On our Facebook group yesterday, attention was brought to a mysterious stone animal uncovered this past January at an excavation site in Sichuan, China. Weighing 8.5 tons, and at 10ft 10in long, 3ft 11in wide and 5ft 7in tall, what else do we know about it besides its vastness?
What animal is it? Media reports have called it a horse, a lion, or a panda, a cow, a pig. The latest “conclusion” is that the animal is a mythical rhinoceros, or a hippopotamus.
How old is it?
While most Chinese reports have the statue dating to the Qin Han dynasties 221 B.C.–A.D. 220, other reports speculate that it could have come from the Tang dynasty 618–907, or even Ming Qing 368—1840.
Perhaps most important, what was its purpose?
Archaeologists are reportedly baffled. At this writing, we have not found the discovery in Kaogu, or Archaeology journal, published by Institute of Archaeology, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. On China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage web site, there is one report from Sichuan Daily mentioning a possible connection to calming floodwaters. What we do know is that the statue has ow become a symbol of good luck during the Lunar New Year, and lovingly nicknamed “史上最萌石兽” or “the most adorable stone animal in history.”
It will take some time for archaeologists to decipher the markings found on the statue’s surfaces, study the skeletal remains of other animals in its vicinity and make sense of the many other artifacts also discovered, including pots and reportedly ceremonial objects. For now, we have to contend with speculations, and hope that the site had not been looted, and will remain intact.
Stone horse and tiger narrowly escaped looters
In 2008, four other stone animals in Guangxi province narrowly escaped being dug up and carted away by looters, thanks to reports from the villagers. Although not as big as the Sichuan animal, these statues appear equally difficult to steal, and equally mysterious. As mentioned in our earlier post about a looted 27-ton stone coffin measuring 4 meters long, 2 meters wide and 2 meters high, when it comes to looting for profit, size no longer matters.
The public hearing to review a five-year renewal of the 2009 Memorandum of Understanding that restricts certain categories of antiquities from importation into the US takes place today at the Department of State. For SAFE, the most important reason for the Cultural Property Advisory Committee to recommend the renewal to the President is this Most of China’s vast ancient history remains undiscovered. There is much more mystery than there is knowledge about a civilization that spans more than 7,000 years. And the decision must be based on this: Do we want to know more?
We do, because China’s ancient cultural heritage is our shared cultural heritage. As Donny George said, cultural heritage is a human right. We all deserve to know more about our own humanity, knowledge is our right. As such, we must do everything we can to stop the plunder of cultural heritage. The UNESCO 1970 has its flaws, import restrictions alone will not end looting and the illicit antiquities trade that feeds it. But until a better alternative is recommended and implemented, the US must do what it can to safeguard our cultural heritage—not only for China—but for all of us. Anything else is just an excuse.
I first encountered SAFE and Cindy Ho while I was teaching Art History at SUNY New Paltz. As all of us, I was stunned at the horrific losses at the Baghdad Museum after the invasion of Iraq. I wanted to get involved in some way. I phoned Cindy and we had a lengthy conversation that ended with my commitment to supporting and contributing to SAFE in any way I could. Through those early years, I met several times with SAFE supporters and hosted the first SAFE Board retreat at my home in Saugerties, NY. We laid the foundations for what SAFE would become over those few days in my dining room. When SAFE began commemorating the anniversary of the looting with a Candlelight Vigil, I created an annual program at SUNY New Paltz which included a presentation on the looting of the Baghdad Museum and a screening of the film The Giant Buddhas, a powerful documentary detailing the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Taliban.
SAFE’s first Board meeting
Cindy and I shared a passion for world heritage protection and we bonded over long discussions concerning looting, collecting and preserving cultural heritage. Our commitment was solidified when we drove from New York to Washington, D. C. in 2005 where we spoke before the Cultural Property Advisory Committee to support a US / Italy Bilateral Agreement restricting imports of antiquities. The car ride home was spent brainstorming ways to promote public awareness of cultural heritage preservation and finding a bridge between the collecting and archaeological communities for a common cause. Cindy’s commitment and energy were inspiring and I still reflect on those influential conversations in my current work.
Today I am Co-founder and Co-Director of The Extreme History Project. We are a public history, non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the relevance of cultural heritage to community, policy and society. We believe in giving voice to the voiceless of the past and in the importance of the roll of history in forming individual and community identities. We are based in Livingston, Montana and work closely with indigenous communities in facilitating historical research surrounding the Native American reservation period of the west. Our work includes not only primary document archiving, but also the recording of Native American oral histories. The work that we do has real relevance for Indigenous communities here in Montana by helping recreate community identity through restoring a denied history and, as such, has application to many other indigenous communities around the world, battling the legacy of colonialism.
I credit much of the grounding of The Extreme History Project to those early conversations with Cindy about SAFE and preserving cultural heritage. I am honored and proud of my relationship to Cindy and to SAFE for its tireless contribution to the protection of our shared heritage. Our history contributes to our identity and without the knowledge and materials of history, we lose that identity and a part of ourselves. The fight for our world heritage must always continue and I thank Cindy and SAFE for staying on the frontline!
The 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq by the US and its allies has prompted many reflections. They bring to my mind the Bad Faith to which the Iraqi people have been subjected ever since the victorious powers betrayed their Arab allies at Versailles after WWI. “Bomber” Harris, who presided over the destruction of German cities from the air in WWII, practiced on rebellious Iraqi villages in the 1920s. There was no organic connection between the royal Hashemite line imposed by the British on the Iraqi people, laying the grounds for nationalist coups to come, and the seemingly ineluctable descent into Saddam Hussein’s despotism. The extraordinarily destructive invasion (in its acts and consequences) was but one of the more recent such betrayals, although in that instance the American and British people were also victims, though less grievously so.
Saddam’s dictatorship betrayed the Iraqi people in countless ways, including the gross distortions of culture and corruption of institutions that benefited the narrow interests of the dictator and his regime. Unimaginable damage was wreaked by the war with Iran. The human losses in their most concrete terms were terrible, but those to culture were similarly bad, from the devastation of Basra to the ecocide that destroyed the Marsh Arabs’ way of life after the 1991 Gulf War, which was precipitated by Saddam’s desire to rid himself of the debts incurred by the previous one. The exorbitant costs of these wars resulted in the pervasive underfunding of culture and education throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, and the sad fact that the Iraq Museum was kept shut for twenty years before the American invasion, opened only for VIP events. That it remains closed despite much effort to rehabilitate it is evidence for the bad faith of venal and incompetent successor governments.
Starting in April 2003, I devoted my attention to the plight of Iraqi libraries and archives, resulting in two lengthy reports alongside other work that recounts much of that sorry tale*1
These two images, one general and one specific, of the first of three exhibits at the Cambridge Arts Council’s gallery representing the first of three exhibits of Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here-related artwork. They are principally artist books (85 of them in the vitrines), with some of the broadsides on the walls. A second exhibit of 82 books is now up, with a third to follow.
Cambridge Arts Council
It is through this work that I became acquainted with SAFE and the indefatigable Cindy Ho. It is generally the case that any successful voluntary enterprise requires one inspired leader to get it going and, often, to sustain it, even though other committed individuals may contribute to its depth and breadth. Cindy is that person, and one of those others whom she inspired to participate, Irina Tarsis, enlisted my participation in three symposia sponsored or co-sponsored by SAFE, the most salient being my paper, “Contested Patrimony: The Fate of the Iraqi Jewish Archive,” presented at Homeward Bound: Returning Displaced Books and Manuscripts.
It is heartening that SAFE has expanded its activities beyond Iraqi antiquities to those of other nations, and has considered those aspects of cultural heritage and national patrimony of more direct concern to those such as myself. Its activities and website benefit the whole world. Another person who, like Cindy Ho, was moved to initiate a project addressing threatened Iraqi culture, is Beau Beausoleil, poet and bookseller of San Francisco, who founded Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here following the catastrophic bombing of the street of the booksellers in Baghdad on 5 March 2007. He has stated that he kept waiting for someone to do something in response to such a terrible affront to all that is good and decent, but nobody did, so he acted, first locally and then globally. This has resulted in an arguably unprecedented imaginative response: the creation of much poetry and other writing,*2 scores of broadsides, and about 360 artist books that reveal an extraordinary range of visual, literary and technical creativity. They have been on exhibit in many places, and a complete set of will eventually arrive at the Iraq National Library and Archive (a set of the broadsides has already reached the INLA).•3
I was asked to provide a meaningful context for the eponymous event at one of the occasions associated with the six-month exhibit in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That follows here.
“Framing the Bombing of Al-Mutanabbi Street: How We Might Think about what Led to it”
Jeff Spurr, 25 February 2013
“Locating Al-Mutanabbi Street”
Cambridge Arts Council Gallery
We Americans tend to be navel gazers, deeply involved in our own problems, and oblivious to the consequences of our projection of power abroad. Few have any conception of — or concern for — the cumulative suffering born by the Iraqi people, and the derangements to Iraqi society caused by our contribution to it.
A long, dark road led to the bomb blast at Al-Mutanabbi Street on March 5th, 2007. The moral and symbolic implications of that horrendous event have been broadly addressed, thanks in particular to this wonderful initiative, Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, rich evidence of which we see around us.
This evening I will briefly try to provide some context. In my view, five principal conditions frame that terrible act. They are (1) the nature of Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian regime, (2) the crippling sanctions against Iraq after the Gulf War of 1990-1991, (3) the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, (4) the disastrous policies of the Coalition Provisional Authority under L. Paul Bremer, and (5) the existence of a mobile radical Islamic movement associated with al-Qaeda, whose peculiar nature supports a terrifying cultural nihilism.
(1) Despotic regimes not only make the welfare of the tyrant and few others the measure of what is good and right for a whole nation, but their corrupt and absolutist ways suppress any normal civil society, and preclude the development of mature political views, mechanisms, and behavior, in the process injecting slow-working poisons into the body politic that remain long after these regimes are gone. The resulting political immaturity, unfamiliarity with democratic ways, and dearth of practical initiative (due, that is, to the top-down character of all decision-making in such police states), have dire implications for what comes after.
(2) The sanctions regime of the 1990s had no serious effect on Saddam, his family and cronies, whose control over the state remained unabated; however, it immiserated much of the Iraqi middle class, and made the lives of the poor much less bearable, adding new distress to a population that had already endured the terrible ravages of the Iran-Iraq war, ignominious defeat in the Gulf War, and the savage suppression of the subsequent Shi’ite rebellion in Central and Southern Iraq.
(3) The criminally reckless American invasion was essentially undertaken without a plan beyond tactical questions concerning the inevitable military victory, which is to say the easy part. General Shinseki was fired for speaking the truth regarding management of the aftermath, and magical thinking reigned in the White House. The invasion began with the revolting spectacle of “Shock and Awe,” destruction from the skies targeting infrastructure and ministries whose principal consequence would be to dramatically diminish the capacity of successor governments to run the country. Even worse, no provision was made to impose a new authority after the totalitarian regime was overthrown: the lid was taken off the pressure cooker and not replaced. Chaos was the inevitable result. As history has shown, opportunists will always take advantage of the absence of authority, but the terrifying result under these especially bad circumstances was massive looting of nearly every institution in the country outside of Iraqi Kurdistan — whether cultural, educational, or governmental — from which Iraq will never fully recover.
Two images of the INLA (Iraq National Library and Archive). The ‘before’ image is actually after the arson but before restoration of an interior space (you can discern the stairs), while the ‘after’ is of the same space (though a larger view), after Dr. Eskander’s restoration.
(4) Then came the misrule of Paul Bremer, America’s satrap at the CPA, and arch-privatizer. A combination of arrogance, ignorance and ideology scarcely matched by his boss led to the cashiering of the whole Iraqi army, an act of folly that removed a potential stabilizing force (Republican Guard excepted), and threw a couple hundred thousand men out of work. Since the army of occupation had failed to secure ammo dumps across Iraq, arms were readily available. Bremer also closed all state-owned enterprises, consigning countless others to unemployment and disaffection. The mass firing of members of the Baath Party had similar results. Idle hands make for the Devil’s work, after all, and the inability to mobilize for employment and sustain anything resembling normal functioning, plus an endless series of other unfortunate decisions, led inevitably to resistance — further exacerbated by blunt force behavior by the occupying forces.
Indeed, resistance led to extreme reaction. Whereas it was said of the Vietnam War, “we had to destroy the village in order to save it,” things graduated in Iraq to “we destroyed the city to save it,” notably in the cases of Fallujah and Ramadi. What leverage might have been gained from overthrowing the widely-hated Saddam was quickly squandered.
It is virtually axiomatic that a system of repression such as existed under Saddam leaves people little choice but to identify with more elementary structures of society: the family, the tribe, and, particularly among the less secularized Iraqi lower classes, religion. This is where social fault lines develop when all else disintegrates.
Violent Sunni resistance led ineluctably to two things: the emergence of the much more radical al-Qaeda in Iraq, not invested in the preservation of any people or place, and largely consisting of foreign Arab elements coming from Jordan and through Syria, mirrored by the embrace of violence by Shi’ite groups, most conspicuously the Sadr Brigades, lumpen elements supporting that firebrand Shi’ite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr. This combustible situation led to an all-out civil war conducted by these radicalized elements, precipitated in its aggravated form when al-Qaeda blew up the Shi’ite Al-Askari Mosque and Shrine at Samarra in February 2006. Al-Qaeda elements have been employing a slogan, “taqsir wa tafjir,” which, translated into English, signifies something like “denounce and detonate” or, according to a friend, effectively “blow them all up.”
It was in the context of this explosion of hate and strife, when upwards of four million largely middle class Iraqis (proportionately equivalent to about 42 million Americans), were forced to flee their homes, unlikely to return, that Al-Mutanabbi Street was devastated. When tens of thousands are being murdered, when many parties are behaving in wanton ways, and when forces that consider humanism and enlightenment to be the enemy are unleashed on the land, it comes as no great surprise that this terrible crime occurred, much as we may lament it.
[modified and expanded for SAFE:]
As a coda, I would like to add that one man has shown what is possible in Iraq despite the conditions I have just described. That person is Dr. Saad Eskander, who took charge of a devastated Iraq National Library and Archive (INLA) in the fall of 2003 at a very dark hour for that institution and Iraq. There his performance has been exemplary under the most trying of circumstances.
Dr. Eskander not only succeeded in restoring a structure that had been declared a dead loss, but took a corrupt, moribund staff of 95 and turned it into a thriving, productive one of over 300, shepherding it through the dark years of civil war and difficult times since, initiating an enlightened administration in which the staffs of departments elect their representatives to the institution’s council; encouraging a women’s group that began a canteen and child care onsite. He reached out to the world, for which reason he received critical donations of equipment and materials of every sort from many countries and institutions, plus advanced training for his staff on several fronts. Despite having to repeatedly cope with retrograde elements in the Ministry of Culture and elsewhere in government, he has sustained the integrity of his institution and arranged for the building of a new National Archives building and a Generations Library for children and youth. A new building for digital projects is underway. Dr. Eskander has also spearheaded the effort to repatriate various classes of seized Iraqi documents on US soil or in American hands. Much of this is described in detail in my 2007 and 2010 reports. Despite the grievous losses due to arson and deliberate flooding in April 2003, Saad Eskander continues his labors in the service of Iraqi culture and heritage. His work provides not only a model for best practices in the administration of a cultural institution in Iraq, but for the world. We owe him our admiration and support.
*2 Beausoleil, Beau and Deema Shehabi, eds., Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here: Poets and Writers Respond to the March 5th, 2007, Bombing of Baghdad’s “Street of the Booksellers”, PM Press, Oakland, CA, 2012
NB: the big hole in the ground mentioned in this article is not the new Archives building, which has already been built, although not as yet fully furnished; it is the foundation for the Digital Library building, Dr. Eskander having long ago initiated a comprehensive plan for digitization in the service of transparency and access for Iraqis to their history and heritage.
One might rejoice at today’s news about the Christie’s owner François Pinault’s offer to return two bronze animal heads to China, a “cause célèbre for Chinese nationalists” has garnered start-studded attention from Ai Weiwei to Jackie Chan, Yves Saint Laurent, Nicolas Sarkozy, the Dalia Lama and now the head of the PPR, maker of luxury fashion goods, husband of movie start Salma Hayek. Or, one might ask if this is really a cause for celebration.
Since our 2009 post on the subject stating that since the objects were taken before current laws were in place, China’s “only recourse so far has been to purchase these antiquities back whenever they surface on the antiquities market,” Pinault has found another way. Purchasing the bronzes then “donating” them back to China, “their rightful home”, Pinault has found another solution, and a way to improve business and diplomatic relations with a nation that boasts an impressive purchasing power by showing respect for its cultural heritage. The sculptures are of two animals in the Chinese zodiac, and were part of Beijing’s Yuanmingyuan 圓明園 (Imperial Summer Palace), sacked by French and British troops in the 19th century. China’s mission to track down the many other artifacts looted at that time has been widely published and sometimes criticized.
We will never know if Pinault’s act of generosity would take place if China had not emerged as PPR’s “fastest-growing market for its luxury goods” and if the celebrities had not shown their keen interest. What we do know, is that the return of these sculptures is the right thing to do, even if—and perhaps particularly—when the case of the animal heads is not a legal but a moral issue. For this, we applaud Pinault.
Yet, on the eve of the decision whether to renew restrictions on the importation of certain categories of Chinese antiquities into the US, SAFE believes it is time to focus on China’s “other” looting problem, and we think, the most important problem: the plunder of its numerous ancient sites yet to be excavated. In her testimony in support of China’s request for a bilateral agreement that calls for import restrictions, SAFE Founder Cindy Ho said in 2005:
One of the biggest archaeological mysteries in China is the joint tomb of China’s only Empress Wu Zetian, and her husband Emperor Li Zhi. Called Qianling, it is the only tomb in China that holds two emperors and the only Tang tomb that has not been looted. It has yet to be excavated because for half a century, the proper time to excavate Qianling has been heavily debated. While the Chinese government is concerned about security and looting, archaeologists are eager to study the buried artifacts, which are tantamount to completing our knowledge of the Tang Dynasty. Attempted robberies—although presumably thwarted—have made everyone uneasy.
What is buried in Qianling will remain forever unknown if the pillage in China continues. We will never know what the ancient bamboo tablets with ancient inscriptions had to tell us just as the stories of daily life are lost when cylinder seals from Ancient Mesopotamia are looted. Nor will we ever understand the history of the ancient Northern People, the Chu Culture, much like the Vicús people of Peru, whose culture we know little about because of the illicit antiquities trade.
Nearly 10 years later, the official word is: no excavation of Qianling is considered for at least another 50 years, citing “preservation of the integrity of the tomb site and maintaining the environment of surrounding areas” as the top concern.
Authentic pieces of Yuanmingyuan may not resurface on the auction block any time soon, given the recent notoriety of the case of the animal heads and China’s continued rise as a formidable negotiator in the global arena. But the kind of plunder in the case of Yuanmingyuan is quite different from the kind of looting SAFE is most concerned about: the destruction of intact evidence of our undiscovered past, humanity’s most precious non-renewable resource.
This is why until media pressure focuses on the “other” looting problem: the plunder of sites to feed the black market trade of antiquities, we could celebrate the repatriation of the the rabbit and the rat only with cautious optimism and hope that the US would also do the right thing, as Pinault has.
Like those Americans of my parents’ generation who can remember where they were when they heard that President Kennedy had been shot, or of my generation who can remember their reaction to the breaking news of the September 11th attacks, the looting of the National Museum of Iraq remains, ten years later, a watershed moment for the global archaeological community and those of us who work to document and mitigate the illicit antiquities trade. The scale of the plunder, and its seemingly preventable nature, shocked everyone who witnessed it or viewed the frantic efforts of those tasked with dealing with the aftermath. For me, it was troubling enough to hear, and then have confirmed, that the United States was once again going to war in the Middle East, and for reasons that many suspected were false even at the time they were being announced. Given that I was about to graduate with my Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology from the University of Arizona at the time, I routinely spent each day immersed in archaeological theory, method, and site data from around the world, including the numerous civilizations that flourished in today’s Iraq; the Mesopotamia of the ancient world. Thus, knowing that not only was a war of uncertain parameters and unknown duration already underway (with the inevitable loss of military and civilian life), but that priceless cultural institutions would also be under threat, made watching events unfold all the more troubling.
Interviews with Donny George and other museum officials during and after the fact really drove home how tragic this loss was. Coupled with the sacking and burning of much of the National Library, this tragedy was propelled to unbelievable proportions. Although I don’t think it will ever be known to what extent US troops were ordered to guard the museum, or whether or not their neglecting of this order made the looting easier, it has long been understood (since colonial days, really) that the risk of looting increases in times of armed conflict. For my cohort and I, all archaeologists in training just beginning to accrue field and museum curation experience, we could at least intuitively grasp how damaging the event was. Later professional and life experiences would just confirm this.
One positive outcome of this tragedy was, of course, the founding of SAFE; the only nonprofit with an expressed goal to raise public awareness of new developments and new research pertaining to the illicit antiquities trade. SAFE was founded in 2003; however it did not exist as a nonprofit until 2005. Although the looting of the Iraq Museum served as the impetus to found SAFE as a direct response of this event in 2003, I didn’t hear about its existence until my dawning realization of the scope of looting itself My archaeological “formative period” came about in the Southwestern United States (at the University of Arizona) where, for three years, I was fortunate enough to participate in excavations in settings as diverse as the Sonoran desert near Tucson to the Pacific Islands. Both of these locations do also suffer from looting and site vandalism (which I’d later observe), but the wide open spaces make encountering looting a rare occurrence unless you look for it. I had enough on my plate just learning the archaeological ropes!
By 2006, I had completed my Bachelor’s, as well as a Master’s degree at the Australian National University, and my focus had shifted to Vietnam, Southeast Asia, and bioarchaeology (the investigation of daily life, behavior, and human-environmental interaction from data contained in the skeleton, in the context of burial practices). The more I studied and worked in the field, the more I appreciated how much is lost when burials are dug up in the hunt for rare artifacts to sell. Burials uniquely represent one-off events; snapshots of the life and death of an individual and community. Perhaps more than any other category of archaeological site, burials are truly irreplaceable. Attending the 2006 Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association conference in Manila, Philippines, first exposed me to how severe looting had become in Southeast Asia.
Having already seen examples of the open sale of artifacts accidentally surfaced while farmers ploughed fields in Vietnam, causing me to wonder how many more sites similar to the c. 3,800 BP cemetery site I was currently helping to excavate were out there, I had an inkling of things to come. Presentations given by the Director and staff of Heritage Watch (a Cambodia based NGO specifically focused on the antiquities trade) truly opened my eyes. Seeing slide after slide of sites reduced to moonscapes and incredibly rare burial objects openly sold due to international greed and weak laws, despite the best efforts of local and Western archaeologists, broke my heart and made me unwaveringly determined to help in efforts to expose and combat this threat, in Cambodia and beyond. By 2010, after returning to Vietnam and Cambodia to excavate and learn more, working at numerous sites around Arizona (and seeing vandalism and pot-hunting first hand), and finally returning to Australia in 2008 to commence doctoral studies, I felt I had learned and seen enough to be able to meaningfully contribute. In 2010, I began to guest blog for SAFE, as well as begin my own blog to discuss cases, galleries, legal issues and the ‘demand’ side of the market in southern hemisphere countries such as Australia. My own current research, conducted with colleagues at the Institute of Criminology, University of Sydney, seeks to clarify the dimensions of this market, especially concerning South and Southeast Asian antiquities, to a degree not attempted before.
Although objects from the Iraq Museum remain unaccounted for and the museum remains only occasionally open to the public, events such as the scramble by civilians, museum and military personnel to remove and safely store thousands of priceless manuscripts from libraries and mosques in Timbuktu, Mali, during the ongoing conflict there do suggest that the global community is much less willing to be silent in the face of conflict-driven heritage destruction. In time, the collective efforts of INTERPOL, private investigators, journalists and governments in cooperation could recover even more objects stolen on that fateful April 10th, but to me the larger point is that the looting of the National Museum of Iraq is symptomatic of the economic disparities between supply and demand countries, and the greed of those who fuel the no-questions-asked antiquities trade, that will continue to reduce countless sites to rubble before they can be excavated, let alone published and curated to share with the world.
Having just come from the latest (78th annual) meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, in which thousands of delegates (myself included) presented the results of our latest research, I can safely attest that global research output is very vigorous. However, except for the occasional passing reference or resigned statement, there is still nowhere near enough acknowledgement of what the antiquities trade is doing to the world’s remaining archaeological record, despite the pervasiveness of looting and illicit dealing worldwide and the archaeological questions rendered moot because of it. Of course, the effects of looting also include hampering the efforts of many nations to establish museums with fully up-to-date acquisition and curation policies, and then to effectively safeguard those priceless pieces of cultural and national patrimony that they contain. The severe damage inflicted to the collections of the Iraq National Museum is just one poignant example.
As cutting edge research to document and mitigate the antiquities trade, excavate or salvage new sites, and create more context-driven and secure museums continues, let us all take a moment to remember not just what was lost when the Iraq Museum was looted, but what good has come from recovery efforts. Without the noble front-line fight of Donny George and his staff, much more would have been destroyed. Without the help of Iraqi religious leaders and governmental authorities, much more would be unaccounted for. The real challenge facing all of us is to stop the illicit antiquities trade before it starts, tighten the net around those who seek to profit from it, and provide enough training to troops on both sides of future, inevitable, conflicts that sites of cultural heritage are greater than any one conflict. Only by doing this can we ensure that the tide will continue to turn in favor of the preservation of the material remains of humanity’s shared past.
On the other side of this equation, it is vital for those who investigate the illicit antiquities trade from legal or criminological perspectives to seek out and maintain dialogues with archaeologists (both foreign and local) in all areas of the world where looting still occurs. As my own research continues to demonstrate to me, effective legal reform and prosecutions must rely on documentation of artifact authenticity, illegality of export, and likely archaeological context together. The clear explanation of what knowledge is lost, and how it fits into the bigger picture, when an object is ripped from the ground (or separated from its records when stolen from a museum) is something only archaeologists who have excavated intact sites and seen looting face to face can provide. Organizations like SAFE that continue to work to bridge these gaps are still sorely needed.
Dr. Damien Huffer
Institute of Criminology
Faculty of Law
University of Sydney
Darlinghurst, NSW, 2006, Australia
I met Cindy Ho when she was getting SAFE off the ground 10 years ago. At that time I was involved in the advertising industry as a creative technician, and beginning to question its ethical environment. It was exciting to volunteer for SAFE. One of the reasons SAFE was (and is) exciting is its explicit use of rhetorical technique to initiate conversations around shared cultural concerns.
As an artist whose concerns lie in the social environment, I am interested in the present moment. However, it is in few places more clear that the present moment is linked to historical circumstance than in a museum. How are we personally connected, or not connected to cultural lineage on display? What are the quotidian conversations associated with exceptional objects? And how are they affected by the architecture that houses them, the other people that share the space?
This weekend I am organizing a public project called Long Walks in the Museum that positions people in relation to art. It is a sequence of scheduled one-on-one walks that pass through galleries designated “Egyptian”, “American”, “Medieval”, “European”, “African/Oceanic/American”, and “Greek” in one of the preeminent cultural institutions of New York City.
This is the third in a series of one-on-one walks that ask two strangers to navigate interpersonal and real space together, done is association with the Flux Factory and the Walk Exchange. Several appointments are still open, and can be arranged by calling 917-300-9521.
Beginning today, on the 10th anniversary of the looting of the Iraq Museum, SAFE will observe The Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage with a three-month global awareness campaign “10 YEARS AFTER” which focuses on our core mission: to raise public awareness about the irreversible damage that results from looting, smuggling and trading illicit antiquities.
Until July 1, we will highlight the following on our web site and social media outlets:
• the efforts of institutions and individuals dedicated to global heritage preservation;
• the global concern of looting and the illicit antiquities trade;
• how public awareness can contribute to the solution;
and apropos to the theme of 10th anniversary…
• the many ways you participated in our Global Candlelight Vigil around the world, which began in 2007 with Dr. Donny George Youkhanna’s call to action.
Click to light a candle
Ten years after the event that precipitated the founding of our organization, we wish to pay tribute to all those who supported us and worked with us; and most of all, those who continue to do so. Taking this opportunity to honor your work is how SAFE wishes to celebrate our own 10th anniversary, and look to the future. And the future of our past.
This is why we designed this special 10th anniversary Global Candlelight Vigil to invite your thoughts and reflections. Initial responses to our invitation have already come in, they are posted here and here, and on Facebook beginning today. Please read Howard Spiegler’s reminder not to forget the efforts to recover artworks looted by the Nazis; René Teijgeler’s concern about the situation in Syria as it parallels Iraq’s; Dean Snyder’s personal tribute to Dr. Youkhanna; Abdulamir Hamdani’s summary of a report on the current situation in Iraq, to be delivered at a seminar in conjunction with the exhibition CATASTROPHE! TEN YEARS LATER: THE LOOTING AND DESTRUCTION OF IRAQ’S PAST; Steven George’s expression of appreciation; Senta German’s observation on the impact of the looting of the Iraq museum on raising public awareness. Thank you for your participation, we look for your upcoming contributions.
These comments and reflections will be posted on SAFE’s web site beginning April 10 and also the Vigil page on Facebook, and other social media outlets. Furthering our commitment to raising public awareness about the global concern of looting and the illicit antiquities trade, SAFE aims to gather these reflections in a commemorative booklet as a public statement of concern, and as a tribute to all those who safeguard the future of our past.
Although the lack of published provenance (or ownership history) is not proof of dubious origin, it begs the question: if provenance does exist, what not publish it? For one thing, as Wennerstrom indicates, objects without clean, clear provenance simply do not sell well, if they sell at all. This is not a new phenomenon. But when will the auction houses (and consignors) catch on?
SAFE calls on all antiquities traders to face the fact, and keep in mind the phrase caveat emptor: complete published provenance is good business.
Since 1983 the U.S., has been party to the 1970 UNESCO Convention, which prohibits and prevents the Illicit Import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property. Legislative implementation occurred in 1987 with the passage of the Convention on the Cultural Property Implementation Act, which requires bilateral agreements with other parties to the Convention. It is important to note, that such agreements cover specific categories of antiquities. not ALL antiquities, and are renewable every five years. They are NOT outright embargoes, or bans, as some opponents would describe them.
In a country where news typically conjures images of warlords and Talib fighters, ambassadors and international forces, the 87 year old Nancy Hatch Dupree, has stood as an emblem of the country’s rich and ancient cultural heritage. A force in her own right, her strength has been cemented in her singular, unwavering commitment to the culture of Afghanistan before, during, and after the more than thirty years of war.
Arriving in Afghanistan from the US in the 1960s she fell deeply in love with the country, and not long after, the renowned Harvard archaeologist, Louis Dupree. Together they worked side by side, him studying pre-historic sites and her writing numerous guidebooks. With the great loss of Louis in 1989, Nancy re-doubled her commitment to their work. She expanded the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University (ACKU), a rich source of regional information, which Louis had established in Pakistan before his death and which she moved to Kabul University in 2006. In 1994, Nancy founded the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage (SPACH) in Islamabad in order to organize international efforts to protect the National Museum of Afghanistan during the Mujahideen Civil War.
Today, Nancy Hatch Dupree is affectionately known as “Afghanistan’s grandmother” for her decades of dedication. Never one to withhold her opinions, the following interview is a candid conversation about her experiences and insights into preserving Afghanistan’s cultural heritage. It is by listening and learning from these lessons – along with those of her colleagues interviewed for the Untold Stories series – that we may hope to ensure the country’s heritage for the next generation.
Q: For the sake of the film, could you just introduce yourself?
NHD: My name is Nancy Hatch Dupree and I am working with the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University. It is a collection of 60,000 documents related to Afghanistan.
Q: What brought you here? You have been working here for many years.
NHD: Well, I came first with the American Embassy, but that was many years ago. And then I married Louis Dupree who was an archaeologist and we spent many years here going to various places in Kandahar, and also in Balkh province, and also in Badakshan province, excavating pre-historic caves. Louis Dupree, my husband at the time, was the only one who was primarily interested in the prehistory of Afghanistan.
You have here the extremely rich cultural heritage; it goes from very early ages: beautiful things from the Kushan period and the Islamic periods. These are your spectacular periods. But if you want to understand the history of man in this area, then you start from the beginning, which is in pre-history. So he was primarily interested in pre-history and found that there was a very active association of peoples primarily in the north during the very, very early times, during the Upper-Paleolithic. And then in the Dasht-e Nawar we found Lower-Paleolithic, and this is a whole new period which has to be studied in greater depth.
Q: What was your own first project on Afghanistan?
NHD: I was working with the Garzandoi (Afghan Tours). I went to Bamiyan and this was when there was no paper guides, no two-legged guides. And this is now of the wonders of the world, so I spoke to Wahab Tarzi, who was then the first president of the Garzandoi, which had just been established.
And I said, “You know what? This is a scandal. You are trying to attract tourists but you don’t have any information about the most important tourist site in Afghanistan.”
So he smiled, and he said, “Well, you do something about it.”
I said, “Well, I will not write anything unless I see it, so you send me back to Bamiyan. So I spent a good part of a month in Bamiyan going to all the caves and studying everything. And then I wrote the guide to Bamiyan.
After that I became a guide writer. I wrote not only on Bamiyan but on Kabul and then the next one was on Herat and then the next one was on the north, the provinces in the north. And then finally, I published a general guide to all of Afghanistan.”
Nancy Hatch Dupree
Q: For me as an Afghan woman who lives now in Afghanistan and finds it very difficult to travel on her own, it is very interesting to see that you traveled to all these places at that time. How was it? How did people behave?
NHD: People, you know, the Afghans, they respect Harijis, foreigners, number one. Or they used to. They respect women also. And, so, I had no trouble travelling alone. People were always very, very hospitable and they wanted to help me.
And then much of the time I was traveling and getting my information for the guide books. I was traveling with my husband after I married him here and he was looking for pre-historic caves. I was looking for interesting material for the guide book, so we worked together. It was a very nice, cooperative relationship. And also he was my photographer. And that was, I think, it was very solidifying as far as the relationship was concerned. It brought us closer together because we were working on things together.
Q: Were you able to continue your work once the civil war began with the Soviet invasion?
NHD: I was thrown out before the Soviets came, when Taraki (Nur Muhammad Taraki) came. During the Taraki regime we were thrown out and my husband was put in jail. By then we were living in Peshawar. He was coming back with the Mujahideen. I didn’t come with the Mujahideen. I thought it was not fair because, again, the Afghan character, they respected an old lady, and if there was a helicopter coming he would stay in order to help me. And I was endangering his life and I had no right to do that.
So my husband, he was like a goat with the Mujahideen. They could find shelter. But, so, he was covering the Mujahideen. I was covering the growth of the refugees in Peshawar. You know, it grew from nothing. We have a picture; I have a picture, of one of the largest refugee camps when it had one tent.
And it became a big city, you know, hundreds and hundreds of houses. But we were there from the beginning. I was studying the development of the refugees and while he was travelling with the Mujahideen.
Q: Were you doing some preservation work as well when you were in Pakistan?
NHD: Well there wasn’t much preservation except for the preservation of information. Now this is very important because it’s not very well developed here. And that’s one of the reasons for ACKU, my center. I’m collecting the things that everybody is working on, all the research that is being done now. Because usually what happens, with these big agencies, they bring a reporter or a consultant, pay them big money, and they write a report and they circulate it for a short time and then it disappears. So all that information is wasted. So we collect, or try to collect, all the reporting that is being generated by the NGOs, by the bilateral governments, by the UN agencies, anything that describes what is going on, and what is the situation here in Afghanistan. And the reason we do this is because I am convinced that if you give the people of Afghanistan access to the information they need, that they themselves will do 80% of all this specific development.
People seem to think that just because people in the rural areas can’t read and write, they’re stupid. They’re not! They’re very, very bright and they showed that during their time in exile. They learned a great deal. Their minds were open and they are thirsting for things. They will pick up what they think is useful for them. If you give them information they don’t think is useful they won’t take it. But if it’s useful they’ll take it.
I had a recent experience with this. I’m profoundly bleak that this is true, because one time I was living in a village in northern Afghanistan next to my husband’s excavations. Two ladies came with a baby and the eyes were all stuck-up. They wanted penicillin and I said, “you go home, make some very, very strong tea and I will come. And they were laughing at me.”
They said, “ha, ha. We come, we ask this woman for help, and she said go make tea.”
Shaharzad interviewing Nancy Hatch Dupree
So, they were laughing at me and off they went. So when I got there they had the tea and we washed the baby’s eyes with the tea. And about two days later they came back, and this baby with these big beautiful eyes wide-open. There is nothing more beautiful than Afghan eyes.
They said, “Look at this!”
I said, “Yes, you see, the tea was better medicine than the penicillin. There is tannic acid.”
So then about a month later I was at a fatia, and we were all crammed into this room, and suddenly a woman with a baby with all stuck-up eyes, she began crawling towards me. And the women sitting around, they could see she was coming to me, they knew what was going to happen. And immediately, before she got to me, all the ladies were saying, “tannic acid, tannic acid, tannic acid! Go home and make tea!”
So, you know, this was learning. Not learning in a dull way, just learning practically, learning with good humor. And this is why I have a program where I publish books that are made for new literates. It is very simple but with very strong messages, not only about health, but about geography, about history, about home management. We have a hundred and twenty-two – oh no, now we have more – two hundred and seven titles in something called the ABLE box library extension, which goes into a district high schools and into village communities.
And this is part of what I do here at ACKU, because ACKU, they’ve got 60,000 documents. OK. They’re all catalogued. That takes a long time. And they are also all digitized. They’ll be coming, but they’re not all done. But anyway, about three-quarters of them are digitized. And the reason for digitizing is to preserve them, right? But also, you know, it’s very nice to have them on the shelves. I’m very proud and they’re very neat and everything. You can find what you want. You can search for it and you can go and find it.
That’s all very good, but actually, those documents are no use unless somebody takes them off the shelves and reads. So in order to distribute more widely, we’ll put all of this digitized material on DVDs, and we send them to Herat, Mazar, Kandahar, Khost, wherever there is a university, wherever there is the facilities to use it.
We will share this information with the whole of Afghanistan. The motto of ACKU is “sharing information for nation building,” because you can take this information and build on the livelihoods of the people. And I’m convinced that this is very, very important: access, access to knowledge.
What Afghanistan needs is a national information network, because there is lots of information here. And we know, for instance, one very interesting thing. You know, Afghanistan is very high in child mortality, very, very high. And the mothers, the maternal mortality rate is also very high. And you know 87% of that high rate is caused by the fact that the people don’t know they are preventable. You can prevent the causes of that high mortality rate. Prevent by giving them information about what causes disease, what are germs, where they lurk in your house, and how to avoid them. Simple things like washing your hands. So we have books on that.
And also, we don’t like to work in isolation. We like to work in a parallel with the government ministries. For instance, on health: they are lowering the mortality rate – one of the accomplishments, achievements of this government. And they are doing it through community health workers. They bring the community health workers for training and they send them home. But they don’t give them anything in their hand. So, when the community health workers think, “my god, was I supposed to put one teaspoon or two teaspoons of salt in this medicine?” Can’t remember and there’s nothing to tell. So we write a book that goes exactly according to the messages that the Ministry of Public Health are teaching. Nothing else, just reinforcing the same messages. But it is something that they can have in their hand. So we do this for veterinarians, we do this for agriculture, we do this in addition to the history, which they like very much.
Q: How long has the center been in place and how many people work for you? Are these Afghans?
NHD: All are Afghans, except me. And I’m going to be replaced very soon with a very superior Afghan who will be joining us in October. So I’m very happy about that. I have about 23 people who are working: the digitizers, the catalogers, and there’s the finance, and there’s the IT. And we have a reading room also in the library. You can take pictures of the reading room if you like, where the students and the professors, they can access our documents. And now we are building because we have very little space here, because there is more to sharing information than just cataloging books: exhibitions, lectures, films, all of kinds of events.
And, as I say, I look about this as one step, one step towards the establishment of a national information network, which we should have, because there is a lot of information here. But there is no way to get it out. It is really concentrated here. For instance, we have the boxed libraries, the ABLE libraries; we have in the provincial councils.
You know, the basis of democracy is your provincial councils. And I went to Charikar and I saw the provincial council. They didn’t even have a copy of the constitution. Now how can you be an effective provincial council if you don’t even know what your rights are?
So, initially we were only sending books to the community. And the community, they manage these. We don’t – we deliver the box and the community selects who is to be the custodian. They decide where they are going to put it. Some of our ABLE boxes are mobile boxes. Some of them are in schools and some of them are in clinics. The mullah’s like them very much. They’re in the mosque and sometimes in the shop because, you know, they’re lending libraries. So when somebody comes to return a book and take a new book, they see something to buy, so the shopkeepers like them also. So it depends, if the community makes the decision and manages it.
Q: What do you think about the ongoing preservation projects that are going on in Ghazni, Herat, Mes Aynak and the groups working there?
NHD: Well I’ve been working with the museum for…I don’t like to say for how many years because it makes me look very old. But the Kabul museum is very dear to my heart, and to see it being looted the way it was during the war was very disturbing. But the soil of Afghanistan is so rich that we now have Mes Aynak, which we didn’t know anything about then.
Joanie Meharry is director of Untold Stories: The Oral Histories of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage with grants from the Hollings Center in 2011-12. She has conducted fieldwork on Afghanistan’s cultural heritage with fellowships from the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies at Boston University in 2012 and the Global Heritage Fund in 2011, and an oral history project on the National Museum of Afghanistan with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in 2009. She writes often on Afghanistan’s culture and politics. Joanie holds a double-master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies and International and Comparative Legal Studies.
Shaharzad Akbar is partner and senior consultant with QARA Consulting, Inc. in Kabul, Afghanistan. Shaharzad studied anthropology at Smith College and recently completed an MPhil in Development Studies at University of Oxford. Shaharzad has extensive media and development work experience in Afghanistan. In 2005, she was the journalism intern for the book Women of Courage. Reporting for the book, she traveled across Afghanistan to meet and interview active Afghan women in all sectors. She has also worked as local reporter for BBC for Afghanistan, producer and host of a youth talk show on radio Killid and writer and editor for several Afghan magazines and newspapers.
SAFE has added Syria to the Global Concern section of our web site. Written by Bastien Varoutsikos, these pages describe the dangers to Syria’s cultural heritage as war, looting, and encroaching civilization threaten to erase a precious piece of our past.
Bastien Varoutsikos is a a PhD archaeology student from Harvard University, working in the Near East and the Caucasus on mesolithic/neolithic periods. He has spent most of the past 8 summers travelling, living, and working in different countries of the area, mostly Armenia, Turkey and Syria. He has been increasingly interested in finding ways to make his practice of archaeology more relevant to the public through outreach and education program with local communities.
We are thrilled to welcome Bastien to SAFE and we look forward to reading his future work.