2009 AIA Philadelphia Meeting

Thursday – Sunday January 8 -11
Marriott Downtown Hotel, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

SAFE tops its own notable success at the 2008 AIA conference in Chicago by joining a distinguished gathering of archeologists, philologists, students, teachers, and general interest groups at this year’s AIA conference in Philadelphia. Working hard to spread its message, SAFE continues to provide informative events, teaching programs and entertainment, while making the public aware of the problems involved in the looting of archaeological sites.

Armed with an agenda filled with talks, panels, workshops, movies, and the highly anticipated SAFE Beacon Awards, SAFE provided a strong presence again this year. Booth No. 419 was duly covered with SAFE paraphernalia from buttons, postcards, and stickers to T-shirts, books, and even the newly printed playing cards that highlight already looted and vulnerable sites. Membership incentives were offered and tickets to events featuring Professor Colin Renfrew were sold under the leadership of Board Member Sarah Pickman. These events include the SAFE Beacon Award and lecture, a special raffle lunch with the eminent archaeologist, and a tour of the University of Pennsylvania Museum. An ongoing stream of entertainment included the screening of movies such The Art of Deception and On the Trail of the Tomb Robbers drew in the large crowd. The SAFE booth was favorably positioned in a far corner of the exhibit hall in front of a nice seating area that was used to solicit those taking rest from other AIA activities. These events include the SAFE Beacon Award and lecture, a special raffle lunch with the eminent archaeologist, and a tour of the University of Pennsylvania Museum.

Special presentations at the booth

Lectures from expert guests informed the enthusiastic SAFE booth crowds including the presentation given by archaeologist, numismatist, and SAFE Volunteer, Nathan Elkins, entitled “The Trade in Ancient Coins in the USA.” His lecture focused on the alarming scale of recently surfaced and looted material entering the American marketplace by tracking auction and internet sales. This was followed by Robert Wittman, recently retired Director of the FBI Art Crime team, who discussed his career to a captivated audience who questioned him about personal fears and almost getting caught undercover. On Saturday, Neil Brodie opened the day with a discussion about the looting in Iraq and his current research examining economic trends in the antiquities market. Read about the presentations in Science News (March 28, 2009).

AIA Colloquia

Beyond the booth teeming with activity were the colloquia covering illicit antiquities and looting. Friday featured “Crimes Against Culture” and “Selling our Past to the Highest Bidder” organized by SAFE’s Blythe A. Bowman and  Elizabeth Gilgan. Each session was well attended, occasionally with standing room only. Lively discussions and question-and-answer periods followed the presentations.

AIA Workshop

Saturday was by far a day of celebration for SAFE. Starting off with the workshop entitled “Legal Protection of Underwater Heritage” moderated by SAFE’s Eric Powell. The event celebrated the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage finally coming to force on January 2, 2009 after twenty nations signed the document. The Convention drafted in Paris on November 2, 2001 governs the protection of cultural objects found under the seas and includes ruins, caves, structures, vessels, and artifacts.

Beginning with a 1980s video from the NBC Today show that introduced Greg Stemm of the Seahawk who ‘discovers’ and salvages archaeological treasures for profit and adventure. Stemm made clear his intention to keep artifacts together and establish a museum; however, such measures were not followed. Treasure hunters with the sole interest in making a profit do not understand the importance of having professional archaeologists to organize excavations, write reports, and conserve artifacts. This is where the UNESCO Convention could help solve problems through Article 21 that outlines the training needed before artifacts are dredged up from their watery depths.

The workshop enlightened participants about the need for new laws. A uniform compliance of laws from both State and Federal programs does not exist, nor does an archaeological standard. Currently, the United States is not a signatory of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Heritage despite the need to protect our shores and uphold other countries’ laws, such as that of the Kingdom of Spain currently set in opposition to the U.S. corporation Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. as detailed during the workshop.

SAFE honors Professor Colin Renfrew

Saturday’s SAFE Beacon Award was, by far, the highlight of a long weekend of exciting events. This award came after an aggressive internet campaign entitled, “Who is Colin Renfrew?”. Free tickets were offered to members outside the professional sphere and a Facebook “fan” page was launched with fast-growing membership. Professor Renfrew shined like a star and incorporated the most recent information about museum acquisition policies.

University of Pennsylvania Museum tour

Sunday was still busy for SAFE members and volunteers with the closing down of the booth and organizing the exodus to the UPenn Museum. Everyone arrived on time to the well-attended tour led by Professor Renfrew. Throughout the museum, the Professor reviewed displays of archaeological objects found at Troy, to those from Mayan sites, Benin, and also curious asides in the Native American exhibits. Extending well over an hour and a half, the tour was enjoyed by a party of two dozen.

Taking leave of new acquaintances, old friends, and freshly recruited SAFE members, we look forward to the start of a great and challenging year ahead that will offer more SAFE events and opportunities to make a difference.

—Cherkea Howery

“Marvelous effort to inform the general academic participants at the AIA.”

SAFE Booth visitor