Inspirational Past: college student’s appeal for cultural heritage protection

I do not have many memories from my childhood. But if I fumble through the deepest and the most distant recollections, one particular memory surfaces amidst the haze. I remember—vividly and intensely—standing in front of the colossal statue of a winged human-headed bull at the British Museum. How can I ever forget the initial encounter with this beautiful beast? Its proud chest. Its majestic wings. Its strong hooves. What I felt then was a sense of awe and the sublime, even though I only had a heart of a twelve-year-old.

Colossal statue of a winged human-headed bull Colossal statue of a winged human-headed bull

As a college student of art history now, I appreciate the foresight my parents had to take me to the greatest museums around the world when I was young. The monumental sculptures from Assyria, Egypt, and Babylonia at the Louvre, the Pergamon Museum, and the British Museum, immensely inspired a young Korean middle school student. After my little “Grand Tour” of Europe, I decided that I had to study abroad. My curiosities for the art and archaeology of the West were impossible to be satisfied at any Korean college. So here I am in the United States, far away from my home country, but feeling ever more at home to study the beauties and curiosities of the ancient world.

Cultural repatriation issue aside, Middle Eastern artifacts and cultural objects housed in the West and in the Middle East continue to inspire many. It was certainly true in the 1900s too, when European archaeologists and historians ventured (or intruded) into the Middle East in search of the glories of the ancient kingdoms. Some of these swashbuckling archaeologists, in turn, inspire our contemporaries totday. For example, Werner Herzog is producing a new film titled, Queen of the Desert, based on the life of Gertrude Bell, a British archaeologist and diplomat who was the first and the only British woman participant in the shaping of the Middle Eastern politics after the World War I. Documentary makers Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl are in the process of making a documentary about Bell, titled “Letters From Baghdad.”

Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) Gertrude Bell


As the recent New York Times article reports, the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford mounted “Discovering Tutankhamun” last summer to trace the explorations of the British archaeologist Howard Carter. Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., has recently opened “Unearthing Arabia: The Archaeological Adventures of Wendell Phillips.” It follows the journey of Wendell Phillips, who led the largest expedition to present-day Yemen from 1949 to 1951. I still wonder how many of these objects were able to leave Egypt and South Arabia in the first place.

Iraq—Egypt—Yemen. These countries that inspire artists, filmmakers, and curators are unfortunately under a great political turmoil. As many of the previous SAFE blog posts have shown, the cultural properties are destroyed, looted, and illegally traded.

What disturbs me the most is that these destructions are often invisible. Looters manage to get under the radar to pilfer the artifacts, slip them into the black market. Can the public eye “see” the absence, the vacancy, the void? No. If we were to make a museum of missing objects, how vast and empty it would look?

Gertrude Bell was already taking actions for cultural heritage protection in the early 1900s. She was still working in Baghdad after the end of the World War I and King Faisal’s ascension in 1921. She advocated the idea of retaining cultural objects in the country of origin, rather than shipping them off to European museums. She began to think and sought actively for a preservation of objects in the Baghdad, gathering artifacts in a government building, and in 1926, her collection was moved to a new place to become a part of the Baghdad Antiquities Museum. Bell was its director, and years later in 1966, the collection was moved to a new space to be called the National Museum of Iraq.

In 2003, when the National Museum of Iraq was extensively looted, it was a day of destruction not only of the cultural objects, but also of the very fundamental idea of cultural heritage protection. Thankfully, many of the objects have been returned, but still more work remains to fully reclaim the honorable insights that Bell had in founding the National Museum of Iraq.

The Middle East—the land of gilded mosques beaming underneath scorching sunlight. The cradle of civilization that bore splendid ancient kingdoms. The site of the fantastical stories of Sinbad and Ali Baba, where rich merchants travel across the deserts carrying silk, oil, and herb.

What should we do to keep the Middle East remain as an inspiriting, breathtaking place that my generation of students and thinkers can continue to appreciate? We need to stop the relentless damage that looting and illicit trading impose on cultural heritage. SAFE believes that in order to curb looting in the Middle East, the demand for looted objects must be eliminated. Could museums and collectors agree to a moratorium on Middle Eastern, especially Syrian, antiquities until order is restored? For a day … half-a-day? A broad-based moratorium would be a symbolic gesture of goodwill, that the world should put together a coordinated effort to stop irreparable damages to cultural heritage.


Featured image from

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


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!

Confrontations: A Young Boy’s Temptation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Archaeological Looting is an Environmental Issue

The supporters of the indiscriminate market in dug-up ancient relics are fixated on representing the fundamental issues at stake as those of “ownership”, whether by a state (by their use of labels such as “retentionist”, “Nationalist”) or private individuals (accompanied by a lot of “cold dead hands”-type fighting talk). What lobbyists of this persuasion strenuously fight shy of is admitting that the current pace of depletion of the finite and fragile archaeological record by looting is a non-sustainable misuse of a precious resource. Looting is not an ownership issue, but an environmental issue.

The attempts to deflect the attention of the public and policy makers from the environmental aspects of the issues is of course a cynical manipulation. Lobbyists know they will get no sympathy from presenting the activity they are engaged in as the destroyer of a finite resource. That is why they will always play down the role of the indiscriminate market in the erosion. This is why they play on alarmist notions that “the enemy” wants to take away private property, and they are fighting the good fight to protect property rights. (Somehow they miss out the step of the argument which explains how they “got” the rights over the dismembered bits of the archaeological heritage taken clandestinely from the citizens of other countries.)

Archaeological organizations should be promoting a more accurate picture of the real issue at stake, the erosion and destruction of the archaeological resource by looting. On my blog, I suggest that perhaps there is a need for a World Archaeological Resource Awareness Day (WARAD?) that could in some way focus attention on the issue of the nature and importance of the archaeological record and how prone to damage it is. While we can do little against such threats as dessication, soil erosion, coastal erosion and some other natural causes of damage to archaeological sites, there are some forms of damage which arguably are avoidable. Looting is one of them. Public attention should be brought to the fact that current modes of indiscriminate collecting are shielding the looters from scrutiny and giving them a market. A worldwide awareness day – perhaps in some way linked to Earth Day at the end of April – may well be a useful tool in the process of public education about the damage caused by looting and indiscriminate and irresponsible collecting of archaeological artefacts.

Originally posted on March 28, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shaharzad Akbar is partner and senior consultant with QARA Consulting, Inc. in Kabul, Afghanistan. Shaharzad studied anthropology at Smith College and recently completed an MPhil in Development Studies at University of Oxford. Shaharzad has extensive media and development work experience in Afghanistan. In 2005, she was the journalism intern for the book Women of Courage. She has also worked as local reporter for BBC for Afghanistan, producer and host of a youth talk show on radio Killid and writer and editor for several Afghan magazines and newspapers.

Not just Egypt’s loss…

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

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

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

Temple of Luxor Stock Photos
The Temple of Luxor

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

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

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

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

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

Your voice for cultural property in Greece

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

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

Launch of "Mortimer" Website

Launch of Mortimer Website Jul 25, 2011

“Mortimer” is proud to announce the launch of the new Mortimer Petition website. Mortimer is named in honour of the great pioneer of popular, public archaeology, and TV Personality of the Year two years running, Sir Mortimer Wheeler. Mortimer is not affiliated to any political party, commercial company or existing archaeological organisation. It is membership led and volunteer driven and has three simple principles…

1) People of the past shaped our environment of today and are shaping the environment of the future. Therefore we all have a duty to preserve and enhance the quality of our environment because, once our natural and historic treasures are lost, they are lost to everyone and lost forever.

2) We best preserve and enhance our environment by working in an inclusive, sustainable partnership with all members of our communities, to value our past histories, heritage and the environment within which they are found and by promoting the study of the science, history, natural history and archaeology which help us explore, understand and enjoy them.

3) We also believe that everyone who takes part in this journey of shared discovery and who is passionate about it, deserves a single clear voice which isn’t afraid to tell those in power how important Our Past is to Our Future.

Mortimer is that voice.

Looted memorial statues returned to Kenyan family

Ancestral memorial statues (vigango) erected by the Mijikenda peoples of Kenya are frequently stolen and sold to international art dealers. During the summer of 2007, the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) returned two vigango, which had been in the collections of two American museums, to a Mijikenda family in a rural Kenyan village. We give the history of these two stolen statues, including their theft and rediscovery, the efforts leading to their repatriation, and the joyful return ceremony. We also describe how this case inspired the return of nine more vigango from an American family to the NMK, and examine the current status of efforts to protect vigango.

On June 20, 2007, much celebration accompanied the National Museums of Kenya’s (NMK) return of two stolen ancestral memorial statues (vigango, singular kigango, Kigiriama) to a Giriama family near Kaloleni, in the Kenyan coastal hinterland. Returned by two American museums, the two vigango were, according to the NMK Director General Dr. Idle Omar Farah, the first stolen artifacts ever returned to Kenya from the United States. The ceremony drew hundreds of local celebrants and included speeches, performances by local dance troupes, and feasting. The Minister of Tourism and Wildlife, the Honorable Morris Dzoro, delivered the keynote speech. Other dignitaries attending included the NMK Board Chairman, Mr. Issa Timamy, and Ambassador Husein Dado, Senior Deputy Secretary of the Ministry of State for National Heritage. The NMK’s Mombasa branch, under the direction of Mr. Philip Jimbi Katana, made elaborate preparations for the ceremony, including building a steel enclosure in the homestead to protect the returned vigango from further theft.

The ceremony concluded a long and concerted effort by ourselves and our Kenyan colleague, John Baya Mitsanze (a Giriama and senior curator with the NMK) to have the two statues repatriated and to heighten global awareness of the theft of vigango and other non-Western cultural property.

Vigango are carved and erected to incarnate the spirits of deceased members of Gohu, a male semi-secret society, and are considered sacred by the Giriama and other northern Mijikenda peoples.

The two returned vigango were stolen more than twenty years ago, in 1985. By sheer coincidence, Monica Udvardy had photographed them at the Giriama homestead of Kalume Mwakiru shortly before their theft while she was conducting research on Mijikenda gendered secret societies. We (Udvardy and Linda Giles) discovered the vigango fifteen years later in the African collections of the Illinois State University Museum (later transferred to the Illinois State Museum in Springfield) and the Hampton University Museum in Virginia.

In 2006, we located the Mwakiru family, and later delivered to the NMK’s Mombasa branch the family’s written appeal to have their stolen vigango returned. NMK Principal Curator of Coastal Sites and Monuments, Mr. Philip Jimbi Katana, then wrote the official request to the two American museums. The Illinois State Museum readily agreed to the request, and on September 13, 2006, an eight-person delegation, headed by Kenya’s Minister of State for National Heritage, Suleiman Shakombo, and the Kenyan Ambassador to the United States, Peter Ogego, traveled to Springfield to collect the kigango. At that time, Hampton University refused to return their kigango or even to meet the delegation. However, shortly after the Kenyan delegation left the United States, Hampton bowed to public pressure and shipped the kigango to Kenya.

The NMK’s actions concerning the Mwakiru vigango demonstrate a new focus on recovering Kenya’s cultural heritage not only for the NMK itself, but also on behalf of individuals, families, and ethnic groups. In another recent case, the NMK assisted in the return of regalia of Nandi resistance hero Koitalel arap Samoei from a British family to Nandi elders in 2006.

Tracing the path of the Mwakiru vigango

Most vigango are stolen by unemployed Mijikenda male youths and sold to shops and markets in the coastal cities and in the capital, Nairobi, which then sell them to Western dealers and collectors. Most of the vigango in the United States have been imported by a dealer based in southern California. This dealer has sold many of the vigango to private individuals, including several associated with the Hollywood film industry; these individuals often then donate them to museums. Records from the Illinois State University Museum show that the actor Powers Boothe donated one of the Mwakiru vigango and seven other vigango to the Museum in 1986. The other Mwakiru kigango was donated to Hampton University Museum by an undisclosed individual in the same year; Museum records indicate that it was one of ninety-four vigango collected by the American dealer among the ninety-nine total vigango acquired by the Museum between 1979 and 1987.

Media attention and more vigango repatriation

Our efforts to return these vigango have received widespread attention from the news media. In 2006, Mike Pflanz, the East African correspondent for the Daily Telegraph (London) and the Christian Science Monitor, visited the Mwakirus and published astory in both papers about their stolen vigango and our research on vigango in U.S. museum collections. NMK curator John Baya Mitsanze also took Pflanz and a photographer to the Giriama homestead of Karisa Disii Ngowa to photograph several recently erected vigango. After Pflanz’s articles appeared, we were deluged with requests for interviews by the news media.

Probably the most important coverage was by the New York Times. Marc Lacey, the New York Times East African Bureau chief at the time, researched the story and visited the Mwakiru and Ngowa families with Mitsanze and a photographer. At the Ngowa homestead, however, they discovered that the vigango had been stolen soon after Pflanz’s visit. Lacey’s article about vigango theft, which described the vigango loss of both Giriama families, was published on page 4 of the 2006 Easter Sunday edition. At the same time, Lacey launched a multimedia, interactive version of the story on the New York Times web site which ran for three months.

Other news media reporting the story include Kenya’s national daily newspapers, radio interviews, and discussion on the BBC andNPR. At least fifty special interest blogs and web sites have discussed the issue from the perspectives of art history, archaeology, African Studies, and cultural anthropology.

The media attention has raised general public awareness about the devastating impact on local communities due to the widespread global marketing of African cultural heritage.

It has also led to the voluntary return of nine more vigango from the private African art collection of American producers/screenwriters Lewis and Jay Allen, after Connecticut art dealer Kelly Gingras discovered the Mwakiru case on the Internet while preparing an exhibit at her Insiders/Outsiders Art Gallery. Gingras notified the daughter of the late couple, Brooke Allen, who agreed that the statues should be returned to Kenya. Allen and Gingras handed the statues over to the Kenyan Ambassador during a ceremony at the United Nations headquarters in New York City in June of 2007, an event that was also covered by the New York Times.

There are also indications that the media attention has affected other African art dealers. In October 2007, Linda Giles contacted several African art dealers in New York City about Kenyan artifacts for sale. None of the dealers mentioned having any vigango. An employee of the Pace Primitive Gallery volunteered the information that Kenyan “funerary statues” could no longer be sold. He noted that some of these statues had just recently been returned to Kenya and that it appeared that the statues should never have been collected in the first place.

Current challenges

In spite of these successes, there are still many vigango in museums and private collections in the United States, Europe, and Kenya. We have been able to verify the presence of more than 400 vigango in various American museums, but there is no information about the families from whom they were stolen. This demonstrates the need to photograph vigango still in situ.

Though Kenya’s passage and enactment of a national heritage bill protecting various aspects of natural and cultural heritage is an excellent step, its application is hindered by its lack of a list of specific artifacts covered. Hence, vigango do not currently receive special protection through inclusion in a red list. We are also unaware of any efforts to prevent the sale of vigango and other stolen or endangered cultural items in the many curio and art shops catering to tourists and collectors.


Pogrebin, Robin, 2007. 9 statues uprooted from Africa head home.New York Times, June 26, Arts section: B1.

Giles, Linda, Monica Udvardy, and John Mitsanze, 2004. Cultural property as global commodities: The case of Mijikenda memorial statues. Cultural Survival Quarterly, 27.4 (Winter): 78-82.

Pflanz, Mike, 2006. Kenyans welcome home sacred relics stolen by British. Telegraph, April 15, News section.

Lacey, Marc, 2006. The case of the stolen statues: Solving a Kenyan mystery. New York Times, April 16: 4.

Udvardy, Monica, Linda Giles, and John Mitsanze, 2003. The transatlantic trade in African ancestors: Mijikenda memorial statues (vigango) and the ethics of collecting and curating non-Western cultural property. American Anthropologist, 105.3: 566-80.

Pflanz, Mike, 2006. Theft of sacred vigango angers Kenyan villagers. Christian Science Monitor, March 2.


Britain’s Portable Antiquities Scheme Debated in Archaeological Journal

The latest edition (volume 20) of the Papers of the Institute of Archaeology has a timely debate, with a typically thought-provoking and balanced keynote paper by David Gill which asks the fundamental question: “The Portable Antiquities Scheme and the Treasure Act: Protecting the Archaeology of England and Wales?“. This follows the usual format of academic debate in a printed journal, the keynote article is followed by five independently written invited responses, to which the original author then replies. Although a normal printed peer-reviewed journal, PIA also has an open access policy and the texts are available in full online:

Keynote text by David W. J. Gill: The Portable Antiquities Scheme and the Treasure Act: Protecting the Archaeology of England and Wales?

Trevor Austin: The Portable Antiquities Scheme and the Treasure Act: Protecting the Archaeology of England and Wales? A Response.

Paul Barford: Archaeology, Collectors and Preservation: a Reply to David Gill

Gabriel Moshenska: Portable Antiquities, Pragmatism and the ‘Precious Things’

Colin Renfrew: Comment on the Paper by David Gill

Sally Worrell: The Crosby Garrett Helmet

David W. J. Gill: Reply to Austin, Barford, Moshenska, Renfrew and Worrell

Apparently Roger Bland, head of the PAS, was – as the editor put it – “less willing to contribute” a response to what Gill had written, which in the circumstances is a great pity.

The five comments are notable for their varied approach. Renfrew’s was quite short but raised a few cogent points in connection with what Gill had written, Worrell’s concentrated on a single aspect and does not add much to what Gill had said. Austin, representing UK metal detectorists (as head of the National Council for Metal Detectorists) does his hobby no favours by an aggressive attack on the British archaeological establishment, but simply ignoring most of the points Gill made. Moshenska also tries to defend artefact hunters against straw men. Barford is typically long-winded, but identifies part of the problem raised by Gill in the current weakness of position of the PAS and postulates strengthening it by embodying it more firmly in legislation.

I discuss some of the contributions at more length on my blog.

"Value of Amateurs" and Heritage Protection

An ACCG-sponsored PR Newswire press release proclaims that the: ‘Value of Amateurs Is Evident as Financial Woes Cripple Heritage Preservation‘. While there is no doubt that the volunteer sector has never been more active and welcome in heritage preservation initiatives than today, there are dangers inherent in states relying more explicitly upon it (see Heritage Action’s ‘Opposing certain heritage threats now “unaffordable”‘ about the situation in the UK).

Sadly the coin-dealing author of the text under discussion takes the subject “preservation of the heritage” to be a narrow artefact-centred issue. What, however, is of more general concern is the broader issue of protection of sites and monuments from erosion and destruction. Among the agents of that destruction is the looting of those sites and monuments that produces the loose objects that US collectors and dealers do not want to see in the hands of the countries from which they were taken because they allegedly are “unable or unwilling to preserve their heritage”, citing things like the recent damage caused to buildings in Pompeii by exposure to the weather.

While it is obvious to us all that it is far easier to provide a roof over a handful of coins than the excavated area of half an entire town, ancient coin dealer Sayles evidently wishes to see them as equivalents. There seems however to be a regrettable a confusion here between those amateurs who volunteer to work on conservation projects all over the world, or who as amateur archaeologists carry out and publish their own work, or in groups take part in larger scale projects and help with the inventorying of sites and monuments for the public record (for example the work of amateur groups here, here , here and here ), and the group to whom Sayles evdently refers. He means antiquity collectors, the individuals who out of acquisitive greed and the urge to possess purchase, often no questions asked, dugup ancient artefacts. There should be no confusion between the two. Collectors of dugup antiquities like so many postage stamps in an album are no more “amateur archaeologists” than collectors of costume Barbie dolls are ethnographers, or wild bird-egg snatchers are ornithologists, or poached elephant ivory merchants ecologists.

Mr Sayles presumably would argue that by including them in their collections, the Louvre was only trying to “preserve” the relief fragments ripped out of Theban Tomb 15, I doubt though that many would accept that the situation is as simple as that, especially seen from the point of view of what that site (tomb) now looks like. That a Memphis temple has problems with groundwater is neither here nor there as to whether they and other looted artefacts should not go back.

There are many ways amateurs and volunteers can help preserve the heritage, joining SAFE is one of them, buying looted and smuggled artefacts and hoarding them at home is not.

“Cultural heritage is a necessity…"

Diana Gregor’s article in MediaGlobal “Protecting cultural heritage as development priority” underscores the importance of preserving cultural heritage worldwide.

The piece begins with the disaster in Haiti and quotes UNESCO Programme Specialist for Culture in Port au Prince Elke Selter on cultural preservation as a priority, “Cultural heritage is a necessity, it is your past. You cannot just leave a country to lose its history. One needs the past in order to move on to one’s future and therefore you cannot cut off people’s roots. Haiti has a history with very important moments.” (Please see SAFE’s January 23 response
Rebuilding Haiti: Look to the past and our call for images of Haiti’s cultural heritage in our Flickr project Haiti: Look back to look ahead.)

Citing examples around the globe, the article speaks about the various threats to cultural heritage including natural disaster and armed conflicts and, most pertinent to SAFE’s mission, the destruction of archaeological sites and looting. Gregor ends with the important and positive message that “cultural property can provide opportunities for tourism and development.”

Charges of looting used to punish environmental activist?

In an interesting report from AP:

A Tibetan environmentalist once praised as a model philanthropist was sentenced to 15 years in prison Thursday on charges of grave robbing and dealing in looted antiquities, in a case supporters said was aimed at punishing his activism.

Would or could an environmentalist rob tombs and engage in the black market trade of antiquities? The relationship between natural and cultural heritage has been discussed on this blog and certainly elsewhere. As Paul Barford points out, Archaeological Looting is an Environmental Issue.

We obviously do not know all the facts of the case in question and we may never find out, but anyone who acts to protect the environment should understand that cultural heritage is everyone’s birthright, as are clean air and fresh water.

SAFE’s Flickr Project

On January 12, 2010 Haiti was changed forever by a devastating earthquake that took the lives of thousands and left a huge portion of the country in ruins. SAFE/Saving Antiquities for Everyone recognizes that in times of mass destruction, human lives must always be first priority. At the same time, Haiti stands to lose its heritage, which has been a source of great pride throughout the country’s troubled history. Historic neighborhoods and landmarks like the National Palace, the Holy Trinity Cathedral, and the Supreme Court have been leveled by the earthquake. Artists, art dealers, foreign envoys, and others are scrambling to assess the cultural loss and to ensure the safety of portable cultural objects like books, paintings, documents, and artifacts.

To join these efforts to preserve Haiti’s heritage, SAFE has initiated a Flickr project, “Haiti: Look back to look ahead,” to collect pictures and videos of what has now become intangible, that is, life in Haiti before January 12, 2010. We are looking for images of Haiti’s built environment before it was reduced to rubble and of the people whose lifestyles defined these places. After the wreckage is removed and discussions about rebuilding begin, Haiti’s past—both its most fatal historic problems and its rich cultural legacy—must be kept at the forefront of our imaginations. SAFE hopes to create a place for visual remembering as well as visual reckoning of what should be changed, restored, or recreated as Haiti looks to its future.

Over 300 photos have already been gathered on our Flickr page. If you would like to share your own photos of Haiti, we encourage you to e-mail them to

Prison time, felony charges rare for relic looters in USA

The strength of the market for antiquities and the consistent failures of the US legal system to deal with those committing offences against the 1979 Archaeological Resources Protection Act, together with a lack of manpower and other priorities for investigators, means that the US is currently “witnessing the wholesale stripping and selling off for scrap our collective American heritage“. Despite a push in recent decades to get tougher on artifact looters, there are no significant signs that prosecutions or punishments are having any major effect on looting, especially those that steal for commercial purposes, writes Mike Stark Associated Press writer (“Prison time, felony charges rare for relic looters“). It would seem the answer lies in controlling the market more closely. More here.

US Heritage Protection Legislation "inadequate" to Curb Antiquities Market

The pro-collecting lobby urges that the instead of current “restrictive ” laws, the archaeological heritage of all regions should become a free-for all to be “harvested” for collectable antiquities, perhaps with some form of voluntary reporting scheme like Britain’s Portable Antiquities Scheme in place to salvage some of the information which would otherwise be lost. In contrast to this we have views which urge that more should be done to protect archaeological sites from any kind of avoidable damage. On the back of the recent illicit antiquity raids in Utah, Gray Warriner an independent filmmaker has written an interesting essay in the Salt Lake Tribune. His thesis is that in the United States “Current laws are inadequate to protect antiquities” (Salt Lake Tribune 26th June 2009). He urges for a change in legislation to curb the antiquities market which drives the destruction of the archaeological record in the search for collectable atefacts. He likens this to the protection of threatened natural resources such as songbirds. More here.

Preserving architectural heritage: A review of "Time Honored. A Global View of Architectural Conservation"

What equates such different and distant places as the New York State Pavilion in Queens (New York City), the Bamyan site in Afghanistan, the Fenestrelle Fortress in the Italian Alps?

The elliptical canopy of the New York State Pavilion with its oversized, mosaic-made map of the state of New York is one of the few remaining structures from the historical event of 1964-1965 World’s Fair. The hollow cliff side in the Bamyan valley sadly reminds us of the two ancient monumental statues of Buddha Vairocana and Buddha Sakyamuni, once peacefully overlooking the site, mercilessly dynamited and destroyed in 2001. And the fortress of Fenestrelle, also called the “Great Wall of the Alps,” with its complex architectural layout, is one of the largest fortified structures remaining in Europe from the Eighteenth century, and as such an important crossroad for all of European history and identity.

The shared feature of these historical sites, these monuments, is that they are significant examples of the international architectural heritage the humankind risks to lose forever, and as such are all included in the World Monuments Fund’s Watch Program, the watch listing that every two years the Fund – a private organization based in New York City, and dedicated to saving the world’s most treasured places – releases in order to promote public awareness, and encourage solutions, about threatened cultural heritage worldwide.

The reasons why it is so important that we care for and preserve not only the natural environment and landscape, but also the historical built environment and landscape, that is the result of the interaction between human societies and natural environment over the centuries, are clearly explained by John H. Stubbs in the volume Time Honored: A Global View of Architectural Conservation. The author, Associate Professor of Historic preservation at the Columbia University’s School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, has also served, among other assignments, as Field Director for the World Monument Fund itself, and so his expertise in and knowledge of the “state of the art” regarding the international architectural preservation issues, their historical and epistemological context, have been acquired through decades of field work around the world.

Even if the book is essentially a comprehensive survey of theory, practice and framework of the architectural heritage conservation through the world – and so an indispensable tool for those directly involved in the field, like professional preservationists or historical conservation students – still its clear explanation of ideas and topics makes it an interesting and useful reading to whoever has interest in the cultural heritage conservation in general.

The first, basic question the volume answers is what the “objects,” the “artifacts” of the architectural preservation, are: they are not only single buildings like the Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the Uffizi Palace in Florence, or the Potala Palace in Tibet, but also structures like the Roman Aqueduct of Pont du Gard in France, or the Great Wall in China, and urban historic centers like those of Lima (Perú), Venice (Italy), or Cienfuegos (Cuba). These are clear examples of our universally shared architectural heritage, testimonials of a history and of a cultural identity common to us all; but deciding and choosing what to conserve today for the future generations is the crucial, and most difficult, task because the concept of history and of cultural identity, of which the whole cultural patrimony is an embodiment, change in time according to societal changes. There are no universal, absolute criteria to be followed, only guidelines and standards debated and renegotiated over time. The author lists and briefly analyzes the standards, or “types of value or significance,” most commonly used to classify the architectural heritage and to emphasize the importance of its preservation: universal, associative (historic and commemorative), aesthetic, exemplary and instructive. Even curiosity, in the sense of desire to know about ancient practices, is among the features that conventionally identify the architectural artifact to be preserved.

The reason why the protection and preservation of this specific aspect of the world’s cultural heritage should be a commonly shared concern is that the architectural patrimony contains a rooted history of cultural ideas and styles, and it witnesses and ensures the historical continuity of the environment in which we live, in a word our sense of belonging to a place, not only physically, but also culturally. Stubbs takes into account the multiple threats challenging the built environment, from the inevitable damaging action of passing time on structures and materials, of the weather conditions and/or natural disasters, to man-caused destructive actions resulting from social and economic changes, such as building or updating economic infrastructure, increased tourist flow, pollution, and so forth, without forgetting about war and armed conflicts. Similarly, he describes the various possible actions of intervention available to the architectural conservationist, keeping in mind that each single intervention is always a complex operation – not only from a technical and scientific point of view, but also from a cultural one – requiring extreme attention and careful consideration, and that the ultimate rationale should always be respecting the structural integrity and the surviving historic architectural fabric.

The penultimate chapter of the volume provides factual examples of architectural conservation practice, along with challenges and solutions, carried out in different areas of the world. Starting from Europe, where the awareness about the preservation of built environment has its historical and philosophical roots, and where nevertheless many new challenges have arisen nowadays (tourism pressure, uncontrolled development, pollution, etc.), the tour continues following geographical divisions (North Africa and Western Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Central and South Asia, East and Southeast Asia, Austro-Pacific Region, North America, Latin American and the Caribbean, even unusual places like the Polar Regions) starting with localities where the heritage protection has consolidated tradition and practice, and moving on to areas where the concern is new or just forming. Pictures elucidate issues to be faced and positive actions undertaken for each region of the world examined: about the Polar Regions, for instance, in addition to the major ecological concerns, the reader learns that structures built by explorers, like the hut erected by British Robert Falcon Scott in 1911 on Ross Island in Antarctica during the so-called Terra Nova Expedition (1910-1913), or sites related to the Arctic Native cultures are also at risk, and not only because of the extreme weather conditions. But at the same time the reader discovers that conservation projects are underway, or already completed, in order to save these unique examples of cultural heritage.

Finally, the four appendices concluding the volume offer exhaustive indices about terminology used, organizations and resources operating in the international architectural conservation field, international and regional conventions, charters and recommendations, and annotated bibliography indispensable to whoever, professional or amateur, wants to pursue the understanding of this essential element of our world’s cultural patrimony.

Easter Island project receives major grant for site preservation

According to a news release issued by Larry Coben, co-chair of The Archaeological Institute of America Site Preservation Task Force:

The Archaeological Institute of America Site Preservation Task Force (“AIA”) announced today that it had awarded a $94,000 grant for the preservation and conservation of Easter Island’s famous megalithic moai statues. The AIA gave the grant to the Easter Island Statute Project (the “Project”), directed by UCLA archaeologist Jo Anne Van Tilburg and co-directed since 2000 by Rapa Nui’s Cristián Arévalo Pakarati. The Project will develop and apply stone preservation techniques to arrest the rapid deterioration of these statues as a result of the fragile nature of their volcanic stone, climate change and unregulated tourism.

The Project will utilize the grant to focus initially upon the conservation of two of Easter Island’s most famous moai, known as the “mama” and the “papa”. According to local tradition, the statues were named while poking fun at the early 20th century explorer Katherine Routledge and her husband William Scoresby Routledge, who were the first to explore and map the island. These statues stand in the Rano Raraku quarry, the source of most of the statues’ stones and still the location of almost 400 giant statues. The knowledge gained in the study of the mama and papa will then be utilized to preserve the numerous additional statues on the island.

According to Dr. Van Tilburg, “this grant will jumpstart our efforts to preserve this remarkable cultural resource for future generations of local Rapa Nui and the world at large. The fragility of the stone, coupled with the fact that Rano Raraku is a major tourist destination, creates an urgent conservation imperative. We thank the AIA for their assistance in this monumental task”. Added co-director and local resident Pakarati, “The AIA grant will enable we local Rapa Nui people to conserve and benefit from the cultural heritage of our ancestors”.

The grant is the second by the AIA’s new Site Preservation Task Force, and the first outside of the Mediterranean region. The Task Force was created earlier this year to combat the accelerating loss of our priceless cultural heritage. “The Easter Island Statue Project exemplifies the new paradigm of preservation that the Task Force seeks to employ,” said University of Pennsylvania archaeologist and Task Force co-chairman Larry Coben, “not only that all preservation will be carried out to the highest technical standards, but most critically that successful preservation requires the empowerment of, and economic development for, local communities.”

The grant was awarded in a ceremony in the office of Rapa Nui Mayor Petero Edmonds, who thanked the AIA. According to Edmonds, “for projects to be successful they require the empowering and strong involvement of the local community. This Project is a wonderful example of the sort of local, national and international cooperation required”.

The AIA Site Preservation Task Force and Grant program is dedicated to combating the loss of the world’s priceless cultural heritage. The Task Force was formed in 2008 in response to the rapidly accelerating destruction of ancient monuments and sites due to war, looting extreme weather, alternative economic uses and neglect. The Task Force believes that new approaches are required for successful and sustainable preservation. In particular, sustainable preservation requires a focus upon people not stones; that is, success requires the empowerment of and economic development for local communities. The all volunteer Task Force thus consists not just of archaeologists, but experts in business, economics, development and international relations.

Photos: Larry Coben