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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what can we do?

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

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

Here’s a thought:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

The vote is in: We want international cooperation for cultural heritage protection

On May 29, SAFE opened up an informal poll to gauge public opinion on the issue of international cooperation on cultural heritage protection. This was inspired by Egypt’s request for a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to restrict imports of Egyptian archaeological and ethnological material into the United States. The goal was to raise public awareness, a core mission of SAFE.

In fact, the poll did an excellent job—it got people talking. A total of 142 people voted on the poll, and more than twenty-five experts and concerned public took the trouble to put thoughtful comments on the SAFE webpage, the poll website, and LinkedIn group pages.

An overwhelming majority of the voters (89.44%) voted for the first choice—a simple “Yes,” that all nations should help protect each other’s cultural heritage.

It seemed that many people who responded YES saw the international cooperation on protecting cultural heritage as an obvious, basic moral duty. But what intrigued me the most was that some people have voted for the runner-up choice (albeit only with 5.63% support): “No, a nation only deserves assistance if it has a stable government, incorruptible officials and adequate museum facilities in which to preserve the protected materials.”

This was a kind of argument that the stubborn retentionists of the 80s and 90s often used to undermine source countries’ ability to take care of their cultural heritage.

One of the commenters on the SAFE website, Nigel Sadler, perhaps provides an insight into why some people might prefer partial or limited repatriation. First, Sadler reasoned that his understanding of this answer choice was not that objects should never be returned to politically unstable countries, but that they should ultimately be at some point. Then he said,

“there has to be a degree of stability in the government and there must be museums or organisations that can house, safeguard, and even display the items in a secure environment.”

This view suggests that some people might think temporary retentionism is permissible. However, Ian MacLeod, Executive Director at Western Australian Maritime Museum, seems to disagree, for he wrote,

“All nations deserve support regardless of the stability of the country—it is a shared cultural resource we protect.”

<caption>Results of the poll</caption> Results of the poll

Another idea that was echoed in several comments was that cultural heritage belongs to all humans regardless of nationality and cultural affinity. Christ Durham wrote:

“It is the heritage of all humans no matter which country it resides in.”

As a college student who has studied both the retentionism and restitutionism arguments, I personally thought that this idea could go either way. That is, if cultural heritage belongs to all mankind, you can argue that the museums with the highest number of visitors and the best conservation resources should keep the objects—a classic retentionism argument. But you can also make an opposite argument for repatriation: because cultural objects belong to all people, the objects should be placed within their source countries’ cultural context, where they can be best understood for the benefit of the entire world.

This is why I thought that Shruti Das raised an interesting point—she broke away from the dichotomy of retentionism and restitutionism. She wrote that there is the

“need to create a common platform for all the nations, where they can stand for the preservation of cultural heritage irrespective of national bias or discrimination.”

Therefore, she is talking not from the point of view of ownership, but from the point of view of shared efforts and shared knowledge. Sachin Bansal chimed in, writing,

“we should have a knowledge transfer exercises [sic] on the heritage preservations as ‘one world’ concept. People should share insights . . .”

Despite some disagreements, it was apparent that everyone wanted to advocate for more action to establish a worldwide culture of respect for every culture’s heritage. Jack Rollins’s eloquent comment might be a nice point to wrap up this summary. He commented on June 21:

“However tragic these losses are, the fact is that if someone has the power to do something, he also has the power not to do it. If the world sits by watching one minimally civilized group destroy—forever—any part of the world’s culture, how unendurably self-absorbed are we; a shiftless, spoilt, selfish, coarse citizens of the world we must see ourselves as ‘rudely stamp’d.’”

That is, apathy, laziness, and neglect are the worst enemies of safeguarding the heritage of all cultures.

Let SAFE know about your thoughts on another important issue on cultural heritage protection: Should the St. Louis Art Museum voluntarily return the mummy mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer to Egypt? Vote here.

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!

Intern with SAFE and become part of the family

When I started my internship at SAFE I only had a vague idea of what I was getting myself into. I had seen the post written by SAFE’s previous intern Beatrice Kelly about her time at the organization and I knew that there were numerous ways to be involved. It was a daunting but exciting prospect. It did not take long to be put to work in a meaningful and educating way.

One of my first projects at SAFE was to write a blog about Modern Day Monuments Men and Women in the wake of the release of the star-studded film The Monuments Men. Not only was it an opportunity to learn more about the history behind the Monuments Men but it was also an introduction to the work of Dr. Monica Hanna, the 2014 SAFE Beacon Award Winner. (Later on in my internship I had the chance to meet Dr. Hanna and live tweet her lecture). In the following weeks I was taught how to effectively promote an event via several platforms including Facebook and LinkedIn. With my second blog post,  I provoked thoughtful reflection on the effectiveness of using Twitter and other social media platforms as a means of raising awareness on the issues of looting. The LinkedIn groups of Cultural Heritage Connections, UNESCO’s Friends, and the Society for American Archaeology provided great forums for discussion among professionals in the field. I was also given the opportunity to work on SAFE’s monthly curated list of news articles, which ensured that I and our subscribers were up-to-date on the current events related to antiquities looting.

These are only some of the projects I had the chance to work on while interning with SAFE. Perhaps the best part of working with SAFE was that I was immediately treated as an equal whose opinions and ideas were valued and heard. The breadth of assignments that one can do at SAFE is reflective of their mission to spread awareness of the destruction caused by looting that is happening around the world. I am extremely grateful for my time at SAFE as it allowed me to grow as a writer and it broadened my understanding of and appreciation for the effort and dedication it takes to raise public awareness of these issues. It is truly a mission that will not stop until looting comes to an end, but being a part of an organization like SAFE instills hope that change can happen.

If you are interested in interning at SAFE, contact us now for the next cycle of internships. You need to be deeply passionate about heritage and a self-starter when it comes to tackling new projects, but with those two qualities, your internship will not only be a fantastic experience for you, but an incredible contribution to saving antiquities – for everyone!

Saving Cultural Heritage, One Tweet at a Time

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

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

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

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

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

Example of a tweet Example of a tweet

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Looking back on the last ten years: Interview with SAFE founder (Part 1)

I first heard of SAFE through Liz Gilgan eight years ago. It was Liz, a founding Board member, who expanded my understanding of looting and the illicit antiquities trade and how source countries, archaeologists, and SAFE were fighting to protect the world’s cultural heritage. After hearing her speak at Boston University’s Archaeology Club, I became a volunteer. Now, on the 10th anniversary of SAFE’s founding, I am reminded of the beginning of my own involvement with the organization, which led me to interview its founder, Cindy Ho. I am intrigued by how Cindy—an advertising professional—came up with the idea of SAFE; how she decided to focus on looting and the illicit antiquities trade, why she chose raising public awareness to combat those problems, and her thoughts on the future of SAFE.

The 2013 SAFE Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage invites us to share our reflections on cultural heritage. This two-part interview gives me the opportunity to ask Cindy for her reflections; it also answers my own questions about the organization I admire and continue to support.


DB: What motivated you to start SAFE?
CH: It all began with the news about the looting of the Iraq Museum. The more I heard about the “catastrophe that has befallen the cultural heritage of Iraq”* and the more I learned, the more concerned I became. Looting wasn’t taking place only in Iraq but everywhere, and it’s been going on for many years. It wasn’t only the theft and destruction of beautiful objects in a museum, but the plunder of ancient sites and the irreversible loss of knowledge that was even more damaging. And the problem was growing in size, scope and complexity every day. [*In a press release issued April 15, 2003 the Director of the British Museum said: “Although we still await precise information, it is clear that a catastrophe has befallen the cultural heritage of Iraq.”]

SAFE founder Cindy Ho SAFE founder Cindy Ho

What was not complex, however, was the fact that the connection to our ancestors, our cultural heritage, must be protected. I’ve always thought of ancient cultural heritage the way one thinks of an old person as “everyone’s grandmother or grandfather.”  When the remnants of ancient civilization were stolen or destroyed, it was as though my own heritage was at risk.

But it’s not about antiquities for the sake of the objects. As a visual person, I’ve discovered that an object can become instantly beautiful, or more beautiful, when I know what it was, how it was made, and who made it, and why. I was interested in preserving the knowledge and understanding antiquities reveal that inspire us and enhance our own lives, here and now.

Before 2003, like most people, I took cultural heritage for granted. The news from Iraq made me realize how vulnerable it was and how little I had known about these threats to the very core of our humanity. How could I, how can we, afford to not know? When I discovered that there was virtually nothing about this that was easily accessible to the general public, raising awareness became the something that I had to do.

DB: What did you do then? How did SAFE come about?
CH: It didn’t take me long to decide on creating a global awareness campaign, given my career in advertising. I thought: if the news reports could move me to act, what would happen if I could rally the help of others once they also became aware?

The two friends I told encouraged me and offered to help, and we began having meetings in coffee shops about what to do next. Their interest confirmed that I was on the right track. The campaign needed a name, and my friend came up with Saving Antiquities for Everyone, SAFE.

SAFE 2004 fundraiser Crowds gathered at the first SAFE fundraiser in New York City

But enthusiasm was not enough. I knew that I needed help from two distinct groups: experts in spreading the word and experts in the issues. I placed tiny pro bono ads in Advertising Age and Adweek and emailed the academics, citing “time, energy and commitment” as my qualifications. How else could I raise awareness responsibly?

DB: So you were still working at a job at this time?
CH: Yes, full time at an ad agency. I was so single-minded and driven that I couldn’t help but share what I had just learned and planned to do. I hung a recruitment poster on my office door; I asked photographers, artists, and writers I was working with; I even tried to recruit my boss, who said, “Cindy this is great, but why would people care? The world is filled with problems—how will you convince people to pay attention to this particular cause? You’ll need ad campaigns on TV, in the newspapers…” Clearly, a global awareness campaign using traditional media channels would take too long, and wouldn’t nearly be enough. Volunteers kept coming in almost daily, but “why would people care” would stay with me as a constant reminder of what the ultimate challenge was.

DB: Who were those first volunteers? How did they help?
CH: Advertising and media consultants, public relations and publicity professionals responded. There were also archaeologists who had long been frustrated by the continued destruction of cultural heritage. The shock of the news brought us together with a single commitment: to inform others and to create a platform for action. Our otherwise disparate group had little more in common other than the knowledge that allowing the destruction of cultural heritage to continue was wrong.

Volunteers did research and came up with ideas: great, innovative ideas, borne out of a raw enthusiasm and an almost unstoppable eagerness to act, while I myself was learning and figuring out the next steps in a whirlwind of new experiences. Everyone knew from the start that there’d be no papers published, no career advancements (although this is no longer the case), and no pay. Just a lot of work, a lot of learning, and a lot of trial and error—all done without any reward or personal gain other than the opportunity to right a wrong.

SAFE's debut at the 2005 AIA Annual Meeting drew crowds and signed up a large number of members SAFE’s debut at the 2005 AIA Annual Meeting drew crowds and signed up a large number of members

DB: What were some of your first projects?
CH: In a matter of weeks, we had gone well beyond the original idea of advertising people creating a campaign. Our first rudimentary web site—safenow.net—was launched only three weeks after that fateful day in April, when the Iraq Museum was looted. Two months later, volunteers distributed flyers at a Grateful Dead Concert. In July, SAFE received fiscal sponsorship from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and began accepting tax-deductible donations. The next month, we launched a campaign lasting until the end of 2003 to advocate for emergency legislation that prohibited the importation of Iraqi antiquities into the US. By then, we also had the support, advice, and endorsement of experts around the world.

The next year, the growing web site was relaunched with the new and current domain name: savingantiquities.org. We held a benefit event, launched our first student competition, hosted a book signing event for Roger Atwood’s Stealing History and launched our first SAFE Tours at the Met.

In January of 2005, SAFE rented a booth at the AIA Annual Conference in Boston—the only booth to hold scheduled events. The next month, I resigned from my job to work full-time freelance, eventually giving that up at the end of the year to volunteer for SAFE full time. As long as I felt that SAFE was filling an unmet need, I was willing to fully commit to doing its work.

SAFE distributed these wristbands to raise awarenessIn February 2005, three SAFE members testified to the Cultural Property Advisory Committee in Washington, DC, in support of import restrictions of antiquities into the US from China. For the first time, SAFE represented the general public with signatures collected in New York City parks and on the web site. Later that year, five of us repeated the same effort on behalf of Italy, presenting twice as many petitions to the Committee. That year, we also co-sponsored a panel discussion with LCCHP and held a lecture on book theft, had several more SAFE Tours, and held another student competition.

It was time that my project SAFE became incorporated as a bona fide organization. We applied for tax-exempt status as a 501(c)(3), which we received at the end of 2005. SAFE was a full-fledged nonprofit organization, by law, and in action. Meanwhile, the bar kept rising, internally and externally. The more SAFE produced and the better the results, the more there was to do.

DB: Was the transition from working in an ad agency to running a nonprofit organization difficult?
CH: Coming from advertising, the pace took me awhile to get used to. The whole world was being looted. There was just so much to do, so much to tell! The possibilities seemed limitless and I felt impatient.

Working with volunteers from around the world I never met was also a challenge. It became more time-consuming as the number of applicants grew each day. Aside from assessing their skills and availability and matching them with appropriate tasks, I needed to explain what the issues truly were, sometimes directing them to read a book first. Most people were not used to volunteering this way. In the end, it didn’t take more than a small number of very dedicated people to get things going. And I told myself the process of recruitment was just another way of raising awareness.

Becoming a nonprofit was another huge step. I was spending more energy and time on learning what that all meant than doing the actual work itself: the rules and requirements, the filings, processes and policies, etc. Fortunately, other volunteers with relevant skills made the process smooth and successful. It was another story transitioning from a loose group of fervent individuals to the reality that SAFE was now a bona fide organization that no longer was my sole responsibility. Volunteers who were not used to seeing their ideas not implemented immediately.

Also, it took a lot of work, and reworking, to craft messages that speak to the general audiences that are based on academic research, created by experts coming from a completely different training, discipline, and culture. But this isn’t unique to SAFE. Surely it’s not the first to advocate for a cause that took a lot of explanation, and where the work came before the organization, especially when it chartered a new course to serve an unmet need. If it weren’t so challenging, I probably wouldn’t have dedicated so much of myself to it; and learnt as much as I have.


Stay tuned for my next interview where I will ask Cindy how SAFE got its support, and what lies ahead . . .

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

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

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

My process

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

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

Techniques used by auction houses

sothebys Unprovenanced Syrian stone capitals sold at Sotheby’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evidence for looting

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

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

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

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

Giza Holes

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Say YES to Egypt’s Heritage!

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

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

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

Here’s how:

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

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

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.

Digital awareness in the time of looting

The Egyptian uprising, which began in early 2011 and led to the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak and the establishment of a transitional government under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), has had a devastating effect on archaeological sites throughout the country. Since the beginning of the revolution, illegal digging and looting at Egyptian archaeological sites, as well as break-ins at artifact storehouses, have increased 100-fold. This increase can be attributed to a number of factors, including the breakdown of security and order across the country, political instability, economic necessity, backlash against the old regime and old-fashioned greed. El-Hibeh is one of these threatened archaeological sites.

Located approximately 200 miles from Cairo, the ancient city mound was founded during the Third Intermediate Period, and contains remains from the Pharaonic, Ptolemaic, Roman, Coptic, and early Islamic periods. Carol Redmount, an archaeologist at the University of California, Berkeley, has been excavating there since 2001. As early as June 2011, her team began receiving reports and photographic confirmation of extensive looting occurring at the site. Egyptian officials claim marauding gangs of looters, many of who allegedly escaped from jail during the revolution, are now robbing Egypt of its precious cultural heritage.

In an interview with PRI’s The World, Redmount describes the site in May 2012:

[The] cemetery has been thoroughly looted, body parts are strewn everywhere, pieces of mummies have been left out in the open. Bones are everywhere. Now they’re are largely dis-articulated, sometimes you can see the packages of mummy cloths, jawbones, skulls, sometimes toes still with flesh attached. It’s horrific.

mummies
Dr. Robert Yohe
Looted mummies at el-Hibeh

In response to the looting, Redmount launched the Facebook page “Save el-Hibeh Egypt.” The goal is to raise awareness not only about el-Hibeh but about the extensive looting occurring across Egypt—and the site appears to be doing just that. With over 1,700 members, the archaeology community and other interested parties are using the page as a forum for discussion, generating awareness via reports and photographs from the field, as well as sharing the latest news coming out of Egypt. Web-based social media like Facebook has the potential to play a pivotal role in raising awareness about threatened cultural heritage around the world. If these sites can ignite a multi-country revolution, why can’t they help prevent the looting and illicit trafficking of antiquities, as well? Lend your support and join “Save el-Hibeh Egypt” today!

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Support from an Unlikely Source?

This link will take you to a new article written for Forbes magazine (they of the Fortune 500 billionaires list), written by one Robert Lenzner. In a boost to the cause of global antiquities trade ethical and legal reform, he describes how discussions last summer with a real-estate investing friend who collected Greek and Roman art (to emulate Levy and White’s supposed prestige). Their discussions led them both to note their increasing concern for the source of such artifact and the threat their unscrupulous collection was having on the collective cultural heritage of countries now weathering severe finance crises. Predicting an inevitable upturn in looting in countries such as Greece, Lenzner notes that his friend Aldrich originally hoped to cleanly purchase “museum-quality” pieces on the market to conserve, study and lend them, but that the realities of the trade taught him something of a harsh lesson…

I commend the author (reporting his friend’s suggestions) for noting the increasing importance of conservation methods in both source and demand countries, grounded in the economic realities specific to each location. Although I don’t agree that participation in the trade should ever be called a “privilege,” (as opposed to, say, being able to afford gourmet food which does not cause the destruction of a finite resource), I especially agree with Aldrich’s second, forth, and fifth suggestions. These are points that, I feel, most responsible archaeologists collaborating with officials overseas already try our best to put into practice and assist local colleagues with.

In my experience, the “lost revenue” suggested in point six need never be an issue, as those individuals living in rural communities who agree to work for an international excavation are usually well-payed for their time, learn how to dig, can get future employment on excavations should they choose, and learn first hand why careful excavation matters to understanding their heritage. Although the idea of a public “heritage trust” made from the proceeds of antiquities sales sounds nice on paper, how will this money be collected and controlled?

As a practicing archaeologist, I will always value the joy of discovery that comes from being the first to uncover something (or someone) from the past within an excavation over the “joy” of collecting, but this article at least represents a collector giving more thought than usual to where things come from. Discuss amongst yourselves.

And the SAFE Beacon Award Winners are…

2011: Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino - SAFE honors investigative journalists and co-authors of Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum (read Professor Senta German’s review here) for assembling “an extraordinary array of sources with which they tell a story the Getty wants no one to know” and for educating the public about how museum practices affect the preservation of cultural heritage.

2012: David Gill – Professor Gill has worked tirelessly for decades to shed light on the multiple threats to cultural heritage through teaching, research, publication and the trailblazing Looting Matters. An archaeologist and scholar of ancient history and the classics, Professor Gill is also a SAFECORNER Contributor.

Established in 2006, SAFE Beacon Awards recognize individuals who enlighten the public about the devastating effects of looting and the illicit antiquities trade. Awards have been presented to authors, professors, law enforcement professionals, and archaeologists. We look forward to honoring others who lead the way in the fight to protect cultural heritage.

 

 

Previous winners include:

2004 – Roger Atwood

2005 – Matthew Bogdanos

2006 – Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini

2008 – Neil Brodie and Donny George

2009 – Colin Renfrew

2010 – Robert Goldman, David Hall, James McAndrew, and Robert Wittman

To learn more about the SAFE Beacon Awards and to stay up to date with the latest awards news, visit and “like” our SAFE Beacon Awards facebook page.

The Brazen Destruction of an Ongoing Dig

I’m sure this is all over the blogosphere by now, but I wanted to continue to pass it on. Here we have yet more evidence that looting, thievery, and general archaeological vandalism is not contained to the “third world,” and need not even target sites, features or locations known to produce “valuable” antiquities for the market. Here these students were, working at a new excavation near their campus, in semi-urban Illinois, on a field school designed more to teach technique than with the expectation that earth-shattering discoveries would be made. And yet, vandals and looters struck, nearly irreperably damaging the site and most revealed contexts, making off with neccessary equipment, etc! From my own experience digging on various “contract” (Cultural Resource Management) projects for archaeological companies working in southern Arizona, I can attest that cases of urban vandalism or looting of active dig sites are more common than they should be. Popularization of the “glory” of archaeology far oustrips that of the “science.” In my opinion, as long as the “Indiana Jones/Laura Croft” stereotype continues to foster disconnect between public perception and actual practice, this mentality, combined with the still-active market, will continue to lead to incidents like this. Constant vigilance against the global scourge that is looting!

Britain’s Portable Antiquities Scheme Debated in Archaeological Journal

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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.
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Your Opinion about Antiquities

Greetings! I am a New York University Graduate student in the Program in Museum Studies requesting your participation in a unique survey conducted as research for my Master’s thesis. The survey should take less than 15 minutes and is completely anonymous. Your participation could affect the understanding of public perceptions of museum collecting practices and the display of antiquities. Are you aware of the issues or hold museums accountable for their acquisition policies?

Please take your time to answer each question honestly and thoughtfully. The following link will take you to the survey, “Informing Audiences: Public Perceptions of Illicit Antiquities.”

The results will be posted on my NYU web blog or possibly published as an article at a later date.

If you have any questions or would like to know more, please feel free to e-mail Cherkea_Howery@yahoo.com

Thank you for your participation and remember your opinion matters!

Sincerely,
Cherkea Howery, NYU Museum Studies

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.

Regulating sales of artefacts in Britain soon?

The advocates of a free and unregulated market in portable antiquities frequently point to as the pattern they wish would be emulated globally. There seems to be a perception in the collecting community – especially in the USA – that in the United Kingdom there is some artefactual free for all and the heritage is up for grabs. The liberal laws of Britain are held up as a model which, portable antiquity dealers and their supporters say, other nations should be encouraged to adopt, thus freeing more antiquities for sale to an expanding market. According to one collecting advocate who is also a dealer in portable antiquities: “The UK has the most enlightened antiquities laws in the world and that if other nations were even half as civilized and as wise, there would be no significant looting problems [...] thus, I do not feel any obligation to help enforce what I perceive as unwise and unenforceable restrictive antiquities export laws of source states, always providing that importation of artifacts into the USA is licit under US law [...]“.

The launch in London today of the Final report of the Strategic Study on illegal artefact hunting (which also considers the trade in illicitly-obtained artifacts in Britain) seems to herald an important change in public attitudes and policies towards the British market in portable antiquities. For the first time in many years the British press came out with a barrage of unfavourable publicity for the irresponsible artefact hunter and collector. It seems that very soon the laws that US dealers find so welcome are going to change.

The report depicts the scale of the problem of looting as serious. It is clear that despite all the “liaison”, there remains a hard core of criminals who are intent on profiting from sales of stolen finds, often obtained at night during well planned and organised raids where anyone who stand in their way is threatened by physical violence. The report recognizes that there are limits to the degree public education will have an impact on this group of individuals and halt the damage they are doing to the archaeological heritage. As the result of its analyses, the report concludes that the motor for this activity is the current no-questions-asked market in portable antiquities which exists in Great Britain. The conclusion is that the most effective means of dealing with the problem of illegal artefact hunting in the UK is to close the loopholes that allow them to find a market for the commodities they produce to make the venture worthwhile. Removing the ability to profit financially will clearly reduce the motive for these criminals to operate.

Britain therefore will be seeking ways to regulate the local antiquities market, in particular the internet market in antiquities. In particular a vivid interested is being taken in the regulations reported here last year introduced on eBay in Germany, Austria and Switzerland which have shown that the auction house is prepared to take stricter action than has been the case so far in the UK. The Council for British Archaeology and Portable Antiquities Scheme are now suggesting that Britain should be pressing eBay to follow suit in the UK to close down the possibilities of using the portal as a means of trading illicitly acquired material.

At the launch of the Report today it was announced that under discussion is the possible introduction of a new criminal offence for a person to deal in such objects without being able to produce a clear modern provenance. This reform in attitudes and legislation would introduce the necessary transparency into dealings in cultural objects and ensure prospectively that persons dealt only in such objects with a recorded and substantiated background. We look forward to subsequent developments.
photo: Black market coins

Interpol’s 7th International Symposium on the Theft of and Illicit Traffic in Works of Art, Cultural Property and Antiques

Read the meeting minutes of the symposium which took place 17 – 19 June 2008 in English, French, Spanish and Arabic. INTERPOL is the world’s largest international police organization, with 187 member countries.

The participants note “…a lack of awareness among the general public of the importance of cultural heritage and the need for it to be protected,” and recommend that “INTERPOL, UNESCO and ICOM:
– Jointly seek ways of raising awareness among law-enforcement services, those responsible for safeguarding religious heritage, the major players in the art market and the conservation world, and the general public, with regard to protecting cultural property and combating illegal trafficking.”