distorted the reality.
In that sense, people who still have an idea of the archaeologist wearing a fedora hat and holding a whip, usually have a more Hollywood-style conception of archaeology, in which not only is the archaeologist a valiant athlete who fights tribes, traps and tribulations, but someone who embarks on a treasure hunt in order to get a one-of-a-kind artifact which will (no doubt) be labeled as a spectacular find. In sum, an archaeology which is object driven and in which the archaeologist is a collector him/herself.
Nothing further than the truth. Real archaeology is not so much object-driven as information-driven. Archaeology is a science that has the goal of enriching the knowledge of our past through the study of remnants, whatever these may be: skeletons, coins, textile, jewelry, architectural remnants…
In real archaeology, there are three very important elements that are essentially interconnected: the find, its context and its sense. In other words, the site of the find is at least as important as the find itself. For an archaeologist, therefore, it is essential not only to assess what object has been found but also what has been moved or taken.
In that sense, it is very easy to draw parallels between an archaeological dig and a crime scene investigation where the haste is not welcomed. Just imagine a detective à la Indiana Jones, touching everything and leaving his fingerprints everywhere. The ‘good’ detective, like the real archaeologist, looks for information about what happened at the crime scene by studying what remains behind in the crime scene and how those remains are placed –again, the importance of the context.
However, every day, looters in different parts of the world ignore that very easy to grasp comparison and destroy the remnants of our shared past at an alarming pace. Of course, their motivations are radically different from those of archaeologists and seem very hard to change. But, people from different fields and organizations like SAFE, in raising awareness of this issue, try to inform a wider audience of the perils of the destruction of the non-replaceable cultural heritage. Many people are still not aware of the risks facing our cultural heritage. If simple comparisons like the one I presented here help more people understand the work of real archaeologists and bring attention to this problem, so much the better!
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
SAFE blog’s new series “Confrontations” invites everyone to share firsthand experiences with looting and the illicit antiquities trade. These personal accounts will illustrate the on-going problems of these issues within a global context.
When I was young, before I gained an interest in archaeology and the ancient world, my knowledge of artefacts was merely limited to the Indiana Jones Trilogy. Though having such knowledge at a young age was purely overwhelming, especially for a young boy like myself in a country enriched with an ancient past spanning over thousands of years, it understandably got me into a lot of trouble.
Till this day, I still look back to the 1990s, when I nearly ventured into the sinister world of the illicit antiquities trade, with conflicting thoughts of morality. For a person trying to feed his or her family, on one side, there is sympathy for the person’s actions. However, on the other, there is real pent-up anger towards that person as he or she is either destroying or illegally selling what represents a valuable past that we can truly learn from.
Now, you are wondering what happened to me back in the 90s…? How did I nearly enter the uncharted waters of such illicitness that has haunted me to this present day?
It all happened during the summer holidays, when my family decided to travel to Egypt for two weeks. Unlike being expected to visit Cairo, explore the pyramids of Giza and the Valley of the Kings, and perhaps take a relaxing boat ride down the Nile river, we ended up in Sharm el-Sheikh that, for us Brits, was a stereotypically ideal place for a family vacation.
During our time, we went to Sharm el-Sheikh’s infamous old market on numerous occasions. The market was infused with a magical eastern vibe, various smells of spices and incense, Arabic music, and the haggling of goods, and it made me feel like I was in sheer heaven. With the exception of seeing dead carcasses dangling on every rack, there was one particular part of the market that ended my blissful experience.
Hidden away in the distance, I remember seeing an outline of this rugged man standing next to a stall with a large quantity of ancient coins. These coins looked as if though they had been recently removed from the ground… Though my Indiana Jones knowledge of artefacts proved to be limited, all I saw were these coins being beautifully displayed on this decaying wooden table.
Immediately, my whole body froze. Alarm bells were ringing. Warning signs were gathering in my head, trying to pull me away from the absolute power of these coins that continuously sparkled in my day-dreamt eyes. Yet like a child being let loose in a sweet shop, there was an irresistible urge to personally own such artefacts. This desire also lifted me off my feet, like a person floating off towards the mouth-watering smell of a delicious meal, and, within a matter of seconds, I found myself face to face with the very man who was standing right next to this collection of coins.
He appeared to be frail looking– shabbily dressed but presentable enough to look like a respectable business man. Suddenly, this man began to talk. At first, it was very unclear as to what exactly he was saying. He spoke in a mixture of Arabic and broken English, asking me if I wanted to buy priceless coins that had historical and archaeological significance.
“Hlan wa sahlan! Kayfa Halak? Taf-fadal! Special price! Coins came earlier today for you my friend. What do you want?”
At this time, I was gob-smacked. Was this man talking to me? Was I that special someone to whom he was offering a special price…? I looked around and saw that I was the only bystander facing his direction. How could this be? Why were other people purposely avoiding this man?
Obviously, there were many reasons behind this. One could have been that that he was coming from outside the city, and therefore the locals did not know him. Another reason could have been that he was a dodgy character selling illegal artefacts, and it was thus unwise to get involved in his business.
As a young boy, it was likely that my understanding of the illicit antiquities trade was non-existent. I had never had a confrontation like that before in my life– not until that day. If I had bought a coin from that man, who knows what could have happened to me. According to Egyptian law (1983 LPA), all antiquities – be they cultural, historical or archaeological – are strictly regulated and actually owned by the State; and if I was caught red-handed by a police officer, I could have gone to prison for my involvement, and I would not have a great life ahead of me.
While those very thoughts were in my mind, I felt a heavy hand placed on my right shoulder. My shadow began to amplify, and a low voice began to speak out from nowhere.
“Michael!…Stop what you are doing Shamah Junior! You are meddling with powers you cannot possibly comprehend!”
Without a doubt, I recognised that quote from one of the Indiana Jones Trilogies, The Raiders of the Lost Ark… (The best Indian Jones film that was ever made, I must say), and I knew exactly who it was.
I looked round and saw my father, looking stereotypically Middle Eastern with an Arab moustache, his big body with broad shoulders, and with very tanned skin; indeed, he was known for using film quotes in his sentences.
Without a word, I was tugged away, leaving this unfortunate man behind, not knowing where he would be in the course of time.
As stated earlier, I still look back to that exact scene in Sharm el-Sheikh’s old market. In addition, you will find me exploring and dealing with similar confrontations in the upcoming blogs– especially those regarding the desecrations of various sites, or, as in this particular instance, a confrontation with a person selling a priceless artefact which has “illegal” written all over it.
Since this first experience, I have had conflicting thoughts, a broader understanding of the illicit world, and I am better at recognising potential signs of looting or at least something illicit. As an archaeologist, I have begun to care more about the preservation of cultural heritage, and it has been rather upsetting to think of how sites which convey significant cultural and historical meaning, have been affected by human activity. Although in the eyes of some, these actions might be considered as a good thing… It is now understandable why these motives take place.
Especially in an unstable Middle East – which I am quite familiar with, due to my heritage and the focusing of my speciality in this specific region – and for sectarian, political or economic reasons, countless sites have, unfortunately, been targeted. Nevertheless, as seen from my first encounter, there are some sheer beauties of the past that attract potentially irrational visitors who may just want to fill their pockets.
From what consequently ends up in the illicit antiquities trade, this beautiful memorabilia of the past has become absorbed into a sinister world which is loathed by most of us.
Thus, I would like to end this blog with the very questions that hang in the back of my mind.
What were the motives behind the act? Were they rational?
But also, what may be seen as an act for survival or greed and is believed by some as a person’s worst nightmare, it may sequentially be seen by others as a heavenly treasure trove.
If you have had similar experiences that you would like to share, it would be great to hear from you; and for my next shareable experience…Stay tuned.
Long before social media the tools: news feeds, Facebook, blogs, twitter, etc. there was Museum Security Network (MSN) the effort: the thinking, the initiative, and most of all, the pioneer spirit of its founder Ton Cremers.
Nearly two decades ago, MSN started using the still nascent Internet technology to its best potential, gathering the latest and most reliable news and reports on art theft, looting and the illicit antiquities trade from around the world all in one place, and presented them to anyone with a computer. At no cost. As we all became more aware, we continued to depend on MSN’s listserv, which remains the only one of its kind for its completeness, promptness and reliability. In fact, it became such a ubiquitous presence for our growing community that recent news of its closing came as a shock. While the group remains, MSN is closed.
While all who are seriously interested in these issues recognize the contribution of MSN and Ton Cremers, no tribute would be complete without the acknowledgement of the fact that MSN was much more than a mere aggregator. MSN was a keeper of content others collected from parts of the world where the exposure of such information could be hazardous. If a web site was taken down by dictatorial authorities, Ton was there to ensure the content will be kept safe. Through the insight and diligence of Ton Cremers, there are also original investigative reports and analyses, such as the case of the Mask of Ka Nefer Nefer which this blog also covered here. Ton also helped increase exposure to the work of others who were similarly inspired and concerned.
In the days of social media when sharing any news is all too easy, Ton Cremer’s efforts should never be forgotten. Without MSN’s daily delivery many of us would have had less content to draw from, our lectures and events would have had smaller attendance, and our blog posts fewer readers. For SAFE, the organization founded by and for members of the public, its work would have been nearly impossible. As we celebrate the 10th anniversary of our founding, we applaud MSN and Ton Cremers with gratitude and humility.
We owe a huge debt to MSN and Ton Cremers, without whose contribution, we might still remain in the “dark ages” regarding these damaging threats to our shared heritage, except for those few members of academia and journalists.
SAFE Volunteer Sandra Roorda observes the 2013 Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage with a reflection on the situation in Syria.
Amidst the public and political clamor surrounding the current conflict in Syria, and as many argue over how to prevent further civilian casualties, a wide swathe of cultural institutions and organizations from both diplomatic and NGO communities has stepped forward to warn that, in addition, the country’s rich cultural heritage is being looted and destroyed. As Bonnie Burnham, President of the World Monuments Fund states, “The evolving tragedy in Syria has a deep cultural, as well as a humanitarian, dimension.” To be sure, the conflict in Syria is destroying not only the lives of the Syrian people, but it is also stripping them of their cultural identity and their cultural heritage, resulting in a loss felt not only by the Syrian people, but also by the world at large.
World Heritage Sites in Danger
The conflict in Syria, now in its third year, has devastated the country’s cultural heritage, with UNESCO reporting that 93% of the country’s total cultural sites are currently within areas of conflict and displacement. Furthermore, of Syria’s 46 primary heritage sites, six have been categorized as World Heritage in Danger sites, with some structures already destroyed or seriously damaged by shelling or looting. Indeed, recent aerial footage also reveals several of these sites to be pockmarked with holes—the token remnants of looters excavating cultural objects and antiquities.
Currently listed as in danger by UNESCO are the Ancient City of Aleppo, the Ancient City of Bosra, the Ancient City of Damascus, the site of Palmyra, Cracs des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din, and the Ancient Villages of Northern Syria. Of course, countless other sites and structures that lend to Syria’s rich cultural heritage have also been damaged and are further threatened by continued fighting—the breadth of which is perhaps demonstrated by the World Monument Fund’s recent decision to list all of the cultural heritage sites within the entire country of Syria as part of its 2014 World Monuments Watch.
The Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk
UNESCO and the World Monument Fund are hardly the only organizations—cultural or otherwise—adding or connecting Syria to an endangered list. In an event last month at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) officially released The Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk.
Held during the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly and attended by members of both diplomatic and NGO communities, the event served to raise awareness surrounding the issues of preserving Syria’s cultural heritage by specifically outlining the categories and typologies of cultural artifacts and goods most vulnerable to illicit trafficking during the conflict. Indeed, the Syrian Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) has reported a dramatic increase of illegal excavations of archeological sites and increased looting of museums in Syria, with the threat of illicit trafficking and trade of cultural property on the rise. As Anna Paolini, head of the Jordan office of UNESCO states, “In light of previous experiences in situations of conflict, with respect to cultural heritage, the risk of looting and illicit trafficking of Syrian cultural objects appears to be high.”
Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and supported by UNESCO, ICOM’s Emergency Red List aims to help counteract illicit trafficking by not only categorizing the types of objects most at risk, but by also providing a succinct guide for museums, auction houses, art dealers, and collectors on how to facilitate the identification of potentially stolen or looted items, and which subsequent authorities to inform. The publication covers a wide spectrum of artifacts and antiquities, categorizing writing, figural sculpture, vessels, architectural elements, accessories and instruments, stamps and cylinder seals, and tessera and coins.
Joining in the announcement of the Emergency Red List, Assistant Secretary of States for Population, Refugees, and Migrations, Anne Richard, stated:
“The situation, clearly, is critical, not only for the survival of the Syrian people, but the heritage they cherish. Wherever one goes in Syria, one finds monuments from the past around every corner. Ancient religious edifices are still in use for daily observances. Historic homes provide shelter. Archaeological sites were—in better times—a place to visit, appreciate, and even have picnics. They are part of the fabric of Syrian life—a source of pride and self-definition for their present and future. Today, with the release of the Red list, we take an important step in helping Syrians preserve this unique and priceless cultural heritage. We are monitoring the situation there closely. And we are engaging internationally with national police, customs officials, ministries of culture, and other relevant entities in countries where Syrian cultural objects might transit and where these objects might find a market.”
Richard goes on to call on the international community to remain vigilant for looted and trafficked Syrian cultural objects and to refrain from purchasing or acquiring such objects.
Further attempts to counteract the illicit traffic and trade of Syria’s cultural heritage include the digitization of the remaining inventory and archives of cultural property in Syrian museums, in order to simplify the identification and the registration of any missing artifacts. Additional testimonies, images, and videos from the public, as well as from various national and international archaeological and heritage-based initiatives, are assisting in these digitized databases. As UNESCO states, “All this collated information will facilitate a more effective response against the illicit trafficking of cultural property out of Syria, and help potential restitution cases in the future.”
A Call to Action: Syria and the International Community
Attempts to combat the looting of Syrian antiquities and counteract their illicit trade are made difficult and further complicated for a variety of reasons, not least of which are due to the literal combat taking place on the ground.
That the continual fighting of the ongoing conflict in Syria renders site protection on the ground difficult and often thwarts attempts to protect the country’s cultural heritage brings to light what some may view as the apparent limitations of such international agreements as the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.
That being said, there are a number of efforts—both coordinated and individual, and implemented by both diplomatic and NGO communities—that are taking place to address the looting and the subsequent potential for the illicit sale of Syrian antiquities. While fighting and shelling proves an obstacle for on-the-ground site protection, effective monitoring of the situation and statuses of these sites, combined with the methodical documentation of antiquities and cultural property still accessible to archaeologists and members of the cultural heritage community, is of the utmost importance. As previously mentioned, the digitized documentation of the archival inventory of Syrian museums, for example, could be instrumental in potential restitution cases in the future.
Additionally, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), in association with the International Center for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) has partnered with the DGAM, in coordination with UNESCO, to hold several e-learning courses for Syrian cultural heritage professionals. The first of such courses, Protection of Syria’s Cultural Heritage in Times of Armed Conflict, took place at the beginning of this year at the Damascus National Museum and provided around 75 DGAM managers, directors, curators, architects, and staff—not to mention Syrian cultural heritage researchers and conservation experts—with some of the necessary knowledge and training materials to build their capacities in helping preserve the country’s cultural heritage.
The Syrian audience welcomed this show of professional solidarity from the international heritage community, the success of which prompted the next e-learning course and video conference, which took place last month. Says ICCROM of the initiative:
“In organizing the course, ICOMOS and ICCROM call on all parties associated with the situation in Syria to fulfill their obligations under international law to protect Syria’s precious cultural heritage sites and institutions. A call was repeated at the beginning of the course to abide by the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, and to respect museums, monuments, and historic cities.”
Further seminars and courses are envisaged as part of a long-term effort, in addition to further knowledge, experience, and advice, which may be offered during Syria’s recovery phase. Certainly, preserving Syria’s cultural heritage can serve as not only an anchor for promoting social cohesion and national unity during the recovery phase, but it may potentially aid in promoting economic stability based on tourism, which, before the conflict, accounted for 12% of Syria’s GDP and generated more than 6.5 billion dollars a year.
As one of the trainers for the initiative, Rohit Jigyasu, President of the International Scientific Committee on Risk Preparedness (ICORP) states, such endeavors could effectively become a benchmark for a “paradigm shift in how we can build capacity and promote awareness for heritage conservation using new information technology.”
Our Public Responsibility
Given the situation and the myriad of associated issues, many of us may ask ourselves, “Well, what can we do to help?” As members of the public, we too can play our part, by not only making ourselves and others aware of such issues, but also by simply refraining from buying cultural goods and antiquities from conflict zones—Syrian or otherwise. After all, supply must meet demand, and a collective decision to stop buying these antiquities may go a long way to curb theft and looting. In the end, this combination of action—raising awareness surrounding the issues of looting and illicit trafficking—combined with inaction—refusing to engage in the purchase and trade of antiquities from conflict zones—may prove essential to preserving what remains of Syria’s rich cultural heritage.
Drawing Parallels: SAFE and the National Museum of Iraq
In light of such issues, it is hard not to draw the comparison between the current crisis in Syria and the conflict in Iraq, following the collapse of the Saddam regime. While the various circumstances and the context for each situation differs, many of the issues and the challenges facing Syria’s cultural heritage and archeological sites are, in many ways, similar to those in Iraq during the 2003 US-led invasion.
Indeed, many of our SAFE readers and contributors have similarly commented on this parallel during our 2013 Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage. SAFE was borne out of the travesty surrounding the looting of the National Museum of Iraq and now, during the tenth anniversary of both the looting of the museum and the founding of this organization, it seems particularly poignant to warn of the similar dangers affecting not only Syria’s cultural heritage, but of heritage sites across the globe. The memory of what happened in Baghdad serves as a perpetual reminder, wherein circumstances of the past can hopefully manifest as lessons for the future.
Additional Information and Further Resources
The Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk can be found here.
The link for UNESCO’s website, Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property in Syria, can be found here.
Updates on the situation of Syria’s cultural heritage on the ground can be found through DGAM’s website—in both Arabic and English—here.
For previous SAFE articles and information regarding the conflict in Syria and the destruction of its cultural heritage, please click here.
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
In my first interview with SAFE Founder Cindy Ho, we discussed how and why SAFE was founded and some of the challenges of starting an organization. In this installment, Cindy talks about whether she thinks the organization has been effective in reaching its goals and her continued belief in its mission to raise public awareness, ten years after she first had the idea. The interview concludes with an appeal to people she calls “those who know.”
DB: How does SAFE get funded to do all this work? Who donates to SAFE?
CH: In the beginning I funded SAFE to cover only small expenses until I resigned from my job two years later. We spent very, very little. In fact, we were so frugal that I had to be reminded to distribute printed materials we spent money to produce. Others also donated more than work. It was this kind of can-do attitude across the board that gave SAFE its start. I was running a grassroots organization, supported by the people it served, before I was even familiar with the term.
Funds came in as membership fees; we also did well with revenue-generating events. Still, SAFE’s existence was never about the amount of money it raised, but a shared commitment to doing whatever it takes to serve the mission. People worked for SAFE because it was something they had to do. This wealth of human resource made SAFE a well endowed operation from the start. Five years ago Sam Paley, one of our advisors, told me that we were functioning like a multi-million dollar enterprise without the multi-millions. If so, just imagine what SAFE could produce with a fraction of those millions…This was the definition of success, or so I was told.
DB: What is your definition of success?
CH: I could say success is when there is no more looting to feed the illicit antiquities trade. But that is not realistic; it is also not SAFE’s mandate to reach that goal. Years ago at our first benefit event, I said that success meant that SAFE didn’t need to exist any longer. When everyone is aware of what is at stake, then the decision to destroy or preserve cultural heritage becomes a conscious decision. That’s when SAFE can declare success. I still believe in this.
But SAFE alone cannot reach this goal. It can only happen with a concerted effort among those who know to tell those who don’t yet know what is at stake. It will take many people and organizations, working collaboratively, to achieve this success.
There are now a number of other web sites and blogs that also address the issues of looting and the illicit antiquities trade with the potential to reach the general public and SAFE recognizes and encourages these efforts with the Beacon Awards. But I don’t know of any other independent nonprofit organization with this focused mission. Oscar Muscarella said, “That [SAFE] is unique is a very sad indication of the present state of affairs.” I agree.
But success is not at all impossible. Look at the environmental movement. While the struggle to save the planet continues, and some even argue that it’s too late, there can be no argument that people know that it’s important to recycle and save energy. To pollute has now become a conscious decision. How much time and effort did that take?
As long as there are unexcavated ancient sites with information about our ancient past that has yet to be revealed, it is not too late to save cultural heritage from being irreversibly destroyed. Saving this undiscovered past is what SAFE is about.
DB: What about short-term success, surely you can name some examples?
CH: Raising public awareness can be a numbers game which means the wider the reach, the greater the success. To reach unlimited audiences, the organization decided to focus its efforts online some years ago. Judging by the statistics on social media and web traffic, SAFE is reaching that goal. SAFE has become the go-to destination for people who want to know and network with interested others.
There is no denying that in the years since SAFE came into existence that public awareness about these issues has increased. What has this awareness produced? Colin Renfrew most generously commented to the 2013 Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage that “many of the good things that have happened in this area over the past decade would not have happened without SAFE.” If so, SAFE could not have done this without the participation of the experts.
SAFE has received generous support from donors and other like-minded organizations, which enabled us to create awareness-raising campaigns and materials I am proud of. They are not only innovative and fun to produce, they have been found useful around the world to create more awareness. SAFE videos and presentations have been viewed and downloaded tens of thousands of times. SAFE has earned the trust from key opinion leaders around the world who have not only lent their names, but rolled up their sleeves to work with us in the kind of collaboration I could only wish for ten years ago. This collaboration may be the most powerful and rewarding aspect of SAFE.
DB: Why do you feel SAFE is alone in this mission, so far?
CH: SAFE is alone, but not entirely. There are other organizations dedicated to preserving cultural heritage; some existed long before SAFE. But they don’t focus on the looting problem or the illicit antiquities trade, or raising public awareness. One reason is fundraising.
Changing hearts and minds takes time. Ten years after I first had the idea, I feel that SAFE has only begun. We all have only begun to become more aware. Donors seeking quick return on investments would prefer faster, more tangible results. While one can see and even touch an old monument restored, public awareness is ethereal. With the explosion of social media, effectiveness has now become more measurable and visible, but how this translates to donor contributions remains to be seen. Also, SAFE does its work in the US—a major “market country”—where antiquities are bought and sold for profit, often with no questions asked. Many people who routinely support the arts, history, or archaeology, have been engaging in very same behavior that SAFE points out as destructive. Organizations often steer clear of focusing on looting and the illicit antiquities trade because of this. It is hard to raise funds for a mission few grantors are informed about. But for me, these are all the reasons why SAFE needed to exist in the first place. Still, I can comfortably say that SAFE has done what it set out to do.
DB: In retrospect, do you still believe in SAFE’s mission, given these difficulties?
CH: Yes, now even more than before. Everyday, somewhere around the world there exists the possibility of a new discovery about our ancient selves that could inform us all. Looting to feed the illicit antiquities trade makes the collection of the information that everyone deserves impossible. Cultural relics become mere things. If knowledge belongs to all of us, then we are all responsible for safeguarding our shared humanity. And it is up to those who know to inform the rest, because there is nothing inevitable about wanton destruction.
How else could anyone understand that when a looter steps on an object in a tomb looking for something to sell, much more is broken than the object itself? How could one realize that removing an archaeological object from a National Park is against the law, that a museum acquiring objects with dubious provenance is not acceptable, that bringing back a treasured find from Peru or Greece might risk having it confiscated? How could one know that trading and collecting looted antiquities promotes the destruction of our shared heritage? We can’t protect something unless we know that it needs protecting. And ten years later, too few people are aware, still.
No doubt this is a lot of work. It takes us away from our immediate concerns: our careers and our routines; it takes us out of our comfort zones. But it is no different from any other cause, or any other endeavor that matters. When SAFE took to the streets to collect signatures, we found that it wasn’t difficult to educate the unknowing public. But what SAFE, or any one organization, can accomplish is limited, given the enormity of the task.
Public awareness is not a panacea. It is fundamental to—but only part of—the solution, like import restrictions, site security, or law enforcement. Awareness does not guarantee action. What is guaranteed is that there is no action without awareness.
DB: What do you see in SAFE’s future?
CH: SAFE’s future depends on the quality of the work it delivers, which in turn depends on the input it receives from those who know. Will there be a shared belief that there can be no long-term solution to combating the damaging effects of looting and the illicit antiquities trade without public awareness? Will there be a true commitment to doing whatever we—expert or not—can to help protect everyone’s right to cultural heritage, for ourselves and for our children? The fact that SAFE is able to serve its mission today still is entirely the result of these two factors. But it’s not even about SAFE. Someone, some organization, must serve this mission. And until there is another focused effort to inform the public, SAFE has to keep going. What other option is there?
Public awareness is convincing only when it is based on fact and reasoned analysis. Otherwise, no matter how loud you shout, opinion is just noise and there is enough misinformation out there in the blogosphere. This is why SAFE must continue its work only with those who have done the research and analysis, for which there is no substitute. Without this, SAFE should not add more noise to the din.
Definitely there are more people knowledgeable about these issues today than ten years ago. There are more books and classes and lectures on the subject; even university programs offering advanced degrees that address looting and the illicit antiquities trade. I hope that those who know, those who do the research and the study, and archaeologists who have had firsthand knowledge of looting would continue to work with SAFE.
We only have the rights we are willing to fight for. What kind of a world do we want to leave behind for future generations, and future generations to come? Much of ancient history is still undiscovered, unexcavated and undocumented. Are we willing to do nothing while looting and the illicit antiquities trade continue to destroy information locked in this undiscovered past that belongs to all humanity? What are we willing to fight for here and now, so that our children’s, and their children’s lives could also be enriched as ours have been by our ancestors? These are questions for all of us.
Regardless of what happens, SAFE has done its part. If the collective will is there, it should continue to serve its mission.
DB: How can archaeologists do more to help?
CH: Archaeologists and other experts have been publishing on these issues for a long time. But most academic publications and conference discussions (and their accompanying papers) reach only a select few and are completely inaccessible to the general public: they are not publicized and are priced for institutional purchases only. For example, an article in an academic journal tells us that an overwhelming number of archaeologists have encountered widespread looting in the field. Everyone should know this. Many such publications that inspired me and taught me are similarly out of reach. This is a pity, because “ordinary” citizens are not only capable of understanding, most are ready to support archaeology and cultural heritage preservation, as a Harris Poll confirms.
I call on archaeologists, those who know, to not consider sharing information, research and analysis with SAFE as simply helping the organization, but as a contribution to the cause.
I founded SAFE to be the conduit to bring this knowledge to a wide audience, with the ultimate goal towards long-lasting solutions. I call on archaeologists, those who know, to not consider sharing information, research and analysis with SAFE as simply helping the organization, but as a contribution to the cause. Those who are serious in their interest to protect the sanctity of information—or archaeological context—about the ancient past, would do well to want to share what they know with the general public. I understand this requires an extension of one’s vision. Saving cultural heritage requires a very long vision: enthusiasm, fervor and conviction do not suffice. Neither do research and analysis alone.
I also want to appeal to professional associations and the academic establishment to support not only the study of these issues, but the means to advocate for the cause. Could looting and the illicit antiquities trade be more widely included in the annual conferences where archaeologists gather to learn and to share? If archaeologists themselves have experienced the damaging effects of plunder, are they also aware of the possible solutions so they can contribute to them? In the US, are they adequately informed about the Cultural Property Implementation Act, and CPAC? Could there be workshops or seminars at the annual conferences to cover legal mechanisms which ultimately aim to protect the very field archaeologists dedicate themselves to? Could there be a fund set aside to finance the attendance at CPAC meetings so that those who know don’t have to pay their own way to testify in Washington? Could there be legal assistance offered to those who do speak out about the issues and are threatened by those who don’t agree with them? These are questions for all those who know.
DB: Can you tell us something about this Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage?
CH: I came up with the idea with Donny George in 2007 to remember the looting of the Iraq Museum and to raise awareness about the ongoing plunder of ancient sites. This year, on the 10th anniversary, we decided to offer our web site and social media channels to showcase the work of others as a sign of appreciation, and in anticipation of future opportunities for collaboration. This furthers our mission, and also celebrates our own founding. It’s something like a birthday party, where we inviting our friends to join in. This is also an open call for the needed collaboration I described.
DB: Thank you Cindy, for this interview.
CH: Thank you, Deanna, for giving me the opportunity to observe the 10th anniversary in this way.