Heritage Crisis in Syria: a call for a moratorium on the antiquities trade

The world has been closely following the tumultuous political upheaval behind the devastated state of cultural heritage preservation in Syria. A recent New York Times article describes “a feeling of impotence” that academics and archaeologists are experiencing in the face of the sheer magnitude of the danger threatening the cultural heritage of Syria.

What will it take to stop the relentless destruction of Syria’s cultural heritage?

It is tempting to seek comparable remedies that suit other nations in the Middle East, where political unrest has also rendered cultural heritage exceptionally vulnerable.

In 2008, the United States implemented Import Restrictions Imposed on Archaeological and Ethnological Material of Iraq without proper documentation. This protection (although less robust than what was originally proposed in H.R. 2009/3497) is in place to this day. Since 2011, there have been highly publicized efforts to enact similar regulations for Egyptian antiquities, including an attempt to pass a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to impose restrictions on the U.S. importation of certain categories of Egyptian archaeological artifacts.

What about Syria? Could antiquities be banned from entering the United States? Would such import restrictions reduce the economic incentive to loot (the very purpose of the 1970 UNESCO Convention)? How are current circumstances in Syria different from the situation in Iraq, which led to the passage of trade restrictions between 2003 and 2008?

U.S. representatives Philip English (R-PA) and James Leach (R-IA) proposed the bill H.R.2009 (later modified to H.R. 3497) and initiated a momentum that led to the passage of S.1291. Could the other parties who contributed to H.R.2009 help draft and enact legislation to protect Syrian cultural heritage?

Unfortunately, both congressmen have left public office since, and it has been difficult to find out who else originally mobilized this legislative effort. Given the opposition that the bill faced from the art market community, and the eventual passage of a less restrictive bill, a similar political push for the protection of Syrian antiquities might be difficult to come by.

Given that the U.S. has suspended diplomatic relations with Syria, no MoU request has been made by the Syria government to the U.S. State Department to enable import restrictions of antiquities into the U.S., which has proven an effective means to curb the incentive to loot ancient sites.

On October 2013, the EU implemented this Regulation “to facilitate the safe return to their legitimate owners of goods constituting Syrian cultural heritage which have been illegally removed from Syria… and to provide for additional restrictive measures in order to prohibit the import, export or transfer of such goods.” In the UK, I reported that the Export Control Syria Sanctions Amendment Order 2014 SI 2014 1896 (the Order) was made on July 16, 2014, laid before the Parliament on July 18, 2014, and came into force on August 8, 2014.

On the international level, Syria is a member of the UN. But despite a petition initiated by The Syria Campaign, which collected nearly 17,000 signatures and asks the UN Security Council to “ban the trade in Syrian artefacts,” no resolution toward comprehensive protection of Syrian cultural heritage has thus far been enacted. Last May, UNESCO held an international meeting to decide about the creation of an Observatory to “the state of buildings, artefacts and intangible cultural heritage to combat illicit trafficking and collect information to restore heritage once the fighting is over.” This is not the same as the UN Security Council Resolution 1483 which called on all UN member states to prohibit trade in cultural heritage objects and to adopt other means to ensure the return of said objects to Iraq, which facilitated the passing of the Iraq Cultural Property Protection Act in the U.S.

The UN cannot take action utilizing the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict; that task is the responsibility of the International Criminal Court. Syrian leaders should keep in mind that the Republic of Syria remains a party to the 1954 Hague Convention and its First Protocol and has signed the Second Protocol. Non-state actors in Syria should also be aware that they, too, may be held accountable under the 1954 Hague Convention even though they never signed or ratified the Convention. The reason is that Hague ‘54 is considered customary international law and “will therefore bind not just states but non-state actors such as rebel factions or secessionist groups,” according legal expert Zoe Howe.

Key provisions of Hague ’54 include Article 4 (which obligates combatants to refrain from attacking cultural property unless required by military necessity and to prevent all theft, pillage, or vandalism of cultural property) and Article 19 (which applies the Convention to non-international armed conflicts, also known as civil wars). Sobering thoughts, to be sure.

Meanwhile, a New York Times op-ed piece published yesterday states that Syrian locals are being encouraged to loot sites under a kind of licensing arrangement referred to as an “Islamic khums tax,” which is supposedly based on the monetary value of their finds. It is difficult to understand how this system actually works. I hope that one day more details will be revealed. The op-ed indicates that sources are withheld for security reasons.

So, what can we do?

As stated in 2011 regarding Egyptian cultural heritage protection, SAFE believes that in order to curb looting in Syria, the demand for looted objects must be eliminated.

In his recent interview with the New York Times, Samuel Hardy, Honorary Research Associate at the Institute of Archaeology at University College London (and writer of the Conflict Antiquities) said, “There’s a huge amount coming out of Syria. The rebels have teams dedicated to looting and refugees are using portable statuettes, pots, and glass as an international currency.”

Here’s a thought:

Could museums and collectors agree to a moratorium on Syrian antiquities until order is restored? For a day … half-a-day?

In fact, since looting to feed the illicit antiquities trade is a global concern affecting even “first-world” countries such as France and Finland, why not take a pause from acquiring ALL antiquities without proper ownership history post-1970?

A broad-based moratorium would alleviate the burden of proof that artifacts have indeed been freshly looted, in the spirit of the 1970 UNESCO Convention. The ICOM Red Lists provide guidance as to which specific categories of objects from around the world that are most at risk, should assistance be needed in determining which objects to avoid — if only for a moment!

This would be a symbolic gesture of good will on the part of those who engage in the buying of antiquities which are being destroyed en masse, in some cases to fund the activities of the very destroyers themselves. After all, museums and collectors are the ones who create the demand. Could they be persuaded to take a step back to honor the need to protect, not destroy, the rich heritage in which these relics of our past were created?

Can we all stand together in a symbolic moment of silence to acknowledge such tragic moments as the damaging of the Citadel of Aleppo and nearby monuments by explosives, the raiding of archaeological sites throughout the country, and the looting of more than five museums?

This will send a clear message to the world that wanton destruction of cultural heritage must be condemned and stopped. Regardless of which side of the trade we are on, we can demonstrate our collective commitment to save the past for our future by not aiding and abetting the destruction of our shared heritage — with or without the presence of rules and regulations.

Featured Image: UNESCO Safeguarding Syrian Cultural Heritage at http://www.unesco.org/new/en/safeguarding-syrian-cultural-heritage/.


SAFE recognized in a landmark archaeology encyclopedia

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

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

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

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

The entry also discusses current debates:

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

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

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

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

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

Regarding public awareness, SAFE writes:

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

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

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

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

Archaeology for non-archaeologists (like myself)

Recently I had the challenge of talking about the damage of tomb raiding upon cultural heritage to a general audience. In order to present my ideas in a clear, concise and didactic way, I used a particular comparison which comes out of my work as a criminologist and a criminal defense attorney: in a nutshell, how an archaeological dig is comparable to a crime scene.

When introducing the risks of archaeological looting to a general audience, one first must understand the conception people have about archaeology and archaeologists. Sometimes, this mental image can be an authentic misconception. This also happens with criminologists –if you knew how many times, after telling someone I do not know that I am a criminologist to I get the “So you are a CSI, huh?”– or other professions where media images have distorted the reality.

Police (Mossos d'Esquadra) investigation of a crime scene in Catalonia Police (Mossos d’Esquadra) investigation of a crime scene in Catalonia

In that sense, people who still have an idea of the archaeologist wearing a fedora hat and holding a whip, usually have a more Hollywood-style conception of archaeology, in which not only is the archaeologist a valiant athlete who fights tribes, traps and tribulations, but someone who embarks on a treasure hunt in order to get a one-of-a-kind artifact which will (no doubt) be labeled as a spectacular find. In sum, an archaeology which is object driven and in which the archaeologist is a collector him/herself.

Nothing further than the truth. Real archaeology is not so much object-driven as information-driven. Archaeology is a science that has the goal of enriching the knowledge of our past through the study of remnants, whatever these may be: skeletons, coins, textile, jewelry, architectural remnants…

Archaeologists working in a dig in Catalonia, Spain Archaeologists working in a dig in Catalonia, Spain
D.G. Patrimoni Cultural – Jordi Play

In real archaeology, there are three very important elements that are essentially interconnected: the find, its context and its sense. In other words, the site of the find is at least as important as the find itself. For an archaeologist, therefore, it is essential not only to assess what object has been found but also what has been moved or taken.

In that sense, it is very easy to draw parallels between an archaeological dig and a crime scene investigation where the haste is not welcomed. Just imagine a detective à la Indiana Jones, touching everything and leaving his fingerprints everywhere. The ‘good’ detective, like the real archaeologist, looks for information about what happened at the crime scene by studying what remains behind in the crime scene and how those remains are placed –again, the importance of the context.

However, every day, looters in different parts of the world ignore that very easy to grasp comparison and destroy the remnants of our shared past at an alarming pace. Of course, their motivations are radically different from those of archaeologists and seem very hard to change. But, people from different fields and organizations like SAFE, in raising awareness of this issue, try to inform a wider audience of the perils of the destruction of the non-replaceable cultural heritage. Many people are still not aware of the risks facing our cultural heritage. If simple comparisons like the one I presented here help more people understand the work of real archaeologists and bring attention to this problem, so much the better!

Preserving cultural heritage in the United States

We thank SAFE Volunteer Melissa Halverson for her contribution to the 2013 Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage.

One of my favorite stories stemming from a career as an anthropologist and museum professional lies in what is right in our efforts to preserve cultural heritage.

Looting affects all geographic areas of the United States and an estimated 90% of known archaeological sites in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado (US Congress, 1988).  A major issue with looting in the U.S. lies in the fact that objects become the property of whoever owns the land in which they were found. The Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was passed in 1990 to reduce illegal looting and trafficking. It also attempts to reconcile American Indians with human remains and sacred and ceremonial objects that had been taken from them and found their way to museum collections around the country.  In the majority of cases, NAGPRA has helped to solidify trust and good relationships between local American Indian tribes and museums.

Melissa Halverson at museum The author posing with some arctic artwork at the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian

During my undergraduate and graduate research, I worked with NAGPRA compliance by gaining tribal approval to amplify ancient DNA and to study some skeletal samples that had not yet been returned to the tribe.  A few years ago, I interned at Washington state agency and got to see how meaningful our efforts to curb looting really can be.  An American Indian burial had been discovered in someone’s front yard during a routine water line inspection and I got to assist with the excavation.  Local tribal representatives came out to the site and shared the day with us.  At the end of the experience, the human remains and burial objects were returned to the tribe for proper burial. This individual was a tribal member. Anti-looting laws helped bring him back home where he can rest with his ancestors.  He is no longer in any danger of ending up on a museum shelf or being traded on the black market (learn more about Washington State American Indian tribes here).

I am proud to have collaborated on such a wonderful project and it was an amazing feeling to use my skills in archaeological excavation to make a small difference for the American Indian tribe, the safety of the human remains and archaeological materials, and the stability of local cultural heritage.

Looting is everyone’s concern

SAFE is grateful to Marni Walter for sharing this reflection with us in observance of the 2013 Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage.

During the early years of the new millennium, the scope of antiquities looting and destruction of cultural heritage seemed to drastically expand. To all the archaeological damage done for profit to feed the demands of various art markets, we were forced to add incalculable threats from political unrest and wartime conflict.

At that time I was working as an editor at the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) for the American Journal of Archaeology, while also enrolled as a graduate student in archaeology at Boston University. In heritage management courses, we would compile statistics on the unprovenanced antiquities (most of them!) in the high-end auction catalogs, scrutinize the collections of prominent collectors, and report on the imbalances in wealth of the “source” countries versus the places of import. At the AIA, we debated about whether we should continue to publish using the longstanding von Bothmer publication fund (as Dietrich von Bothmer, a former curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, became increasingly criticized for acquisitions, such as the Euphronios krater, in an earlier era of museum practices).

Marni Walter at prehistoric site The author recording excavation details at a prehistoric site in New Hampshire, U.S.A.

We were thrilled when a hefty manuscript by Christopher Chippendale and David Gill landed on the AJA editorial desks: this important and thorough study was published in July 2000 as “Material Consequences of Contemporary Classical Collecting” (AJA 104:463–511). In fact many excellent studies were published in the early 2000s onward that showed the cold hard numbers on archaeological losses. It has been gratifying to see the growth in academic attention to many aspects of cultural heritage protection, with entire conferences (like the subject of my last post) dedicated to the subject. Sharing research among specialists is vital to moving forward, but we also need to talk to everyone else, and gain the support of the widest possible range of people.

When in 2001 the Taliban destroyed the giant Buddha statues at Bamiyan and many others throughout Afghanistan, and in 2003 thieves looted and vandalized the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, the need for broad support (including military personnel among many others) was suddenly more obvious. These events were not at all accidental or collateral war damage, but deliberate actions of hostility. Of course war, and its spoils, have been around since antiquity itself, but now unprecedented levels of media attention followed. Ten years later the reports and the images from the ransacked museum are still vivid. Many people recognized—even in the midst of the human tragedies of war—the dramatic loss of knowledge and spirit of the “cradle of civilization,” and the senseless, destructive impulses that caused it.

As archaeologists, art historians, or other related scholars, we cannot dismiss the issues by saying “looting is not my specialty.” If we believe that our research is important enough or inspiring enough to do in the first place, then doing something about destruction of cultural heritage is simply a fundamental part of our work.

We are fortunate that SAFE was borne out of these circumstances, founded as a response to a dramatic event, but recognizing that the problems would require more ongoing and widespread attention. No single solution will stop or curb looting to any significant degree, but one common thread will help greatly: the public, anyone with any interest in archaeology, history, art history, cultural diversity, etc. So many people are just as fascinated, if not more so, after learning how we gleaned a whole story, an entire village or camp scenario, from mapping the locations of all the stone tools, or bits of ceramics, and whatever small puzzle pieces we found. Many of them will sympathize, and help, if they are aware of the issues.

As archaeologists, art historians, or other related scholars, we cannot dismiss the issues by saying “looting is not my specialty.” If we believe that our research is important enough or inspiring enough to do in the first place, then doing something about destruction of cultural heritage is simply a fundamental part of our work. It could be showing a community the importance of context for what local excavations revealed, or writing in support of a bilateral agreement, or contributing stories or research summaries to SAFE. Whether working on public awareness and action, legislative and policy changes, improved security, or research on causes and effects, SAFE, for ten years running, is an ideal venue to bring all these approaches together.

We can hope that all our efforts will add up to a broad change of public attitude. Convince the next generation of would-be collectors that it’s so old school to hoard priceless artifacts in their houses as knick-knacks on the mantle. Modern “collectors” would rather support an excavation and its related museum displays or public programs. These collectors will find it so much more satisfying to potentially have an excavation or museum display in their name, along with all the information and discoveries that were revealed from it. Future vandals will know that plundering their country’s museums will only rob themselves and their own people of a collective source of wealth. It’s an ideal world, but one worth working toward.

Ultimately, it’s not about saving every individual artifact on the planet. It’s about cultures of all varieties and sizes flourishing and retaining their uniqueness, the pieces that tell their story. It’s about respecting cultures and environments that are not our own, and, to paraphrase SAFE founder Cindy Ho, choosing to live in a world with a rich cultural heritage.

Photo: “The opposite of looters’ pits. Scientific excavation is key to a wealth of information about the past,” by Marni Walter

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

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

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

My process

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

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

Techniques used by auction houses

sothebys Unprovenanced Syrian stone capitals sold at Sotheby’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evidence for looting

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

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

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

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

Giza Holes


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

If Donny George had been a criminologist…

… We would have lost a fantastic archeologist, for sure. Do not get me wrong. If Dr. George had been a criminologist, we would have had a person with the astounding intellectual prowess and amazing human nature in our ranks. But things are what they are and Dr. George will be remembered in the annals of archaeology –not criminology– as the passionate scholar he was.

When SAFE asked me to contribute in this amazing project, I decided from the very beginning that I wanted to present a different view of Dr. George. I am sure that most of the readers know the life, deeds and works of Dr. George as well as the palms of their hands.

Let us remember how, in horror we all witnessed the destruction that the Iraqi war brought in terms of human lives, and, as in other armed conflicts, to cultural heritage. As in many other recent conflicts, we were powerless as we witnessed international treaties being disregarded on so many fronts. In terms of cultural property treaties, the list includes the Geneva Convention of 1949 and its two protocols of 1977 (Articles 38 and 53 of Protocol I and Article 16 of Protocol II) as well as the Hague Convention of 1954 which forbids the use of cultural institutions as either targets or fortresses. However, the poor National Museum in Baghdad was located in the line of fire.

Donny George holding slab Donny George with antiquities stolen from an excavation site
The Telegraph

I always considered that Dr. George’s most amazing deed was his passionate defense of the National Museum both in the time of horrible turmoil and afterwards. I cannot imagine the emotional impact of witnessing how, after the battle was fought and the Museum was left unguarded for 96 hours (until the afternoon of the 12th of April), the Museum became the victim not only of the armed conflict but also of an enraged mob that identified the museum with Saddam’s regime and of looters.

Because, today, the destruction of cultural heritage and looting are considered to be crimes against cultural property, criminology is the perfect discipline for understanding such key events in Dr. George’s life. Two theories might apply. One is “Routine Activity Theory”, a micro-level theory developed by Cohen and Felson in 1979 in order to explain the behavior of individuals engaged in predatory street crime. The core of the theory is that criminal activity revolves around the routine activities of a certain population. The rate of such activities is dependent on three factors: a suitable target (in art crime, the value of a property), a motivated offender (a person with criminal inclinations and the ability to carry them), and the absence of a capable guardian (either a formal or informal one) with capacity for intervening. I am sure Dr. George would see how this theory may explain what happened to his beloved but unguarded museum.

The other theory I might apply to this incident is “Anomie”. Émile Durkheim coined the term and discussed it in two of his works:–“The Division of Labor in Society” (1893) and “Suicide” (1897). Durkheim refers specifically to “dérèglement”, a synonym for anomie, which is a general societal condition. “Dérèglement” is etymologically interpreted as a state of corruption, evil, agitation, torment, impiety, and intemperance that leads to general suffering and torment. All of these terms can be applied to societal conditions at the time of the looting of Baghdad’s National Museum as revealed in testimony and reports and are in line with Durkheim’s general assumptions that a disorganized social condition leads to suffering and distress.

It is interesting that I still use the case of the Baghdad Museum in many of my courses to illustrate these theories. (Might this be a Freudian homage to Dr. George?). Perhaps, wise as he was, he knew about these criminological theories. If not, I would have loved to have had the opportunity to sit with him and discuss how these theories might bring explain the events of those chaotic days. If Dr. George had been a criminologist, there would have been no need for me to do so. Once again, I state that I cherish his work, his spirit, his discipline and his deeds…
Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Dr. George.

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.

Contested Ownership of Iraqi-Jewish Heritage Causes International Debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

“Diggers” and “American Digger”: A Viewers’ Guide

On February 28th NatGeo TV premiered “Diggers” (hosted by the principals at Anaconda Treasure) and on March 21st Spike TV premiered “American Digger,” both reality shows which feature self described treasure hunters who travel around the US shovel in hand. It is important to keep in mind while watching this show that there are Federal, State and Local laws that protect ancient sites and artifacts and they’re there for a reason.  It just isn’t as innocent and simple as these shows make it out to be.


What’s wrong with these shows?

“American Digger” on Spike TV and “Diggers” on NatGeo TV make looking for historical objects something that can be done casually. We don’t perform surgery as a hobby or ride a bike through an art museum; similarly, the historical and cultural remains of the long history of North America, a non-renewable resource which can never be replaced, deserve the attention of professionals and careful handling.


Why are archaeologists the best people to dig for historical remains?

Because they’re trained professionals and it’s their work. Cultural materials in the ground are not there in a vacuum. They are physically embedded within contexts, camp sites, homes, battle fields or settlements, which, when studied thoroughly, can tell us volumes about the people who lived in the past. An archaeologist must train for many years in order to excavate sites and objects in a manner that extracts the most information possible. When an amateur digs in a field to retrieve one metal object or arrow head, the context of that object is destroyed. History has been lost forever.


These shows claim you can make money from what you find. Really?

It depends where you find it. If you find objects on your own property, they are yours and you can do whatever you want with them. On other people’s property; it’s theirs. On municipal, state or federal property or Native American lands, it belongs to the municipality, state, federal government or native corporation.


Spike TV
American Diggers

Isn’t the stuff just rotting in the ground; isn’t finding it saving it?

Most anything that’s been in the soil for more than a few years has already suffered the effects of being buried, especially metal objects. Stone suffers very little damage despite having been buried for long periods of time. Some objects, especially those made of wood, once excavated, need special care to prevent them from disintegrating. This is the work of professional conservators. But, even if such things are suffering from exposure to the soil and weather, this is not a valid argument to take what is not your property.


What is the law?

Responding to concerns about protecting mostly prehistoric Indian ruins and artifacts in the western U.S., Congress enacted the American Antiquities Act of 1906. The law, signed by President Teddy Roosevelt, gives the President authority, by executive order, to set aside certain valuable public natural areas as National Monuments for “… the protection of objects of historic and scientific interest” with the aim of protecting all historic and prehistoric sites on U.S. federal lands and prohibit excavation or destruction of the antiquities these sites contained.

Half a century later, after alarm was raised over the destruction caused by a number of federal highway construction projects in the 1950s, The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 was enacted and has been amended since a number of times. Briefly, the act states that before a federally funded project can proceed on or adjacent to areas which are deemed historically or culturally significant, investigations must proceed to ensure that nothing of significance is destroyed before it can be scientifically studied and preserved.

In 1979, the Archaeological Protection Act (ARPA) was enacted. This legislation improved on the Antiquities Act and increasing the penalties associated with the destruction of ancient sites on public and tribal land. ARPA also prohibits the sale, purchase or transportation within the US or internationally of any materials from publically or native owned archaeological sites.

In 1990, The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, was enacted. In addition to the return of Native American remains from museums and private collections, the act aims to ensure that Native American cultural materials are protected from looting on Federal or tribal lands.

The result of these broad cultural heritage laws is that, in America, on most public land, it is illegal to hunt for treasure. Corresponding legislation exists on the state level as well.


What could happen if you’re caught with stuff found on Federal or Tribal land?

Over the last few years, law enforcement has increasingly cracked down on people who steal artifacts from federal land. For instance, in 2009 a group of artifact hunters were arrested in Utah, Colorado and New Mexico, and their crimes resulted in stiff penalties. In February of 2012, a Philadelphia doctor who stole a mammoth tusk from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska received a $100,000 fine as well as three years probation. Many prosecutions of “treasure hunters” apprehended on protected Civil War Battlefields are on the books. In one notable case, two relic hunters caught at the Gettysburg National Military Park in 2002 were ordered by the judge to pay restitution and place $2,500 worth of advertisements in the local newspaper warning others against the illegal activity.


If you are passionate about history there are archaeological opportunities for you, even if you are not a professional.

Yes! There are more opportunities than you might think; digging at an archaeological site isn’t only for people with PhDs. For opportunities in and around National Parks, the USDA Forrest Service runs a volunteer program called PassPort in Time. Other US and international opportunities can be found with the Archaeological Institute of America. And, many museums and historical societies accept volunteers to work with their collections. Contact the American Association of Museum Volunteers, take a look on line and/or contact your local museum.

Some related links :


Suspected artifact hunters arrested

New Alabama law could mean finders-keepers for historic artifacts found underwater

Lake guards warn against artifact collection

Antiquities Dealer Gets Home Detention, Fines for Illegally Dealing in Indian Artifacts

Artifact recoveries on Civil War shipwreck in time for anniversary



Survey: Addicts looters of U.S. archaeological sites

Digging Deeper: DNR on Artifact hunting laws

Dropping Lake Levels Expose Ancient Artifacts And Looters Have Noticed

Fleetwood man unearths Civil War relics

James River expedition targets Civil War shipwrecks



More are sentenced in Four Corners artifacts case

Archaeological artifacts not to be disturbed, according to law

Treasure hunting on Hilton Head? Town law says to leave those relics alone



Artifact related arrest may7th

Artifacts Sting Stuns Utah Town

Artifact thefts targeted by federal officials

Federal officials aim to halt sale of Native American heritage

Five indicted for theft of Missouri River artifacts



Relic thefts ‘huge crime problem’ in U.S. parks

National parks robbed of heritage

Relic thefts ‘huge crime problem’ in U.S. parks

Thieves steal remains from Civil War-era graves



Treasure hunt: Digging for trouble



Stolen from US history: its artifacts

Stolen artifacts shatter ancient culture



Artifact hunting popular as Missouri River level drops

Cause for Alarm?

This link points you to a description of a new “reality” TV show slated to descend on St. Augustine, Florida, and 13 other American cities and towns this year. The gist? Let’s dig up private and public property to unsystematically hunt for “treasure” that can “tell a story of the past.” Cause that’s exactly what archaeology is all about, right?! Apparently, their host “has been digging up artifacts for 20 years, so he’s not some random digger.” What, with a metal detector? This cavalier attitude couched as socially responsible television is even more disturbing to me. Further telling to me is the statement by St. Augustine city archaeologist Carl Halbirt that the property owners he’s spoken with (independent of those eventually selected for the show) are “interested in the archaeology and preserving the past and that’s what we’re trying to do with a systematic approach.”

Most likely, some of these very same property owners have been part of direct negotiations related to past and ongoing cultural heritage management projects and salvage excavations…actual, systematic archaeology in other words. Apparently, the show’s producer has had her hands in several other “reality TV” winners, such as “Super Nanny” and “Reality Hell.” Does this bode well for the prospects of this show treating archaeology and history with any kind of respect? I doubt it… I hope that the networks will take a good, long look at the merits of this show before agreeing to host it, including independent evaluations of premise and practice by the archaeological community. Only time will tell… The St. Augustine Record has kindly provided the email address and phone number of the casting producer.

The right to rest in peace: Native American human remains and NAGPRA final rule

After 20 years since its passage as federal law on November 16, 1990 the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) is still capable of sparking off controversies and fiery debates among American Indians, cultural institutions, and academics.

December 12th 2010, with a very much trite titles when it comes to Native American repatriation issues, “Bones of Contention, the New York Times published in its Opinion Page a contribution by Robert L. Kelly, professor of anthropology with the University of Wyoming who alarmingly warned that the final rule enacted by the U.S. Department of Interior on March 15, 2010 regarding the disposition of Native American culturally unidentifiable human remains will “destroy a crucial source of knowledge about North American history and halt a dialogue between scientists and Indian tribes that has been harmonious and enlightening”.

NAGPRA defines two typologies of Native American human remains: culturally affiliated and culturally unidentifiable. Culturally affiliated human remains are those who can be linked, historically or prehistorically, to a present day Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian organization through a relationship of shared group identity. These remains are repatriated to the lineal descendant or tribe, and then, usually, laid to rest finally in peace.

Culturally unidentifiable human remains are those for whom, although determined to be Native American, no lineal descendant or culturally affiliated present-day Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian organization can, for different reasons, be determined.

In order to address the rights of Native Americans to – and out of respect for – those ancestral remains, and in agreement with the intent of NAGPRA, the DOI published on October 2007 a proposed rule for the disposition of culturally unidentifiable human remains, inviting public comments that actually arrived from a number of Indian tribes and organizations, museums, cultural and scientific organizations, federal entities, even the general public.

Thus, after many years of consultation, and three years of discussions and revisions, the enacted final rule states the following: if there is no request from an Indian tribe regarding culturally unidentifiable human remains, a museum or federal agency must initiate consultation with officials and traditional religious leaders of all Indian tribes from whose tribal land or aboriginal land the human remains were removed. The consultation may include Indian groups that are not-federally recognized, but are known to have a shared group identity with the human remains at issue, at discretion of the museum or federal agency.

The repatriation of culturally unidentifiable human remains must follow these priorities: 1. Indian tribes from whose tribal land, at the time of excavation, the remains were removed; 2. Indian tribe or tribes aboriginal to the area from which the remains were removed; 3. Other Indian tribe who accept to take care of the disposition of the remains; 4. not-federally recognized tribe. Finally, if none of the above cases happens, the museum or federal agency may reinter the human remains according to State or other law. Whatever the final disposition, the museum or federal agency must prove that all Indian tribes involved in the consultation have agreed with the final disposition.

The notion of cultural affiliation, as intended and applied within NAGPRA boundaries and scopes, although still embedding the baggage of colonial history and population classification, acknowledges American Indian past and shared collective memory/memories as “history”, making them equal, for example, to archaeological evidence, considered just “one of several type of relevant information or expert opinion that must be considered in determining whether cultural affiliation can be established”. Once again, the battle revolves around ownership and interpretation of other people’s cultural heritage, and not so often museum curators, archaeologists, anthropologists are willing to acknowledge that members of the American Indian communities are also “experts”, not merely informants, and have the right to claim their own cultural patrimony, not to mention the remains of their ancestors who are, let be clear, not an archaeological resource, property of the United States, as someone has suggested. As Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science has written in response to Robert Kelly’s affirmations: “The carefully wrought dialogue that has developed over the last two decades is not threatened by the new regulations. Rather, it is threatened by those who continue to see repatriation as the end of archaeology, instead of a new beginning of collaborative stewardship of Native American history.”

Photo: Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe members carrying the remains of tribal ancestors into the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe’s Nibokaan Ancestral Cemetery, November 2010 ©Central Michigan University

Finders Keepers v. Finders Keepers

Two weeks ago, a forthcoming TV series with the working title “Finders Keepers” announced a call for backyards. Tomorrow, desert ecologist and writer Craig Childs will release his new book of the same name — no relation.
“Finders Keepers,” the TV show, one-ups programs like “Antiques Roadshow” and “Pawn Stars.” Not only are the producers interested in objects collecting dust in attics, but they also promise to uncover historic valuables that participants never knew they had.
The producers are looking for Americans who have “found or dug up an antique, artifact or relic” or “think they have an important and valuable artifact buried on their property or at a site they have discovered.” Allegedly, their team of archaeologists will then excavate and appraise, but thus far, it is unclear who the keepers will be.

Meanwhile, in Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession, Craig Childs inserts himself into the polarizing debate over who owns the past– a topic he has previously discussed. He recounts his own dilemmas over artifacts and ownership, and confronts his desires to open ancient doors, to pick up arrowheads, and to get closer, through possession, to the Native American past that he studies.
Those desires are ultimately trumped by Childs’ view that the integrity of objects is best preserved in their natural environment, left untouched by “pothunter” and archaeologist alike. Childs, as Paul Barford rightly pointed out last year, seems to believe the past belongs to no one. In Finders Keepers, he even claims to have freed an ancient pot from a glass case in an anonymous building to return it to the desert, though a reviewer from the L.A. Times says Childs “did not feel entirely good about that.”
At the heart of both Finders Keepers is a lust for uncovering the past in a physical way, but Childs endorses a suppression of that impulse, and the TV show encourages a full exploitation of it, which certainly raises several questions from the middle ground.
Image: Regan Choi/Little, Brown & Co.

More False Claims about Lobbying on Antiquities Issues

David Gill has recently addressed claims made by Peter Tompa that appear to have little basis in fact. Tompa is a lobbyist who represents commercial trade interests. He has alleged that the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute (CAARI) “was involved in behind-the-scenes lobbying on behalf of the Cypriot Department of Antiquities, the Cypriot government body that issues excavation permits that allow CAARI affiliated archaeologists to excavate on the Island.” The assertions are not substantiated further.

Ellen Herscher, the vice president of CAARI and an independent scholar, responded to Tompa’s claims after they were posted to the Museum Security Network. She stated:

CAARI’s Director and several trustees publicly submitted statements in support of the agreement. This position is in accordance with CAARI’s Code of Ethics, which states that the organization “is dedicated to the protection and preservation of archaeological sites in Cyprus and the information they contain.” There was no “behind-the-scenes lobbying” involved.

Secondly, “CAARI-affiliation” has nothing to do with the granting of excavation permits in Cyprus. Permits are the sole responsibility of the Department of Antiquities of the Republic of Cyprus.

It is unfortunate that the ACCG continues to publish these erroneous statements, despite the fact that CAARI has responded and refuted them in the past.

Gill asks the question:

Are “false claims” being deliberately planted by some of the North American coin-collecting community as part of the background to the test case over the coins seized in Baltimore? (For some more discussion of the “test case”, see Gill’s “The Baltimore Coin Test Case“).

The question is a provocative one, especially in the context of other false claims recently made by one group Tompa is involved with, the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG).

On November 13, 2009 The Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) convened for an interim review of the bilateral agreement with Italy and asked for public comment to be restricted to Article II. Among other things under Article II, which covers Italy’s obligations, Italy would allow long-term loans to American institutions, access to scholars, and prosecute antiquities traffickers within its own borders. Evidently, the CPAC asked that public comment be confined to Article II due to the concerns of many members of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) who felt that Italy was favoring institutions that had returned objects to Italy and that more longer term loans ought to be made. Indeed, there were several AAMD members at the interim review who gave presentations to the CPAC (their written comments have been posted online).

Immediately after the interim review, Tompa insinuated that archaeologists departed from Article II and raised the specter of coins and their potential inclusion in the upcoming renewal with Italy (see Tompa’s “Interim Review of the Italian MOU“). He later claimed, innacurately, that Stefano De Caro, who spoke on behalf of Italy’s Culture Ministry, argued that all coins made within the borders of what is now modern Italy should belong to Italy (see Tompa’s “Is the Italian Cultural Bureaucracy the Best Steward for Coins?“). However, after being challenged, he conceded that he may have misunderstood.

The ACCG’s founder, who was not even present at the interim review, then authored a press release alleging that archaeologists opportunistically raised the issue of coins; he also portrayed the AIA representative’s comments as radical (see Sayles’ “Archaeologists Plead for Import Restrictions on Common Coins“; for a more balanced view, see the AIA representative’s reflections on the interim review). While Sayles pretended as if there is not near universal agreement among the archaeological community that looting and indiscriminate sourcing for the antiquities trade is detrimental to archaeology, he failed to note that many collectors have themselves voiced concerns that the status quo, which the ACCG seeks to protect, requires some internal reforms in the trade. Some have even gone so far as to observe that the ACCG is oriented more towards the concerns of commercial dealers rather than to collectors or the interests of preservation.

Wetterstrom, president-elect of the ACCG and its representative at the interim review, then authored an editorial in the Celator (a collector magazine that he operates) claiming that archaeologists at the meeting received special treatment and were not limited in the length of their presentations. He also writes that he was cut off early while reading his written comments that the CPAC already had in front of them (Tompa has reproduced Wetterstrom’s text in his “Another Perspective on CPAC and the Interim Review of the Italian MOU“).

Sayles then solicited another online press release, prompted by Wetterstrom’s editorial (“Collectors Claim Bias Epitomizes State Department Committee Management“). Here, Sayles falsely reports that “Other speakers, who advocate import restrictions on coins, were reportedly allowed to exceed the published time limit with comments ranging up to 30 minutes.”

In spite of the repetition of the claims by ACCG leadership, they have no basis in fact.

1) Archaeologists (note the ACCG’s use of the plural) were not afforded any special treatment. All speakers were allowed only five minutes and were told to finish if they reached their time limit. Wetterstrom, like all other presenters, received a full five minutes and was cut off only after exhausting his time while reading his letter verbatim. All other speakers made “off-the-cuff” presentations. The only individual who made a longer presentation was Stefano De Caro who had traveled from Rome for the meeting, and who spoke approximately 20 minutes. Although it is implied he was improperly given excess time, the ACCG fails to note that foreign dignitaries are customarily not limited in the length of their presentation. This is proper since they represent the countries who have petitioned for an agreement with the U.S. government. As regular attendees of CPAC meetings, the ACCG is well aware of this fact.

2) Archaeologists did not raise the specter of coins. The order of presentation clearly demonstrates this since Tompa and Wetterstrom spoke before any archaeologist. Both individuals urged the committee not to consider coins any future renewal of the agreement and both made reference to the “test case.” Archaeologists and numismatists who addressed the issue of coins during their presentations were simply responding to arguments made by Tompa and Wetterstrom that coins were not worth protecting because they are “common” or “cheap” on the market. But if one requires further proof, compare the written comments of Kerry Wetterstrom and Wayne Sayles, submitted to the CPAC in advance of the interim review, with the letter submitted by Sebastian Heath, the AIA representative. It is clear from the letters that, contrary to the ACCG’s portrayal of events, the ACCG were focused on arguing that coins not be considered in the future. On the other hand, the AIA representative made no suggestion that coins be included in a renewal and instead had prepared to focus on Article II of the MOU as requested. It was only in oral comments that archaeologists and numismatists were forced to respond to issues beyond Article II that were raised by representatives of commercial interests.

Gill’s question about whether or not false claims are being deliberately fabricated is penetrating, especially in the context of the misrepresentation of events at CPAC’s interim review. Is it indeed hoped that the spin put on these events will construct a reality that is more conducive to their litigious activities? In this regard, it is worth noting that one of the points in the ACCG’s 37 page complaint about the seizure, which they staged, states that archaeologists argued that the agreement with Italy be extended to coins, while failing to note that they brought up the question of coins in the first place (pdf here, see point 80).

Oscar Muscarella’s "Fifth Column" of Plunder Culture

All too often, debates about cultural property are made to look simply like battles between curators/collectors/dealers and archaeologists. In an article published in Studies in Honor of Altan Çilingiroglu. A Life Dedicated to Urartu on the Shores of the Upper Sea, Eds. H. Saglamtimur, et al. Arkeoloji ve Sanat Yayinlari, Istanbul, 2009, “The Fifth Column Within the Archaeological Realm: The Great Divide,” Dr. Oscar White Muscarella looks at the network of plunder in all the complexity it deserves, and pays special attention to an overlooked accomplice in the continued destruction of the past.

According to Muscarella there are four visible mutually supporting columns operating within the realm of “Plunder Culture.” These groups, in order, are: on-site looters or tombaroli, smugglers and local dealers, professional antiquities dealers, and lastly, wealthy collectors, including museums and universities, both public and private.

Cultural heritage may be endangered most, however, by the fifth invisible column whose members are within the archaeological community. Muscarella illustrates the ways in which professional archaeologists facilitate Plunder Culture, and their participation does not just include the more obvious examples of performing authenticity evaluations for wealthy collectors. Members of the archaeological community also enable plunder by accepting money, invitations, committee memberships and appointments from fourth column institutions with dishonorable acquisition policies and compromised attitudes toward the value of context.

The hypocrisy in these affiliations has yet to be broadly acknowledged by the media and by the field of archaeology. The members of the fifth column have yet to be publicly denounced, and as a result:

They continue to flourish, their activities proceed successfully and unabated, they get awarded – revealing that the discipline of archaeology has no comprehensive sense of itself, no unclouded self-knowledge, no awareness of its moral and academic weakness.

Muscarella is unafraid to name names (of both the good and bad, the individuals and institutions) and avoids ambiguous and ineffective discourse about the problems of cultural property. He urges archaeologists to reconsider the consequences of their professional, academic, and personal associations, and to those who consider themselves clean, he urges active participation in the protection of cultural heritage.

To join Dr. Muscarella’s SAFE tour at the Metropolitan Museum on Friday, October 23 at 6:30 PM, you can buy tickets from our website.