SAFE closes 2013 global awareness campaign with gratitude

SAFE would like to thank you for joining and participating in the 2013 Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage, marking the tenth anniversary of the looting of the National Museum of Iraq and the subsequent founding of our organization.

The amount of insightful stories, shared reflections, and heartfelt comments that we have received over the past six months has truly been remarkable. To be able to highlight your efforts in preserving cultural heritage and to hear so many of you share your thoughts on the fight against looting and the illicit antiquities trade has been not only a pleasure, but also an inspiration.

Together, our combined efforts unite us in honoring the memory of Dr. Donny George Youkhanna, whose call to action spurred the very first of SAFE’s Global Candlelight Vigil in 2007. Since then, it has been most inspiring to observe and showcase the many ways you have all observed our Global Candlelight Vigil. To be sure, this year—a momentous one marking the ten-year anniversary of the looting of the National Museum in Iraq, as well as the founding of SAFE—has been no exception.

Global campaign sparks global responseIndeed, this year’s global campaign truly sparked a global response, with virtual candles lit in over 100 cities from more than 30 countries across the world. We are indebted to each and every one of you who participated in the Vigil and we would like to thank you. We would also like to extend a personal thank you to those who contributed their stories and shared their reflections with us on our website and on our Facebook page under the theme of “10 YEARS AFTER.”


SAFE thanks:

- The Archaeological Institute of America

- Roger Atwood

- Deanna Baker

- Marc Balcells

- Cynthia Bates

- Ben Furnival

- Lucy Blake-Elahi

- Neil Brodie

- Claudia Brose

- Annalisa Cicerchia

- Juan Cole

- Dillon de Give

- Nathan Elkins

- Marsha Fulton

- Senta German

- Steven George

- Melissa Halverson

- Abdulamir Hamdani

- Susan Whitfield Harding

- Matthew Hu

- Damien Huffer

- Beatrice Kelly

- James McAndrew

- Mary Montgomery

- Oscar Muscarella

- Bodil Nilsson

- Past Preservers

- Rick Pettigrew

- Matthew Piscitelli

- Clemens Reichel

- Colin Renfrew

- Sandra Roorda

- Lucille Roussin

- Rabbi Barnea Levi Selavan

- Ann Shaftel

- Diane Siebrandt

- Dean Snyder

- Howard Spiegler

- Jeff Spurr

- Rene Teijgeier

- Marni Walter

- Peter Watson

With the 2013 Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage now at a close, we would still like to invite you to share your thoughts regarding the preservation of cultural heritage and, if you haven’t already done so, light a virtual candle to show your support. While the deadline for submissions to our initiative, “10 YEARS AFTER,” has passed, there is no deadline for you to publicize your reflections or present your thoughts on our website or via social media.

For us at SAFE, one of the most gratifying ways to celebrate this tenth anniversary and continue the fight against looting and the illicit antiquities trade is seeing us all come together as a community and take a stand. SAFE looks forward to continuing this journey together and working to preserve our collective right to cultural heritage. Thank you again for both your commitment and your involvement.

What lies ahead: Interview with SAFE founder (Part 2)

In my first interview with SAFE Founder Cindy Ho, we discussed how and why SAFE was founded and some of the challenges of starting an organization. In this installment, Cindy talks about whether she thinks the organization has been effective in reaching its goals and her continued belief in its mission to raise public awareness, ten years after she first had the idea. The interview concludes with an appeal to people she calls “those who know.”

DB: How does SAFE get funded to do all this work? Who donates to SAFE?
CH: In the beginning I funded SAFE to cover only small expenses until I resigned from my job two years later. We spent very, very little. In fact, we were so frugal that I had to be reminded to distribute printed materials we spent money to produce. Others also donated more than work. It was this kind of can-do attitude across the board that gave SAFE its start. I was running a grassroots organization, supported by the people it served, before I was even familiar with the term.

Funds came in as membership fees; we also did well with revenue-generating events. Still, SAFE’s existence was never about the amount of money it raised, but a shared commitment to doing whatever it takes to serve the mission. People worked for SAFE because it was something they had to do. This wealth of human resource made SAFE a well endowed operation from the start. Five years ago Sam Paley, one of our advisors, told me that we were functioning like a multi-million dollar enterprise without the multi-millions. If so, just imagine what SAFE could produce with a fraction of those millions…This was the definition of success, or so I was told.

DB: What is your definition of success?
CH: I could say success is when there is no more looting to feed the illicit antiquities trade. But that is not realistic; it is also not SAFE’s mandate to reach that goal. Years ago at our first benefit event, I said that success meant that SAFE didn’t need to exist any longer. When everyone is aware of what is at stake, then the decision to destroy or preserve cultural heritage becomes a conscious decision. That’s when SAFE can declare success. I still believe in this.

But SAFE alone cannot reach this goal. It can only happen with a concerted effort among those who know to tell those who don’t yet know what is at stake. It will take many people and organizations, working collaboratively, to achieve this success.

There are now a number of other web sites and blogs that also address the issues of looting and the illicit antiquities trade with the potential to reach the general public and SAFE recognizes and encourages these efforts with the Beacon Awards. But I don’t know of any other independent nonprofit organization with this focused mission. Oscar Muscarella said, “That [SAFE] is unique is a very sad indication of the present state of affairs.” I agree.

But success is not at all impossible. Look at the environmental movement. While the struggle to save the planet continues, and some even argue that it’s too late, there can be no argument that people know that it’s important to recycle and save energy. To pollute has now become a conscious decision. How much time and effort did that take?

As long as there are unexcavated ancient sites with information about our ancient past that has yet to be revealed, it is not too late to save cultural heritage from being irreversibly destroyed. Saving this undiscovered past is what SAFE is about.

The New Mexico State Parks system recently ordered SAFE student contest winner Evangelia Kranioti's poster to hang in all 35 parks statewide. "I've seen how hard our park field staff work at taking care of the parks at every level, from keeping restrooms clean to protecting and educating about irreplaceable natural and cultural resources," State Archaeologist Dr. Rebecca Procter said. "They face huge challenges in getting our visitors to understand why some things belong to ALL of us. It seemed to me that our staff could use every possible source of help in getting this message out and showing that they are not alone in promoting it." The New Mexico State Parks system ordered SAFE student contest winner Evangelia Kranioti’s poster to hang in all 35 parks statewide.

DB: What about short-term success, surely you can name some examples?
CH: Raising public awareness can be a numbers game which means the wider the reach, the greater the success. To reach unlimited audiences, the organization decided to focus its efforts online some years ago. Judging by the statistics on social media and web traffic, SAFE is reaching that goal. SAFE has become the go-to destination for people who want to know and network with interested others.

There is no denying that in the years since SAFE came into existence that public awareness about these issues has increased. What has this awareness produced? Colin Renfrew most generously commented to the 2013 Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage that “many of the good things that have happened in this area over the past decade would not have happened without SAFE.” If so, SAFE could not have done this without the participation of the experts.

UNESCO's office in Kabul is using these "LOOTED" cards  SAFE produced UNESCO’s office in Kabul is using these “LOOTED cards SAFE produced

SAFE has received generous support from donors and other like-minded organizations, which enabled us to create awareness-raising campaigns and materials I am proud of. They are not only innovative and fun to produce, they have been found useful around the world to create more awareness. SAFE videos and presentations have been viewed and downloaded tens of thousands of times. SAFE has earned the trust from key opinion leaders around the world who have not only lent their names, but rolled up their sleeves to work with us in the kind of collaboration I could only wish for ten years ago. This collaboration may be the most powerful and rewarding aspect of SAFE.

Gihane Zaki, Director General of the Nubia Fund, represented Egypt at UNESCO 40th anniversary meeting wears SAFE's "Say YES to Egypt's Heritage" button. Gihane Zaki, Director General of the Nubia Fund, represented Egypt at UNESCO 40th anniversary meeting wears SAFE’s Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage button

DB: Why do you feel SAFE is alone in this mission, so far?
CH: SAFE is alone, but not entirely. There are other organizations dedicated to preserving cultural heritage; some existed long before SAFE. But they don’t focus on the looting problem or the illicit antiquities trade, or raising public awareness. One reason is fundraising.

Changing hearts and minds takes time. Ten years after I first had the idea, I feel that SAFE has only begun. We all have only begun to become more aware. Donors seeking quick return on investments would prefer faster, more tangible results. While one can see and even touch an old monument restored, public awareness is ethereal. With the explosion of social media, effectiveness has now become more measurable and visible, but how this translates to donor contributions remains to be seen. Also, SAFE does its work in the US—a major “market country”—where antiquities are bought and sold for profit, often with no questions asked. Many people who routinely support the arts, history, or archaeology, have been engaging in very same behavior that SAFE points out as destructive. Organizations often steer clear of focusing on looting and the illicit antiquities trade because of this. It is hard to raise funds for a mission few grantors are informed about. But for me, these are all the reasons why SAFE needed to exist in the first place. Still, I can comfortably say that SAFE has done what it set out to do.

DB: In retrospect, do you still believe in SAFE’s mission, given these difficulties?
CH: Yes, now even more than before. Everyday, somewhere around the world there exists the possibility of a new discovery about our ancient selves that could inform us all. Looting to feed the illicit antiquities trade makes the collection of the information that everyone deserves impossible. Cultural relics become mere things. If knowledge belongs to all of us, then we are all responsible for safeguarding our shared humanity. And it is up to those who know to inform the rest, because there is nothing inevitable about wanton destruction.

How else could anyone understand that when a looter steps on an object in a tomb looking for something to sell, much more is broken than the object itself? How could one realize that removing an archaeological object from a National Park is against the law, that a museum acquiring objects with dubious provenance is not acceptable, that bringing back a treasured find from Peru or Greece might risk having it confiscated? How could one know that trading and collecting looted antiquities promotes the destruction of our shared heritage? We can’t protect something unless we know that it needs protecting. And ten years later, too few people are aware, still.

No doubt this is a lot of work. It takes us away from our immediate concerns: our careers and our routines; it takes us out of our comfort zones. But it is no different from any other cause, or any other endeavor that matters. When SAFE took to the streets to collect signatures, we found that it wasn’t difficult to educate the unknowing public. But what SAFE, or any one organization, can accomplish is limited, given the enormity of the task.

Public awareness is not a panacea. It is fundamental to—but only part of—the solution, like import restrictions, site security, or law enforcement. Awareness does not guarantee action. What is guaranteed is that there is no action without awareness.

DB: What do you see in SAFE’s future?
CH: SAFE’s future depends on the quality of the work it delivers, which in turn depends on the input it receives from those who know. Will there be a shared belief that there can be no long-term solution to combating the damaging effects of looting and the illicit antiquities trade without public awareness? Will there be a true commitment to doing whatever we—expert or not—can to help protect everyone’s right to cultural heritage, for ourselves and for our children? The fact that SAFE is able to serve its mission today still is entirely the result of these two factors. But it’s not even about SAFE. Someone, some organization, must serve this mission. And until there is another focused effort to inform the public, SAFE has to keep going. What other option is there?

Public awareness is convincing only when it is based on fact and reasoned analysis. Otherwise, no matter how loud you shout, opinion is just noise and there is enough misinformation out there in the blogosphere. This is why SAFE must continue its work only with those who have done the research and analysis, for which there is no substitute. Without this, SAFE should not add more noise to the din.

Definitely there are more people knowledgeable about these issues today than ten years ago. There are more books and classes and lectures on the subject; even university programs offering advanced degrees that address looting and the illicit antiquities trade. I hope that those who know, those who do the research and the study, and archaeologists who have had firsthand knowledge of looting would continue to work with SAFE.

We only have the rights we are willing to fight for. What kind of a world do we want to leave behind for future generations, and future generations to come? Much of ancient history is still undiscovered, unexcavated and undocumented. Are we willing to do nothing while looting and the illicit antiquities trade continue to destroy information locked in this undiscovered past that belongs to all humanity? What are we willing to fight for here and now, so that our children’s, and their children’s lives could also be enriched as ours have been by our ancestors? These are questions for all of us.

Regardless of what happens, SAFE has done its part. If the collective will is there, it should continue to serve its mission.

DB: How can archaeologists do more to help?
CH: Archaeologists and other experts have been publishing on these issues for a long time. But most academic publications and conference discussions (and their accompanying papers) reach only a select few and are completely inaccessible to the general public: they are not publicized and are priced for institutional purchases only. For example, an article in an academic journal tells us that an overwhelming number of archaeologists have encountered widespread looting in the field. Everyone should know this. Many such publications that inspired me and taught me are similarly out of reach. This is a pity, because “ordinary” citizens are not only capable of understanding, most are ready to support archaeology and cultural heritage preservation, as a Harris Poll confirms.

I call on archaeologists, those who know, to not consider sharing information, research and analysis with SAFE as simply helping the organization, but as a contribution to the cause.

I founded SAFE to be the conduit to bring this knowledge to a wide audience, with the ultimate goal towards long-lasting solutions. I call on archaeologists, those who know, to not consider sharing information, research and analysis with SAFE as simply helping the organization, but as a contribution to the cause. Those who are serious in their interest to protect the sanctity of information—or archaeological context—about the ancient past, would do well to want to share what they know with the general public. I understand this requires an extension of one’s vision. Saving cultural heritage requires a very long vision: enthusiasm, fervor and conviction do not suffice. Neither do research and analysis alone.

I also want to appeal to professional associations and the academic establishment to support not only the study of these issues, but the means to advocate for the cause. Could looting and the illicit antiquities trade be more widely included in the annual conferences where archaeologists gather to learn and to share? If archaeologists themselves have experienced the damaging effects of plunder, are they also aware of the possible solutions so they can contribute to them? In the US, are they adequately informed about the Cultural Property Implementation Act, and CPAC? Could there be workshops or seminars at the annual conferences to cover legal mechanisms which ultimately aim to protect the very field archaeologists dedicate themselves to? Could there be a fund set aside to finance the attendance at CPAC meetings so that those who know don’t have to pay their own way to testify in Washington? Could there be legal assistance offered to those who do speak out about the issues and are threatened by those who don’t agree with them? These are questions for all those who know.

DB: Can you tell us something about this Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage?
CH: I came up with the idea with Donny George in 2007 to remember the looting of the Iraq Museum and to raise awareness about the ongoing plunder of ancient sites. This year, on the 10th anniversary, we decided to offer our web site and social media channels to showcase the work of others as a sign of appreciation, and in anticipation of future opportunities for collaboration. This furthers our mission, and also celebrates our own founding. It’s something like a birthday party, where we inviting our friends to join in. This is also an open call for the needed collaboration I described.

DB: Thank you Cindy, for this interview.
CH: Thank you, Deanna, for giving me the opportunity to observe the 10th anniversary in this way.

The 10th anniversary of the looting of the Iraq Museum: how will we remember?

Vigil brochure cover SAFE created this brochure addressing the significance of ancient Mesopotamia, the impact of the looting of the Iraq Museum, the ongoing plunder of archaeological sites, how these situations relate to the rest of the world, and what we can do to preserve the past.

“Look at it still today,” wrote the mythic ruler Gilgamesh of a treasure that is now but a memory. “Touch the threshold, it is ancient…. Climb upon the wall of Uruk. Walk along it, I say. Regard the foundation terrace and examine the masonry: is it not burnt brick and good? The seven sages laid the foundations.”

During those frightful days in April of 2003, the sages wept as the most precious survivors of this golden age — more than 15,000 objects and writings at the National Museum of Iraq recording the first Mesopotamian civilizations that flourished more than 7,000 years ago — were systematically looted and cast to the winds. Even more devastating is the continued plunder of thousands of archaeological sites in Iraq, most of which have never been excavated. Many of us experienced shock and outrage when this catastrophe first became known.

How did we respond?

For SAFE, that quiet rage soon turned to action, and planted the beginning of the organization, dedicated to raising public awareness about the vulnerability of our shared cultural heritage to the damaging effects of looting and the illicit antiquities trade. In 2007, SAFE initiated the Global Candlelight Vigil for the Iraq Museum with Dr. Donny George Youkhanna—the Museum’s former Director—to ensure that what happened in Baghdad not happen again, anywhere. Individuals and institutions around the world have joined the Vigil since then.

Click to see the may ways the SAFE Global Candlelight Vigil has been observed since 2007 around the world Click to see the may ways the SAFE Global Candlelight Vigil has been observed since 2007 around the world

The SAFE web site offers many suggestions and resources but the most memorable vigil ideas from previous years have come from the hosts themselves. Check them out as we highlight them during the campaign here. For example, University of Washington museology students tracked the flow of looted Iraqi antiquities on the global market, grade school students in Canada wrote poetry to express what the loss of cultural heritage meant to them. Others simply added their name to a list of supporters and lit a virtual candle.

In 2013, SAFE marks the 10th anniversary of the looting of the Iraq Museum with The Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage by inviting all citizens to light a candle and share their remembrances and thoughts on cultural heritage. SAFE will observe the Vigil by showcasing the many ways institutions and individuals around the world have supported and inspired us in our mission in the “10 YEARS AFTER” campaign; and by paying tribute to all those to fight to safeguard cultural heritage everyday around the globe. Please look for these on this web site and on Facebook.

This is how SAFE will honor the past, and celebrate the future. Will you join us?

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.

SAFE kickstarts global awareness campaign with appreciation

Beginning today, on the 10th anniversary of the looting of the Iraq Museum, SAFE will observe The Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage with a global awareness campaign “10 YEARS AFTER” which focuses on our core mission: to raise public awareness about the irreversible damage that results from looting, smuggling and trading illicit antiquities.

Until October 1, we will highlight the following on our web site and social media outlets:

• the efforts of institutions and individuals dedicated to global heritage preservation;
• the global concern of looting and the illicit antiquities trade;
• how public awareness can contribute to the solution;

and apropos to the theme of 10th anniversary…

• the many ways you participated in our Global Candlelight Vigil around the world, which began in 2007 with Dr. Donny George Youkhanna’s call to action.

2013 vigil candle logo Click to light a candle

Ten years after the event that precipitated the founding of our organization, we wish to pay tribute to all those who supported us and worked with us; and most of all, those who continue to do so. Taking this opportunity to honor your work is how SAFE wishes to celebrate our own 10th anniversary, and look to the future. And the future of our past.

This is why we designed this special 10th anniversary Global Candlelight Vigil to invite your thoughts and reflections. Initial responses to our invitation have already come in, they are posted here and here, and on Facebook beginning today. Please read Howard Spiegler’s reminder not to forget the efforts to recover artworks looted by the Nazis; René Teijgeler’s concern about the situation in Syria as it parallels Iraq’s; Dean Snyder’s personal tribute to Dr. Youkhanna; Abdulamir Hamdani’s summary of a report on the current situation in Iraq, to be delivered at a seminar in conjunction with the exhibition CATASTROPHE!  TEN YEARS LATER: THE LOOTING AND DESTRUCTION OF IRAQ’S PAST; Steven George’s expression of appreciation; Senta German’s observation on the impact of the looting of the Iraq museum on raising public awareness. Thank you for your participation, we look for your upcoming contributions.

SAFE announces Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage

Marking the 10th anniversary of the looting of the Iraq Museum, SAFE launches The Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage and invites all citizens to light a candle and share their remembrances and thoughts in any language on the current situation, contemplate the future, and take the opportunity to announce their related projects and programs in preserving the future of our past.

2013 vigil candle logo Click to light a candle

These comments and reflections will be posted on SAFE’s web site beginning April 10 and also the Vigil page on Facebook, and other social media outlets. Furthering our commitment to raising public awareness about the global concern of looting and the illicit antiquities trade, SAFE aims to gather these reflections in a commemorative booklet as a public statement of concern, and as a tribute to all those who safeguard the future of our past.

SAFE initiated the Global Candlelight Vigil for the Iraq Museum with Dr. Donny George Youkhanna in 2007 to commemorate the looting of the Museum which became the impetus for the founding of the organization. Institutions and individuals from around the world hosted and attended lectures and candle-lighting ceremonies. A video of these events was compiled to mark the 5th anniversary. In 2011, the Vigil was renamed to honor the memory of Dr. Youkhanna.

Terrorism and the illicit antiquities trade: A new documentary

Romain Bolzinger’s documentary film about the looting, trading of illicit antiquities and the role of terrorism “Trafic d’art: le trésor de guerre du terrorisme” has been now released as a Canal+ Spécial Investigation program. Among experts interviewed in the US for the film are archaeologist Abdulamir Hamdani and Col. Matthew Bogdanos. Dr. Donny George, who had a prominent role in the original script, had suddenly passed away just as the film crew arrived to interview him. The 53-minute documentary, which focuses on Iraq and Lebanon, includes footage from around the world, as well as interviews with UNESCO officials, dealers, collectors, some of whom were filmed clandestinely. Given SAFE’s mission, we congratulate Bolzinger’s new effort to raise public awareness about these issues and look forward to the upcoming English version.

Remembering Donny George: A Tribute from SAFE

All those concerned about preserving our ancient past felt a chill down the spine upon hearing the news of Donny George’s sudden passing. Whether or not they knew him in person, a sense of loss was palpable within the community. On March 11, 2011, we lost a colleague and a friend. We also lost an eloquent advocate and a powerful—if gentle—warrior in the fight against the destruction of cultural heritage.

I met Donny for the first time at the 2005 AIA Annual Meeting in Boston. (Six years later this past January, Donny emailed from this year’s Meeting in San Antonio to tell me he was disappointed that there was no SAFE booth there.) In between attending sessions, Donny found respite at the SAFE booth. There, we chatted about how best to accomplish our mission. At our first major event at the booth, Donny offered his encouragement: “The work that SAFE is doing is critical, not only for Iraq’s cultural heritage, but also for the heritage of all mankind. All those who enjoy the benefits of democracy have a duty to stand up and support those actions that will stop the destruction of history.” These words will stay with me forever.

Months later, SAFE was invited to spend a day in New York City with Donny and two of his colleagues from the Iraq Museum. We visited the New York Public Library and looked at some of their Ancient Near Eastern holdings, and shared an intimate dinner at one of our members’ apartment. At the end of the evening, Donny spoke about the dangers he faced, just to go to work. Every day, he said, his car had to take a different route to the Museum. As he expressed a sad uncertainty about the future, he invited us to visit Iraq one day. Donny had become a part of SAFE.

It was with great relief and joy that we welcomed Donny and his wife Najat to the US.,in a gathering of friends in 2007. That same day, Donny and Najat heard that his children, who were still in Damascus, would be joining them soon. The family had been separated in exile.

Donny’s interest in SAFE was not only in theory; he embraced our ideas with his time and action, and became a true partner. It was in this collaborative spirit that the Global Candlelight Vigil for the Iraq Museum was born. Since 2007, individuals and organizations around the world listened when Donny called on us to light a candle to memorialize the looting of the Iraq Museum: “Let’s gather together and see what we can do, so people will not forget what happened.” Donny also personally led vigils in New York and Chicago, and invited the staff of the Iraq Museum to join the campaign in 2007 and 2008.

Donny also participated in SAFE’s programs with a podcast interview, and two very special SAFE Tours in the halls of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. Donny moved audiences at the Bancroft School and the Trinity Lutheran Church in Worcester, Massachusetts. In 2008, we were fortunate to have honored Donny with a SAFE Beacon Award.

He was genuinely interested in our work. One of the most special moments, was when Donny took a train from Stony Brook to attend a SAFE meeting in New York City, and sat with us—academics, professionals and students alike—chatting, and plotting our next strategies and programs. No matter how mundane the topic being discussed was, Donny was engaged and offered to help. He was one of the earliest members on our Facebook group, and served as an Advisor.

Donny was concerned about Iraq’s cultural heritage, he also advocated publicly for the cultural heritage of other nations. On behalf of Cyprus, he wrote a letter in support of the inclusion of coins in the US/Cyprus bilateral agreement in 2007. Two years later, he added his name to a Statement of Concern and Appeal for International Cooperation to Save Ancient Kashgar.

One of Donny’s greatest concerns was to prevent what happened to the Iraq Museum from happening to any other museums, anywhere else. Just this February, Donny spoke to me about the Cairo Museum: “Yes it was so painful, renewing every moment of those days in Iraq Museum. I sent an e-mail to Dr Zahi Hawass, showing my solidarity, and offering any help they need through his blog.”

We will miss working with Donny, but we are thankful that the work that we did together and his message will always stay with us. We heard you.

Cindy Ho
SAFE/Saving Antiquities for Everyone

A Tribute to Dr. Donny George Youkhanna: October 23, 1950-March 11, 2011

The following is posted by permission of the author, Michael Rakowitz, an artist whose work The invisible enemy should not exist was inspired by the events surrounding the looting of the Iraq Museum.

Dear Friends:

Dr. Donny George Youkhanna, the former Director of the National Museum of Iraq, and former President of the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, passed away last Friday at the age of 60. I mourn the loss of an inspiring and courageous figure, a brilliant scholar, renowned archaeologist, a generous teacher, a loving family man, and friend. As most of you know, Dr. George’s story serves as a focus of “The invisible enemy should not exist,” an ongoing project that I have pursued in close consultation with him and his colleagues in the field of Mesopotamian archaeology.

It was an article in The New York Times in April, 2006 titled “The Ghost in the Baghdad Museum” that first inspired my project, in which the author, Roger Cohen paid special attention to Dr. George’s role in the recovery of half of the approximately 15,000 artifacts that were looted from the Iraq Museum in April, 2003. Additional details also rose to the surface in the story: under Saddam Hussein, Dr. George worked at archaeological sites to avoid Ba’ath Party meetings and also sidelined as a drummer in the band “99%”—short for 99% of excellence— which specialized in Deep Purple and Pink Floyd songs. It was after reading this that I fell in love with him. He was a lot like an artist, I thought, circumventing authority to do what he believed in and surviving. My project, in addition to presenting reconstructions of missing artifacts from the museum, featured drawings that detailed these and other events in Dr. George’s life, including his and his family’s sudden and tragic exodus to Syria in August of 2006 after his son was threatened by insurgents if a ransom was not paid, and his arrival to the US in December of that year, where he would teach at SUNY Stony Brook. Inspired by Dr. George’s rock star pursuits, the crowning element of the installation was a cover of Deep Purple’s “Smoke On The Water,” performed by the New York-based band Ayyoub, complete with Arabic instrumentation.

It was clear to me that Dr. George’s story was the story of millions of Iraqis who fled—and continue to flee—their country as refugees. It was a story that was also mirrored in the status of the stolen artifacts, many of which turn up in other countries such as Jordan, Iran, Italy and the USA, and are unable to be repatriated because it is still too dangerous.

I had the good fortune to meet Dr. George in February 2007, shortly after his arrival to New York. The occasion was hosted by SAFE/Saving Antiquities for Everyone and arranged by Barbara Paley, whose husband Sam, who passed away last year, was a distinguished archaeologist and very close with Dr. George. At the brunch, colleagues and old friends officially welcomed him and his family to the US and donated books, some of them their own scholarly works, to fill the shelves of Dr. George’s office at the university. It was very moving, warm, and celebratory.

When we were introduced, Dr. George remarked on the drawing I made of him playing the drums, asking where I found a photo of him performing. There wasn’t any photo, I explained. There are no jpeg files on Google of “99%,” no mp3’s, no YouTube videos. I showed him my source images for creating the drawing: a photograph of him at a meeting collaged in Photoshop with one of Ringo Starr drumming away. An image created from fragments of other images. “That’s archaeology, too,” he told me with a big smile.

When he did visit my show in New York, I was unfortunately at home in Chicago. Dr. George would later explain to me that he became emotional while standing in front of the reconstructed artifacts because he discovered that this was probably as close as he was going to get to the originals ever again.

Over the next four years, I got to know Dr. George more and more. As I heard one incredible story after another of his undying and continuing efforts to recuperate stolen and damaged artifacts from his old museum, I added more drawings to the project. Inasmuch as the work was about humanity’s collective loss of a shared cultural heritage and history, it had also become a loving portrait of a man I greatly admired.

One of the stories that Dr. George told me is one that doesn’t get told enough, and I feel underscores who he was, as someone who upheld his beliefs and maintained his integrity, under any circumstance. As he recounted to New York Magazine, he was the head of fieldwork at the excavation site in Babylon in 1987 when the Iraqi president paid a visit. “I met him and took him around. He was very calm. He was just listening. In one of the museums there, we had some inscriptions translated. In one, Nebuchadnezzar was saying that one of the gods had sent him to protect ‘the black-headed people.’ Saddam said, ‘You should change that.’ And I said, ‘No, sir, it’s scientific, we can’t change it, this is exactly as it was said. It doesn’t mean that people are black, it means “all the people.” Because if you have a crowd of Iraqis, all you see are their black heads.’ He wanted to change it to ‘all the people.’ And I said no. Later, one of his bodyguards took me aside and said, ‘How can you say no to the leader?’ And I said, ‘It’s science.’ And he said, ‘Well, good. God bless you. Otherwise, you would have vanished.'”

I only knew Dr. George for four years. It feels like I lost a family member. Maybe I see my grandfather, who fled Iraq in 1946, in him. Maybe I see the story of every Iraqi who is not at home, who is not able to return. Maybe I see a devoted husband and father who did everything he could to save his wife and children and give them a good life. Whatever it is, I feel the huge loss that his family, friends and colleagues are feeling and today, I said goodbye to him at his funeral here in Chicago.

My last drawing from “The invisible enemy” featured a personal message from me to Dr. George. In pencil, I wrote the traditional Arabic greeting, “Ahlan wa Sahlan, Dr. George.” As many know, it is loosely translated as “May you arrive as part of the family, and tread an easy path (as you enter)”. I was thinking to close my personal remembrance of this great man with an awesome line from a Deep Purple or Pink Floyd song. Somehow, I think Dr. George would have liked that. But instead, I found sections of a fragmentary Sumerian lullaby, translated from tablets dating from 3,000 B.C.

Come sleep, come sleep…
And you, lie you in sleep.
Array the branches of your palm tree,
It will fill you with joy…
Stand at the side of Ur
Goodnight, Dr. George. I will miss you.



Donny George – a man of knowledge, courage and grace

The following citation was originally published in January, 2008 in the SAFE Beacon Award Souvenir Journal when we honored Dr. George:

“I am simply doing my duty. I believe that if the time comes, I am ready to sacrifice my life to save any item of Cultural Property anywhere in the world. But what I am sure of is that I am not alone in this.”

Born in Habbania, al-Anbar Province, on October 23, 1950, Dr. Donny George developed a relationship with the landscape of Iraq as a youth that inspired a lifetime of study of ancient cultures as both a scholar and archaeologist that has motivated colleagues around the world for more than three decades.

While pursuing his undergraduate and graduate studies at the University of Baghdad, where he received his M.A. in Archaeology in 1986, Dr. George began his career at the Iraq Museum in 1976, where he held various positions. These include Director of the Documentation Center in 1980 and Field Director for the Babylon Restoration Project from 1986 through 1987. He conducted archaeological investigations in the eastern wall at Nineveh in 1988 and 1989 and served as Scientific Supervisor for the Bekhmeh Dam Archaeological Rescue Project (northern Iraq) in 1989. He was appointed Assistant Director General of Antiquities for the Scientific Affairs department in 1995, the same year he received his Ph.D. in Prehistoric Archaeology at the University of Baghdad. During 1999 and 2000, Dr. George directed the excavation team at Um al-Agarib (southern Iraq) and served as head of the Technical Committee at the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (which analyzes artifacts brought to the Iraq Museum voluntarily by the Iraqi citizens).

From 2000 to 2003 Dr. George served as Director General of the Department of Research and Studies at the Iraq Museum. He witnessed the fall of Baghdad, endured the subsequent looting of the Iraq Museum in April 2003, and played a central role in the restoration of the Museum and the recovery of nearly half of the estimated 15,000 artifacts stolen from the Museum and archaeological sites.

In recognition of his service, Dr. George was appointed Director-General of the Iraqi Museums in November 2003 and became a member of the Iraqi National Committee for Education, Science, and Culture in January 2004. In 2005, he left his position at the Iraqi Museums when he was appointed President of the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, a position he held until he was forced to flee Iraq in August of 2006. He simultaneously held two academic positions as Lecturer Professor for Computer and Archaeology, Documentation, Anthropology, and Prehistory in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Baghdad, and Lecturer Professor at the College of Babylon for Theology and Philosophy.

His unique skills, knowledge of ancient Mesopotamian cultures, extensive field experience, and unflappable personality allowed Dr. George to rise above the tragic events that occurred in Iraq after the 1991 war and the events since 2003. The looting of the Baghdad Museum has attracted considerable media attention to the destruction of cultural heritage and the illicit antiquities trade worldwide, and has given Dr. George the audience that a lifetime of training and experience has equipped him to address. He is now a major force in bringing the world’s attention to the ruination of Iraq’s archaeological landscape, through his participation in conferences organized by Interpol, ICOM, AIA and UNESCO. He has given presentations on the conditions of archaeological sites and museums in Iraq at conferences and symposia at the British Museum and at UNESCO in Paris, Vienna, Essen and Mainz. He has also spoken at the “Archaeology in Times of War” conference in Bonn (2003), at meetings of the Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale in London (2003), for the Canadian Society for Mesopotamian Studies at the Royal Ontario Museum, and at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. He also maintains an active schedule of public speeches across the U.S. and has conducted interviews with various publications as well as PBS’s “Charlie Rose” program.

Dr. George is also a prolific author, having written Tell Es-Sawwan: Architecture of the Sixth Millennium B.C. (London, 1996) and The Stone Industries in Tell Es-Sawwan (London, 2005), as well as contributing to The Looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad: The Lost Legacy of Ancient Mesopotamia (New York, 2005) and the forthcoming Antiquities Under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection after the Iraq War (New York, 2008). He remains an active member of Interpol’s International Regional Committee, the German Archaeological Institute, the Society for American Archaeology, and is an Honorary Member of the Archaeological Institute of America. He currently holds the position of Visiting Professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Donny George: "The truth about the Kuwait Antiquities"

The following is published at the request of its author, Dr. Donny George:

Dear All,
since the first gulf war of 1991 everybody’s been accusing the Iraqis of steeling the Kuwait’s antiquities, and no one has asked the Iraqis for their opinion about it. I was reserving this to be included in a book I started writing, but let me explain this Kuwaiti mater in some details.

Prior to the first gulf war we had done the preparations to evacuate the antiquities from the Iraq museum, since the war was coming no matter what was said in the daily news inside Iraq, then we got the orders from the ministry of culture, to go and insure the evacuation of the Kuwait museum, exactly as we did for the Iraq museum, we had no orders to check the private collections, that was not our job, and before we did so the director general of Iraqi antiquities informed the UNESCO, that according to Hague convention of 1954, Iraq was going to do it’s duties to evacuate the official Kuwait museums, because they were in an area of expected armed conflict, and for that we started the evacuation, before that I myself made a video film for the two museums, the Kuwait national museum, and Dar al-Athar Al-Ilamia, later on we sent a copy of that film to the Kuwaiti authorities through the UN representative, then we started packing and transporting all what we could to Baghdad, then distributing the material in Iraq for safe keeping.

After the end of the war, and the UN resolutions to return everything back to Kuwait, we had the first meeting with representative of the UN security counsel, he officially presented a list of (2500) items demanded by the Kuwaiti side to be returned to Kuwait, we all, the Iraqi side were surprised for that small number of the demanded items, we said what we have is much more than that, and I handed the UN representative two volumes for over (25 000) twenty five thousands items that we had, because every thing was completely documented in a professional manner before any thing left the Kuwait museums . The representative was surprised after he saw the complete lists, and aske to end the meeting that day, so that he will go back to the security counsel in order to have a special resolution for the antiquities to be handed over according to the Iraqi lists and not according to the Kuwaiti ones, and this was what happened
The Iraq museum at that time was not on display and was closed, and of course no Kuwaiti antiquities were displayed there for sure, but the Kuwaiti material was finally collected there for handing over.


When the handing over started, it took place in some of the Iraq museum galleries, no Kuwaiti people were there, but the representatives of the UN, the Kuwaiti side was represented by a British lady, Ms.Marsh, an American gentleman , and an Indian gentleman, every item was handed over from the Iraqi representatives to the UN people, registered in lists by computers, then handed over to the Kuwaiti side then they handed things to the packing company, all done in the Iraq museum, all with the protection of the museum guards.

After everything was taken from Iraq, for several times we had some questions about some missing items from the Kuwaiti side through the UN, and when we would go back to our copy of the handing over lists, we would find what they were asking for, so we would tell them that that item is listed in Number so and so in the list number so and so , then there were no claims in this regard.
Special Notes:

1. we knew nothing about private collections in Kuwait, therefore we were not involved with them, our concentration was only on the official museums.

2. When the handing over was finished, the head of the Kuwaiti side, Ms. Marsh, invited the Iraqi side representatives for a dinner reception in a fine Baghdad restaurant, Khan Marjan, I asked Ms. Marsh whether that was her idea, but she told me that she could not do such a thing without the Kuwaiti approval, and also mentioned, that there will come a time the Kuwaitis will thank you all personally for what you have done for these antiquities.

3. Everybody should know that only the Kuwait National museum contained Kuwaiti antiquities, the other museum was dedicated for Islamic art, and all its material was purchased from the markets all over the world, including material from the site of Samarra in Iraq.

4. after all that we see from time to time articles, especially in the Guardian, going back to the same subject, where such kinds of claims are mentioned, while I am sure the Kuwaitis themselves know that this is not the whole truth, but it is used for political matters only, including an article that was interviewing Ms. Marsh herself, and was given the title of, the lioness of Baghdad, and again in the Guardian, were she was describing her struggle with Iraqis, to extract every single item from them under the weapons of solders !!!! (the museum guards).

5. this is my information about this subject, and it is my responsibility to tell it to the world, the museum, archaeological community all over the world, and it is my responsibility in front of my God, that this is the whole truth, and whatever is said about this subject that does not include these facts, is all lays and false accusations, these people should be ashamed of themselves.

Donny George

The Looting of the Iraq Museum: 7 Years Later

This weekend marks the 7th anniversary of the tragic looting of the Iraq Museum—an anniversary that is especially important for SAFE. Cindy Ho founded SAFE in response to the mass looting in 2003, and since then, SAFE grew from a single-purpose public awareness campaign into a non-profit organization, the only one of its kind, with a much broader mission.

SAFE and others around the world have commemorated the looting of the museum each year with special events, like candlelight vigils. These gatherings are an easy way to say that we have not forgotten, and they also remind us of the challenges Iraq faces today to protect its cultural heritage. One of the major challenges we were reminded of this year is the reopening of the museum. SAFE, like most other media outlets, all too eagerly announced that the museum was reopened in February 2009. Our friend and former director of the Iraq Museum, Dr. Donny George Youkhanna, warned us that these reports were misleading:

…they made the ceremony for two hours, then the closed the museum, it is not opened since then, no one from the public goes in, except VIP’s and journalists, can go in with an appointment, but they would go through the back door, that is through the administration building, and as for the displayed material, nothing from the original small items are displayed, they are still in their hiding place, only the large items that fixed to the walls and the floors are there, and some of the material that was brought back to the museum, and some later excavations, nothing from the original material.

Of course, I would love so much to see the museum open, but still it is not a good time in Baghdad.

Not only are these vigils a way to remember Iraq specifically, but they can also draw attention to other situations around the world. This year we might also think about the destruction in Kashgar and Haiti, for example. Remembering and looking ahead are the two major themes of SAFE vigils that prove to be relevant year after year. In that way, these events would support a case for nationally recognized day (akin to Earth Day) to remember the importance of cultural heritage (something that we applaud Paul Barford for suggesting in an earlier post). But until our cause achieves national recognition, SAFE hopes that our members and friends will attend a vigil, or host their own, to acknowledge that we are all responsible for the protection of our shared past.

The Scars of War

While time does not heal all wounds, it offers the possibility for reflection and recovery. On May 28, the New York City Bar Association called on archaeologists, lawyers, and all interested parties to gather in the halls of the House of the Association in mid-town Manhattan to discuss, “The Art of War: The Protection of Cultural Property in War and Peace.” Moderated by Lucille A. Roussin, the speakers included Donny George, former Director General of the Iraq Museum and now a visiting Professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook; Corine Wegener, President of the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield; and Colonel Matthew Bogdanos of the U.S. Marine Corps who headed the investigation into the looting of the Iraq Museum.

Dr. Donny George discussed the constitution and law of antiquities of Iraq while lamenting over the destruction caused not just by Sunni and Shiite factions, but also by attempts to increase tourism. Corine Wegener reflected on the 1954 Hague Convention that was finally ratified by the U.S. Senate on September 25, 2008. Last, Colonel Bogdanos captivated the audience with his description of the investigation into the looting of the museum and subsequent recovery of the artifacts. He explained the amnesty offered to those who would return pieces as well as his opinions about what happened, how, and why. All is explained in his book, “Thieves of Baghdad,” also reviewed on SAFEcorner, a must-read for everyone because everyone needs to be aware of what can happen if we do not work together to protect our history.

Interesting questions arose in the discussion including: why did this happen? However, I am more interested in finding out how we can prevent such destruction in the future. I also am interested in remarks made about the U.S. not having a Department of Culture like many other countries throughout the world. Is there a place for such a government-funded organization? Furthermore, could you imagine the jobs this would provide?

I hope that many who listened to these speakers are inspired to get involved, especially with organizations like SAFE whose mission is to increase public awareness about protecting our past. The looting of archaeological sites in Iraq continues despite the recovery of some of the collections and the re-opening of the Iraq Museum. Some wounds are healing, but there are still scars left.


Chronicle of Higher Education Q and A with Larry Rothfield

From the issue dated April 17, 2009
A Fragile History, Besieged
A post-mortem examination of the cultural disaster in Iraq

Six years ago this month, the National Museum of Iraq was extensively looted amid the chaos of the U.S. invasion of Baghdad. Among the stolen objects was the Mask of Warka, a 5,100-year-old Sumerian artifact that is believed to be one of the earliest surviving representations of a human face. The mask was found buried on an Iraqi farm five months later — but thousands of other precious objects were destroyed or disappeared into the black market.

“We do not know, and we may never know, a great many lessons about how human civilization first arose, because of this disaster,” says Lawrence Rothfield, an associate professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Chicago and a former director of the university’s Cultural Policy Center.

In his new book, The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum (University of Chicago Press), Rothfield examines the sacking of the museum and the “slow-motion disaster” of the looting of archaeological sites across Iraq since 2003.

Rothfield recently spoke with The Chronicle’s David Glenn. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.

Q. Why should the world care about Iraqi antiquities? Doesn’t this issue pale in comparison to the war’s political struggles and tens of thousands of deaths?

I hear that question sometimes: Why should we care? Why should we worry that all of this material is being brought onto the black market? After all, isn’t this making available to the rest of the world the beauty of all these objects that otherwise would not have been available for us to see?

One reason to worry is that this material is being ripped out of its context. The individual intact pieces that fall into the hands of collectors might be beautiful. But most of what we know about the origins of civilization has come from piecing together fragments and reconstructing contexts. The Epic of Gilgamesh was pieced together from fragments that looters today would have crushed underfoot.

Q. Before 2003 the National Museum of Iraq was regarded as one of the best in the region. Despite all of the cruelties and travails of Saddam Hussein’s regime, this institution thrived. Why was that?
Saddam thought of the Mesopotamian past as a propaganda tool — which meant that at least he cared enough about it to impose severe penalties on looters, and to spend the resources needed to support the work of the museum. And even before Saddam came to power, Iraq had some longstanding relationships with European and American archaeological institutions, including the Oriental Institute here at Chicago. So for decades, they had been training archaeologists to produce work that was of very high quality.

Q. Why did the United States do such a bad job of protecting the museum in 2003?
Before the war, nobody except archaeologists was worried about civilians looting the archaeological sites and the museum. And that includes the Iraqi exiles who were advising the State Department’s Future of Iraq Project, which was supposed to develop plans for the postwar period. They set up working groups on all sectors of society — but they forgot about culture.

Q. But would it have made a difference if the Future of Iraq Project had paid attention to culture?

No, it wouldn’t have made any difference at all, given that the military threw all of their plans in the garbage can anyway.

Now, the military itself was very interested in doing its job in terms of protecting cultural sites and museums. But under international law, its job is defined as not destroying or looting cultural sites itself — not as preventing civilians from destroying sites.

So before the war, they reached out to archaeologists, and they did a perfect job of identifying sites to put on a no-strike list. None of those sites was destroyed in active combat operations.

Unfortunately, they ignored warnings from the same archaeologists they were working with that the museums and sites might be looted by Iraqis. The Pentagon should have known about that issue. Nine museums were looted after the 1991 Gulf War. The military did not learn its lesson from that experience.

Q. There were reports last year that the military had asked archaeologists to develop a similar no-strike list for cultural sites in Iran. And some archaeologists have argued that it is unethical to cooperate with that project, because they say an American attack on Iran would be immoral. Have you been part of those debates?
My thought is that requiring the military to spend time and effort to protect cultural sites actually makes the cost of war higher for the military than it would otherwise be. So if you’re interested in doing what you can to discourage the U.S. from going to war, raising the cost of war is one way to do so.

There’s no contradiction between speaking out publicly against the war and making sure that the military protects cultural sites if it does go to war.

Q. Do you believe the American military has learned lessons since 2003?
It’s a mixed picture. The new Army Field Manual includes on its task list the imperative to secure and protect cultural sites and museums. That’s a huge step forward in itself. They’ve also been developing excellent cultural-awareness training programs to sensitize soldiers heading into war zones, working with the Archaeological Institute of America.

But there is also the separate question about what to do going forward in Iraq — and in Afghanistan, where matters are arguably even worse. There is still severe looting in both countries. The British recently returned several tons of Afghan antiquities that had been seized at London airports since 2003, just to give you some sense of the size of the problem.

The looting of the Iraq museum was terrible, but the amount of material lost from the slow looting of Iraq’s archaeological sites dwarfs the amount that was taken from the museum. Estimates are that roughly half a million pieces have been destroyed or taken from the ground since 2003.

Q. If you had half an hour to talk to people at the Pentagon or the State Department, what would you say?

Archaeologists have been asking for years now for the military to share satellite photographs of the Iraqi archaeological sites so that they could count the number of holes and track the rate of looting around the country. They’re still waiting.

I would also urge the Pentagon to form a task force to develop operational plans to inject resources into those areas where it’s possible to make a difference. In some cases that might mean providing cars, weapons, and walkie-talkies to the civilians who are supposed to be protecting sites.

And I would suggest a tax on all sales of antiquities from Iraq and Afghanistan. The proceeds could be used to help finance anti-looting efforts in those countries.

Q. At the end of your book, you wrote that you didn’t expect the Iraq museum to reopen “for years to come.” But in February, after your book went to press, a part of the museum reopened. Were you surprised?
Well, I was dismayed by it, as were [the museum’s former director] Donny George and a number of other Iraqi archaeologists. Conditions in Baghdad are still very fragile. And the museum is nowhere near ready to be open to the public, even if the situation weren’t so touchy. The recent reduction in violence is heartening, but it only brings us down to levels that are equivalent to other long-running civil wars.

David Glenn is a senior reporter at The Chronicle.

Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 55, Issue 32, Page B17

More on Iraq’s Amnesty/Rewards Program for Turning In Looted Antiquities

Donny George has kindly clarified that the amnesty program is not new, but is mentioned in Iraq’s antiquities laws. Antiquities coming to the museum are brought before a special “Technical Committee” which decides on the amount to be awarded the person who brought them. The money comes from the annual budget of the SBAH, as a line item. Sometimes the funds are exhausted before year end, and more monies have been requested from the ministry of finance to support the program. In 2003-2004, for obvious reasons, it was difficult to get money for the program, but the SBAH kept records for every one that brought antiquities to the museum, and payments were eventually made.

Perhaps as useful as the artifacts themselves is the information that those returning items are supposed to provide the Committee regarding where and how they obtained the items to begin with. According to Donny George, such leads have in the past helped archaeologists locate hitherto unknown sites.

The problem with the turnover of materials by high-level officials, however, is that — if these officials are to be believed — they merely accepted antiquities from their constituents. If that is the case, and those constituents cannot be identified and brought before the Committee, then any chance of tracking antiquities back to their original sites is lost.

Iraqi archaeologists voice concern about cultural heritage

A curator checks artifacts at the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad on March 17, 2008 in a National Geographic article “Iraq Museum Still Too Damaged to Reopen”. Photograph by Thaier al-Sudnai/Reuters.


The following open letter was posted on the Iraqcrisis List.

Mr. Nouri al Maliki, Prime Minister of Iraq
Mr. Mufeed al Jazairi, Head of Cultural Committee, Iraqi Parliament
Mr. Qahtan al Juburi, Minister of Tourism
Mr. Qais Husain Rashid, Acting Chairman of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage

February 11th, 2009
Dear Sirs,

We write to you with serious concern about the preservation of the cultural heritage of our country. As you know, the 2003 war resulted in extensive damage to the museums and historical sites of Iraq. We are now facing another type of destruction, the destruction that can result from lack of knowledge. We have learned of the plans to open the Iraq Museum within two weeks. While we are not in principle opposed to the opening of the museums of Iraq, and feel that the cultural heritage of a nation ought to be open to the public, such an act must proceed according to international standards of museology and conservation. Opening a museum is not simply unlocking a door. Preparing a museum collection for opening usually requires at least one year of careful work, even in the best of circumstance. From a curatorial perspective, it takes many months to do this in a professional and responsible manner.

The plan to open one of the world’s most important museums in a period of two weeks displays a remarkable unawareness of cultural heritage management. The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities seems to be unaware that there are internationally acknowledged standards and disciplines of museology and cultural heritage management, that scholars with doctorates and years of experience in these fields will necessarily be better able to judge what procedure needs to be followed in order to protect the country’s museums and historical sites.

Similar conservation concerns arise regarding the government’s plans for large-scale demolition and reconstruction in the historical cities of Najaf, Kerbala, Old Basra, in Basra, the authorities are ignoring the inspector of antiquities who points out that this is a threat to the old city of Basra, and Wasit. We would respectfully point out that the Iraqi Antiquities Law Number 55 for the year of 2002 and other properties laws requires that the scholars of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage must be consulted on all such matters and that archaeological field surveys must be conducted before any land is given over for large scale construction projects. These laws were
wilfully disregarded by the American occupation’s construction projects under the administration of George Bush, and it is equally wrong if they are disregarded by the government of Iraq, or the international firms who are given the contracts for the construction.

The museums and historical sites of Iraq should not fall victim to the political whim of the moment, and be sacrificed for the sake of a public relations campaign on behalf of government. They do not belong to the government but to the people of Iraq. It is the government’s duty to hold the cultural heritage in trust for the people. When a government does not, it is the duty of the people to voice their concerns. We therefore take it as our duty to make public these very grave concerns.


Dr. Zainab al Bahrani, Professor of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University, New York. Formerly curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Dr. Lamia al Gailani, Research scholar, and former Curator, the Iraq Museum, Baghdad.

Dr. Selma al Radhi, Monument preservationist and archaeologist. Winner of the 2007 Agha Khan Prize for Architectural Preservation.

Dr. Nada al Shabout, Professor of Art History, University of North Texas, curatorial advisor to the
Qatar Museums Authority.

Dr. Donny George Youkhanna, Professor of Archaeology, State University of New York at Stony Brook New York, former Chairman of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage of Iraq.

No Recent Looting on 8 Sites in Southern Iraq: What does it show us? Not what the Art Newspaper thinks it does

The Art Newspaper makes too much hay out of a new report by highly reputable archaeologists who visited 8 major sites in southern Iraq. (The article is at The lede is in-your-face (or at least in mine):

“An international team of archaeologists which made an unpublicised visit to southern Iraq last month found no evidence of recent looting—contrary to long-expressed claims about sustained illegal digging at major sites.”

Who has been making these now-contradicted claims? Well, among others, me, supposedly:

“We reported last month, in a review of a new scholarly book on Iraq’s cultural heritage, that Professor Lawrence Rothfield of the University of Chicago claims that sites are being “destroyed at the rate of roughly 10% a year”.

One problem: there is no contradiction here. Archaeologists have been claiming that sustained digging has taken place at sites both major and minor, but that is not the same thing as claiming that every site in the country has been looted, or even that every major site has been looted. Indeed, it has been known for several years now, from analyses of satellite imagery by Elizabeth Stone, that in general the sites in the south had not seen as much looting as of those she studied from the middle of the country, where the devastation has been enormous. Stone’s analysis showed that the major sites in the south — the only area this assessment team visited –had for the most part remained unlooted, at least through 2005, the latest date for which satellite photos were available to her.

The archaeological assessment team, which included Stone, visited just eight major sites, of the 10,000 registered sites in the country. Is it possible that sustained looting is occurring or has already occurred at many of the 9,992 other sites? The answer is certainly yes for the years 2003-2006; Stone’s data shows that indisputably. For what has been happening since, the US military could easily clear up the question of how much looting has taken place where and when, if it would provide time-series photos of known sites. Don’t hold your breath on that happening, though.

It was already clear from Stone’s analysis that the 8 sites visited were unusual in not having experienced the kind of severe looting that Stone found elsewhere in the country. The real question is: why were these sites spared?

Donny George was kind enough to help me with this question. His response: The team “visited some specific and less troubled sites from the security point of view, and these sites happen to be protected for one reason or another:

1. Ur: this site was protected before 2003 being surrounded by the Iraqi air base, then after 2003 protected by the American air base, together with the good protection of the Iraqi guards and FPS patrols.

2. Larsa: this site is in a remote area, almost covered by sand dunes, which made it very difficult for the looters to approach, most of the times.

3. Uruk: This site had always been very good protected by its guards and their tribes, there have been some attempts of looting, but they were strongly stopped by the guards and the local authorities.

4. Lagash, There had been some attempts of looting to this site, but not that much all the time, yes it is very well known in the world of archaeology, but it never had extensive looting like the others.

5. Eridu, This site had been surrounded by water for some time before 2003, and later dried, so it was not so vulnerable by the looters, although it is very well known in the world of archaeology, but also known of having extensive archaeological excavations by the Iraqi antiquities service, which maybe left nothing for the looters, in their opinion, and the excavations there are completely covered, except for some bricks on the surface of one mound only.

5. Tell Lahm: This site has been looted to some extent, and has been disturbed by the diggings of the Iraqi army in 1991, first Gulf war, but since this site is in the closest point between the high way between Basra and Baghdad, and the local road between Basra and Nasiriyah, and there’s always been been a check point there, because of that situation, and the American forces use both ways extensively, I think the looters abandoned the site from early times.

6. Ubaid: This site had had some looting just after the 1991 war, and maybe some more just after 2003, but since being very close to the city of Ur, made it on the way of the Iraqi FPS patrols and the American forces from the beginning, so I believe it was very hard for the looters to continue in these circumstances.

7. Oueili: very well known in the world of archaeology by the French excavations and publications, but it is a prehistoric site, it produces nothing of the materials that the looters want, maybe they have checked it and abandon it, because of that.

George concludes: “Again with all my respect to the courageous action these leading archaeologists had done, but this is my personal point of view, but I want to believe that there will be some more trips for other sites in the near future.”

Why does it matter whether the story is badly slanted or not?

Two reasons: First, because its slantedness has political implications. The story has been pounced upon by the rightwing blogosphere — posted it instantaneously — since it leaves readers with the impression that, as one rightwing commenter on the story has already put it, the claim of massive looting of sites “was just another story fabricated by the Boston Globe and New York Times.”

Second, and far more important, because in addition to enabling deniers to claim that nothing has happened or is happening that needs our attention, the reporter misses the real story, which is about what we can learn from the happy fate of these 8 sites. Nearby bases, checkpoints on major roads, increased FPS patrols, help from locals, as well as training equipment and guard towers bequeathed by the carabinieri: all these make a real difference.

That’s the real surprise, one the story misses, but one that policymakers — especially those working on the new Status of Forces agreement with the Iraq government — could learn from if they wanted to protect more of what remains on sites in other less fortunate areas of the country.

James Cuno: "There is not a credible museum in this country that has an object in it that it knows to have been stolen from someplace else."

On June 11, 2008, the “Here On Earth” series produced by Wisconsin Public Radio — featured Dr. James Cuno, director of the Chicago Art Institute and author of the book “Who Owns Antiquity?” and Dr. Donny George Youkhanna, former director of the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad and the former president of the Iraq State Board of Antiquities.and now a visiting professor at Stony Brook University.

The program — titled “Who Owns Antiquities?” — has been archived and is available here.

At one point in the conversation, Dr. George said: “I do agree with Mr. Cuno that for people to go to one place and see antiquities and cultural heritage of different people, of different parts of the world is a wonderful thing, because this is the role of museums. Museums are cultural and educational centers. But I don’t agree with the way these museums get these antiquities. We know that a lot of museums in the western world, in the United States, do have collections that come from illicit digging, that are originally stolen from those countries. This is my argument always. These museums can have material in legal ways. This is different…”

Moderator: “And the legal ways would be…?”

Donny George: “…would be, for instance, having exhibitions … arrangements between two museums to have an exhibition, for instance, for Sumerian material from the Iraq Museum with the Metropolitan Museum in New York. And then, with the collection of New York, for instance, or the Native Americans Museum in Washington to have a kind of collection to send to Baghdad so that the Iraqi people will see the wonderful work of art and heritage of the Native Americans in Baghdad. This can be achieved in legal ways and wonderful ways for both sides.”

After the commercial break, James Cuno responded: “I do take exception to Professor George’s statement that we know museums in this country have antiquities known to be stolen. I don’t think that is a statement that can be backed up by facts. There is not a credible museum in this country that has an object in it that it knows to have been stolen from someplace else.”

Moderator (interrupting): “But what about the whole dispute the Italians had with the Met … um … where the director … I think it was Thomas Hoving, who paid…”

James Cuno (interrupting): “That’s right. The Euphronios Krater. You’ll remember the resolution of that was based on evidence. And that evidence was only determined within the last couple of years. When the evidence proved beyond a reasonable doubt that these objects had been removed inappropriately, perhaps illegally, from Italy, they were returned. Until that time, there was no such evidence to make that case. The evidence was only found in a warehouse of an art dealer, I believe in Switzerland, within the last couple of years.”

Can it be true, as Dr. Cuno says, that: “There is not a credible museum in this country that has an object in it that it knows to have been stolen from someplace else.” ?

2007 Global Candlelight Vigil for the Iraq Museum


In March 2007, on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the looting of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, SAFE and the museum’s former director Donny George Youkhanna asked the world to pause on April 10-12, 2007 … light a candle … and remember not only the destruction that occurred at the Iraq Museum but also the destruction of cultural heritage that is occurring across Iraq and around the world every day.

The first Candlelight Vigil took place on the steps of the Iraq Museum on the morning of April 10th. Over the next few days, dozens of Candlelight Vigils and other events took place at museums, universities, schools and other venues around the world. This five-minute video memorializes those events.