Saving Cultural Heritage, One Tweet at a Time

Publish, publish, publish. If I have ever heard a mantra for academic archaeologists, it is this. Repeated over and over again to every aspiring undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral candidate, this phrase is the driving force in this field. But for whom are we publishing? More often than not, papers are geared towards other academics, which is a necessary and critical practice to advance research and gain awareness. However, when it concerns looting, smuggling, and trading illicit antiquities, there is an audience that needs even more attention — the general public.

Archaeologists are in a unique position to inform the public of issues regarding looting because many have firsthand experience with it. In the recent article “Archaeological Site Looting in “Glocal” Perspective: Nature, Scope, and Frequency,” Blythe Bowman Proulx surveyed 3,009 archaeologists and found that 78.5% encountered “looting or evidence of looting while participating in fieldwork of any kind.” Of those archaeologists, 24.1% had encountered “looters on-site and looting activity in progress” (Proulx 2013:119). While Proulx was only able to sample a limited number of archaeologists, she effectively showed that they were no strangers to looting. From my point of view, archaeologists are also in a position to take a stance and have a voice. They have the opportunity to engage with the public by sharing their tales of the destruction of cultural heritage, but the question is, have they done so?

 “They [Egyptian archaeologists] live in an isolated world…”

Making those outside the field of archaeology sensitive to the endangerment of cultural heritage is not easy. It is difficult to inspire them to take action even if they have heard the plea. In a December interview, Egyptologist Dr. Monica Hanna reflected on the current state of antiquities in Egypt and the citizens’ connection with their heritage – or lack thereof. She states that “The don’t feel it’s part of their heritage. Even the Egyptian social studies schoolbook – the way it presents [Ancient] Egypt and modern Egypt, [they] are two hermetically sealed entities.” The sudden increase in looting across Egypt after the 2011 uprising may have highlighted this disconnect between the Egyptian people and their monuments, but it has also underlined the fact that when people care, they will go to great lengths to take a stand.

The onus to inspire courage and action to protect cultural heritage falls on every person involved in the field, including archaeologists. In a more recent interview, Hanna noted that archaeologists in Egypt “live in an isolated world…They think they are the experts so no one has the right to talk about antiquities except for them.” The thought that archaeologists are the only ones who can control the dialogue on antiquities must be banished. The public also must have a voice. There are an overwhelming number of platforms that can accomplish this– platforms that have started revolutions. Hanna has begun the process in Egypt by garnering over 25,000 followers on Twitter2,400 followers on Facebook, and 6,500 fans of Egypt’s Heritage Task Force. She encourages everyone to share their stories of antiquities looting, regardless of who they are.

Example of a tweet Example of a tweet

Spreading the word and starting dialogues with the general public about cultural heritage destruction is of the utmost importance. While there is enormous pressure on archaeologists to publish academically, it is vital that discussions about these issues also take place via forums that are also used by non-academics. For instance, a quick search of users associated with the keywords “archaeologist” or “archeologist” on Twitter– one of the most popular social media platforms– yielded just about 350 results. Of course, while these results may not encompass all the archaeologists active on Twitter, it suggests that only a fraction of the archaeology community is fully utilizing a free tool that has 241 million active users a month.

Where are the voices of those 14,429 archaeologists worldwide that Proulx found in her research (Proulx 2013: 117)? If one archaeologist such as (Monica Hanna) is reaching over 26,000 with information about looting, imagine how much we’d learn from the 2,355 archaeologists (according to Proulx) who also experienced looting firsthand.

Not sure how to get started? Hear directly from Dr. Hanna when she delivers the free lecture, “Saving Ancient Egypt, One Tweet at a Time: How Social Media is Saving One of the World’s Oldest Civilizations” and accepts the 2014 SAFE Beacon Award on April 10 in New York City.

It is time to become a little more comfortable with publishing via platforms that are not traditional academic journals.  All one has to do is TweetLikeShare. I swear it is that easy.

And remember: “instead of us preserving the antiquities, it is the antiquities that are protecting us. For it is through heritage that we can understand the things around us…” – Dr. Monica Hanna

Khachkars and Icons: Looting in pre- and post-Soviet Armenia

Located on the piedmont of the Caucasus mountain range, the country of Armenia illustrates an interesting paradox. It is, on one hand, a nation-state born out of, and partly modeled by, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, it is also a country that dogmatically identifies itself with civilizations more than 2000 years-old, and defends the idea of an evolving yet continuous Armenian identity.

Armenia is a country with changing borders as it underwent several episodes of invasions by Ottomans, Russians, Persians. Overall, its modern situation is structured around several antagonistic claims with neighboring countries that have their roots both in long-term historical processes and recent geopolitical development. A recent war and conflicting territorial claims with Azerbaijan, political unrest with Turkey over the recognition of the 1915 Genocide and its support of the Azerbaijan as well as the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, and, despite, an exit from the Soviet Union more than 20 years ago, a complex and ambiguous relationship with Russia, are all factors that impacted Armenia’s cultural identity and heritage management.

Landlocked Armenia Landlocked Armenia
Google Earth

Amidst those invasions and torn territories, the Armenian identity was created and preserved through the development of specific features, i.e., religion and script. In 301 AD, Grigor Lusarovich (the “Illuminator”) made Christianity Armenia’s official state religion. This historical event placed Armenia at the heart of Christendom’s history, and the Christian religion at the core of Armenian identity. Consequently, increased religiosity following the collapse of the Soviet Union is a known and widespread phenomenon with particular meaning in Armenia as its Christian heritage has been predominantly emphasized, and, as such, the target of specific attacks.

More generally, changes in regime and social structure impacted the safeguard of cultural and historical objects, either because of their association with a particular ethnic/religious group, or simply as the object of international antiquities trade (and the ensuing looting activities), both aspects that have been going on for almost a century.

Destructive Ideologies

A particularly telling example is the fate of Armenia’s cultural heritage during the 1915 Genocide in modern Turkish territories. If the cost of the cultural destruction that occurred is still unknown several sources report destruction of books, and religious artifacts, using the term “cultural genocide”. Beyond such an expression is a desire to express a large-scale and institutionalized effort to erase Armenia’s presence from a given geographical space. Today, some websites (and even a youtube channel ) specialize in finding “treasures” in Armenian houses on Turkish territory that Armenians supposedly left while fleeing the country .

During the Nagorno-Karabakh war, damages occurring to cultural heritage, and looting/destruction of cultural artifacts were reported by both sides of the conflict. When Armenian news media described the looting of Armenian museums during the pogrom of Sumgait, Azerbaidjan media were denouncing the destruction of Azerii-associated heritage, archaeological artefacts, historical monuments, libraries, and even suggesting the organization of large-scale non-professional excavation of graves and burial mounds throughout Karabakh, and particularly Shusha. However, both sides widely publicize efforts to preserve any type of cultural heritage, although sometimes while modifying slightly the identity of the creator. Thus, the destructions occurring are a bilateral process, and both individual actions and institutionalized programs have been involved in destruction and preservation of South Caucasus heritage.

A Khachkar from Etchmiadzin A Khachkar from Etchmiadzin
armenica.org

The destruction of Khachkar in Nakhitchevan exemplifies a large-scale, institutionalized case of destruction. While not objects subject to the international antiquities market, the destruction and looting of those sculptures in Djulfa (or Jugha) calls for public awareness. Khachkars are situated at the border between artifact and monument. Part of the UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list since 2010, khachkars are carved stone steles representing crosses and closely associated with Armenian communities. In Armenia itself, there are more than 50,000 of those steles , bearing witness to more than 1500 years of transmitted traditions and know-how. The cemetery of Djulfa in the Autonomous Republic of Nakhitchevan was a medieval site with more than a thousand khachkars (up to 10,000 thousands). Despite denials by the Azerbaijani authorities, this destruction has been documented through testimonies, videos, and satellite imagery, as a recent study carried out by the AAAS showed the deliberate progressive destruction of the site since the early 2000s . The study was supported by amateur videos showing soldiers destroying the steles with a sledge-hammer. Despite support from the ICOMOS, the position adopted by UNESCO is unclear at best, and the Azerbaijan authorities have not only made any fact-finding mission in the area impossible, they’ve also denied the very existence of Armenian cultural heritage in this area which was, following their version, previously inhabited by Caucasian Albanians.

These examples illustrate one aspect of the looting and destruction of Armenian (and non-Armenian goods on Armenian territory) that took place during several episodes of unrest in the region. They resulted from the ideological struggle of conflicting nationalisms. However, other sources mention the existence of a different type of looting and destruction– one motivated by economic, financial imperatives, and aimed at providing Armenian cultural artifacts to the international antiquities market.

Icons for sale

The most prominent aspect is the traffic of religious icons that has been taking place for at least 40 years. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, several sources revealed the existence of an almost institutionalized traffic, connecting western art dealers with local mafia across the USSR.

Michel van Rijn makes mention of this system in his autobiography, that stands out for its absolute lack of remorse, and by its insights into the world of the international antiquities market. That market relied both on the structures developed by the USSR to acquire some currency, and on the fate of church property during the XXth century in this part of the world.

Novoexport (Новоэкспорт) was an enterprise set up by the government to sell goods from the Union to foreign visitors. This initiative was developed during the Perestroïka in order to keep the state reserves afloat by selling “overpriced rubbish” (Van Rijn 1991) to westerners. As with most other Soviet institutions, Novoexport shops were accompanied by a tedious bureaucratic system that provided each item with excessively stamped paperwork certifying its origin, authenticity, mode of acquisition, etc… Art dealers who bought the worthless items sold by Novoexport were provided with valid documentation to carry objects out of the Soviet Union.

Virgin and Child Icon, Naghash Hovnat'an The Virgin and Child Icon, Naghash Hovnat’an, 17th century
Melkianicollection.com

Van Rijn met Dergazarian, an icon dealer in Beirut, Lebanon, at some point in the 1980s. Dergarzarian, an Armenian, introduced to the art dealer the infinite business possibilities offered by the “treasure trove” Armenia was, both in terms of its cultural wealth and the ease with which they could be smuggled out of the country. Soon, the two collaborators flew to Yerevan in order to meet with the local intelligentsia, diplomats, and local KGB agents largely involved in the traffic. Business, it seems, was done with “rubles and French brandy”. At this point van Rijn not only realized the potential for business, but also the scale of the traffic. The scheme was fairly simple. First, van Rijn needed to acquire a valuable icon. This was done through his contact with the Armenian mafia whose members he met through Dergazarian. In order to gain their trust, van Rijn also starts dealing with human trafficking, smuggling people out of the Soviet Union. Let’s note here that it is not unexpected to see antiquities associated with other “items”like (as it is the case in Cyprus) heroin. In Armenia, this dual trade was managed by the local mafia. Through them by the time of the Perestroika, van Rijn had access to an extensive and efficient network and stock of different types of artefacts, mostly icons. He would find an icon with equivalent features (size, theme) in one of the Novoexport shops and simply use the official license to launder and export the illicit goods to Europe (another technique consisted in modifying custom declaration forms in Poland)

This was far from being an isolated case. During the economic reforms of the 80s, dealers bought private antiquities that they exported through diverse methods in western countries, as people seemed willing to sell their family treasures– mostly 18th- 19th century icons– on the black market. Officials at all levels of the hierarchy were involved in this trade including Russian administrators and foreign diplomats. Van Rijn mentions the case of a Finnish diplomat stopped at the border where Russian customs, neglecting the diplomatic status of the suspect, found undeclared antique goods in his luggage. In Russia, the smuggling of cultural contraband is a criminal offense under the Part 2 of Art. 188 of the Criminal Code.

Religious icons are still the object of an intense traffic– especially from the Caucasus region. Last year, an Israeli citizen was caught at the Armenian-Georgian border , trying to smuggle out eighteen undeclared, unlicensed icons. A few years earlier Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev gave to visiting President Medvedev five russian icons confiscated by the customs. In 2009, in the region of Krasnodar, the customs police arrested an Armenian citizen who was trying to smuggle two “ancient icons” into  Ukraine after covering them with a layer of mastic .

These are only a few examples of a long-lasting traffic. If national and international regulations have improved the situation, much is left to be done, both at the level of local protection and on the international antiquities market. Furthermore, this market creates a demand for Armenian antiquities, and a structure for its illicit exportation, thus encouraging destructive behaviors in museums and archaeological sites.

Treasure hunt

Indeed these institutional issues have an impact at another level. In parallel to the smuggling of religious art, other types of destruction take place resulting in damages to the archaeological sites themselves.

The development of archaeological projects in Armenia led to the emergence of treasure hunting. A UCLA news report noted that, after the discovery in Areni cave of the world’s “oldest shoe”, some reporters said that they were looking for shoes filled with gold, “which sparkled a wild looting spree throughout the country” . Indeed, whether related to this particular case or not, several cases of looting of archaeological sites have been witnessed in Areni by the project team and at least at two other locations by the author. At one of those sites, a group of people from the neighboring village explained that they were looking for burial, gold, and old objects in order to sell them. On two occasions, archaeological artifacts (bronze daggers, prehistoric pottery) were identified on the stands of the “Vernissage”, the flee market of Yerevan.

In any country this phenomenon would be an unfortunate yet possible outcome of the development of archaeology and broader access by the public to its results. However, the UCLA news highlights some of the outreach projects planned by the international team in Areni to sensitize the local communities to the value of their heritage.

Several types of destruction have been presented here. Some are the result of nationalism and ideological struggle, while others answer to an international demand for antiquities. In parallel with a more systematic enforcement of international laws and an adaptation of legislation regulating existing loopholes in local criminal codes, cultural heritage professionals, art historians, and archaeologists need to keep developing projects which integrate local communities in their research and encourage an ever-increasing commitment of the public to the protection of its history.

Confrontations: A Young Boy’s Temptation

SAFE blog’s new series “Confrontations” invites everyone to share firsthand experiences with looting and the illicit antiquities trade. These personal accounts will illustrate the on-going problems of these issues within a global context. 


When I was young, before I gained an interest in archaeology and the ancient world, my knowledge of artefacts was merely limited to the Indiana Jones Trilogy. Though having such knowledge at a young age was purely overwhelming, especially for a young boy like myself in a country enriched with an ancient past spanning over thousands of years, it understandably got me into a lot of trouble.

Till this day, I still look back to the 1990s, when I nearly ventured into the sinister world of the illicit antiquities trade, with conflicting thoughts of morality. For a person trying to feed his or her family, on one side, there is sympathy for the person’s actions. However, on the other, there is real pent-up anger towards that person as he or she is either destroying or illegally selling what represents a valuable past that we can truly learn from.

Now, you are wondering what happened to me back in the 90s…? How did I nearly enter the uncharted waters of such illicitness that has haunted me to this present day?

It all happened during the summer holidays, when my family decided to travel to Egypt for two weeks. Unlike being expected to visit Cairo, explore the pyramids of Giza and the Valley of the Kings, and perhaps take a relaxing boat ride down the Nile river, we ended up in Sharm el-Sheikh that, for us Brits, was a stereotypically ideal place for a family vacation.

A recent photography of the entrance to Sharm el-Sheikh's Old Market, Egypt A recent photography of the entrance to Sharm el-Sheikh’s Old Market, Egypt
Flickr user Kareny13 (taken: 25/11/2010)

During our time, we went to Sharm el-Sheikh’s infamous old market on numerous occasions. The market was infused with a magical eastern vibe, various smells of spices and incense, Arabic music, and the haggling of goods, and it made me feel like I was in sheer heaven. With the exception of seeing dead carcasses dangling on every rack, there was one particular part of the market that ended my blissful experience.

Hidden away in the distance, I remember seeing an outline of this rugged man standing next to a stall with a large quantity of ancient coins. These coins looked as if though they had been recently removed from the ground… Though my Indiana Jones knowledge of artefacts proved to be limited, all I saw were these coins being beautifully displayed on this decaying wooden table.

Immediately, my whole body froze. Alarm bells were ringing. Warning signs were gathering in my head, trying to pull me away from the absolute power of these coins that continuously sparkled in my day-dreamt eyes. Yet like a child being let loose in a sweet shop, there was an irresistible urge to personally own such artefacts. This desire also lifted me off my feet, like a person floating off towards the mouth-watering smell of a delicious meal, and, within a matter of seconds, I found myself face to face with the very man who was standing right next to this collection of coins.

He appeared to be frail looking– shabbily dressed but presentable enough to look like a respectable business man. Suddenly, this man began to talk. At first, it was very unclear as to what exactly he was saying. He spoke in a mixture of Arabic and broken English, asking me if I wanted to buy priceless coins that had historical and archaeological significance.

“Hlan wa sahlan! Kayfa Halak? Taf-fadal! Special price! Coins came earlier today for you my friend. What do you want?”

At this time, I was gob-smacked.  Was this man talking to me? Was I that special someone to whom he was offering a special price…? I looked around and saw that I was the only bystander facing his direction. How could this be? Why were other people purposely avoiding this man?

Obviously, there were many reasons behind this. One could have been that that he was coming from outside the city, and therefore the locals did not know him. Another reason could have been that he was a dodgy character selling illegal artefacts, and it was thus unwise to get involved in his business.

As a young boy, it was likely that my understanding of the illicit antiquities trade was non-existent. I had never had a confrontation like that before in my life– not until that day. If I had bought a coin from that man, who knows what could have happened to me. According to Egyptian law (1983 LPA), all antiquities – be they cultural, historical or archaeological – are strictly regulated and actually owned by the State; and if  I was caught red-handed by a police officer, I could have gone to prison for my involvement, and I would not have a great life ahead of me.

While those very thoughts were in my mind, I felt a heavy hand placed on my right shoulder. My shadow began to amplify, and a low voice began to speak out from nowhere.

“Michael!…Stop what you are doing Shamah Junior! You are meddling with powers you cannot possibly comprehend!”

Without a doubt, I recognised that quote from one of the Indiana Jones Trilogies, The Raiders of the Lost Ark… (The best Indian Jones film that was ever made, I must say), and I knew exactly who it was.

I looked round and saw my father, looking stereotypically Middle Eastern with an Arab moustache, his big body with broad shoulders, and with very tanned skin; indeed, he was known for using film quotes in his sentences.

Without a word, I was tugged away, leaving this unfortunate man behind, not knowing where he would be in the course of time.

Me at a young age, back in the 1990s Me at a young age, back in the 1990s
Michael Shamah

As stated earlier, I still look back to that exact scene in Sharm el-Sheikh’s old market. In addition, you will find me exploring and dealing with similar confrontations in the upcoming blogs– especially those regarding the desecrations of various sites, or, as in this particular instance, a confrontation with a person selling a priceless artefact which has “illegal” written all over it.

Since this first experience, I have had conflicting thoughts, a broader understanding of the illicit world, and I am better at recognising potential signs of looting or at least something illicit. As an archaeologist, I have begun to care more about the preservation of cultural heritage, and it has been rather upsetting to think of how sites which convey significant cultural and historical meaning, have been affected by human activity. Although in the eyes of some, these actions might be considered as a good thing… It is now understandable why these motives take place.

Especially in an unstable Middle East – which I am quite familiar with, due to my heritage and the focusing of my speciality in this specific region – and for sectarian, political or economic reasons, countless sites have, unfortunately, been targeted. Nevertheless, as seen from my first encounter, there are some sheer beauties of the past that attract potentially irrational visitors who may just want to fill their pockets.

From what consequently ends up in the illicit antiquities trade, this beautiful memorabilia of the past has become absorbed into a sinister world which is loathed by most of us.

Thus, I would like to end this blog with the very questions that hang in the back of my mind.
What were the motives behind the act? Were they rational?

But also, what may be seen as an act for survival or greed and is believed by some as a person’s worst nightmare,  it may sequentially be seen by others as a heavenly treasure trove.

If you have had similar experiences that you would like to share, it would be great to hear from you; and for my next shareable experience…Stay tuned. 

Why we care about the cultural heritage of Egypt – now.

Originally posted on February 6, 2011, the following is reposted as a reminder of why we Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage! (Photo: Egypt’s Heritage Task Force: الحملة المجتمعية للرقابة على التراث والأثار )


No one knows what the future holds for Egypt. Our hearts and hopes are with the Egyptian people as they struggle toward genuine democracy. The first priority now must be the country’s stability, its citizens, their safety, their dignity.

While politicians work out ways to address the demands of the people, attention must also be focused on efforts to protect Egypt’s ancient cultural heritage, out of respect for the Egyptian people and all citizens around the world. Some may think this premature, even insensitive. We don’t. Here’s why:

– As the current government in Cairo gives way to a new political regime, and Egypt begins the process of renewal, it is essential that cultural heritage of the people – the touchstone of their cultural memory and identity - remains intact. We must work together to ensure that the new Egypt is not built on the rubble of robbed museums and plundered tombs.

– Also, protecting and preserving cultural heritage is now recognized as a key development priority for all nations: If we are truly concerned about Egypt’s social, political and economic future, we should strongly support the protection of their museums and heritage sites.

– The ancient and sacred structures and artifacts that make up the cultural heritage of Egypt represent the ultimate non-renewable resource. The world community must do everything it can to protect these treasures for all humanity and prevent irreparable damage that may that result in the destruction of ancient sites and loss of materials.

Join SAFE in solidarity for the people of Egypt and their cultural heritage.

 

Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage!

Egypt is in a state of turmoil. Life is lost while the people of Egypt continue to fight for democracy and freedom. But while the safety of human life is our first priority, there is another aspect of humanity that we must not forget: Egypt’s cultural heritage. Why? Because “wars end, and shattered lives, communities and societies must be rebuilt.” (Nature, Vol 423, 29 May 2003). In the last few days, the situation has drastically worsened: the Mallawi Museum has been looted, churches are being burned, archaeological sites and museums have been closed indefinitely and the lands surrounding the pyramids at Giza and Dahshur remains peppered with holes dug by looters.

Looted burial tombs beside Dahshur's Black Pyramid, from Der Spiegel. Looted burial tombs beside Dahshur’s Black Pyramid, from Der Spiegel.
While the situation remains chaotic, what can we do? 

SAFE has launched its “Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage” campaign, and I invite you to join us, right now.

Here’s how:

  1. Set and share your Facebook profile image with the “Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage” image at the top left corner.
  2. Set and share your Facebook cover photo with the “I Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage, Our Heritage” banner at the bottom of this post. (Please be patient, Facebook servers are busy.)
  3. Tweet the message “I Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage, Our Heritage” with #sayyestoegypt! (Don’t forget to tweet us at @saveantiquities)
  4. Join the Say YES to Egypt Cause page here and stand with  thousands of other individuals pledging their support of Egypt’s cultural heritage
  5. Spread the news about this campaign, like and share this post

Let’s come together and do something to show solidarity for the people of Egypt. Raise awareness about the urgent risks to one of humanity’s greatest legacies. So please join me and SAFE to show the world that we are all saying yes to Egypt’s heritage because it is our heritage.

Faking It: A Case for Museums of “Fakes”

You may have heard in the news last week that a Chinese Museum has been forced to close following evidence revealing much of its collection to be fake. The museum reportedly cost more than 60 million yuan to build, with twelve exhibition halls of what are now apparently brilliant fakes. The Jibaozhai Museum in Hebai opened in 2010 and has a collection of more than 40,000 objects, only eighty of which the museum is now saying they’re “quite positive” are authentic.

This discovery resonates with Peru’s Museum of Gold, which, about a decade ago, was shown to have a collection of almost entirely fake pre-Columbian artifacts. Over 4,000 of their artifacts were shown to be fake by Indecopi, the Institute for the Defense of Competition and of Intellectual Property. Some of the pieces in that collection were amalgamations of ancient and contemporary gold (a la Frankenstein’s monster), while others were purely contemporary pieces made by artisans. That combination raises some interesting questions about the nature of authenticity which I won’t even attempt to delve into, but will surely be discussed as we learn more about the Jibaozhai’s collection.

Jonathan Jones of the Guardian quotes one Chinese blogger as suggesting that the Chinese museum should reopen as a museum of fakes, quipping, “If you can’t be the best, why not be the worst?” That’s actually an incredibly interesting suggestion, and deserves more thought beyond this flippant joke. First of all, is there not something that can be learned from a museum of fakes? In Washington, D.C., the National Museum of Crime and Punishment partnered with the Association for Research into Crimes against Art to host an exhibition of forged artworks, demonstrating the public’s desire to see such eery doppelgängers. It is also interesting to consider that our brains respond differently to a work of art once we’ve been told that it’s fake. While the brain signals of a viewer cannot distinguish between genuine and fake works, viewing a piece they have been told is genuine triggers the rewards section of the brain, while viewing a piece they have been told is fake triggers the section of the brain associated with strategy and planning.

Would visiting a museum full of known fakes be beneficial in some way, then? Surely it could serve as a good educational tool for archaeology students or law enforcement professionals, or perhaps it would at least be entertaining like the wax figures at Madame Tussaud’s.

jibaozhai item A possibly fake item on display at the Jibaozhai Museum.
Courtesy news.com.au.

Although the Jibaozhai Museum will likely always be associated with this rather embarrassing episode, I think that similar museums — ones that fully disclose that their collections are reproductions — could be the way forward. The objects within could be handled by children, allowing a tactile engagement that regular museums simply cannot. Moreover, museums with reproductions run no risk of accidentally acquiring a looted or stolen artifact.

As an art history student, I find it hard not to place extra value on an original work of art or artifact — something that maintains the “aura” that German critical theorist Walter Benjamin defined as an essential component of originality. However, I believe there is still a clear — although different — value that comes from displaying facsimiles (not “fakes”) rather than originals. Beyond just the shock value and excitement that comes from seeing something “fake,” perhaps there’s something to be said for a museum that communicates the past without any chance of plundering tombs or funding illicit antiquities trafficking.

What do you think? Do you think there’s some value in museums full of “fakes,” or would you rather see the real deal?

Top image: A visitor reads the notice erected by the Jibaozhai Museum after it was shut down amid reports that much of its collection is fake. Courtesy of What’s On Tianjin.

Can a Picasso save the Phoenicians?

“Who wants those old things when they could just get new ones?”

That’s a joke a friend of mine made when I shared some of my work with SAFE. Although a joke, I thought this raised an interesting dichotomy that isn’t often explored in cultural heritage circles: When does a work of art or object transition from being part of the archaeological record to being something you’d see in a museum of art or design?

Colin Renfrew acknowledges that our treatment of ancient works of art must necessarily be different from modern ones in his book Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership: The Ethical Crisis in Archaeology, explaining that, “there is now the growing realization among art dealers and auctioneers that there is indeed something especially dubious about illicit antiquities. They are not at all the same as Old Masters or Impressionist Paintings, and they always bring with them special problems” (80). The market for modern art objects does not present the same problems that the market for antiquities does, but this does not necessarily mean that the two arenas are mutually exclusive, as demonstrated by the International Association to Save Tyre’s latest fundraising endeavor.

I recently attended a press conference where the Association revealed that this December, they will be raffling off a 1914 Picasso painting titled “L’Homme au Gibus” (The Man With the Opera Hat) and valued at $1 million. Participants can purchase a 100 euro ticket for the chance to win the $1 million Picasso painting. There are only 50,000 tickets, but if all of them are sold, that’s 5 million euros going towards the Association’s cause, which is saving and promoting Tyre’s finite cultural heritage.

“At what point are we really able to say that one piece of broken pottery is the nexus that helps us understand an ancient society, while another is superfluous and can be sold like any other tourist souvenir?”

According to the Association, Tyre was a major meeting point and center of commercial exchange for the Phoenicians, contributing to the development of democracy, navigation, and crafts. Tyre was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, but this nominal honor has done little to tangibly protect the ancient city. Originally threatened by the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s, Tyre is now threatened again by the possibility of conflict in neighboring Syria. The Association’s founder, Maha El-Khalil Chalabi, explains that during the civil war, the presence of troops and lack of governmental authority led to looting and destruction of the site. She fears the same will happen again, commenting that, “We are very afraid of what is going on in the region. All of the countries around us are in big trouble.”

Members of the public can purchase a 100 euro raffle ticket for the chance to win this Picasso painting. The proceeds from the raffle benefit the site of Tyre in Lebanon.
Photograph (c) Succession Picasso 2013.

The Association hopes to prevent further damage to the site by stimulating cultural tourism through the creation of both a traditional crafts village and a research institute dedicated to studying the Phoenicians. Chalabi estimates that only a tenth of potential archaeological finds have been excavated at Tyre, leaving the rest of the undiscovered heritage vulnerable to opportunistic looters. The Association will broadcast the raffle results live on the Internet, hopefully educating thousands more individuals around the world about the necessity of protecting cultural heritage.

Some individuals have suggested raising money for archaeological sites in a similar fashion by auctioning off small and relatively unimportant potsherds or other ephemera from the digs. Others have countered this by asking where the line is drawn between significant and insignificant (this article also acknowledges that the concept of “significance” itself changes). At what point are we really able to say that one piece of broken pottery is the nexus that helps us understand an ancient society, while another is superfluous and can be sold like any other tourist souvenir? But then again, isn’t that line very similar to the one that we draw between an artifact and a work of art like Picasso’s “Man With the Opera Hat”? I applaud the Tyre Association for striking an inventive and original balance. By auctioning off an item tangentially related to cultural heritage but not directly drawn from Tyre’s resources, they are finding new ways to use modern art to support its predecessors.

Furthermore, one of SAFE’s biggest goals is to raise awareness about the impact of conflict on archaeological sites, and the damage inflicted when we lose cultural heritage. A live broadcast of someone winning a $1 million painting for an original investment of only €100 is almost guaranteed to warrant some media attention. Desperate times call for creative solutions, and using modern art to support cultural heritage is one of the most uplifting things I’ve heard in a long time.

The raffle runs until December, and you can read more about the project on its website at: www.1picasso100euros.com.

The photograph of Tyre is (c) Tim Schnarr, courtesy of UNESCO.

10 Years After: Have We Done Enough?

I’m currently studying history of art with archaeology at University College London, and I’m SAFE’s new intern for summer 2013. I’ll be working primarily on the Middle East raising awareness about the danger to sites in those countries as well as doing research on the market for antiquities from sites in those regions. I will also be contributing to the SAFE blog, Twitter and Facebook as part of SAFE’s mandate to raise public awareness.


2013 vigil candle logo Click to light a virtual candle!

When I was in kindergarten, a family friend used to take me to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Staring in speechless awe at the lushly wallpapered rooms and sublime paintings, I was most enraptured by the hauntingly empty frames. Who would steal a work of art from the public? It never occurred to me as a teenager obsessed with Indiana Jones that the crime Jones committed  himself was far worse than what had happened in the Isabella Stewart Gardner. Swooping into archaeological sites, Jones destroys the context of the priceless artifacts he uncovers, thereby preventing us from fully understanding the past societies who left this evidence behind.

While I’ve come to realize that Indiana Jones doesn’t necessarily set the best standards of archaeological excavation, it has inspired me to have a life-long love of art and archaeology. It is crucial that future generations are able to learn to love ancient artifacts just as I have, but that won’t be possible if looting and destruction continues at its current rate. That is why SAFE is such an important organization. By raising awareness of the threats to our global cultural heritage, and hosting this candlelight vigil each year, SAFE is pushing that heritage’s protection into the limelight.

I’m incredibly passionate about the restitution of Holocaust-era looted art, and while those cases are covered in the media, there is comparatively little attention paid to the widespread destruction of archaeological artifacts through looting and conflict. The events earlier this year in Mali really highlighted for me the extent to which cultural heritage is still not at the forefront of the public’s mind. We like to pigeonhole the destruction of cultural heritage a something that others do (like the Bamiyan Buddhas), when in fact it happens in our own backyard. Furthermore, it will continue to happen unless individuals across disciplines and across geographic boundaries agree to work together to stop it.

Ten years after the looting of the National Museum of Iraq, less than half of the objects taken have been returned. Why is there not more outrage at this fact?

It pains me to see news stories about eye-wateringly steep prices for the latest auctioned antiquity with no discussion of provenance or due diligence. How is it possible for an institution as prestigious as the Smithsonian to still become embroiled in a controversy about illicit excavation in the 21st century? I hope that this Candlelight Vigil will continue to spread the word that looting affects more than just the source country, and that it’s far from a solved problem. Looting destroys our shared global heritage, and I hope that by lighting this candle, I can do something about it. After all, I wouldn’t want to disappoint the five-year old who, in some alternate universe, is still gazing, enraptured, at the hauntingly empty frames that hang in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

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.

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.

UNESCO mourns loss of cultural heritage in Bamiyan valley

The Bamiyan Buddhas will not be rebuilt.  Instead, UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, has decided instead to transform the site into a sanctuary where the international community can meditate on the losses of cultural heritage and contemplate how to change the pattern of destruction that leaves the world without a past.  They have chosen Andrea Bruno, an architect who has been involved with the project since 2001, to spearhead the site design.

The decision not to reconstruct the Bamiyan Buddhas, which were bombed by the Taliban in March 2001, is practical for many reasons.  The site is more than just rubble– rubble weighing more than 60 tons– it is tied like a spider web to political, religious, economical, and archeological issues.  As I discussed in my article, Ten years later: The Buddhas of Bamiyan, UNESCO was faced with a myriad of plans.  It has taken 11 years for UNESCO to come to some conclusion about the future of the site and not rebuilding is a heartbreaking choice.

The site will focus on the empty space left behind by the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas.  Bruno describes his plan as “ecumenical,” “aiming to enhance the emotional and aesthetic experience of viewing the empty niche.” (Anna Somers Cocks, “The victory of the void, a defeat for the Taliban,” The Art Newspaper, May 31, 2012)  He explains, “The void is the true sculpture.  It stands disembodied witness to the will, thoughts and spiritual tensions of men long gone.  The immanent presence of the niche, even without its sculpture, represents a victory for the monument and a defeat for those who tried to obliterate its memory with dynamite.” (Andrea Bruno, Id.)  A viewing platform and lighting will be built to allow visitors to take in the full beauty of the site.  Bruno emphasizes that the construction will be minimal, easy to remove without harming the site, and built by local laborers in mere months.

Bamiyan Valley
UNESCO
The Bamiyan valley with two empty niches where the giant Buddha’s once stood.

The community of the Bamiyan valley consists mostly of Shia Muslims. For them the decision not to rebuild the Buddhas is beneficial both economically, religiously and politically.  In fact, the new plan takes into account their needs.  Rebuilding the Buddhas would be incongruous with the Muslim tenant against using images and could make the community vulnerable to a second Taliban attack.  The Bamiyan valley has been peaceful since the Buddha bombings, but suffers economically from the decrease in tourism.  The new site will bring international travelers to the valley and promises to increase the poor standard of living in the valley.

The new Bamiyan site is just one part of UNESCO’s new campaign to bring about peace and protect heritage sites.  In an April 6, 2012 letter to The New York Times Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO, quite convincingly described this mission.  She wrote: “It may seem incongruous to denounce crimes against culture and call for their protection at a time of political instability and humanitarian crisis, but it isn’t.  Protecting culture is a security issue.  There can be no lasting peace without respect. Attacks against cultural heritage are attacks against the very identity of communities.  They mark a symbolic and real step up in the escalation of a conflict, leading to devastation that can be irreparable and whose impact lasts long after the dust has settled.  Attacks on the past make reconciliation much harder in the future.  They can hold societies back from turning the page toward peace.  So protecting cultural heritage is not a luxury.  We cannot leave this for better days, when tensions have cooled.  To lay the ground for peace, we must act now to protect culture, while tensions are high” (Irina Bokova, “Culture Under Fire,” The New York Times, April 6, 2012). As I read these words I reflect on cultural heritage we have lost, a past gone forever, and the plans for the new Bamiyan site.  At first I am brought to tears, but then the drum beat of battle enters my ears.

The new Bamiyan site will be a symbolic reminder to us all that cultural heritage is a powerful force.  It emboldens us, as human beings, to become involved and join organizations such as Saving Antiquities for Everyone.  The new Bamiyan site can and will ignite the international community to take action against the cycle that perpetuates the destruction of cultural heritage.

Bamiyan Community
The New York Times
Residents of the Bamiyan Valley hope that the UNESCO site will bring positive changes.

 

Not just Egypt’s loss…

Egypt’s rich and ancient history has been standing for over 5000 years, as evidenced by the great pyramids.  Who would suspect that it could ever be threatened?  In actuality, looters have been picking away at the antiquities of Egypt for thousands of years, like ocean waves lapping at the base of an intricate sand castle.  Recently, however, there has been a disconcerting uptick in this attack on our world’s shared culture.

Political unrest in Egypt has set the stage for loss of control over the land’s artifacts.  According to U.C. Berkeley archaeologist Carol Redmount, who has been excavating and examining sites in Egypt for over 20 years, the increased looting of these archaeological sites began when former President Mubarak was forced to leave the country in early 2011 and has not slowed in the year and a half since.

During the regime change, many police, military personnel, and local guards were re-deployed to deal with the intense rioting.  Some even walked off the job.  Consequently cultural sites, precious artifacts, museums, and tombs were left unprotected.  In June 2012, Dr. Redmount invited NBC News Richard Engel to ride with her through Al-Heba, a town 180 miles south of Cairo where she has been working, so that he could see for himself the extent of this wanton destruction.  Here, at one tomb site, the entire hillside had been dug up in hundreds of places by looters.  On the ground were randomly discarded mummified bodies that had been unearthed in the race for anticipated treasures.

Temple of Luxor
Microsoft.com Stock Photos
The Temple of Luxor

South of Cairo is not the only area where this is transpiring.  Thieves have even looted areas around the Great Pyramids in Giza and the Luxor temples, reports Major-General Abdel-Rahim Hassan, commander of the Tourism and Antiquities Police Department.

In May 2012, Egyptian police arrested two men for digging a 10-meter deep hole under their homes, which were just behind the temple of Khnum in the southern town of Esna, There police found hieroglyphic inscriptions dating back to the Ptolemaic dynasty and ancient clay pots.  Had these artifacts been removed and sold illegally, both Egypt and the world community would have lost another irreplaceable piece of its history.

Egypt’s Interior Ministry has reported 5697 cases of illegal digging since the anti-Mubarak uprising began shortly into 2011.  This is a shocking 100 times more than the previous year.  During this time, illegal trading in antiquities has mushroomed to 1467 cases.  According to the AP, these are only the cases that the Interior Ministry was able to track down.

With so little manpower to staunch the flow of antiquities out of Egypt, this situation continues to grow worse.   Amid political turmoil, a recent disputed election, and police and military personnel preoccupied elsewhere, what can be done to protect and preserve the ancient Egyptian culture?

Egypt’s loss is our loss because Egypt’s history is an integral part of our global history.  We need to act.  As SAFE continues to expand its influence and be joined by archaeological activists and patrons, we will work to support local government organizations like the Interior Ministry and the Tourism and Antiquities Police Department to stem this illegal activity and to provide security for Egypt’s antiquities. Join our cause on Facebook and Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage.

Your voice for cultural property in Greece

Here is an effective  public-awareness video produced by the  Association of Greek Archaeologists, which has recently appeared on Greek television news:

The campaign’s central message — “Monuments have no voice. They must have yours” — is a reaction to deep cultural budget cuts being made as part of the austerity measures imposed on Greece by the European economic establishment. It is a reminder that the world is full of no-questions-asked collectors willing to give culture criminals considerable sums of money to possess their own private piece of knocked-off “ancient art”. Such buyers are not only a threat to the heritage of today’s citizens but that of their children too. The hands in the video are those of the agents of the collectors and dealers of the international antiquities market.

FROM THE FIELD: Significant historic and cultural site in Afghanistan restored

Origins and background

The ancient religious site of Gazur Gah is one of the most significant in Afghanistan. It lies near to the city of Herat in western Afghanistan, on an ancient trade route between Central Asia and the West, and marks one of last halting stations before the deserts of Kuhistan. Its recorded history begins around 1000 years ago, with the lives of a local Sufi, Shaikh ‘Amu, and his pupil Khwajah Abdullah Ansari. Following the death of Shaikh ‘Amu, who was buried in the nearby hill of Zangir Gah in 1049 CE, Khwajah Ansari became a prominent Sufi religious personality in the region of Khurasan. He founded a Sufi institution at Gazur Gah, and was buried at the site following his death in 1089 CE.

Gazur Gah was one of a number of medieval settlements in Khurasan that developed around a religious institution and funerary complex of a Sufi holy-man. Other such sites were founded in the mountainous regions to the east of Gazur Gah at Chisht and Jam, and in eastern Iran at Turbat-i Shaikh Jam. Gazur Gah became home to a brotherhood of Ansari’s descendants and disciples, and the site of pilgrimage for Sufi devotees from Herat and beyond.

The complex of buildings at Gazur Gah has been the focus of a recent restoration project undertaken by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

Historic Development

The site’s structures developed over several historic phases following the death of Khwajah Ansari. The Ghurid rulers added a religious school in the 12th century, whilst the last Ghurid king – Sultan Mahmud – was buried at the site following his death in 1212 CE. The subsequent Kart dynasty also restored and added to the site though few, if any, architectural features remain from this medieval period.

The 15th century Timurid rulers of Khurasan viewed Ansari as the pir or ‘wise man’ of Herat, and drew close association with the saint in establishing their rule. They constructed a more elaborate funerary complex at Gazur Gah, focused on the form, function and meaning of the saint’s grave.

The burial site itself is identified by a low platform, surrounded by a pierced stone screen, and a lone, gnarled tree. Around this, Timurid patrons constructed an impressive courtyard enclosure with high arched portals or iwans, burial chambers and graves of members of the ruling family, together with spaces for prayer, residence and communal meeting, and gardens, pavilions and a water cistern beyond.

The resulting funerary courtyard and Namakdan Pavilion are fine extant examples of Timurid monuments. A royal residence and gardens were built adjacent to the site, confirming Gazur Gah’s religious, political and social significance during this golden Timurid age. The complex also received endowments that have lasted, in some cases, to the present day.

The Safavid ruler Shah Ismail conquered Herat in 1510 CE. Although these new rulers were Shi’ite, they allowed Sufi customs and practices to continue at the site, and ordered further amplification of its buildings. The importance of Gazur Gah was nevertheless reduced through the Safavid focus on the Shi’ite sanctuaries of Mashhad, Ardabil, Qum and Mazar-i Sharif. The ruling Chingizid clan made further embellishments in the 17th century, and undertook restoration of the cistern. Members of the clan were also buried at the site in the early part of the 18th century. Beyond this, little repair had been undertaken in more recent times, leaving many of its buildings in a state of disintegration and collapse.

Recent Restoration Activities

Given its long history and religious and cultural significance, Gazur Gah has been the focus of recent remedial works by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) in Afghanistan, funded by government of Germany. The project forms a part of AKTC’s wider cultural heritage activities across the country (see below).

Following an initial survey of the complex in 2005, the AKTC signed an agreement with the department of Historic Monuments, to commence work.

Initial activities included the removal of modern concrete and earth materials from historic buildings, and roof repairs, alongside stabilization of the south side of the Khanaqah-i Zarnigar in 2006. In 2007, as part of documentation of the complex’s artistic and architectural history, a group of students from the faculty of Fine Arts at Herat University prepared full-scale drawings of the most significant historic graves – recording decorative stone techniques from 15th to 19th centuries. In the same year, focus also moved to stabilizing the main, eastern iwan of the central courtyard, which was showing signs of structural settlement. Surveys of the brick structure revealed a number of historic interventions made over the centuries to prevent its collapse. 2008 saw the construction of a brick buttress that now provides full support for the iwan.

Restoration took place alongside at the Namakdan Pavilion, a 12-sided brick structure that once stood in the midst of formal gardens. As with the other buildings, layers of concrete, earth and rubble were removed. This revealed the central dome’s rib structures for repair. Tensile steel ring-ties replaced original timber reinforcement that had since been consumed by termites. External footings were also repaired, using materials and techniques found in the original structure. With the structure strengthened, a modern intermediate floor could then be removed, to restore the original double-height interior space. During the course of works, the base of an octagonal pool was also discovered in the central space, along with traces of a water channel and a marble waterfall on the western side. Local craftsmen restored decorative traditional plaster and ceramic tiles to the building’s exterior.

Parallel landscaping was undertaken throughout the complex. This included re-laying of marble and brick paving in the courtyard, installation of subtle external lighting, and improvements to drainage systems.

Project Management

Effective management was emphasized by the AKTC throughout the project, maintained through regular consultations held by AKTC staff with the Historic Monuments department, and the Head of the religious order that oversees the shrine. Local craftsmen, masons and laborers were employed throughout, utilizing traditional skills and knowledge, and providing incomes to families in the area.

The 4-year restoration program was completed by 2009. An opening ceremony, presided over by HE the Governor of Herat, Yusuf Nooristani, and attended by religious and community leaders, was held 8th October 2009.

Widely regarded as one of the most important surviving Timurid architectural complexes in the region, and a significant site of Sufi pilgrimage and prayer to this day, the restoration of the buildings at Gazur Gah is a significant landmark in the on-going safeguard of Afghanistan’s architectural heritage.

Further details of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture’s activities in Afghanistan and around the world can be found at http://www.akdn.org/afghanistan_newsletters.asp and http://www.akdn.org/AKTC

With grateful thanks to Jolyon Leslie and Hadi Jahanabadian for providing guidance with sources and information on the site’s restoration.

Thalia Kennedy‘s academic training is in art and architectural history, in which she holds her PhD.  Her area of research and teaching has been the Islamic and South Asian spheres.  She has held visiting lectureships at the School of Oriental & African Studies, the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London.  From 2007 to 2010, Thalia was the Director of the Turquoise Mountain Institute for Afghan Arts & Architecture in Kabul, and is now a member of the Institute Board.  In 2011, she was a Guest Scholar at the Getty Conservation Institute, and Scholar in Residence at the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.  Currently completing consultancy and research, Thalia has recently been selected for a museum position in Qatar, where she will be moving later this year.

Howard Carter and his discovery of King Tut’s tomb…what if?

One of the easiest ways to think about the damaging effects of looting ancient sites is to consider what we stand to lose. Or simply put: what if?

In celebration of Howard Carter’s 138th birthday and his discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922, a most important point should not be forgotten: what we now know about the young king would be impossible had tomb robbers found the coffin first.

In a 2005 Dig Magazine article, Adrienne J. Donovan of SAFE wrote:

In ancient times, robbers entered Tutankhamun’s tomb twice, but not his coffin. They took what was most valuable at the time, unguents and oils. After it was covered by rubble from the cutting of another tomb, Tut’s tomb was left untouched until Howard Carter began digging in 1922. It is the intactness of the finds and of Tut’s untouched mummy that have allowed the young king to be so well understood today.

 

Untouched by tomb raiders, the artifacts in King Tut’s intact tomb continue to stimulate public interest in ancient Egypt. Rather than “beautiful but dumb”*, the objects speak volumes about the ancient world in general. Among the many possibilities this wealth of information brings, technology can now even deduce what King Tut looked like, impossible to achieve had his tomb been plundered and its contents traded in the illicit antiquities trade

*Professor Clemency Coggins used the term to describe archaeological objects removed out of context. Professor Coggins of Boston University has worked on problems of Cultural Property preservation and law since 1968. She served on the US committee involved in drafting the 1970 UNESCO convention, and worked many years for the US ratification and implementation of the Convention.

Respect Our History: End Production of American Digger and Diggers!

The undersigned institutions join the growing tide of concern about the National Geographic Channel’s new series “Diggers” and Spike TV’s forthcoming series “American Digger,” both of which are designed to amuse and entertain audiences while glorifying the indiscriminate destruction of American history by artifact hunters. The teaser advertisement for “American Digger” gives a good indication of how little the producers of these shows value the historical record; the show aims to “scour target-rich areas such as battlefields and historic sites, in hopes of striking it rich by unearthing and selling rare pieces of American history.”

America’s cultural heritage is worth more to all of us than the few dollars that the “diggers” will pocket as a result of their exploits. The activities highlighted by these shows destroy the archaeological record, and in many cases cause damage to the historic site that remains. America’s battlefields and historic sites deserve more respect than they would if they were to serve as the personal hunting ground for treasure seekers and pothunters.

What’s more, by glamorizing this type of activity, these shows encourage similar behavior by individuals who may not understand that in many cases, this type of “treasure hunting” is considered criminal behavior. Digging on federal lands without an archaeological permit is against the law, and unauthorized digging on state-owned land is illegal in most jurisdictions. Digging for artifacts on private land without permission is trespassing at best, and theft at worst.  Interstate transportation or sale of illegally-obtained artifacts may subject a “treasure seeker” to criminal prosecution under the federal Archaeological Resources Protection Act.

These laws are in place for good reason: our cultural heritage is indeed a treasure – one that deserves to be protected, not looted or destroyed for entertainment’s sake. We urge these two networks to respect our history, and end production and airing of these shows.

Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation (LCCHP)

Cultural Heritage and Preservation Studies Program at Rutgers University

Penn Cultural Heritage Center

SAFE/Saving Antiquities for Everyone

Photo: Jeff Daly/Spike TV, via PictureGroup

"We have to support better policing of the sites", says the new Getty Museum Director. What does he have in mind?

Lee Rosenbaum has a disturbingly revealing Q and A with Timothy Potts on the new Getty Museum director’s views on antiquities collecting policy. I happen to agree with Potts that even with the 1970 rule now being adhered to by American museums, “there is still a huge amount of ongoing looting and this issue is not being addressed.” I also agree that

The only way to address it is on the ground in the source countries. We have to support better policing of the sites, better understanding by the local communities of the importance of the archaeological heritage, particularly to them. And it’s only through these programs that we’re really going to tackle the core problem, which is the illicit excavation that’s still going on and the huge urban projects, dam building, and so on.

But what would it mean to “support better policing of the sites”?

(For the full post, go to The Punching Bag.)

Looking ahead: 2012 and beyond

With 2012 now upon us, SAFE looks forward to the coming year with anticipation, and offers a few predictions.

As discussion and publicity surrounding the repatriation of antiquities continues and public awareness and media focus on the actions of source countries (Italy, Greece, Peru, Turkey, Egypt, Bulgaria, etc.) increase, the return of cultural patrimony will accelerate during 2012 and the years that follow. The question is no longer whether such artifacts will be returned. In most cases, the only question is when.

Repatriation by U.S. museums and collectors in recent years (some 130 artifacts have already returned to Italy; the Boston Museum of Fine Art’s return to the upper half of the Weary Herakles to Turkey occurred this past year; Yale University’s transfer of Macchu Picchu artifacts back to Peru began in 2011 and will be completed by December 2012) provide incentive for source countries to continue their investigation to identify and seek the return of their cultural patrimony from museums around the world … with particular focus on objects shown among the thousands of photographs discovered by Italian police (the Giacomo Medici Archive seized at the Geneva Freeport in 1995), by Swiss authorities and Greek investigators. This vast trove of photos now in the hands of researchers, law enforcement and prosecutors and cultural attaches in several countries will continue to serve as source material during the coming year for the return of objects acquired by various museums (e.g., the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid, the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, the Miho Museum in Japan, the Toledo Museum of Art, and others.

Meanwhile, continuing issues at U.S. museums will be resolved (or very nearly so), such as the case that pits the St. Louis Art Museum against the U.S. government over ownership of a 3,200-year-old mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer, which disappeared from the inventory of the Cairo Museum in the late 1950s and was sold to SLAM for $500,000 in 1998. We predict the matter will be decided during the coming year. And in southern Utah, we expect another shoe to drop in the ongoing Four Corners antiquities trafficking case with more hand-wringing over FBI methods and the DOJ’s duty to enforce laws that prohibit illegal digging and theft of artifacts on federal or Indian lands.

Finally, in response to the aggressive and well-organized destruction of archaeological sites in China a crackdown on antiquities theft in Shanxi, Henan and other effected provinces will continue as Chinese authorities seek to preserve the estimated five percent of all archaeological sites on the mainland that have not yet been plundered. As for a different kind of plunder, will the much publicized Chinese mission to track down and document objects that have been taken from Yuanmingyuan (Beijing’s “Old Summer Palace”) result in a request for their return?

All told, 2012 promises to be an interesting and eventful year. Best wishes to all.

Hungarian Archaeologists Express Concern over Modification of Cultural Heritage Protection Law

SAFE was recently contacted by Merva Szabina – a Hungarian archaeologist – asking for our help in publicizing a danger to Hungary’s archaeological heritage. We are happy to spread the word and lend our support. Here is a brief summary of the situation provided by Merva Szabina:

“The Archaeological Heritage is in extreme danger in Hungary. According to archaeologists, a new draft law recently submitted to the Hungarian Parliament could mean the end of heritage protection in Hungary. The most serious point in the draft is that first phase test-excavations related to large-scale investments (e.g. motorway constructions, major state investments) would be limited to a time period of at most 30 days. Furthermore, any necessary follow-up preventive excavations could not last longer than another 30 days either. This would not be applied to simply to the sites themselves – which would also be equally irresolvable - but to the whole of the investment area!

Take motorway projects for example. Dozens of archaeological sites, sometimes ten or even hundreds of thousands of square metres would have to be excavated in only 30 days! The other seriously dangerous point in this draft legislation is the brutal decrease in the money that would be allocated to the excavations. According to the earlier regulation – still in effect in Hungary – costs of excavation should be a minimum of 0.9% of the total cost of the investment. The new draft legislation caps the money received by the excavation at a maximum of 1% of the investment.

Nowadays, it has been calculated that in a well organized investment, the amount of money spent on rescuing the site and finds normally comes to about 4-8% of the total investment cost. Thus, it is completely clear that if this new draft legislation passes through parliament, only about 13-25% of the archaeological heritage in Hungary can be protected. Another ramification of the drastic cut in funds is that institutions involved in excavation will be forced to concentrate on digging rather than documentation, conservation of finds, inventorizing, storing and publishing finds because of the impossible-to-meet time and financial constraints. There will simply be no money left for the for this equally vital part of archaeological work.

The new draft would also affect on-going projects. The parties involved would be forced to parties to modify contracts 30 days after they took effect. Nineteen directors of county museums and the Budapest History Museum (institutes responsible for rescue (preventive) excavations in Hungary) and the Association of Hungarian Archaeologists have sent open letters addressed to the Ministry of National Resources as well as to the prime minister expressing their deep concern about this proposed legislation. No one has received any answers so far. The president of the Cultural Committee of the government, L. Simon L.,– has said “I think it is a reasonable compromise proposal (…) I hope that economic agents will also support this draft” However, no archaeologists were ever consulted during the drafting of this legislation.”

(’600-an a Régészetért’ – ’600 for Archaeology’ Community on Facebook, translated by Orsolya Láng)