Abdulamir Hamdani on the implications of the current fighting for Iraq’s cultural heritage

The following is Dr. Abdulamir al-Hamdani’s presentation on the destruction of Iraq’s heritage made on July 18, 2014 at the Iraqi Cultural Center. The event was also live-tweeted by Dr. Damien Huffer (#ICHpanel) and reported here by Dr. Alex Nagel. SAFE is grateful for this collaboration, allowing us to raise awareness about these critical issues.

What can you do? Sharing knowledge about Iraq’s vanishing cultural heritage

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.

ISIS destroyed shrines 5 Beautiful Historic Shrines Destroyed Forever by Militants in Iraq
AP

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.

ISIS destroying mosques Destruction of places of worship across northern Iraq, in areas recently taken over by extremist militants.
AP

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.


Note: Please also view the discussion on twitter: #ICHP and 2009 report on the Mosul Museum

The vote is in: We want international cooperation for cultural heritage protection

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.”

<caption>Results of the poll</caption> Results of the poll

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.

SAFE recognized in a landmark archaeology encyclopedia

SAFE is proud to announce its contribution to the publication of the landmark Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology.

This eleven-volume compendium, published April of this year, is unprecedented in its comprehensiveness. It contains more than 8,000 pages, 2,600 figures, and 100 tables, which cover international and interdisciplinary issues on archaeology. Edited by Claire Smith, professor in the Department of Archaeology at Flinders University, Australia, this encyclopedia “includes the knowledge of leading scholars from around the world” and encompasses the breadth of archaeology – “a much broader subject than its public image”- with contributions tapped from other disciplines.

One such contribution is the entry for SAFE/Saving Antiquities for Everyone, listed among a handful of others specifically addressing cultural heritage protection. The text begins with SAFE’s core mission: to increase public awareness on looting prevention and cultural heritage protection, by using advertising and marketing techniques. How has SAFE stepped closer to achieving this goal? Various examples of past campaign cards and photos answer this question by vividly illustrating past projects and successes. Perhaps most importantly, however, the entry stresses the fact that increased public awareness has brought changes.

“The editors of the encyclopedia invited SAFE to submit an entry in 2011,” SAFE’s founder Cindy Ho said. “SAFE is honored to have been asked to participate in this important project.” She also explained that since the entry was finalized in 2013, “the damaging effects of political turmoil and armed conflicts on cultural heritage have come into sharp focus. Look at Libya, Mali, Syria, Egypt, and most recently, Iraq.”

The entry also discusses current debates:

While some stakeholders – such as those who advocate for the unregulated acquisition and trade of cultural property – may question the validity of other countries’ cultural patrimony laws and criticize the effectiveness of their enforcement, no meaningful alternative to the 1970 UNESCO Convention, now ratified by more than 120 countries around the world, has been proposed.

With the widely publicized repatriation of antiquities and a general increase in public awareness surrounding these issues, failure to respect national and international laws makes the acquisition of dubious artifacts a high-risk venture. This fact, plus the increasing willingness of source countries to sign long-term reciprocal loan agreements with foreign museums, are bringing decades of pushback to an end.

Criticism of source countries as ‘retentionist’; legal actions to impede the implementation of the 1970 UNESCO Convention in the United States by CPAC; calls for fewer restraints on the importation of artifacts to benefit ‘hobbyist’ collectors and ‘world museums’ to stock their galleries with ‘artistic creations that transcend national boundaries’ are being replaced by a new question in the cultural property debate. The question today is: how to reconcile the growing claims made by source countries in Asia, Africa, South America and the Middle East, on cultural property in museum collections outside the countries of origin?

However, repatriation per se does not compensate for the damage looting does.

[I]n SAFE’s view, the issue is not who owns cultural property and where it can be traded, but what we are able to learn from these relics of our shared global heritage – and what we are willing to do to protect it. Whether antiquities are bought and sold in or out of their countries of origin, archaeological record is irreparably destroyed if they are looted.

Regarding public awareness, SAFE writes:

…the debate about the future of our shared cultural heritage is no longer the exclusive domain of academics, museum professionals, dealers and collectors. Members of the general public are becoming aware. They also demand to be heard.

Thanks to the far-reaching scope of this encyclopedia, readers can cross-refer to related entries. Colin Renfrew, Senior Fellow at the University of Cambridge and also 2009 SAFE Beacon Award Recipient, has written an insightful entry on the state and preventions of looting and vandalism in “Looting and Vandalism (Cultural Heritage Management)” (pp. 4552-4554). Another SAFE Beacon Award Recipient, Neil Brodie, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow, explains the importance of placing objects in their rightful cultural framework in his entry, “Cultural Heritage Objects and Their Contexts” (pp. 1960-1966). As all the entries include lists of references and further reading, students and researchers can utilize this book as the go-to reference book for all matters related to archaeology, from heritage management to conservation and preservation.

Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology is fully available online here, and for purchase here. If you library does not have a copy, ask for it!

Public hearing on Egypt’s request for import restrictions of antiquities into the US

On June 2, 2014 the Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) held a public session in consideration of Egypt’s request for a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to impose import restrictions on certain categories of archaeological artifacts into the US.

There were approximately 40 attendees in addition to the members of the Committee and Cultural Heritage Center personnel. Of the 11 presenters, eight spoke in support of the MoU, a ninth speaker found it redundant, two opposed the inclusion of coins.

The CPAC Chair Patty Gerstenblith began by asking speakers not to read their comments already submitted in writing and to focus their five-minute presentations on the four determinations in question.

Presenters supporting the US-Egypt MoU Presenters supporting the US-Egypt MoU, from left to right: Douglas Boin, Elizabeth Varner, Monica Hanna, Brian Daniels, Carmen Arnold-Biucchi, Sarah Parcak. Not in photo: David O’Connor, Laurel Bestock
Cindy Ho

A common sentiment expressed by the supporters of the MoU request throughout the hearing is that the implementation of US import restrictions would create a ripple effect that would lower market demand and thereby reduce the incentive to loot. An MoU with the United States will stimulate engagement among local communities and public educational programs in Egypt and support important long-term foreign policy goals over a broad range of issues between the US and Egypt. While Egypt is doing its best with limited resources to protect its cultural patrimony, assistance via an MoU with the US is urgently needed. By providing such assistance to Egypt, the US would join a growing number of States Parties to the Convention who have given similar assistance, a necessary prerequisite to approving an MoU.

The speakers who opposed import restrictions argued that since Egypt’s problems are internal, and the will of the Egyptian people to solve this problem without foreign assistance is uncertain, it is unfair for US collectors and to dealers to be asked to curb their activities. While the MoU requires documentation and export permits in order for material to be imported into the US, opponents argued that it is unrealistic to expect small businesses to do this work. Since documentation is not required in EU countries, collecting and trading will simply bypass the US to avoid the restrictions, thereby hurting business.

Since the two representatives on the opposing side were only interested in excluding coins and not import restrictions per se, it suggests that if there are any others outside of the coin trade who are against the proposed MoU, they chose not to have their voices heard. This is further confirmed by the 352 comments submitted online.

The following summary is a recap of the points that were made by the speakers (in order of appearance), not quotes. We thank Damien Huffer and Elizabeth Kiggs for their contribution of notes:

Dr. David O’Connor, Lila Acheson Wallace Professor of Ancient Egyptian Art, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, American Research Centre in Egypt:

  • supports MoU—an important step in furthering US-Egypt cultural and scientific exchange and collaboration
  • is aware of the severity of unprecedented looting in Egypt since 2011
  • ARCE dedicated to supporting research Egyptian history and culture, fostering broader public knowledge about Egypt, strengthening American-Egyptian cultural ties
  • ARCE supports 15-20 excavations per year, about 500 American scholars and 6-12 fellows in Egypt
  • Most ARCE-trained Egyptians continue work in the public sector in site management and site security
  • Egypt has reasonably successful record in protecting sites
  • when one of the sites at Abydos was hit hard by looters, Egyptian government provided additional guards and looting stopped

Dr. Laurel Bestock, Vartan Gregorian Assistant Professor of Archaeology and the Ancient World and Egyptology and Ancient Western Asian Studies, American Research Centre in Egypt:

  • supports MoU, including coins
  • has been working in Egypt for many years, hiring and training local workers, working with local specialists and conservators
  • reported finding a cache of 300 Ptolemaic III-IV era coins in January, 2011. Buried and taken out of circulation, find allows team to date site and shed light on the use of money in ritual donations, providing leap in understanding religious practices. Egyptian government instrumental in protecting the cache and site from looters, whose attempts were successfully deterred.
  • archaeological information from coin cache could not be gained from a single coin found in the same context. These coins are common issues, of multiple denominations, some with mint information, all from Egypt.
  • Egypt’s Antiquities Ministry is doing what it can under difficult circumstances
  • MoU would strengthen respect and emotional bond between US and Egypt

Dr. Douglas Boin, Assistant Professor, St. Louis University History Department:

  • supports MoU
  • protection for papyri and ancient manuscripts needed
  • some scholars, blinded by the hope of discovering the next great ancient or biblical text, will destroy Egyptian mummy masks to extract the papyri (all of which is legal today)
  • trade in ancient texts big business
  • MoU must include ancient texts, papyri, and mummy masks
  • MoU would compel researchers to be more diligent and to only publish finds with full provenance
  • MoU would lead to proper presentation of papyrus finds by professional associations

Elizabeth Varner, President-Elect, Board of Directors, Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation, Executive Director, National Art Museum of Sport:

  • supports MoU
  • if we don’t help Egypt now, when do we?
  • ICOM Red List confirms Egypt’s looting problem
  • increased number of market countries are states parties to 1970 UNESCO, showing increased international effort
  • Egypt has met all four of the criteria required for an MOU set forth by CPIA
  • Egypt has had legislation protecting its cultural patrimony for two centuries
  • Egypt party to international treaties and conventions
  • Egypt is doing its best given the vastness of sites

Peter Tompa, Lobbyist, International Association of Professional Numismatists (“IAPN”) and the Professional Numismatists Guild:

  • objects to the MOU a “done deal” as suggested by New York Times editorial, goes against American democracy
  • OK with the MoU as long as it is limited to large, obvious, Pharaonic period objects, not coins
  • Is request of MoU timed to glorify the new Egyptian government? (Note: Egypt presidential election took place between 26 and 28 May 2014)
  • corruption and oversight along with rebellion against symbols of the former ruling regime are reasons Egyptians loot
  • CPAC should take into account the 91% of public comments requesting that coins be exempted from designated list
  • Egypt is a mess
  • coins should be exempt
  • MoU unfairly burdens private citizens who wish to collect
  • coins are too small and widespread during the reign of any given empire to matter
  • cites Portable Antiquities Scheme (UK) as great model to follow instead
  • no documentation for coins, no database
  • did not answer question why coin collections cannot be inventoried
  • money should go towards security not legal efforts to draft MoUs
  • no similar international effort; EU does not require documentation for antiquities trade between EU borders
  • EU traders will just keep Egyptian material to themselves to avoid strict US customs if MoU is passed
  • what about orphans? (Note: An “orphan” is an unexcavated, ie. likely plundered, object that left its country of origin without an export permit)

Mr. Wayne Sayles, Founder, Ancient Coin Collectors Guild:

  • does not oppose MoU as long as coins are excluded
  • coin collector for 50 years
  • does not deal in fresh dug-ups
  • MoU hurts business
  • MoU will push out avocation of 50,000 collectors and many clubs
  • we all need to follow the law
  • we are not evil people
  • Italians are openly selling coins without export permits despite the MoU because they are not considered culturally important
  • Egypt does not have the will to do anything about looting (qualifies comment as merely subjective perception)
  • collectors and small business owners have no time to inventory coins
  • coins don’t have provenance
  • Egyptian coins found in 16 countries
  • keeping inventory and documentation should be matter of law; if legislated, will follow
  • property rights issue
  • has not fully inventoried his own collection (Note: CPAC has made it clear for years that coins outside the country of origin that are documented,or inventoried, prior to the signing of the MOU are exempt to the provisions of the proposed MoU)

Dr. Carmen Arnold-Biucchi, Ancient Coins Curator, Harvard Art Museums:

  • supports MoU, coins included
  • coins should not be treated separately from other archaeological material because they are an essential part of almost any excavation
  • coinage only exists in Egypt since the Ptolemaic period, through the Ottoman period
  • the multiple-object argument against inclusion of coins does not hold water, it also applies to ceramics, glass, etc.
  • coins of all types were minted by specific ancient governments; thus valuable to the study of ancient government structure
  • coins are not just made for export as some have claimed…but exchangeable for goods and services and other currencies
  • even small, ugly coins can give us much information
  • to document a coin not a question of law, reputable dealers do document, but duty to document and record provenance
  • not only Custom’s responsibility to catch illegal exports at the border, experts called upon to identify coins. Task difficult, but not insurmountable
  • foreign coins are known to have been present in Egypt in multiple periods
  • without inventory and documentation, museums would not accept donations of disassembled coin collections

Alan Safani, Art Dealer, International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art (IADAA):

  • publicly supports the MoU but only for newly surfaced loot
  • alarmed at current Egyptian situation
  • real distinction between licit and illicit markets; he and IADAA members deal with the former strictly
  • blanket ban on the importation of artifacts of Egyptian origin would not follow intent of the law which was only to restrict those of “cultural significance and importance”
  • MoU import restrictions are redundant because reputable dealers already follow the 1983 Egyptian law restricting the exportation of artifacts out of Egypt
  • what date should we follow? 1970 Convention? 1983 Egyptian exportation law? Hypothetical date of the signing of an MoU?
  • uninformed collectors may abuse the pre-MoU timeframe and disregard the 1983 law, causing more harm than good in regulating the antiquities market
  • issue is internal
  • Egypt disregards its own heritage
  • Egypt’s preference for developing tourism over site protection further encourages looting
  • Egypt has more than 100 years’ history of antiquities dealing, plus looting in antiquity
  • Cairo Museum used to have a shop selling antiquities
  • questions if looting frequency is actually getting worse, or we’re just more aware now
  • MoU would not impede practice of IADA, would have insignificant effect

Dr. Monica Hanna, Archaeologist, Egypt’s Heritage Task Force:

  • looters armed with guns and geo-sonar equipment
  • exponential increase of looting since 2011 affecting all artifacts
  • unregistered and unexcavated sites looted
  • foreign excavations need to do much more to build capacity and leave behind skills and economic incentive to not loot between seasons, Valley of the Kings a good example of success
  • antiquities smuggled out of Egypt use same channels as drugs and arms, eg. through the Sinai into Israel
  • drug bust three weeks ago also recovered smuggled statuary
  • human traffickers also move antiquities, smuggled in building supply shipments to Gaza, via ports with migrants to Europe
  • huge online market for prehistoric, Pharoanic, Coptic, Islamic and more recent antiquities
  • use of bulldozers obvious sign of organized activity. Eg. in Antinopolis, looters destroy conservation work to go after coins and mummies
  • guards, archaeologists, and individual citizens are being shot at, and risking their lives to protect their cultural heritage
  • children used to dive into tunnels get sanded over and killed
  • villagers targeting Luxor
  • the market should stop entirely until we get it under control
  • to a poor Egyptian farmer with 2-3000 objects, selling antiquities for $15 on eBay is worth the effort
  • usually what sells on eBay not saleable on the black market
  • every archaeologist should think about community development and promoting local people’s connection to the past
  • American archaeological teams should publish in Arabic
  • MoU a start to fostering economic connection between the local populations and archaeological sites
  • not enough policing before, getting better
  • objects coming to the US
  • US scholars buying looted material
  • new Parliament will have strict laws, wrote to both presidential candidates
  • MoU would help train 12,000 guards
  • will meet with EU and UAE representatives to discuss bilateral agreements similar to MoU with US

Dr. Sarah Parcak, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Society for American Archaeology:

  • supports MoU
  • expert in GPS remote sensing use for archaeological survey and looting patrol
  • satellite imagery only way to show evidence, location, extent, time of looting, also provides helpful information into what objects to look for on the market – i.e. 26th dynasty shabtis that were looted from a specific location
  • looting increased significantly since 2011
  • government acknowledges looting problem
  • job and research changed dramatically since 2011 Arab Spring from general study and research to establishing a methodology to document looting of known and unknown sites
  • satellite imagery cannot provide evidence or data for looting under houses and in tombs

Dr. Brian Daniels, Director of Research and Programs, Penn Cultural Heritage Center:

  • maintains a database of 900+ records regarding Egyptian and Syrian cultural property “events”
  • since 2011, increased effectiveness in Egyptian law enforcemens with help from Customs and Border Patrol, Department of Homeland Security, Carabinieri
  • Egyptians interested in protecting cultural sites
  • 12,000 site guards is not insignificant number
  • site guards only get paid $500 a year, foreign excavation teams should help pay for them
  • increase in volunteer groups and citizens efforts
  • some low-end items seen on eBay, but most artifacts likely sitting in warehouses at present
  • foreign archaeological teams should publish in Arabic
  • appears to support the hypothesis that some looting is performed on commission
  • 3-5 year lag between looting of objects and appearance on the market. Examples: 10 year lapse in the Robert Hecht/Giacomo Medici items;10 years after looting of the Iraq Museum, objects still not surfacing

Egypt’s heritage: a global concern

SAFE has added Egypt to the “A Global Concern” section of our web site. With recent updates on the dangers to cultural heritage resulting from political unrest, looting, and encroaching civilization, these pages aim to create an overview of what Egypt stands to lose, how cultural heritage is endangered, the market demand for Egyptian antiquities, what Egypt is doing to safeguard its own heritage, and what others are doing and how YOU can help protect Egypt’s heritage.

These pages were written and researched by Beatrice Kelly, with additional research by Tessa Varner. They exemplify the kind the work interns produce at SAFE.

Photo: Mallawi Museum

Auctioning Sacred Objects in Paris, Indigenous Cultural Patrimony, and Burdens of Proof

The April 2013 auction of sacred Native American ceremonial items by the auction house Néret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou* in Paris proceeded only after legal action and vocal international protests from indigenous peoples, anthropologists, museologists, and even the USA government. Ultimately, the French courts upheld the property right of artifact collectors and the auction house over the rights of the Hopi and other indigenous peoples to protect their collective cultural patrimony.

Photograph of auction underway at Tessier & Sarrou. The auction floor of Tessier & Sarrou.
Photo by Tessier & Sarrou.

According to the 12 April 2013, New York Times, the auctioneer told assembled bidders that ‘in France you cannot just up and seize the property of a person that is lawfully his,’ meaning, of course, the rights of wealthy collectors trump those of indigenous cultures.

Not surprisingly, the auction event and outcome were topics that surfaced in several discussions during the recent American Anthropological Association meeting in Chicago. A series of commentaries in response to the auction are also featured in the Fall 2013 issue [36(2)] of Museum Anthropology, journal of the Council on Museum Anthropology.

Leading those commentaries is the press release from the Hopi Tribe, which states the issues succinctly and should be read in its entirety:

Kykotsmovi, Ariz.-The Hopi Tribe is vehemently opposed to the auction of Hopi sacred objects at the upcoming Neret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou auction scheduled for April 12 in France. The tribe is requesting that the sacred objects be returned to the Hopi Tribe immediately.

“The Hopi Tribe must protect the cultural beliefs that we have used for centuries and still continue to use today,” said Hopi Tribal Chairman LeRoy N. Shingoitewa. “We think these sacred objects were stolen from the Hopi Tribe and should be returned to the proper custodians and caretakers, the Kachina chiefs, within their respective Hopi villages.”

The sacred objects in question have high religious value to the Hopi Tribe dating back centuries. Part of the Hopi Tribe’s cultural history and upbringing states that showing the images of these sacred objects is highly offensive to the Hopi Tribe. In addition, these items should be referred to only as sacred objects; incorrectly labeling them and showing the images is very disrespectful to the entire American Indian community and the Hopi Tribe.

“The majority of the sacred objects that are being sold date back to the 1930s,” said Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, director of the Hopi Tribe’s Cultural Preservation Office. “They were likely illegally obtained by a French citizen visiting our reservation. The mere fact that a price tag has been placed upon such culturally significant and religious items is beyond offensive. They do not have a market value. Period.”

“The sacred objects that are being put up for auction belong to the entire Hopi Tribe, they have cultural patrimony meaning there is a tribal and cultural right, they have never belonged to a single person,” said Kuwanwisiwma. “Because these objects do not belong to a single person, they have no monetary value and cannot be sold.”

For more information on the Hopi Tribe, visit www.hopi-nsn.gov.

The Hopi Tribe argues that the ceremonial objects put on auction are ipso facto illegally in France and should be returned to their respective villages.

Writing in comment on the auction, Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh [Denver Museum of Nature & Science] compares three different international claims to cultural property made in 2013 that raise striking questions about repatriation and the burden of proof.

He notes that the descendants of Paul Rosenberg, an art dealer, argued that in 1941 the German NAZI government stole a Matisse painting that is now displayed in the Henie-Onstad Kunstsenter in Baerum, Norway. Rosenberg’s heirs claim ownership and demand return of the painting. A second example is the effort by the Cambodian government to reclaim two statues from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and one from Sotheby’s that were looted sometime between 1970 and 1975. His third example is the effort by the Hopi Tribe to reclaim its lost cerimonial items.

Photograph of Hopi posing with US congressmen Living proof? ‘Senator Cameron of Arizona (with big hat), VP Dawes, and Speaker Longworth with the Hopi Indians who genuine Hopi Snake Dance for members of Congress on plaza, May 15, 1926′ #LC-H2-B-168.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Colwell-Chanthaphonh observes trenchantly that “Modern Western law and Western thought are predicated on the idea of concrete proof. While obviously useful in most cases, it sometimes prejudices courts against Native Americans. Many sacred objects are meant to be esoteric and private, not for public consumption or regular documentation. To provide the kinds of proof needed by a court is a violation in itself. … Really, what kind of proof would the court have accepted about the existence of ancestral spirits?” (Colwell-Chanthaphonh 2013, 109).

He concludes that the Rosenberg family will likely get their stolen paintings, and the citizens of Cambodia will get their stolen statues, but the Hopi and Zuni people – because their history and culture do not meet Western standards of proof – will not see the return of their stolen katsina and kokko friends.

In her commentary, Miranda Belarde-Lewis [University of Washington] describes her additional outrage of seeing photographs of kokko (the Zuni term for katsina) friends made by the gallery and reproduced for the auction and then again in the coverage of the auction in the press.

Belarde-Lewis expresses shock at seeing the objects displayed as art, and the violation of Pueblo law prohibiting the photography of kokko friends and all associated ceremonial activity. She asks “does a ceremonial item cease being sacred once it is removed from its home community? Of course not” (Belarde-Lewis 2013, 104). She writes that it is damaging to Pueblo “ways of living, being, and knowing, not only when kokko friends are for sale but also when they are depicted as art and when they are represented in images that strip the kokko friends from their context” (ibid).

Other commentaries are provided by Robert G. Breunig [Museum of Northern Arizona], Tony R. Chavarria [Museum of Indian Arts & Culture], Jim Enote [A:Shiwi A:Wan Museum and Heritage Center], Cécile R. Ganteaume [National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution], Steven C. Moore [Native American Rights Fund], Lydia Knowles [Denver Museum of Nature & Science], Bruce Bernstein [Continuous Pathways Foundation, Pueblo of Pojoaque].

References:

Belarde-Lewis, M. 2013. No Photography Allowed: Problematic Photographs of Sacred Objects. Museum Anthropology 36(2): 104.

Colwell-Chanthaphonh, C. 2013. Repatriation and Burdens of Proof. Museum Anthropology 36(2): 108-109.

Mashberg, T. 2013. Auction of Hopi Masks Proceeds After Judge’s Ruling. New York Times. 12 April. Accessed at http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/12/french-judge-rules-that-auction-of-hopi-masks-can-proceed/?_r=0

Additional readiing:

Indian Country Today.com entires about auction. http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/tags/neret-minet-tessier-sarrou

* According to their website, Tessier & Sarrou auction house was “founded in 1691 under the reign of King Louis XIV. It is specialized in sales of furniture and objets d’art, ancient and modern paintings, jewelry, Chinese archeology and arts of Asia, comics, perfumery, silverware, antique textiles, archives and manuscripts, and objects of marine , folk art, toys and dolls.”

Plumbing the Depths of the “Shadow Economy”: Reflections of an Antiquities Trade Scholar at an Organized Crime Workshop

On the 12th November, I attended a very special workshop, held at the stunning Stamford Plaza hotel in Brisbane, Australia. Hosted by both CEPS (Centre for Excellence in Policing and Security) and the ASMF (Australian Security Medals Foundation), it brought together a number of regional and international experts from academia, law enforcement, INTERPOL, police forces, and private security businesses.

With the aim of “exploring a range of issues relating to the nature and extent of illicit trade/intellectual property crime and law enforcement,” this post will summarize proceedings and, most importantly, explore connections between these areas of criminological practice and the seemingly “tangential” study of the antiquities trade. As was emphasized by the first presenter (Srgt. David Lake, Phoenix, AZ police), we are all part of the same over-arching “shadow economy.”

The workshop opened with what was, to me, a very fitting analogy. Mr. Rod Cowan, of the private security firm SecurityIsYourBusiness, began by poignantly revealing that he had stage 4 cancer! Why? Well, because as he himself has been experiencing, with diligence, treatment, and intervention, one can bolster their immune system to defeat, or at least keep in check, a ‘sickness’ even that severe.

By extension, he related that at an INTERPOL conference on organized crime/security last year, he just so happened to be the only Australian in the room, and when a map highlighting which countries had the most recent cases/highest rates of theft, Australia didn’t even appear.

“Either this means that Australia is doing everything right….or that people aren’t paying nearly enough attention.”

The take home message here, worth sharing, was that those of us gathered in the room (security specialists, academics, lawyers, criminologists, INTERPOL legal reps, former undercover agents, etc.) should see ourselves as “society’s immune system,” there to monitor and expose the illicit “shadow economies” that are costing many industries untold amounts of money, as well as jeopardizing the world’s cultural and biological heritage. Although the focus of the workshop was the Australian region, the lessons and information shared have worldwide applications.

shadow economy, Phoenix PD Srgt. David Lake, Phoenix Police Department, discussing the “shadow economy in counterfeit goods.

To begin with, Srgt. David Lake of the Phoenix PD gave an informative talk on what he called ‘economics based policing’, and how the aforementioned “shadow economy” affects us all. Regardless of the type of illicit activity being encountered, it was stressed that we must find new ways to respond as fast as perpetrators (if ever possible…), and react before violence and massive increases in ill-gotten gains reveal themselves as “symptoms.” Giving examples from the US/Mexico border, he detailed how cartels are moving into the counterfeit goods racket (organized commercial crime), with profits as much as 600% greater than the already staggering amounts gained from narco-trafficking.

If the legitimate economy holds that the customer is always right, then the task of all criminal syndicates from the demand end is to divert them (us) into participating in this “shadow economy.” What was so illuminating to me is that his talk, and others, brought the perspectives of once/former business owners and police to mind.

What does the shadow economy comprise of? Everything from untaxed labor to kickbacks, counterfeits, IP theft, fraud, e-crime, drugs, illegal gambling, the sex trade, and of course wildlife and antiquities.

As a store owner turned cop, he allegedly understood all about the logistics required to move products in bulk onto the licit market, and thus made it abundantly clear that criminals who could, for example, move 18,000 stolen lobsters in 12 hours in the US, or collectively rob 3.5 trains/day in Mexico, would already have markets identified.  Thus, it is crucial, he emphasized, that we “stop it at the marketplace,” as “once it’s out of legitimate supply, we’ve lost…”

People decide to traffic in stolen goods for a number of reasons, primarily involving feeling overly regulated or taxed by the rules of the licit market. In Australia, according to Srgt. Lake, the shadow economy now exceeds 15%, and is substantially greater in the US, Mexico, parts of Europe, etc. Apparently, if all counterfeit production was stopped globally, the economies of 60 countries (!) would collapse. From the law enforcement side, better understanding and monitoring “market re-entry points” at local and global scales is vital.

Mr. Philip Flogel, of NSW Fair Trading continued discussions around themes of the effects of the “shadow economy” on the legitimate economy and consumer safety, by initially discussing the synthetic drug market and that, even though all such products are currently banned under fair trade laws and the number of cases in hard-hit towns like Newcastle are down, forensic toxicologists can barely keep up with identification. Other examples of more local scams and crimes that exploit consumer demand via the creation of false markets include a recent rash of “driveway repair” scams in the US and elsewhere, internet fraud (suggestion to antiquities trade scholars: if a dealer ONLY has online purchase available, take special notice), and of course, counterfeit clothing.

As Mr. Flogel, and the next speaker, Mr. Ken Taylor (Trademark Investigation Services), profits from counterfeit brand-name clothing appear to be skyrocketing in Australia and beyond, despite numerous laws in place, and much media attention when raids are conducted on market stalls. The hiring of private security companies to investigate such cases has markedly increased over the last few years, in part due to Australian legislation that allows anything with a declared value of $1,000 or less automatically gets through Customs with no GST (unless the package is visibly dripping blood or ticking, perhaps…). In the case of counterfeit clothing, make-up, etc., storage space needs for goods seized can be substantial, and (alas) cases can take years to reach trial. Both speakers on this topic stressed that much more cooperation is needed between investigators, security firms, and law enforcement on all scales.

Australian Customs agents inspect a counterfeit goods seizure. Brisbane, 2009. Australian Customs agents inspect a counterfeit goods seizure. Brisbane, 2009.

Following on from this, Ms. Julie Ayling, from RegNet, at the ANU, gave an interesting talk on what’s called “TEC,” or Transnational Environmental Crime. This can involve everything from illicit polluting, timber trafficking, illegal fishing, and of course the wildlife trade; with a combined estimate of $31 billion/yr (?) Hard to know, really…

Like counterfeiting or the antiquities trade, TEC also represents a “poly-crime,” i.e. run by organized and well-financed criminal networks who also dabble in other trades (e.g. Irish groups robbing rhino horns from museums, dealing drugs, doing driveway repaving scams, etc.).

As was pointed out, TEC is an “economic” crime as well, given how difficult it has been to prevent poaching from the supply end, lingering corruption issues, and the losses to “source” countries that suffer diminished chances for wildlife tourism. Parallels between this and potential lost cultural heritage/archaeology tourism revenues in countries affected by the antiquities trade are readily apparent.

The final speaker during the morning session was Dr. Rick Brown, of the Australian Institute of Criminology. His talk provided a very unique perspective; presenting the findings of qualitative and quantitative research investigating small stolen goods markets “at street level” using qualitative and quantitative data solicited from 3-4,000 detainees for drug offences in four cities. The most important information to come from this data, in my opinion, are that we must not underestimate the role of informal networks and dealers themselves when it comes to moving small-scale portable goods (whether that be antiquities or burgled computers).

Dr. Rick Brown, Australian Institute of Criminology Dr. Rick Brown, Australian Institute of Criminology: Don’t underestimate the role of informal networks!

In this study, locally available drugs in each city allegedly decreased over time, but results suggested that users who steal were having to steal more and convert more to cash within their own informal networks to afford their habit.

Here, demand reduction in one area (drugs) does not necessarily mean less crime or effective outreach.

This seems to be mirrored in the antiquities trade, where increased apprehension and confiscation of larger pieces has begun to translate into greater due diligence performed by all market actors, but the trade in smaller items along more informal networks remains confounding.

The final three speakers of the day consisted of Prof. Duncan Chappell (Faculty of Law, University of Sydney), Ms. Rosella Mangion (INTERPOL legal rep), and Sir Ronnie Flanagan (former Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, now advisee to British American Tobacco over the illicit cigarette trade). Prof. Chappell’s talk was more or less what he and I presented at the Protection of Cultural Property in Asia conference in February this year. As our research into Australian and Southeast Asian antiquities markets continues, we can increasingly argue that market reduction is a sound approach. Of course, market reduction in the absence of (questionably effective) sanctions will make no further progress without further outreach.

Ms. Mangion further clarified the role of INTERPOL in the fight against illicit traffic of all kinds, noting especially that a trafficking charge must be an offence in both the source and demand country involved, but that it is up to us (since INTERPOL is not a police force) to “think like prosecutors” while investigations occur.

Given that all aspects of the diverse “shadow economy” involves both actors and facilitators, and that treaties in place currently are all either criminal law, trade-specific, or country-specific in focus, it was argued that greater operational cooperation was needed to watch for “unexplained wealth” (especially given poorly regulated on-line dealing).

Efforts to better ID, trace, freeze and confiscate the proceeds gained by all illicit trades will rob them of their power. This was driven home in Sir Flanagan’s talk about the international illicit tobacco trade, operating on a HUGE scale. Allegedly, we’re talking billions of dollars, millions of illicit cigarettes/shipment, multiple Western markets (including Australia) from sources in Asia, and marked increases in violence. It was all encapsulated in the story of a Loyalist crime lord (rose to prominence during the Troubles) who in recent years was posing as an unemployed laborer collecting welfare, but in reality was organizing “hits,” living large, etc. Nearly untouchable and untraceable, until connections to the cigarette racket allowed authorities to follow the money and seize assets.

At the end of the day, we were all divided into groups to discuss and then give feedback on a few key thematic questions/priorities; a way to pool our combined experiences and look for common ground in light of new info. Questions such as: How can investigators and academics better leverage the private sector (i.e. security industry)? What do the police/government agents want more of? How can the private sector better engage in outreach? What aspects of the shadow economy does the private sector see changing in future? How so? It all relates back to what Mr. Rowan and Mr. Lake pointed out; if we are to be society’s immune system, we must be strong and well informed enough to stay ahead of the symptoms!

One obvious requirement is more production and routine use of visual guides (e.g. ICOM Red Lists) for not only more source countries in the antiquities trade, but also species smuggling, and even counterfeit products. With the skills of counterfeiters, forgers and smugglers getting so advanced and high-tech, the “arms race” (if you will) is still far too lopsided. We were also of the opinion that fostering of subject matter experts outside of the investigative/law enforcement community is vital; especially if those experts (e.g. academic archaeologists, biologists, museologists, etc.) are given permission to tap into their colleagues’ expertise.As I suggested when I spoke, if we’re up against such complex poly-crime networks, then we have to fight fire with fire and create much wider networks of individuals able to identify, investigate and monitor.

Watching the shadow economy...all together now? Watching the shadow economy…all together now?

Finally, another obvious conclusion to come from the day’s proceedings was the need for more effective outreach in all areas of illicit trade prevention. I know, I know…easier said than done. And yet, I feel that the need still exists in many areas of the shadow economy to transition from a situation of licit markets hijacked or flooded by illicit goods and/or dealer’s communities with voluntary codes of ethics (propped up by a lingering no-questions-asked trade) to one in which increased awareness by buyers and sellers makes the dealer community more willing to self-police, thus lessening the work of investigative journalists and law enforcement.

Although those scant few of us working on illicit trades outside the purview of drugs and IP might have felt a bit tangential considering the rest of the delegates, I remain honoured to have participated, and do feel that everyone learned from everyone else. As always, the test now is to see how much lasting collaboration comes from it. However, I feel confident that workshops such as this help to ensure that Australia and its region continue to improve on what we’re doing right, and certainly not be ignored on the world stage for much longer.

Interested in interning at SAFE? Just do it. Here’s why…

For the last three months I’ve been interning at Saving Antiquities for Everyone, and the experience has been absolutely incredible. I’ve always been interested in the issues surrounding stolen art, but it wasn’t until I began working at SAFE that I realized how devastating an impact looting has on our understanding of past societies. While a stolen painting can be recovered and the case closed, an object looted from an archaeological site has forever lost its primary significance. Context is the most crucial means through which an artifact communicates information about the past, and a looted object is stripped of its contextual information, doomed to be just another pretty part of someone’s collection.

While interning this summer, I worked on a number of different projects dealing with the looting of cultural heritage, each equally fulfilling. I boosted SAFE’s following on Twitter, conducted a market analysis of Egyptian and Syrian antiquities, blogged about cultural heritage (including posts on the 10th anniversary of the looting of the Iraq Museum and an innovative new campaign to fund preservation of a site in Lebanon). One of my blog posts on the potential benefits of a museum of fake antiquities started a fantastic dialogue on LinkedIn, and I hope that SAFE can continue to serve as a place for furthering new ideas. My favorite project this summer was the Say YES to Egypt cover photo campaign, which has now reached almost one thousand supporters. I’m still working on a survey to measure students’ awareness of looting (stay tuned for results in January!), and a country overview that will inform the public about the state of looting in Egypt.

I have learned an incredible amount on each one of these projects, and the learning curve has definitely been steep! As a student, I’m definitely no expert on antiquities or looting, but I came in with a passion for cultural heritage and have (hopefully!) left with a deeper understanding of exactly how we can save it. I’m especially grateful to everyone who has responded to my blog posts, both positively and critically, because opening a dialogue has been incredibly helpful and fulfilling. We’re all on the same side working towards a future without looting, and every person who joins the cause brings us a step closer to saving our global heritage.

If you are interested in interning at SAFE, contact us now for the next cycle of internships (deadline October 1st). You need to be deeply passionate about heritage and a self-starter when it comes to tackling new projects, but with those two qualities, your internship will not only be a fantastic experience for you, but an incredible contribution to saving antiquities – for everyone!

How much looting needs to happen before we start to think twice?

In an atmosphere of general unrest and lack of control or safety provided by government, looting frequently rises to unprecedented levels as those desperate for quick cash plunder from the coffers of our global heritage. However, it is not the looters who stand to gain the most from such a timely situation, but rather the collectors who are able to add another invaluable piece to their collections, ripped from the fabric of civilization.

Yet even before the events of the Arab Spring raged across the Middle East and enraptured the world, the market for Syrian and Egyptian antiquities was booming. Many lots (objects for sale at auctions) were selling for above their estimated prices, with one pair of carved stone capitals from Syria selling for GBP 313,250 – more than five times its pre-sale estimate of GBP 60,000. With no provenance at all listed in the lot’s record, it’s incredible that a collector would nevertheless spend over a quarter of a million pounds on artifacts that could have been illicitly excavated or exported.

My process

I was curious as to how the looting and destruction that swept the Middle East during the Arab Spring might have impacted sales of Egyptian and Syrian antiquities, so I decided to compare pre-2011 and post-2011 sales in the hopes that this would shed some light on the issue.

I conducted this research both online and in libraries, accessing catalogues from past auctions from the Sotheby’s and Christie’s websites, as well as in the National Gallery of Art Library in Washington, D.C. and the National Art Library in London. I found the websites quite difficult to navigate, and it feels as though the online catalogues are there for casual perusing rather than serious research. There is no means of collating relevant items or auctions, and the information listed online leaves quite a lot to be desired.

Techniques used by auction houses

sothebys Unprovenanced Syrian stone capitals sold at Sotheby’s

Many of the artifacts, like the stone capitals described above, have no provenance listed, or will have an incredibly sparse record, like this Syrian limestone head which was simply “acquired prior to 1987” or this basalt torso of Herakles “said to have been found prior to World War II” (both pieces auctioned in 2010). The Herakles statue sold for 230,000 USD, twice its estimate. Many other pieces sold for over their estimates, indicating that a healthy appetite for Egyptian and Syrian artifacts still exists.

One of the thinnest provenances I saw was simply a listing of previous auctions, as if having made it through the system once before is enough proof that an artifact is fair game to be auctioned again. (If you’re interested in seeing some of these techniques in action, check out any catalogues from auctions of antiquities at Sotheby’s or Christie’s and you will quickly come across them.)

I had hoped that perhaps things would have improved after the events of 2011, but this was not the case. Provenance listings were no more specific or accurate than they had been previously, and there was no indication from any major auction house that they were taking into account the uncertainty in the Middle East when it came to acquiring objects for auction. In auctions taking place immediately after the Arab Spring, there were no reassuring notices placed in the front of the glossy antiquities catalogues confirming that the auction house had ensured the legality of all pieces (although perhaps they had — I’m not making accusations, just observations).

Even if an auction house deigns to ask a country if it believes an item has been looted, there are no public records from illicit excavations, and therefore no way for that country to prove that it was taken, from where, or even when.

Another way auction houses shift attention from an artifact’s physical origins to its aesthetic qualities is by listing multiple countries as the possible place of creation. As Colin Renfrew explains in Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership, having an unclear place of origin prevents any one country from laying claim to the item. Moreover, even if an auction house deigns to ask a country if it believes an item has been looted, there are obviously no public records from illicit excavations, and therefore no way for that country to prove that it was taken, from where, or even when.

I had expected to see a huge increase in the number of items placed for sale following the 2011 revolutions. However, there actually appears to have been no increase, which surprised me. Auction activity was relatively uniform from 2009 to 2013. Had there actually not been any items looted during the general state of instability and anarchy that seized much of the region? My suspicion is that these objects just haven’t had enough time to reach the international market. Looting is absolutely happening, as evidenced by photographs of sites speckled with large holes and scattered artifacts.

Evidence for looting

Indefatigable Egyptian archaeologist Monica Hanna has been single-handedly exposing an incredible amount of looting in Egypt, even going so far as to confront some of the armed looters herself. Hanna sent me some pictures of the landscape at Abu Sir el-Malaq, where looters have left behind piles of ravaged bones and mummies in favor of more saleable and attractive artifacts. This is just some of the damage that she has documented at that site:

abu sir el malaq 4 Bones left behind as looters uncover graves
abu sir el malaq 3 A child carries an artifact tossed aside by looters
abu sir el malaq 2 Archaeologists survey the damage at Abu Sir el-Malaq
abu sir el malaq 1 The pockmarked lunar landscape left by looters

The reality is that looting is definitely happening in Egypt. We haven’t yet seen these artifacts reach a public market, but they are out there. Or — even worse — as the events of the last week have shown, stolen artifacts may have actually been destroyed by those who took them, like we saw at the Malawi Museum. Hanna herself was at the Malawi Museum when looters stormed its doors, and defended its treasures against armed attackers. Some of the artifacts taken have since been returned, but hundreds remain missing, and it is possible that many of those still at large have been irreparably destroyed.

Trafficking Culture, a research programme into the global trade of looted artifacts based at the University of Glasgow, advocates using Google Earth as a means of tracking looting. This screenshot from Google Maps seems to show holes dug by looters south of the Great Pyramids at Giza:

Giza Holes

Conclusion

There has yet to be a “boom” in the number of Near Eastern antiquities for sale because dealers can afford to wait. As demonstrated by the mere existence of the Swiss Freeport (and its shameful role in Giacomo Medici’s looting empire, documented in The Medici Conspiracy), it’s fairly easy to have such a backlog of illicitly obtained items so as to not need to immediately sell newly acquired ones. Moreover, dealers aren’t dumb: they know that flooding the market with unprovenanced antiquities not only looks suspicious, but also will devalue each item as supply increases. Just as the Mugrabi family carefully plays the market to keep Warhol’s value high, so antiquities dealers know when to buy and when to sell.

It is disturbing that the public appetite for antiquities is so great that one can easily buy a faience figurine for just a few hundred dollars and no thought of import laws.

Tess Davis, a member of the “Trafficking Culture” project, is researching the process that many artifacts go through as they are essentially smuggled into legitimacy. It will be interesting to see the conclusions that her research yields, and I hope that it will shed some light on the process that looted artifacts have — and are still — undoubtedly been going through for the past two years.

Even searching for something as simple as “Egyptian antiquity” on eBay turns up multiple results for unprovenanced objects. While it is very likely that these are fakes rather than looted originals, it is disturbing that the public appetite for antiquities is so great that one can easily buy a faience figurine for just a few hundred dollars and no thought of import laws, UNESCO or otherwise. (Luckily, UCLA archaeologist Charles Stanish believes that eBay’s large selection of fakes is actually helping to stop looting, estimating that 95 percent of the archaeological artifacts listed on eBay are forgeries).

“The only Good Collector is an ex-Collector.” – Colin Renfrew

The idea of a benevolent collector has been problematized many times, including by Renfrew, who concludes that “the only Good Collector is an ex-Collector” (Public Archaeology, 2000). Renfrew does not have a problem with the act of collecting (identifying Old Master paintings and cigarette cards as hypothetical items exempt from his condemnation), but rather the practice of collecting specifically unprovenanced antiquities. But beyond just provenance, are there other issues at hand when it comes to looting and sales?

My conclusion is not that this research proves that the sale of Middle Eastern antiquities is out of control due to a single incident or period of conflict (as satisfying a conclusion as that would have been). Rather, it is that the looting specifically is out of control. It is likely that some will make the counter-argument that until we see these artifacts on the market, there is nothing we can do, or perhaps even that until such objects turn up at an auction, there isn’t any real proof that damage to the cultural record is happening.

This is wrong - looting is happening now, and without more awareness, it will continue to happen until there is nothing left to be learned from the decontextualized and ravaged objects. Monica Hanna told me that “raising awareness is really what we need,” so please help SAFE spread the word. A community on Facebook called Egypt’s Heritage Task Force has done a tremendous amount of work to track and stop looting and destruction of heritage sites, and it is that cooperation that we will continue to need in the coming months.

You can also join SAFE’s latest campaign, Say Yes to Egypt, and read more about our efforts to raise awareness about the looting going on in Egypt here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neil Brodie at UMass Amherst
Marni Walter

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why should import restrictions on antiquities from Cambodia be renewed?

Weeks before the gavel fell on New York’s Asia Week auctions, Nord Wennerstrom began raising questions about the “iffy provenance” of Khmer artifacts, echoed by Chasing Aphrodite’s post on its Facebook page “For sale at Asia Week auctions: tons of unprovenanced Khmer antiquities“.

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.

As the U.S. considers whether to renew its Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Cambodia, SAFE examines the reasons why the MOU was originally signed and why it must be renewed. In this overview, we lay out what is at stake, Cambodia’s endangered cultural heritage, US market demand, Cambodia’s response and public support.

SAFE encourages the U.S. upholds its obligations as a member of UNESCO and confirms our support for important restrictions.

Will Sudan’s History be Washed Away?

Sudan’s cultural heritage is in peril once again. The recent announcement by the Sudanese government to move forward with its plans to construct three massive Chinese-backed hydroelectric dams along the Nile River and its tributaries has put international archaeological and cultural heritage organizations on high alert.

The Nile River, which flows through ten countries from its origin deep in equatorial Africa and drains into the blossom-shaped delta region of northern Egypt, has been the watery lifeblood of those living along its banks for millennia. Civilizations great and small built their kingdoms and cities along the river, leaving behind magnificent traces of the past—many of which remain unexplored to this day. The proposed dams would submerge hundreds of archaeological sites forever under the rising water levels, including ancient settlements from the first Nubian Kingdom of Kerma, New Kingdom Egyptian sites, Nubian tower houses and rock carvings, medieval churches and forts, and Christian frescos.

This is not the first time a massive dam project has threatened Sudan’s cultural heritage. While dams allow for vital long-term water storage, generate electricity, guarantee water supplies, and provide protection against high floods and drought years, they often have profound impacts on the cultural and social landscapes of a region. Most recently, the controversial completion of Sudan’s $2 billion Merowe Dam on the fourth cataract in 2009 resulted in the permanent flooding of hundreds of archaeological sites, not to mention irreversible ecological consequences and the displacement of more than 70,000 people. The proposed Kajbar, Shereik and Dal dams would have a similar effect on their respective regions, again drowning hundreds of sites and displacing roughly 20,000 people from their ancestral homelands through compulsory resettlement to arid, inhospitable desert regions.

The Art Newspaper
Rescue and salvage efforts near the Merowe Dam in 2004

Presently, Sudan’s National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums (NCAM) is appealing to the international community for help, urging archaeological teams to conduct salvage excavations in Sudan before the sites meet their watery graves in the coming years. Yet, the very nature of salvage excavations raises important ethical questions. What ethical responsibilities, if any, do foreign archaeologists have when conducting salvage operations? Does their involvement in these missions facilitate the legitimatization of dam projects and subsequent impact on the environment and cultural landscape, as well as possible human rights abuses?

On the other hand, if these sites are going to be flooded forever shouldn’t we rescue and recover as many artifacts and information as possible? “We can’t be debating ethics while dams are built,” argues Neal Spencer, an archaeologist at the British Museum. In addition, archaeologists have been successful in generating public awareness to the point where foreign funders have pulled out of international projects, as was the case with the construction of the Ilisu Dam in Turkey. (Unfortunately, the international community was unable to stop the construction of the dam, which is scheduled for completion in 2013.)

Sudanese officials argue the dam projects are instrumental in exploiting the country’s resources for human development and necessary to “safeguard Sudan’s remaining water share allotted in the 1959 Nile Water Agreement.” The statement speaks to the recent signing of a new water-sharing agreement by six of the ten Nile Basin countries. Under the current 1959 Agreement, Egypt and Sudan are allotted the lion’s share of resources; however, the new 2010 Cooperative Framework Agreement seeks a more equitable distribution of water between the countries. Egypt and Sudan have refused to sign the new framework agreement, vowing to retain their historical water rights. Their refusal to sign directly reflects the decades-long struggle between the basin countries for greater control of resources, a struggle that directly plays into the decision to build the dams and ultimately the future of Sudan’s magnificent cultural heritage.

Trying to "put Humpty Dumpty back together again"

Watch the full episode. See more PBS NewsHour.

This post, originally published by SAFE on July 25, 2011, is reposted here as the exhibition is now on view through Jan. 6 2012 at New York’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World.


In a PBS report by Jeffrey Brown which aired on July 11, 2011, Keith Wilson, Curator of Ancient Chinese Art at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, said that during the 19th century when Chinese sculptures, created as religious icons, were first introduced to the West and became fine art. This created a demand from dealers, who then sold the objects to collectors and museums around the world, before laws were in place to prohibit such practice. This led to rampant looting of Buddhist caves and ancient sites.

One such site is Xiangtangshan (響堂山), the sixth-century group of caves, carved into the mountains in northern China. Although the limestone caves are still visited by worshipers as temples, they are now emptied of their original contents by looters to feed the international market demand.

Now, the exhibition “Echoes of the Past,” which originated from the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, has gathered together these objects that are now scattered around the world. Working with colleagues in China, experts have used virtual rendering to put back the sculptures in the caves where they originally belonged. Using “old-fashioned connoisseurship” and digitization which records very fine details correctly, it is now possible to “physically prove that a piece had been removed from the site.”

Why not recreate the cave and send everything back to China? According to Correspondent Jeffrey Brown, Wilson says, “the Chinese…haven’t made such a request.” Wilson also thinks that by allowing us to “see these elements back in place” the digital caves would offer an alternative to repatriation.

What do you think? The exhibition will travel to Dallas and San Diego next. The Sackler web site offers more information about the project and “Promoting the protection of Chinese cultural heritage.”

Photo: Jason Salavon and Travis Saul

The 3rd millenium BC Citadel of Aleppo faces serious risk in Syria

The Citadel of Aleppo, dating back to the 3rd millennium BC, is now caught in the fighting between President Basher al-Assad’s military and the Free Rebel Army.  The Citadel has a elaborate history: it was occupied by the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Mongols, Ottomans, Ayyubis, Mamluks, and unsuccessfully besieged by Crusaders in 1098 and 1124.  It is home of the Aleppo Codex, a medieval bound manuscript of the Hebrew Bible written in the 10th Century A.D.  It is identified in the Bible as Elijah’s cave and as a stopping point of Abram during his journey to Canaan and Egypt.  It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986 (“Ancient City of Aleppo,” UNESCO).

As early as May 21, Interpol requested vigilance in Syria to preserve ancient sites, citing that Roman mosaics in the city of Hama were missing and there was a high possibility for irreversible damage.  Their press release stated: “The on-going armed conflict in Syria is increasingly threatening a significant part of the cultural heritage of mankind. Roman ruins, archaeological sites, historic premises and places of worship are particularly vulnerable to destruction, damages, theft and looting during this period of turmoil” (“Interpol Calls for Vigilance on Looting of Ancient Mosaics in Syria,” Interpol, May 21, 2012).

Citadel of Aleppo
UNESCO
The Citadel of Aleppo now caught in the fight between Basher al-Assad and the Free Rebel Army in Syria.

On July 31, UNESCO issued a plea to preserve the Citadel of Aleppo.  They asked Secretary-General Ban-ki Moon to employ international agreements which protect cultural property (“UNESCO Pleads with Syrian Secretary-General to Preserve Citadel of Aleppo,” UNESCO, July 30, 2012).  No action was taken.

In modern day Syria, the city of Aleppo is a commercial center and home to 2.5 million people.  New reports claim that if al-Assad’s forces lose control of Aleppo, the country will fall into Rebel hands. Aleppo has been a war zone for the past four weeks (“Syrian Army Moves on Rebels in Aleppo, Damascus,” Hadeel Al Shalchi, Reuters, August 3, 2012).

The Free Rebel Army made a major push to take the Citadel.  Ahmed, a young rebel fighter stated: “One day soon, we’re going to march inside.  We will make it to the heart of city.”  Muhammad, another rebel, boasted: “Soon you will see us in the Citadel.  And from there, you will see a liberated Aleppo” (“Syrian Rebels Edge Towards Aleppo’s Ancient Heart,” Erika Solomon, Reuters, August 2, 2012).

Last week NBC reported that the Free Rebel Army had taken control of Citadel and using it as a stronghold.  Without any anti-aircraft defense, the Citadel immediately became a major target for al-Assad’s military forces.  Reports also stated that the Free Rebel Forces began taking shelter in a hidden wall behind the outer wall of the Citadel.  Syrian tanks easily broke through the walls, killing the Rebels, and decimating the Citadel’s medieval walls.

Citadel at Aleppo burning Image shot by amateur videographer posted on Youtube shows fire raging through the city around the Citadel at Aleppo

On August 11, The Daily Star of Lebanon reported that the Citadel was being shelled and that the main damage was at the entrance gate.  The New Zealand Herald stated: “One shell demolished the front of the house, leaving a gaping hole where the arched gateway once stood. A second gouged out a crater 3 meter wide in the walled garden and a third smashed into bedrooms and the library”  (“Citadel at Risk as Modern War Rages in Aleppo,” Kim Sengupta, New Zealand Herald, August 14, 2012).

While this article focuses on the Citadel as an important world heritage site, we cannot overlook the deaths in Syria.  The Huffington Post estimates that about 17,000 people have died in fighting– 11,897 civilians, 4,348 soldiers and 884 military defectors.  In addition, the UN reports that as many as 1.5 million people have been displaced by the fighting (“Syrian Refugee Numbers Surge Again Amid Aleppo Clashes,” Los Angeles Times, August 10, 2012).  We hope that when the fighting does conclude, the Aleppo Citadel will become a unifying symbol.  It will remind modern, war torn Syrians to be proud of their common historic past and national heritage.

As of today, August 15, the present condition of the Aleppo Citadel is unknown.

For more information please visit:
Al Jazeera August 4, 2012 coverage “Syria Rebels Converge on Aleppo Citadel”
Aleppo Citadel Friends
Wall Street Journal Update on Fighting
UNESCO’s Site on the Ancient City of Aleppo 

I am Greek and I want to go home

The Independent Movement for the Repatriation of Looted Greek Antiquities has produced a video: ‘I am Greek and I Want to go Home’

Photography, Concept and Artwork by Ares Kalogeropoulos

Original Music (“Rise”) by Ares Kalogeropoulos

It can be seen alongside this one, take a good look at this message to the British:

Help make them go viral.

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Update: Mali’s cultural heritage in danger

Mali is one of the few countries in Western Africa where evidence of human occupation from the Middle (and possibly Lower) Palaeolithic to the modern day can be found (Mayor et al. 2005). The intense exploration of the Sahara has built a clearer picture of the expansion of modern humans, from around 100,000 to 50,000 BP, moving westward through the continent, crossing into countries such as Niger, Sudan, Chad and Libya. It is in the Ounjougou site complex in the Dogon Region where the longest prehistoric sequence in western Sub-Saharan Africa has been documented (Robert et al. 2003; Truman 2006). Mali has also provided some key sites regarding the spread of Neolithic people in Western Africa (Gallay 1966). At sites such as Kobadi, the adaptation of the population in changing environments has been observed (Georgeon et al. 1990; Raimbault and Dutour 1990).

The Bronze Age in Mali is a particularly interesting period as it raises the question of whether there were long-distance relationships between the sub-Saharan region and Europe. The area of Adrar des Iforas is home to a number of petroglyphs, the majority dated between the Bronze and Iron Ages. Some of the forms depicted here are similar to petroglyphs found around Italy, England and Portugal, among other countries (Dupuy 2010).

© OUR PLACE The World Heritage Collection
Tomb of Askia

Archaeologically renowned, some of the oldest cities in western Africa are situated in this country. A series of different kingdoms (Ghana, Mali, Songhay, Mossi and Segou) have evolved throughout the past two millennia, leading to the creation of cities such as Djenné, Timbuktu or Gao. The Arab conquest of this area seems to have happened as early as the XIth century but became widespread under the Kindgom of Mali and specifically during the reign of the XIVth century ruler Kangan (or Kankan) Moussa. After coming back from Al hajj, his pilgrimage to Mecca, Moussa launched a program of construction throughout the country, having architects from Al-Andalus and Cairo building mosques, madrasas and palaces. He enlisted Abu Ishaq Es Saheli to construct the Djinguereber Mosque in 1327, which then became an important centre for the diffusion of Islam knowledge in the region. Most famously, Moussa is known for initiating the construction of the Sankore Madrasah in 1324. In 1495 the Songhai Empire, adopting Soudan-Sahelian Islamic architecture, erected a monument by Mohamed Aboubacar Sylla (known as Mohammed Askia) – the Tomb of Askia.

Another feature of Mali’s cultural heritage worth mentioning is the Hediab, a collection of thousands of manuscripts, theological and scientific treaties dating back as far as the pre-Islamic era and written in Arabic or the Peul language. These are usually kept at the Institut des Hautes Études et de Recherches Islamiques Ahmed Baba, but Malian officials say that most of these manuscripts have now been relocated to a safer area.

© UNESCO Auteur Francesco Bandarin
Djenne

The previous list is not meant to be exhaustive but instead aims at highlighting some of the key heritage features of the country. Since the late 1980s, UNESCO has submitted four cultural sites to its World Heritage List:

  • The Old Town of Djenné in 1988, with its 2000 traditional toguere-built houses.
  • The City of Timbuktu in 1988, covering the three main mosques, Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahia, as well as 16 cemeteries and mausoleums, considered as “essential elements in a religious system as, according to popular belief; they constitute a rampart that shields the city from all misfortune. “
  • The Tomb of Askia in 2004.
  • The Cliff of Bandiagara, a mixed natural and cultural landscape, in 1989.

Furthermore, nine other locations of great importance have now been submitted to the World Heritage List, a move that acknowledges and protects more than 2,000 years of history as recent geopolitical developments are endangering the unique culture of the Malian Heritage.

The Political Situation and Main Players Involved in the Conflict

© UNESCO Auteur F. Bandarin
Timbuktu

Earlier this week, the UNESCO World Heritage Collection (WHC) put the city of Timbuktu and the Tomb of Askia, Mali, on the list of World Heritage in Danger. The original request was conducted by the Malian government following a series of insurrections that took place in the northern part of the country and ultimately led to the establishment of an unrecognised Islamist State in the region of Azawad.

Since the times of French colonization, people in the northern part of Mali, the majority made up of Tuareg and Arabic populations, expressed their desire for an independent state as they considered themselves more oriented towards a sub-Saharan culture. The current events that have taken place since the start of 2012 represent the most recent development in a series of uprisings commencing as far back as the beginning of the 20th century. At the start of 2012, President Amadou Toumani Touré was heavily criticized for his handling of the crisis in northern Mali. Indeed, after the fall of the Libyan official army, for which many Tuaregs and members of the future National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) were fighting, the unrest in northern Mali was reignited by a series of declarations and armed actions taken by the MNLA and an Islamist movement known as Ansar Dine (or Ançar Dine) against several cities of the region. In March, President Touré was ousted by a coup led by several groups in the military. The transitory council, presided by Amadou Sagono, suspended the constitution and aimed to restructure the territorial integrity of the Malian Sate. However, in April, the MNLA unilaterally proclaimed the independence of the state of Azawad. It is not yet recognized by any other states. In May, the MNLA officially announced its merging with the Salafist group Ansar Dine to create the Conseil Transitoire de l’État Islamique d’Azawad. It is important to keep in mind that despite some allegations by the Malian government, the MNLA denies any connection with Al Qaeda and aims at the restoration of a laic republic in Azawad. On the other hand, Ansar Dine, led by Iyad Ag Ghali, aims at the application of Sharia law throughout the state of Mali, and has been suggested as a potential ally of the Al Qaida au Maghreb Islamique (AQMI) movement. These divergences, along with others, have led to the dissolution of their previous agreement. After several clashes between the two groups, Ansar Dine declared full control of the North of Mali.

Today, the conflict involves three groups: the elected government, still led by the council of transition, presided by Amadou Sagono; the Salafist group of Ansar Dine and the MNLA, currently led by the president of the Executive Committee of the State of Azawad, Mahmoud Ag Aghaly. The situation is currently unstable and no international actions have been taken so far. However, the worsening of the humanitarian situation in northern Mali, as shown by UNICEF Anthony Lake’s declaration mentioning in this area the spread of rapes and recruitment of child soldiers, calls for a rapid decision from the international community.

Damages to Cultural Heritage in Mali

Damages to the cultural heritage of Mali started before the attacks carried out against the mausoleums of Timbuktu. As early as April this year, the offices of the Hediab were ransacked several times, although no damages to the manuscripts have been reported. Reports also mentioned the damages done in late April to a mausoleum of the 16th century Sufi Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar by Ansar Dine, including “breaking windows, [and] burning the cloth surrounding the tomb of the saint.” On June 2nd, the New York Times reported the destruction of possibly another saint shrine, although no further information was available.

Concerned by these developments, UNESCO issued a decision on June 28th aiming to put Timbuktu and the Tomb of Askia on the List of World Heritage in Danger. Two days later and possibly as a reaction to this decision, the destruction of the mausoleums were reported in some newspapers. Sanda Ould Boumama, Ansar Dine’s spokesman, let the media know that the goal of his organization was to get rid of all the mausoleums in the city without any exception. The purpose of this is to install Sharia Islamic law across Mali. Let us here recall the Salafist group’s version of Islam, who believe that God is unique and who forbid the very existence of saints, and a fortiori their representation. On Saturday 30th, several press agencies received the confirmation of the destruction of three mausoleums:  the Sidi Mahmoud, Sidi Moctar and Alpha MoyaLe Monde reported the destruction of seven mausoleums in total, adding Cheikh el-Kébir to the list, a site located on the grounds of Djingareyber. The Agence France-Presse notes:

“Islamist rebels in northern Mali took hoes and chisels to the tombs of ancient Muslim saints in the city of Timbuktu for a second day, ignoring international pleas to halt their campaign of destruction. A local journalist said dozens of Islamists had swarmed the cemetery of Djingareyber in the south of the ancient city of Timbuktu.”

The Independent quotes Aboubacrine Cissé, a local resident,

“This morning, the Islamists continued breaking the mausoleums. This is our patrimony, recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. They are continuing to destroy all the tombs of all the saints of Timbuktu, and our city counts 333 saints.”

It has now been a few weeks since the destruction of the mausoleums started, and an eighth building has possibly been destroyed. In addition to these irrecoverable damages, the dispersion of historical manuscripts as well as artifacts might “become the object of looting and trafficking for profit” in the turmoil. Additionally, the location of other precious cultural sites in the region now controlled by the Salafist group, whether they are on the World Heritage List, such as the Tomb of Askia in Gao, or not, should be a cause for concern for countries around the world.

What Is Currently Being Done? 

Beyond the destruction carried out against cultural heritage sites, a broader control issue has arisen by the current geopolitical situation in northern Mali. West Africa called for an intervention supported by the UN Security council in order to regulate the situation in this area and take action against the armed forces controlling the North of the country. The Economic Community of West African States (ECWAS) is favouring negotiation while planning on sending 3,300 men into the country, although needing international support to legitimize this action. The UN, African Union and European Union are however requesting more details about the ECWAS’ plan of action. More recently, the UN Security Council called for sanctions against the individuals related to Al Qaeda in Northern Mali and asked the rebel groups in this area not to associate themselves with AQMI.

In terms of cultural heritage, the Malian Minister of Arts, Tourism and Culture, Diallo Fadima, is asking the UN to take concrete measures to stop the destruction of Mali’s patrimony. Fatou Bensouda, procurer for the International Criminal Court, declared on Sunday 1st July in Dakar that destruction of these mosques and madrasas was considered a “war crime” and exhorted the groups involved to stop their actions immediately. On Tuesday 3rd, in St Petersburg, UNESCO and Diallo Fadima produced an appeal to governments and “all people of goodwill” to prevent the destruction of these monuments. The World Heritage Committee is, on the other hand, asking the UNESCO President, Irina Bokova, to create a special fund “to help Mali preserve its cultural patrimony from attacks” with financial aid from UNESCO members and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

CONCLUSION – Why Should We Care?

Reuters recalls how these attacks have been inline with other events throughout the Arab world for the past few years, as, for example, the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamyian in Afghanistan in 2001. However, a new line was crossed this year when attacks started being focused directly at symbols of Islam. Reuters mentions that “experts are comparing the Timbuktu tomb destructions to similar attacks against Sufi shrines by hard-line Salafists in Egypt and Libya.” If there is indeed a history of unrest between the different Islamic groups, this type of behaviour seems like a new phenomenon. As mentioned earlier in this article, Salafists are defending their own version of Islam, defining legal systems based on the Sharia, and imposing iconoclasm throughout their territories. From this perspective the Sufi Shrines of the “333 saints” of Timbuktu have to disappear to make space for a “purer Islam.”

There is here a dangerous desire to standardize and homogenize Islam throughout the world by the destruction of its unorthodox (again from these groups’ perspective) cultural components. Therefore, beyond the protection of these monuments, it is freedom of religion, of cultural expression, of consciousness that has to be defended. It is also the right of self-determination, to the free construction of one’s own identity and the safeguard of a people’s memory that is here at stake.

 

FROM THE FIELD: Change of Time, An Interview with Abdul Wasay Najimi, Conservation Architect for the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and Professor at Kabul University

In the summertime, thousands of visitors flock to Bagh-e Babur, “Babur’s Garden”, an historic park in the heart of Kabul. Presiding over the garden is the entombed 16th-century Emperor Babur the Conqueror, founder of the Moghul Empire in India, for whom the garden is named. In the emperor’s memoir, the Baburnama, he praises the location for its scenery, gardens, orchards, and semi-arid climate. “Within a day’s ride it is possible to reach a place where snow never falls,” he observes. “But within two hours one can go where the snows never melt.”

Five centuries later, the public enjoys this same ambiance. Enclosed by perimeter walls, fertile rows of cypress, hawthorn, and cherry trees adorn the cascading terraces of the garden. Groups congregate on the pavilions. Couples stroll lazily along the water channels. Families picnic beneath the shade of the trees, eating kebabs, chatting, and resting in the dry heat.

Babur’s Garden did not always paint so splendid a picture. By the end of the Mujahideen civil war (1992-95) much of the garden was destroyed. It lingered in this state of disrepair through the Taliban regime (1996-2001).  And it was not until 2003 that restoration work was begun by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), joined by Dr. Abdul Wasay Najimi, a conservation architect. Most of the work was completed by 2007 with facilities for cultural and recreational activities, including a caravanserai (inn with large courtyard and area for caravans), garden pavilion, swimming-pool, and Queen’s Palace complex.

It was at the garden that we filmed an interview with Dr. Najimi about his work as a conservation architect as part of the series, Untold Stories: the Oral Histories of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage. The interview can be watched in the short video, Who is the Conservation Architect?, which showcases Dr. Najimi’s work for AKTC, including conservation of the eighteenth-century Timur Shah Mausoleum. Today, Dr. Najimi is instructing in the history of the architecture of Afghanistan full-time at Kabul University, teaching a younger generation to appreciate their cultural heritage, so that in time, more of Afghanistan’s remarkable architecture may be preserved.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your work experience with the Babur’s Garden project?

AWN: The first time I saw Babur’s Garden was in the Taliban’s time. It was in 2000. One of my former students was involved in the project. He had some funds from HABITAT to plant some trees that you can see at the lower part of Babur’s Garden. He also wanted to build a door for the garden.

Generally, the garden was completely destroyed. All its old trees were cut down. The place we are sitting at was destroyed. The structure was in place. The garden was ruined and there were no windows or doors or anything. All the surrounding houses were in ruins. I came with him to see what his plans were and what he was doing. For the second time, when I came in 2002, we started a deep survey and study of Babur’s Garden. Naturally, it was as I described before. Slowly we surveyed and developed a design and we implemented the plans. Now you see the results.

Q: When you were abroad (working towards your PhD), were you following the issues related to Afghanistan?

AWN: Since 1986, I have had direct working relations with Afghanistan. But not all my activities were related to historical sites and buildings. There were no such projects then, and also, there was no funding or budget for this kind of work. To earn a living, I worked with other organizations working in Afghanistan, organizations for development of cities and rural areas and such. But throughout this period, there were projects and missions once in a while from UNESCO or something organized by myself, where I traveled and studied historical sites closely, and wrote on them.

From 1991 or even 1990, I became more involved and I went to Bamiyan on behalf of UNESCO once or twice. Once, I went to Munar-e Jam. From ’93 onwards I was in Herat for two years with a Danish organization. We reconstructed some of the significant sites there. For a while after that, I was not very involved. But since 2002, after AKF (Aga Khan Foundation) opened an office in Kabul, we identified some sites/projects for reconstruction in Kabul. After 2005, I also got involved with Herat. Since then (2002), I have been directly involved in different projects.

Q: How many important projects did you work on at this time?

AWN: In Kabul, one of the most important projects was the revival and reconstruction of Bagh-e-Babur. Others were repairing, strengthening, and restoring the Timur Shah Mausoleum and garden, and reviving and repairing a residential area known as Ashiqan wa Arifan, in the old city of Kabul.

We further developed to include [restoring] a series of historical mosques, historical public baths, fixing roads and streams, and helping provide drinking water. Similarly in Herat, our important projects included reconstruction of an area in Herat, close to the center of the city; we reconstructed some of the houses as a sample.

Q: What role did Afghans have in reconstruction of the garden?

AWN: Generally, all we have done has been done through Afghans. To the extent possible, Afghans have also done the expert and technical work. AKF (Aga Khan Foundation) is an international organization and naturally wants to work with international standards. For this reason, we occasionally had international observers or experts whom we consulted with in case of need and asked for advice… Thus, it was both satisfactory and enjoyable. During these talks, my colleagues and I learned a lot academically and they (the international experts) also admired the restoration of old building material, the style, and the way of old work. They would see how to reuse the material that had been used before, again, and get a good result out of it.

Q: What are the plans for the future of Babur’s Garden?

AWN: Babur’s Garden, after its reconstruction was completed in 2006, I think towards the end of 2006, found a new administration. We tried to form a trust or administrative organization for the garden. It would be run by an executive board with help from the municipality, which used to run the garden, and the Ministry of Information and Culture, which is responsible for preservation of historical sites and buildings. The executive board members are representatives of AKF, the Kabul municipality, and the Ministry of Information and Culture.  The day to day management of the garden is conducted by the trust or organization called “Organization for Protection and Preservation of Babur’s Garden”.  The organization is registered with the Ministry of Economics and is run according to regulations of NGOs.

Q: And the idea is that the garden will be independent in future?

AWN: No. The idea is that in the past, many years ago, the garden was run by the municipality, and they sold tickets for entrance to the garden. Now, the garden is at the beginning of its reconstruction, and it has some expenses to be paid occasionally for its preservation and protection. The decision was made that the garden can have revenue from selling entrance tickets, from renting out for cultural events, and if there is a shortage of money/budget, it will ask for help from aid organizations so that it can manage its own expenses. According to government regulations, the municipality did the same thing. So it is permitted. The organization/trust is a non-profit. They need to manage all their expenses and income themselves. At the end of each year, their accounts are audited by auditors that have so far been international auditors and a report is made on their expenses.

Q: Was the team from Babur’s Garden involved in the restoration of Timur Shah Mausoleum as well?

AWN: Our team was really big. One team worked with Babur’s Garden. The other worked on Timur Shah Mausoleum and then on the walls and the gardens there. We had another team that was working in the old city. Some of the engineers, who gained work experience here, went and worked with other organizations, or made their own companies. Some of them went to Herat with me. We had the same program there regarding training of young people and such. For now, our work has decreased in Kabul, and we try to go and work in some other provinces where we didn’t have access before.

Q: How has the collaboration from local people been? How much do they know about historical sites?

AWN: Local people know about the value of historical sites and buildings… Unfortunately, during the war, there were many limitations. Poverty was increasing and roads were closed. Many people started to think that if they dig the historical sites, and find some historical or antique artifacts, and sell them, they can earn a living. Unfortunately, this led us to lose some of our important and historical artifacts.

When there is no specific responsible organization, the local people also slowly become careless, especially when it comes to buildings and such. In some places, historical buildings and locations have been misused, and that may have caused their destruction. In other places, lack of any preservation efforts and existence of snow and rain has led to destruction. Sometimes, it has been a case of military use or buildings being employed in some manner during the fighting. Or the government has used the structures for military purposes. The people have often used buildings as shelters. The important point is that there is little public knowledge about historical artifacts of our country. And the officials, even if they are responsible, they are not fully active and accountable on raising awareness. We still have the problem that on one front, we need to raise public awareness through radios and TVs and through schools and teaching, and on the other front we need to work to improve the organizations that are responsible for this job of preservation.

Q: What was the worst period for cultural heritage in Afghanistan?

AWN: It is now and it was in the past 30 years of war. The main reason is that it was hard to preserve historical sites, traveling was difficult, there were few professionals and experts of historical artifacts in the country, everyone was on the move, everyone was a migrant. But the problem still continues.

Q: What is the impact of security on preservation work?

AWN: Security impacts everything. If there is fear and worry somewhere, there is lack of certainty. Any work, from business to personal and governmental activities, will be harmed. Luckily, since we have so far worked in Kabul and Herat, and also, the way we worked, we had very close relations with the public. We also occasionally have consulted the government offices that were responsible for preservation. We have never had any (security) problems. If you are working in a place that is hard to access, and is not safe and secure, sending professional staff and required material and equipment would be difficult. I have to say this, that the history has proved that civilization will grow in a place where there is security. Where there is peace among a community or in an area, the civilization has grown, progress has happened and economy has grown. During the war, all decisions are quick decisions, and while taking quick decisions, one can’t make useful decisions for the future.

Q: How do you see the future in three or four years?

AWN: Well, God knows better about the future. We can’t predict. But, from a personal and professional commitment viewpoint, I can only say that for me, it has been proved that in implementing such projects, we need to educate the youth. So that, we can train architects that are interested in the profession, have an understanding of the profession, and can work for the future, so that we can offer these people to our society.

It is for this reason that since 2009 we have had a more serious collaboration with Kabul University. I have gone there regularly on behalf of AKF and have taught there in the section related to history of architecture for Afghanistan, specifically regarding conservation and preservation. Also, this year we will invite some people from abroad to hold short term, expert classes for students in Polytechnic University Kabul and Kabul University simultaneously to restore the motivation for professional work, the style of professional work.

This interview is part of a series, ‘Untold Stories: the Oral Histories of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage’, funded by a Hollings Center for International Dialogue Grant. The series will be available on video, made in collaboration with Kabul at Work, and available on their website at: http://www.kabulatwork.tv/

Joanie Meharry is currently completing an MA in International and Comparative Legal Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She is a 2012 John F. Richards Fellow for the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies and is directing the project, Untold Stories: the Oral History of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage, with a Hollings Center for International Dialogue Grant. She also holds an MSc in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Edinburgh.

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. 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.

Contested Ownership of Iraqi-Jewish Heritage Causes International Debate

Iraqi-Jewish cultural heritage is up for debate as the Iraqi government calls for the return of an archive currently being studied and preserved by the United States at the National Archives and Records Administration.

Iraq’s ministry of Culture and Antiquities is making claims that the United States, given the responsibility of preserving and studying the archive, has held onto the materials for too long, and now it is time that these cultural items be returned to their intended custodians: the Iraqi people and government.

Iraqi Tourism and Archaeology Minister Liwaa Smaisim has gone as far as cutting all ties with US Archaeological exploration in the country in an attempt to put pressure on the US Government to return the items, “They moved the archives in 2003; the agreement that was signed at that time between Iraq and the American side was to bring them back in 2005 after restoring them, but now we are in 2012,” Smaisim was quoted recently in The Daily Star, a Lebanese publication.

Discovered in a flooded basement of a secret police building by US forces, the archive consists of early Torahs, children’s learning materials, family photographs, and other personal items were collected through systematic raids into Jewish homes by Iraqi secret police looking for ‘evidence’ of Zionist sentiments during the 1950’s. The US soldiers were looking for weapons of mass destruction, but found instead the remnants of the daily lives of the Jewish population that once thrived in Baghdad.

The Jewish community in Iraq, and specifically Baghdad, was once a thriving, affluent, and tight-knit community in the years leading up to WWII (Gat 1997, 6). However, in the growing tension between Iraq and Israel, and the political struggles that would lead up to the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1948, the Iraqi Jews were severely oppressed and persecuted from the first anti-semitic legislation enacted in 1933 to the Jewish exodus from Arab countries in the 1950s. Today it is said that there may be less than 20 Iraqi Jews living in the country.

Saad Eskander, the director of the Iraq National Library and Archives, claims that the return of the items are critical to presenting Iraqi-Jewish cultural heritage to the people of Iraq, “Iraqis must know that we are a diverse people, with different traditions, different religions, and we need to accept this diversity…To show it to our people that Baghdad was always multi-ethnic” he said, as quoted by the Associated Press

Regarding the claim for the items, the US government has acknowledged that the Iraqi government has the right to make a claim for the archive, yet the NARA is still carrying out preservation and attempting to digitize the collection of Hebrew, German, and some English texts. The total costs of the preservation project could exceed $3M, possibly $6M (Washington Post).

The historical conundrum of ‘who owns the past’ has reared itself yet again in the middle of this embroiled debate. While the Iraqi Government, struggling to maintain its archaeological materials and protect its historic sites from illegal looting and destruction, is making a claim based on the need to present this material and educate the Iraqi public about diversity, some Jewish activist groups claim the initiative to be in extremely poor taste considering the treatment of Jews leading up to the mass Exodus to Israel. Can a country, whose Iraqi-Jewish population remains nearly non-existent, make a valid claim for cultural objects belonging to that group? Some argue that the materials should be returned to the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Israel, where 90% of the Iraqi-Jewish Diaspora currently resides.

Regardless of who has proper claim of the materials found in that basement in 2003, it is clear that the strained relationship between the Iraqi government and US Archaeological exploration teams is putting significant archaeological sites at risk, namely Babylon. The World Monuments Fund, a New York-based heritage advocacy group has been barred from access to the site – famous for its once hanging gardens and Tower of Babel- due to the diplomatic tensions created by the Iraqi-Jewish archive. The WMF is desperately trying to garner support for Babylon’s installment on UNESCO’s World Heritage List due to an oil pipeline running straight through the site (Laub 2012). According to the Associated Press report, the WMF was in the process of training Iraqi authorities on site preservation and attempting to prepare Babylon’s bid for a spot on the UNESCO list when support from the Iraqi government was pulled. This extraction of US archaeological teams in Iraq due to the struggle over the archive has essentially kicked WMF out of any efforts to secure the site for the future.

Qais Rashid, Head of Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage indicated in the report that the strained relations was a ‘big loss’ for the department, as US resources were relied upon heavily in training and education in the Iraqi heritage sector.

The situation regarding the archive, and the security of the Babylon site will remain in the balance as rights to ownership and to safeguarding continue to be contested for political purposes.

Experts lend opinions to the discussion of unprovenanced antiquities

The New York Times reported on Tuesday, July 10 about the growing tension over new guidelines “making it more difficult for collectors of antiquities to donate, or sell, the cultural treasures that fill their homes, display cases and storage units.” As museums and auction houses react to recent measures taken by the U.S. to stem the illicit antiquities trade, they are increasingly reluctant to acquire items with no documented provenance prior to 1970, the benchmark year the international community adopted in the 1970 UNESCO Convention.

Neil Brodie Neil Brodie

Many collectors claim they are being treated unfairly and are increasingly depicted “as the beneficiaries of a villainous trade.” However, SAFE Beacon Award winner and former Director of the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, Neil Brodie, dismisses these claims saying, “Collectors know that without provenance it is impossible to know whether an object was first acquired by illegal or destructive means.” Dr. Brodie is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow and was instrumental in the formation of a new team that will study the illegal trade in antiquities. The team was recently awarded a £1m grant by the European Research Council.

Larry Rothfield, SAFE blog contributor and founder of the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago, pointed out that lack of provenance is not necessarily the only reason these items cannot be sold. Their historical or aesthetic value can affect their sale for any number of reasons. “Even if the objects in question were not excluded from acquisition,” he said, “most of them would not be acquired anyway.”

The article further poses that the price of protecting the world’s cultural heritage may very well be that some items without provenance will remain in the hands of collectors who may be unable to sell or donate their treasures.

Larry Rothfield Larry Rothfield

SAFE appreciates our supporters for lending their voices to our anti-looting mission in so many ways. Read more articles by Larry on the SAFE blog.

What do you think? Should the US relax its guidelines and laws on provenance or is it more important to keep tightening the noose around the illicit antiquities trade? Is there a solution that allows objects to be donated to museums without encouraging looting and black market trade in the process? Join the discussion by commenting below or contacting us at info@savingantiquities.org.