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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 Nov. 2014 inaugural issue of “Al-Miraat” (“The Mirror”) features a translation of “Heritage Crisis in Syria: a call for a moratorium on the antiquities trade” by SAFE summer intern Heather Lee. A senior at Amherst College, Heather has contributed a number of thought-provoking posts on this blog around the issues of SAFE’s concern, the prevention of looting and illegal trafficking and the development of international laws and policies regarding these issues. Read Heather’s other posts here.
Published in Syria, “Al-Miraat” is an independent monthly “political, economical, social, cultural” magazine, issued by the “North & South for Strategic Studies” in Aleppo. According to Mohammed Mousa, its chief editor Dr. Ali Hafez is a journalist, writer and director of documentary films. Formerly a lecturer at the college of Rostov in Russia, Dr. Hafez is in Aleppo now and is “concerned about the destruction of the buildings and the monuments in old Aleppo.” Dr. Ali is interested in “any project that aims to protect the Syrian cultural heritage.” This is their Facebook page and web site (still under construction.)
When SAFE was approached about having the post translated, we were told that “this article is important to let our people know more about this problem.” With this gesture, SAFE is grateful for the opportunity to let the Syrian people know that we do care, deeply, about the state of their heritage, our heritage.
Simone Mühl studied Near Eastern Archaeology, Assyriology and Proto- and Prehistoric Archaeology at the University of Heidelberg (Germany). After achieving her Master of Arts-degree there in 2007, she started working on her PhD-thesis entitled, “History of Settlement in the central Trans-Tigris area – from the Neolithic to the Late Assyrian period”. In 2011, she received her PhD and started working as Assistant Lecturer at the Institute of Near Eastern Archaeology at the University of Munich. Presently she is the archaeological director of the Shahrizor Survey Project (Iraq), where she started working in 2009.
Briefly describe your personal research and outreach background in regards to Iraq?
I have worked as an archaeologist, investigating the ancient cultures of northern Iraq since approximately 2007. Like many people around the world, the happenings in Iraq create a feeling of helplessness regarding this humanitarian disaster, but also the destruction and harm in the cultural sector. In order to keep track and sort the news reports, initially published primarily by Iraqi Arabic and Kurdish news networks, but later also by international agencies, I started trying to approach the problem more systematically, to find a way to separate inaccurate news (copy and paste journalism) and relevant material. Since such work is best done together with other people who work in the area of cultural heritage preservation or who are interested in it, social network platforms such as Facebook are perfect to keep things simple and to reach different groups of people all over the world.
Why do people need to know about endangered sites in Iraq?
The cultural history of the landscapes within the borders of modern day Iraq goes back to the Paleolithic period (ca. 500,000-100,000 BCE), with sites from this period discovered in the Haditha region (al-Anbar province), Mosul region and in Iraqi Kurdistan. Starting with earliest prehistory, there are several archaeological sites within Iraq that represent benchmarks within human prehistoric and historic chronologies. Within the now conquered and contested areas in northern and central Iraq lie more than 4,000 archaeological and historical sites that we know about, mainly from archaeological surveys. Excavations were restricted in this area to the flood zones of the large dam projects north of Mosul and near Haditha, as well as to the Assyrian capitals, Nineveh, Nimrud, Ashur, and Khorsabad.
For decades, Iraq has been shaken by conflicts and wars. Therefore, nearly no archaeological research could be carried out apart from very small, targeted examinations at Nineveh in Mosul for the training of students of archaeology at Mosul University, or pre-war excavations by German, British and Italian missions.
It is known from the ongoing situation in Syria, and from past conflicts in Iraq, that looters, smugglers and art dealers are working in organized networks to fill art markets all over the world with antiquities from both nations. Objects that come from famous sites such as reliefs from Nimrud, which were reportedly stolen in June, will vanish unseen and undetected in collections of people who can afford to pay large sums for them, and who probably arranged “looting on demand” with prior knowledge of which objects are stored where and what they represent. But the looting of large and famous sites is only one facet of destruction on the much broader scale. Smaller, unexcavated and archaeologically unexplored sites lie next to villages and cities without being monitored. Sites in rural areas of contested regions are also endangered because the rural population is the one which is hit first economically: it is dangerous to grow crops, livestock is being stolen, and markets have shifted. Often digging for “treasures” is seen as easy money to support one’s family, but as can be seen around the world, it is these “subsistence diggers” who get the least money.
Militant organizations such as ISIS (or ISIL/IS/Da’ash/Da’ish) put taxes on smugglers and partially sell looted objects directly to customers. Looted and stolen antiquities become part of the bloody chain of weapons acquisition; the profits gained by dealing in antiquities provides money to pay the salary for their fighters, to pay equipment for their propaganda machinery and much more. It is important to make the criminal intentions behind the art market public, also to appeal to the ethical consciousness of the ones who can control the business, the ones who pay for it.
The destruction of cultural heritage is not a bagatelle. After the Hague Convention (first protocol 1954, second protocol 1999) it is considered subject to criminal prosecution in the Criminal Court of the country whose national territory such crimes were conducted, or at the International Criminal Court.
How many known sites are currently threatened? Which areas are seeing the greatest threats?
An area of about 100,000 sq km (nearly as big as Iceland) is not under the control of the Iraqi government in Baghdad or the Kurdish Autonomic Region. We know of about 2,000 archaeological sites in the regions of Sinjar and Mosul and another 2,000 sites in the wider region of Ashur (near the modern city Qal’at Sherqat), Kirkuk and down to the Diyala river. The number of sites in al-Anbar province, where Haditha lies, goes well into the hundreds. All of them are threatened. Among the threatened sites are three of four sites in Iraq that were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List: Ashur, Hatra and Samarra. The first image below is of the ruins of Ashur, seen from across the Tigris, while the second represents the current dig house with the Temple of Ashur in the background (courtesy of M. Herles, 2001).
Ashur and Hatra were overrun by militant forces in the beginning of June, while Samarra is on the front line at the Tigris since the beginning of July. At least in Samarra it was possible for the General Directorate of Antiquities and Heritage in Baghdad to establish ground forces for the protection of the site.
Nevertheless we can differentiate threats: First are finance related risks, second is cultural destruction as part of “ideological” programs, and third are damages as the result of armed conflicts. Dealing with antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums is not new to Iraq’s recent history. Everybody remembers the looting of Iraq’s largest archaeological museum in Baghdad, and some provincial museums like the one in Mosul, even though precautions were taken by the staff members of these institutions to safeguard many movable pieces. Sites of great antiquity were turned into moonscapes by some local and predominant professional looters equipped with weapons and heavy construction equipment.
We know that many activities of looting are related to an organized antiquity market. Most buyers choose not to engage with information about where their money goes to or what it contributes to. While mafia-like structures will also prevail during the ongoing conflict in Iraq, information gained about the illicit traffic of antiquities in Syria, and information found in digital files secured near Mosul early in June 2014 shows that direct selling of looted antiquities is a major source of financial funding of groups such as ISIS (or ISIL/IS/Da’ash/Da’ish).
Cuneiform tablets, stone objects such as cylinder seals, and metal antiquities are jackpots for looters, because these objects can be sold as items of “art” as if they were produced only for glass cabinets in galleries. Historically speaking they are items of daily use, and if preserved in their context and documented by professional archaeologists they can reveal a plethora of information about ancient societies.
We would know nothing about, for example, the earliest efforts at crop cultivation and animal domestication, or the Mesopotamian mathematician who authored a clay tablet with geometrical exercises that is sold at an auction or by a black market dealer. With contextual information such as the mudbrick architecture of surrounding buildings, crude and fine ceramic vessels, food remains, and his burial place, we can reconstruct the mathematician’s life from the cradle to grave. We know how children were raised, what schools looked like and how they were organized, we know how handcrafts were coordinated by an administration or family business, how important astronomy was for the organization of calendars, and we know about individual and communal treatment of the dead and what the dead can tell us about the living. But what we know from excavations is also still incomplete. The knowledge varies from region to region, period to period. It was impossible to carry out archaeological excavations in Iraq for decades. Since then new methods were developed and applied, but mostly at excavations in Syria, Turkey and the Levant, leaving a great gap of scientific knowledge in Mesopotamia, a heartland of earliest writing, scholarly traditions, deployment of economic strategies and mechanisms.
But historical sites are not just valuable for the scientific community only. People in Iraq are much connected to their cultural heritage. They live on and near the sites, profited from tourism or worked in cultural sectors. Children are taught the material and intellectual history of Mesopotamia and the people are proud of it. Many shops and companies were named after famous kings and ancient cities of importance, the famous winged bulls that guarded the entrances of the Assyrian palaces were chosen as business logos, amongst other Mesopotamian symbols. The ancient history of Iraq is omnipresent.
But the region’s history is also of importance for many branches of Islam, since important historic events during and after the life of the prophet took place along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Later, during the medieval period, Islamic religious and scientific scholarly tradition was blooming. Remnants from this time period include manuscripts, scientific equipment and buildings with unique architectural features. Many buildings and architectural remains are still preserved from this time, and the architectural tradition continues to this day. Next to it, mostly in northern Iraq, Assyrian Christian, Ezidi/Yezidi and smaller branches of Islam add cultural traditions and material heritage to the diverse ethnic and religious life of today’s Iraq, each of which is part of the millennia-long circuitous course of history in the region.
Another threat, which cannot be underestimated, is the destruction of heritage sites and movable items as “collateral damage” in war activities. While modern military weapons systems seem to be able to aim at targets very accurately, public reports of errors and failure mostly are not available, but to be expected.
The ancient settlement mounds, also known as ‘tells’ (from the Arabic word for mound) bear the remains of numerous episodes of ancient building construction superimposed on each other. But due to their elevation they are also important landmarks within war zones. Gun emplacements, guard houses, and tank positions are often dug into such mounds, as well as mines being placed on and around them to harm opponent parties if the station is captured.
Some sites are also bulldozed to get building material for street barricades; others are cut for fire trenches or barrier trenches around cities. In several cases such destruction has been complete as in the case of a site visited by our team in 2013 not far from Halabjah. The ancient settlement mound was used as a tank emplacement during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) and was completely bulldozed from within to make it still look like a normal landscape feature to the enemy. The first image below is of an ancient settlement mound near Halabjah, bulldozed to serve as a tank emplacement during the Iran-Iraq War. The second image is from the top of the same mound, that has been hollowed out, destroying all archaeological context (courtesy M. Herles, 2001). A more recent example from sites cut near Kirkuk can be found in a crisis list from 2005.
What is the motivation behind these attacks?
The motivation for targeted attacks at mosques and sanctuaries at first seems to be religious. In strict interpretations of the Kur’an it is forbidden to build mosques on top of graves to avoid worshipping the dead and ancestors respected by the community. The destruction of ancient sites, such as Hatra, was threatened in a recent statement released by ISIS/Da’ash. I do not know if the explanation given in the media was part of the original statement, but it is said that the site was supposed to be destroyed, because it was a place for the worshipping of false gods, demons or devils. In Syria, Assyrian statues and reliefs from the archaeological site ‘Ajaja in the lower Khabur region were smashed, all photographed, videotaped and broadcasted on various social media. This arguably also served a propagandistic purpose. We might also assume that both the religious aspect of destroying images of heathen gods, but also the outreach and recruitment potential of such attacks goes far beyond this.
Destruction of cultural heritage is a war crime as laid out by the Hague Convention; thus it is subject to criminal prosecution. It aims to eradicate the cultural identities of people and reshape history according to radical dogmatic and political aims.
In Iraq, this often accompanies ethnic cleansing and the elimination of any structure that is part of Iraq’s multiethnic/-religious society. Once the destruction of living and visual memories is completed, only fading shades of what is lost will prevail, leaving nobody behind to mourn the loss, leaving nothing to remember what was lost. Children growing up in such territories are not taught about the ancient history or diverse religions of Iraq or the world, but only the condemnation of pluralistic societies.
The recent history of wider parts in Syria, now under control of radical religious/political groups amongst which ISIS is one, already shows the outcome of such rule: a young generation that has no place to call home, that has lost its traditions and the family bonds which carry these traditions and memory, a new generation who will be trained in weapons and destruction and the maintenance of industrial facilities of strategic and economic importance, but not in the preservation, reconstruction and building of cultural values.
Where can people learn about the illicit trade of materials from Iraq in Germany?
Some information is provided by the German Homepage of UNESCO, governmental initiatives are mediated on the homepage of the Ministry for Culture and Media. A Red List for cultural heritage has been set up by the International Council of Museums to inform institutions like police, border control, Interpol and to help to identify looted objects more easily. Several newspapers have published reports about the current situation. Nevertheless the public impact of the current events in Iraq and threats to its globally significant cultural heritage still seems to be less in comparison to the last Iraq war, when the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad was plundered and archaeological sites were destroyed by looters, which caused furor worldwide.
Finally, can you explain the goals for your website overall? Its primary audience? Any plans for the eventual translation of content into Arabic and/or Kurdish?
Endangered Heritage Sites In Iraq offers the possibility to include friends and colleagues from European countries, the United States and Iraq, most of them also involved in archaeology, history or the cultural sector. Many group members feel connected to Iraqi cultural heritage in some way or another, be it by their family background, religion, or cultural or historical interest. I intend the website to be another forum to discuss and try to control the authenticity of news reports together, as well as a place for field archaeologists, architects, historians, etc. to provide more contextualized background to breaking news events as they happen. Modern media allows “normal users” to check with local sources or even with “informants,” most of them friends or family members who live in Iraq. Much can be done from the desk right now, also because it is much too dangerous for any of us to do on-the-ground background check given the violence of the situation. Another advantage of Facebook is instant translation from English into Arabic and vice versa. Kurdish dialects are still not supported, but maybe this is only a matter of time.
Nevertheless, since several weeks there are basically no reports coming from the conflicted areas. This partly might be due to the tactical pressure that is put on ISIS/Da’ash and its allies by coordinated air and ground assaults by the US Army, Kurdish, governmental and self-organized forces. Additionally, the conditions of daily life became very difficult (lack of electricity, internet access). It became very dangerous to keep contact with people outside of the contact zones, but also amongst each other. Therefore information structures are not or only little functioning.
In this phase it is important to keep up posting news and articles about the cultural heritage in the conflicted regions such as Iraq and Syria in order to keep the focus of public awareness on the topic. As we all know: no news is usually not good news and the destruction of sites and the illicit traffic of antiquities have certainly not stopped.
SAFE provides several platforms for raising awareness about our concerns for cultural heritage. We also encourage public engagement.
SAFECONNECT – The Cultural Heritage Network and our Facebook group were created to enable all those interested in concrete ways to save the past for our future to share their projects and ideas. “What Do You Think?” on this blog offers another open forum.
We welcome your submissions here as a SAFE environment to introduce new work, and to solicit feedback and comments. No ideas are too big or projects too small. Feel free to share work at levels of completion. Creative thinking is what SAFE aims to encourage and showcase.
Last month, SAFE interns reviewed Samantha Sutton’s Archaeological Adventures, two books recommended for middle school students. We now want to know what you think of the following project submitted by Apsara Iyer:
A student at Yale, Iyer has been “researching the formation and persistence of antiquities trafficking markets in Peru and India.” Her Visual Heritage Project crowd sources images of archaeological sites to create a visual record to see how that location has changed over time. According to Iyer, the project aims to be used as a tool to see the destruction and looting of a site over time:
“The site could serve as a medium of raising awareness about saving antiquities while also help protecting them.”
Now SAFE is bringing the Visual Heritage Project to you. Check it out and let us know your thoughts in the comment section below.
Join the conversation of raising awareness by either adding your own projects and ideas to “What Do You Think?” or discussing the ideas in the forum provided: Post your project ideas to our SAFECONNECT and Facebook group, which we created for members of our community to share their work. While SAFE is not able to endorse all submissions, we are delighted to provide the public forum.
People around the world are not only interested in the subject, but are also actively engaged in taking action to raise public awareness.
Thank you again for your sharing your projects and comments with us.
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/
SAFE applauds this tangible act from the UK in response to the disorder in Syria and the threats to its heritage.
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.
It “provides for the enforcement of trade sanctions relating to Syrian cultural property specified in Article 11c of Council Regulation (EU) No 36/2012 as amended (the Regulation) . . . The Regulation prohibits throughout the EU the import, export, transfer, or provision of brokering services for the import, export or transfer, of Syrian cultural property and other goods described in it, where there are reasonable grounds to suspect they have been removed illegally or without the consent of their owner.”
- Article 11c of Council Regulation (EU) No 36/2012 (the Regulation) reads:
It shall be prohibited to import, export, transfer, or provide brokering services related to the import, export or transfer of, Syrian cultural property goods and other goods of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific or religious importance, including those listed in Annex XI, where there are reasonable grounds to suspect that the goods have been removed from Syria without the consent of their legitimate owner or have been removed in breach of Syrian law or international law, in particular if the goods form an integral part of either the public collections listed in the inventories of the conservation collections of Syrian museums, archives or libraries, or the inventories of Syrian religious institutions.
- The prohibition in paragraph 1 shall not apply if it is demonstrated that:
(a) the goods were exported from Syria prior to 9 May 2011; or
(b) the goods are being safely returned to their legitimate owners in Syria.
- The official document of the Order can be accessed at: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2014/1896/contents/made
- See more at: http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/what-we-do/supporting-museums/cultural-property/export-controls/export-licensing/
Question: will the US, and other countries, follow suit?
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.”
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.
A public panel, “The Implications of the Current Fighting for Iraq’s Cultural Heritage” was held on Friday evening, July 18, 2014 in Washington, DC. The panel was organized by the Iraqi Cultural Center (ICC), the Iraqi Ministry of Culture and The American Academic Research Institute in Iraq (TAARII). The following is a report of the presentations.
The goal of this panel was to focus on the current situation in Iraq, particularly on the cultural impact of the fighting which broke out in the beginning of 2014. From the beginning it was clear that the implications for the future of Iraq’s cultural heritage are a major concern. In a packed room of approximately 80 people, Jabbar Jaffar (ICC) moderated the panel discussion.
The first speaker was Abdulameer Al-Dafar al-Hamdani, a member of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. ISIS has been gaining control over much of the north-western and western parts of Iraq, an area that includes approximately 4,000 important cultural heritage sites that are in immediate danger of being lost. In the Nineveh province these include the important sites of Ashur and Nimrud, Nineveh in Mosul, and the Mosul Museum. According to his information, because of security concerns and lack of guards, staff cannot check in on the sites, leaving many of the sites and institutions open for looters. We should be deeply concerned about Hatra, because of its isolation, and because the area has been used as a camp for ISIS training.
The al-Askari shrine in Samarra, which was attacked in 2006, has become a target again. Among the shrines and tombs that have been destroyed (partly by bulldozers), are the tomb of the Mosul scholar and historian al-Jazari (1160-1233), the Tomb of Jonah on the Eastern side of Mosul, the shrine of Sheikh Fathi, the golden dome of the Shiite’s Saad bin Aqeel Husseiniya shrine, and the shrine of Imam Sultan bin Asim Abdullah ibn Umar, southeast of Mosul. Yesterday, two shrines in the Basheer village, some 15km south of Kirkuk were destroyed. Destruction is not limited to sites of Sunnite or Shiite worship.
Modern statues that have been targeted or destroyed include the statue of the poet Abu Tamman (c. 788-845) and the statue of the 19th century composer Othman al-Mousuli. Among other places of worship already destroyed are the Al-Jawad Husseiniya mosque in Tal Afar and the Al-Qubba Husseiniya mosque in Mosul, both important sites for Shiites. Eleven sites of Christian worship have been destroyed including the Chaldean archdiocese. A statue of the Virgin Mary in a church in Mosul was also destroyed. There are expectations that more is to come. Among the libraries lost is the Diyala Province Library where some 1,500 books were burned.
Mr. al-Hamdani ended his presentation with a call for cooperation from the international community. There are many legal frameworks and international protocols that prevent stolen artefacts from leaving the country. Iraq needs support from the surrounding countries including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey, but it also needs the help of dealers, collectors, and museums .They must pay particular attention to stopping the illicit trade in materials. We all must work together, as protecting Iraqi cultural heritage– the memory of humankind– is a global issue. On Wednesday, an official Iraq delegation asked UNESCO for immediate help.
The second speaker was Dr. Katharyn Hanson, Program Director for the Archaeological Site Preservation Program at the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage in Erbil, Iraq. In her work, Dr. Hanson combines archaeology, remote sensing, and cultural heritage policy. Throughout her presentation, Dr. Hanson stressed the role of satellite images in documenting the ongoing looting of sites. Dr. Hanson focused on the risks of (1) unregulated building activities, (2) damage caused by armed conflict, (3) targeted destruction and intentional damage, and (4) looting. Unregulated building activities were witnessed at Nineveh in 2005 and in Syria’s Dead Cities, which became a refugee crisis camp. Dr. Hanson spoke of other sites in Syria, including Palmyra, the crusader castle of Crac de Chevaliers in the western part of the nation, and Aleppo where damage was witnessed on a weekly basis in March 2013. Via the website of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) it is possible to assess images of the destruction. She addressed the situation at Tel Jifar, east of Apamea in Syria, which is now topped with a military garrison and where images show looting holes on the site.
In her report on looting, Dr. Hanson began with the looting of the Iraq Museum on April 10, 2003 and introduced the site of Umma, where some 18,000 looting pits have been identified via satellite imagery since 2003. Turning again to Syria, Dr. Hanson spoke about Apamea, where more than 15,000 looting pits have been identified. At this point, Dr. Hanson referred to the important role of the public media, which can help connect the links between looting and terrorism. The International Business Times and The Guardian reported on “How an arrest in Iraq revealed ISIS’s $2billion network.” Dr. Hanson stressed that the media has the power to reveal the fact that stolen artifacts are used to raise money for terrorist organizations.
The vast amount of money that can be raised through selling antiquities was illustrated by the case of the notorious Elamite lion goddess, which sold for $57.2 million at Sotheby’s auction house in December 2007.
Dr. Hanson then asked “What can we do?” Much of the looted material is still hidden at this point, but collections, dealers, and museums will eventually acquire these objects.
Therefore, Dr. Hanson stated, “Go to museums and private collectors, and ask – if the label does not say so—where an object is from! We need to decrease the demand in museums.”
Finally, Dr. Hanson stressed the role of the Blue Shield Organization, and mentioned current initiatives directed by the Penn Cultural Heritage Centre and the Smithsonian Institution, working in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science and other institutions. She also mentioned the effectiveness of the implementation of the UN Resolution 1483. Regarding Iraq’s antiquities laws, in 1926, it passed one of the best laws safeguarding antiquities (No. 40), and more recently in 2001, it added Law No. 55. The 1954 Hague convention addresses the protection of cultural, scientific, and artistic works during warfare. Iraq became a signatory in 1967. There are also US laws that specifically ban the import of such works.
The final speaker was Brian Michael Lione, Executive Director of University of Delaware Programs at the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage (IICAH) in Erbil, Iraq which was first funded by the U.S. government and officially opened in 2010. Mr. Lione introduced the IICAH and provided a brief history of its activities. He focused on the collaboration of people and networks and asked the audience to spread information about the Institute. The students at the Iraqi Institute at Erbil are diverse and represent all of Iraq. Typically, there are about 10 students per class. The first classes took place before the official opening in 2009. Approximately 200 students have attended the program since its opening. Courses focus on (1) archaeological site protection, (2) architectural site preservation and conservation of built heritage, and (3) collections care and conservation. Students also have the chance to study English. Outreach and expansion are major components, and several international institutions have become partners. A new course “Skills for Heritage Preservation” is planned for the fall 2014.
The panel presentations were followed by a Q&A session. Mr. Jaffar opened with questions to the panelists. “What have you as subject matter experts done to help?” Dr. Hanson was quick in replying. “Not enough!” The global scholarly community needs to be involved. Mr. Jaffar then asked, “With the military might of international community, why didn’t you stop ISIS before it started?” Questions from the audience addressed the role of the media and provided suggestions on how these reports of destruction might reach the press more easily as conflicts involving the protection of cultural heritage are still only marginally covered in international media.
One member of the audience asked about the particular role of the media in boosting ISIS. Recent reports have expressed doubt about the true extent of destruction. Mr. al-Hamdani said that he is in touch with colleagues in Mosul on a daily basis. Another audience member referred to the inspirational role of the “Monuments Men”. Dr. Hanson noted that while she understands the aesthetic appeal of many of the objects that are being looted, it is the context that we need to care about first, as looting destroys the only information we have about the origin of these works. According to Mr. al-Hamdani, it is clear that those who demand these artifacts share equal blame with ISIS which profits from their sale. Mr. al-Hamdani therefore asked Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey– the countries surrounding Iraq– to help with the problems, and noted the responsibility of the international community, particular dealers, collectors and museums.
The evening panel was a reminder for all of us to think about how we as individuals can help. The main task is to increase public awareness of the situation. The Iraqi State Board of Antiquities is in a difficult situation and needs your help spreading the word out about a growing disaster. Time is crucial as there is new damage every day. Our world cultural heritage is at stake.
On May 29, SAFE opened up an informal poll to gauge public opinion on the issue of international cooperation on cultural heritage protection. This was inspired by Egypt’s request for a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to restrict imports of Egyptian archaeological and ethnological material into the United States. The goal was to raise public awareness, a core mission of SAFE.
In fact, the poll did an excellent job—it got people talking. A total of 142 people voted on the poll, and more than twenty-five experts and concerned public took the trouble to put thoughtful comments on the SAFE webpage, the poll website, and LinkedIn group pages.
An overwhelming majority of the voters (89.44%) voted for the first choice—a simple “Yes,” that all nations should help protect each other’s cultural heritage.
It seemed that many people who responded YES saw the international cooperation on protecting cultural heritage as an obvious, basic moral duty. But what intrigued me the most was that some people have voted for the runner-up choice (albeit only with 5.63% support): “No, a nation only deserves assistance if it has a stable government, incorruptible officials and adequate museum facilities in which to preserve the protected materials.”
This was a kind of argument that the stubborn retentionists of the 80s and 90s often used to undermine source countries’ ability to take care of their cultural heritage.
One of the commenters on the SAFE website, Nigel Sadler, perhaps provides an insight into why some people might prefer partial or limited repatriation. First, Sadler reasoned that his understanding of this answer choice was not that objects should never be returned to politically unstable countries, but that they should ultimately be at some point. Then he said,
“there has to be a degree of stability in the government and there must be museums or organisations that can house, safeguard, and even display the items in a secure environment.”
This view suggests that some people might think temporary retentionism is permissible. However, Ian MacLeod, Executive Director at Western Australian Maritime Museum, seems to disagree, for he wrote,
“All nations deserve support regardless of the stability of the country—it is a shared cultural resource we protect.”
Another idea that was echoed in several comments was that cultural heritage belongs to all humans regardless of nationality and cultural affinity. Christ Durham wrote:
“It is the heritage of all humans no matter which country it resides in.”
As a college student who has studied both the retentionism and restitutionism arguments, I personally thought that this idea could go either way. That is, if cultural heritage belongs to all mankind, you can argue that the museums with the highest number of visitors and the best conservation resources should keep the objects—a classic retentionism argument. But you can also make an opposite argument for repatriation: because cultural objects belong to all people, the objects should be placed within their source countries’ cultural context, where they can be best understood for the benefit of the entire world.
This is why I thought that Shruti Das raised an interesting point—she broke away from the dichotomy of retentionism and restitutionism. She wrote that there is the
“need to create a common platform for all the nations, where they can stand for the preservation of cultural heritage irrespective of national bias or discrimination.”
Therefore, she is talking not from the point of view of ownership, but from the point of view of shared efforts and shared knowledge. Sachin Bansal chimed in, writing,
“we should have a knowledge transfer exercises [sic] on the heritage preservations as ‘one world’ concept. People should share insights . . .”
Despite some disagreements, it was apparent that everyone wanted to advocate for more action to establish a worldwide culture of respect for every culture’s heritage. Jack Rollins’s eloquent comment might be a nice point to wrap up this summary. He commented on June 21:
“However tragic these losses are, the fact is that if someone has the power to do something, he also has the power not to do it. If the world sits by watching one minimally civilized group destroy—forever—any part of the world’s culture, how unendurably self-absorbed are we; a shiftless, spoilt, selfish, coarse citizens of the world we must see ourselves as ‘rudely stamp’d.’”
That is, apathy, laziness, and neglect are the worst enemies of safeguarding the heritage of all cultures.
Let SAFE know about your thoughts on another important issue on cultural heritage protection: Should the St. Louis Art Museum voluntarily return the mummy mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer to Egypt? Vote here.