Monica Hanna to receive 2014 SAFE Beacon Award

The archaeologist Dr. Monica Hanna will be the next recipient of the SAFE Beacon Award for her exemplary efforts in shedding light on the looting situation in Egypt.

Home to some of the world’s oldest civilizations, Egypt has had a profound influence on the cultures of Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. For centuries, Egyptian archaeological sites have been looted – most recently to feed the black market trade of antiquities. Despite valiant calls for recovery, invaluable information about Egypt’s ancient past – and our shared history – has been irretrievably lost. Since the 2011 revolution, this situation has become increasingly acute.

While mainstream media reports about the nature and extent of the damage – and those responsible for the damage – have been numerous and sometimes conflicting, we can be thankful for the efforts of “ordinary” Egyptians who have joined together to use social media to keep the rest of the world informed about what is happening to Egypt’s heritage, our shared heritage.

Using social media tools to their fullest potential, Dr. Hanna created and steadfastly maintains Egypt’s Heritage Task Force, while also contributing to other social media platforms. She continues to inform us in lectures and interviews, and she mobilizes others to do the same. In fact, it is impossible for anyone truly concerned about the critical situation in Egypt not to be informed by Dr. Hanna’s dedicated and diligent reporting. This past August, SAFE intern Beatrice Kelly included a small part of Dr. Hanna’s documentation in “How much looting needs to happen before we start to think twice?” and noted:

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.

And we are paying attention.

With more than than 20,000 followers on Twitter, Dr. Hanna is an inspiration. No wonder Betsy Hiel of the Tribune-Review writes, “Hanna is a leader in exposing the looting of Egyptian antiquities.” Nigel Hetherington of Past Preservers describes her as, “amazing …a revolutionary in the true sense of the word.”

SAFE is honored to present the 2014 Beacon Award to Monica Hanna. In the coming months, we will continue to highlight Dr. Hanna’s important work and roll out our plans for celebration. Please follow us on Facebook and subscribe to our newsletter for the latest updates.

March 21, 2014 UPDATE: Information about the 2014 SAFE Beacon Award can be found here. Dr Hanna’s Twitter followers number more than 28,000.

The SAFE Beacon Awards recognizes outstanding achievement in raising public awareness about our endangered cultural heritage and the devastating consequences of the illicit antiquities trade. Since 2004, awards have been presented to authors, journalists, professors, law enforcement professionals, and archaeologists:

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

2011 – Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino

2012 – David Gill

SAFE closes 2013 global awareness campaign with gratitude

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

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

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

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


SAFE thanks:

- The Archaeological Institute of America

- Roger Atwood

- Deanna Baker

- Marc Balcells

- Cynthia Bates

- Ben Furnival

- Lucy Blake-Elahi

- Neil Brodie

- Claudia Brose

- Annalisa Cicerchia

- Juan Cole

- Dillon de Give

- Nathan Elkins

- Marsha Fulton

- Senta German

- Steven George

- Melissa Halverson

- Abdulamir Hamdani

- Susan Whitfield Harding

- Matthew Hu

- Damien Huffer

- Beatrice Kelly

- James McAndrew

- Mary Montgomery

- Oscar Muscarella

- Bodil Nilsson

- Past Preservers

- Rick Pettigrew

- Matthew Piscitelli

- Clemens Reichel

- Colin Renfrew

- Sandra Roorda

- Lucille Roussin

- Rabbi Barnea Levi Selavan

- Ann Shaftel

- Diane Siebrandt

- Dean Snyder

- Howard Spiegler

- Jeff Spurr

- Rene Teijgeier

- Marni Walter

- Peter Watson

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

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

Memories of a Broken Museum: Ten Years of SAFE

SAFE is grateful to Roger Atwood for sharing this personal reminiscence with us in observance of the 2013 Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage. The photos accompanying this reflection are previously unpublished and exclusively SAFE’s.

A little over 10 years ago, after a long flight from Washington and an overnight taxi ride from Amman, I arrived at the ruined Iraq Museum. By then, it was known around the world that thousands of artifacts had been stolen in the chaos following the arrival of American troops in Baghdad. There was still some question about how many artifacts had been robbed and exactly how the looting had happened, questions that would be answered over the next few months by journalists, investigators and the museum’s towering curator of antiquities, Donny George. On that day in May 2003, it was clear only that looters had wrecked one of the Middle East’s great institutions while American troops, who now sat desultorily in lawn chairs near the entrance to the museum, had been unwilling or unable to stop it.

I had expected to find the museum in some disarray, judging from news reports. Yet nothing could prepare me for what I saw. After a long interview with Donny in his office, I wandered down the hallways and galleries and found the place completely ransacked. It was a scene of total destruction. In offices, bookcases had been overturned and file cabinets emptied of their contents, their papers lying all over the floor. A desk stood on its side, boxes were overturned, windows broken. A large, metal safe looked like it had been wrenched open with a crowbar, its door flung open to reveal … nothing. An empty safe. In one corner there were some blackened papers, as if someone had tried to start a fire. In the galleries, the glass from busted display cases lay scattered on the floor. Bits of stone lay around, as if someone had taken a hammer or chisel to a now-disappeared sculpture. Most alarmingly, apart from those U.S. soldiers outside, there seemed to be no security at all. No one stopped me as I wandered from room to room. I seemed to have the whole place to myself.

A few days later, Donny and the museum’s director Nawala al-Mutwali led me and a few other journalists on a tour of the ruined galleries, including many I had not seen that first day. We saw where looters had dragged the ancient, iron masterpiece of naturalistic sculpture known as the Basetki statue down a flight of stairs, breaking each stair as they yanked it along. Where the Warka vase had stood, we saw just a broken pedestal and a pile of broken glass. In room after room, Donny showed us shattered vitrines, empty shelves, damaged stone carvings. One large sculpture, I can’t remember which one, stood at a strange angle out in a hallway; apparently the looters had tried to haul it away but gave up because it was too heavy. Crude hammers and other tools lay on the floor.

Here and there were signs of how the museum’s staff, at least some of the staff, had tried to prevent the destruction. Foam padding lay underneath the largest stone sculptures. Curators had placed the padding to protect the pieces if they fell during the aerial bombardment that preceded the invasion, Donny explained. Much of the collection had been moved off-site, to protect it from just this sort of disaster, he said. I asked him about the Sippar library, a collection of 800 cuneiform tablets dating from the early first millennium B.C., which had been widely reported destroyed in the looting. “It is safe. It is out of danger,” he said, in that voice of warm reassurance and authority.

Amid all this destruction, I was surprised to hear Donny express some optimism that the museum could rebuild and reopen. Maybe it could recover the stolen objects. He and Matt Bogdanos, the American army colonel, were already working up plans to persuade, cajole or bully the thieves to return as much of the loot as could be traced. “The theft was like a wound to my body, like somebody had cut me,” Donny told me that day. But he added, “The collection is basically intact. We can rebuild.” Over the next year or so, it became clear that about 15,000 objects had been stolen, mostly cuneiform tablets and cylinder seals taken from the museum’s storerooms. I understand that most have since been recovered, including many, but not all, of the marquee items that were carted away from the main galleries. Donny worked for the rest of his life trying to rebuild the museum, recover its stolen antiquities and reopen it to the public, even after he was forced to flee the country due to threats to his family in 2006.

SAFE was born of the international outrage at the theft in the Iraq Museum and –even worse – the pillage of archaeological sites all over Iraq by looting mafias looking for treasures to sell on the global antiquities market. A group of scholars, students, professional and members of the public came together in 2003 to say, this must never happen again. As the memory of that appalling act of vandalism in Baghdad fades a little, I’m glad SAFE continues to work to call attention to the destructive power of the illicit antiquities trade and to the legacy of Donny George. That spirit — his spirit — of acknowledging the loss of heritage while working without discouragement to put the pieces back together, that determination to keep the problem of looting in the public eye, are what motivated Donny and what inspires SAFE. I’ve been proud to be a part of this organization.

Happy 10th anniversary, SAFE.

“Why is it even showing them?” Roger Atwood on the Bourne collection’s fakes and undocumented objects

What do fakes have to do with the problem of looting? Fakes and unprovenanced, authentic antiquities often turn up together in collections because neither was found through the transparent process of archaeological excavation. They flock together.  Collectors might think their connoisseurship protects them from fakes, but they get hoodwinked all the time. This is not a sign of denseness or gullibility, necessarily; it just comes with the territory if you’re in the business of acquiring undocumented antiquities….

Has the collector gained a tax benefit for the donation of what are quite possibly, if the Walters’ analysis is correct, worthless fakes?  Why is it even showing them?

Roger Atwood, author of Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World questions the integrity of Walters Art Museum’s Bourne Collection in a Chasing Aphrodite post. Atwood is also critical of the exhibit’s lack of information, presumably, because the objects were:

all purchased from the cast of looters, dealers and assorted hoodlums that make up the supply end of the Latin American antiquities market. Whatever information those sellers claim to have on the origin of the artifacts they sell is usually conjecture or lies.

The Baltimore museum’s web site states:

The Walters Art Museum preserves and develops in the public trust a distinguished collection of world art from antiquity to the 20th century….Since its opening, the Walters has been a national leader in scholarship, conservation, and education.

Mission Statement
The Walters Art Museum brings art and people together for enjoyment, discovery, and learning. We strive to create a place where people of every background can be touched by art. We are committed to exhibitions and programs that will strengthen and sustain our community.

How well does the Maryland museum serve its stated mission with the Bourne collection?

Indeed, the Walters is not alone in what amounts to a breach of public trust, as Atwood reveals in his 2004 Stealing History which “contributes more than any other publication in more than 30 years to an understanding of the devastation to cultural heritage caused by site looting and to the search for solutions.” Patty Gerstenblith writes in an American Journal of Archaeology review. Atwood was awarded a SAFE Beacon Award for Stealing History.

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.

Two halves of "The Weary Herakles" to reunite, but…

For those concerned about doing the right thing about cultural heritage, the case of the “Weary Herakles” has awaited resolution for the past three decades. Naturally, there is a sense of relief when Geoff Edgers reported that the statue will be “made whole” after all this time, referring to the apparent agreement to return the top part of the statue to Turkey and the rejoining of its two halves. Yet, many questions remain unanswered: When will it return to Turkey? Why now? What about other objects at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts? What about other museums?

This statue of Herakles (who leans wearily against his club after performing his Labors) is a textbook illustration of dubious provenance: ownership attributed to the dealer’s mother who got it from some other dealer before her, right from the start. But, “[t]he best evidence for pillage … is the fact that the upper half of the torso was unknown to the world before 1981,” wrote Roger Atwood in the book Stealing History.

What we do know about the statue is that it was discovered before 1980 at Perge, near the Turkish town of Atalya, by looters who took the upper half, which was then smuggled and sold to the US collectors Leon Levy (now deceased) and Shelby White in 1981, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where it remained on display for many years. When Turkish authorities discovered the bottom half of the Herakles in the ground at Perge, they demanded the Boston MFA return the upper half. After the Museum denied their fragment came from Turkey, the Turkish authorities shipped an exact replica of the lower half of the statue to Boston. Even though the two halves fit together perfectly, the Boston MFA continued to deny Turkey’s claim, earning the museum a place on Colin Renfrew’s list of “quite disgraceful” museums for “supporting and financing the destruction of the world’s archaeological heritage.”

While the Boston Globe’s reporting of the welcome news is otherwise fine, the notion that “Weary Herakles on its own is not that incredibly significant, not a piece by Michelangelo…” presumably referring to its artistic qualities, is only partially true. An object’s significance lies not only in how it looks. To the people of Turkey, as Jason Reslin pointed out, the “Weary Herakles” is “a very big deal”.

But wherever the statue is, it is certainly preferable that the two halves be reunited. The Museum’s agreement that the proper home is Turkey is the right decision. Finally.

Photos: Courtesy Radio Boston, Roger Atwood

Buyers Beware

Related to the New York Times story commented here, it’s disheartening to see that nothing has changed since Roger Atwood’s 2007 critique regarding U.S. media coverage of antiquities issues.

Trophy Hunters With Their Eyes on Interiors” is a puff piece that glorifies adventurous exploits in search of the “ultimate” authentic-looking old objects. The story advertises and promotes architects, designers and contractors, and justifies their if-you-have-to-ask-you-can’t-afford-them fees. Instead, the Times could have told its readers and trophy hunters alike a cautionary tale, which would be much more useful to everyone.

First, importing certain antiquities from countries which have signed bilateral agreements to restrict importation of antiquities is against the law. Not only that, buyers may have to return their coveted purchases to their countries of origin.

At the very least, the article could have mentioned the numerous international and local governmental and non-governmental efforts underway in these ready-for-the-taking-third-world-countries to PRESERVE their remnants of the past.

Finally, genuine history cannot be bought. It is lived. Rich people who seek rich-looking items might do better to live rich lives. Their cobblestones WILL in time acquire “just the right” moss. Theirs too will have the smoothness, color and patina that come from aging. In time, they too could have rich history to leave behind.

The New York Times and the Met: Too close for comfort (again)?

In The New York Times December 16 article. Andrew Jacobs writes about a Chinese delegation’s recent visit to US museums to document objects that have been plundered from Yuanmingyuan (Beijing’s “Old Summer Palace”). In 1860, the imperial palace was looted and burnt to the ground by order of James Bruce Elgin, the son of Lord Elgin who took the famed Parthenon sculptures from Greece.

Describing the delegation as a “treasure hunting team” whose effort is little more than a public relations show, the reporter characterizes the group as a bunch of bumbling bureaucrats barging into American museums in a noisy campaign to further its nationalistic agenda, stirring up popular sentiment against the West.

Contrast it to a similar report by The Telegraph about the same delegation’s visit to the British Museum, which appeared on October 19. Entitled “China to study British Museum for looted artefacts”, The Telegraph’s story has a noticeably different tone. Even more significant is The Times article’s absence of the palace director Chen Mingjie’s statement about the delegation’s mission. “We have clarified that this is an attempt to document rather than to seek a return of those relics even though we do hope some previously unknown relics might surface and some might be returned to our country during our tracing effort.” The Telegraph quoted Mr. Chen.

This is a curious omission, given the clear indication that the director was interviewed for both articles. Did The New York Times not ask the director why the team was visiting the Met but decided to draw its own conclusions? Or did it simply choose not to include it?

As one of the nearly 120 online comments from The Times article states: “This bemused and farcical account does a great disservice to readers who rely on the New York Times for objective and insightful journalism.” We agree. What a pity that The New York Times has once again not given its readers what they deserve: a full story, with a balanced view.

In “A critical look at U.S. media coverage of antiquities issues” author and journalist Roger Atwood criticizes The New York Times that its “coverage of the Met looks complacent and credulous”. Referring to the fact that its chairman emeritus, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, has long been a member of the Board of Trustees of the Met, Atwood questions “whether the Times is too close to the Met to cover it properly”. Indeed, this latest article begs the question: are the Chinese delegation’s questions regarding provenance of the Met’s collection too close for comfort?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Roger Atwood launches new Web site

Roger Atwood has been writing on art, archaeology and museums since the late 1990s in books and articles. His new Web site collects much of that writing along with photos, a bio, and excerpts of reviews of his SAFE Beacon Award winning book Stealing History. The book was the inspiration for SAFE Tours, which Roger has given since 2004.

SAFECORNR congratulates Roger on this user-friendly and well organized resource. Check it out at

Photo: Werner Romero

"Organizing local people can save knowledge"

In National Geographic’s April 10 story “King of Bling” Tomb Sheds Light on Ancient Peru” the remarkable excavation of Lord of Ucupe was described as “a first”. “This find is particularly important, because it is the first time we have found an individual outside of Sipán that is the same type as some of the leaders found in Sipán,” according to archaeologist Steve Bourget.

This would not have been possible if the site had not been protected from looters by local people. Roger Atwood, author of Stealing History, winner of 2004 SAFE Beacon Award, said in a message to SAFE. “The incredible thing is that this discovery happened right where the anti-looting patrols I describe in Chapter 13 of Stealing History work, in the village of Ucupe. So it’s a really clear example of how organizing local people can save knowledge. Doesn’t get any clearer than this.”

Indeed, on page 230, Atwood writes: “The mission of the ‘archaeological protection group’ is to stop people from occupying the land and plundering what lies beneath it. They scout the land, chase away bands of looters, or they surround them and tie their wrists with rope until the police arrive, and they seize their tools — shovels, poles, buckets. … Despite their success in the Moche heartland, the idea of citizens’ patrols to curb pillage is still in its infancy. Turning poachers into wardens takes time, a thorough knowledge of local customs and sensitivities, cooperation from the police, and roots in the community that not a lot of archaeological researchers have.” (Photograph courtesy Dr. Steve Bourget)

New books: "Loot" and "Unholy Business" reviewed

In the November 16 edition of the Washington Post, author of “Stealing History” and SAFE Beacon Award Winner Roger Atwood reviews two new books about stolen ancient artifacts and their journeys to museums around the world.

“Loot” has also been reviewed by journalist Hugh Eakin, Karl Meyer (“The Plundered Past”)

Other reviews of “Unholy Business” have been written by Johathan Lopez (AP), Tim McGirk (Time)

Have you read these books? Tell us what you think.

Roger Atwood reviews "Who Owns Antiquity" by James Cuno

In Archaeology‘s Insider: Guardians of Antiquity? Roger Atwood, a SAFE Beacon Award Winner for his book Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers and the Looting of the Ancient World shares his views on James Cuno’s “Who Owns Antiquity,” previously reviewed here by Lawrence Rothfield in James Cuno’s Illogic.

Roger Atwood led the first SAFE Tours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Yale’s Own Indiana Jones Story

Indiana Jones is back- bullwhip, fedora, and all… “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” is at a theater near you and is bringing a nearly century-old Cultural Property dispute back into the spotlight.

In the fourth installment of the swashbuckling archaeologist’s (using the term loosely) adventures, Hollywood takes us to the Yale University campus… as even today the university continues its real life role in the efforts to resolve a dispute with the Peruvian government regarding thousands of artifacts excavated at Machu Picchu. Yale’s own adventurer-archaeologist Hiram Bingham III (who is thought to have inspired the Indiana Jones character) rediscovered a much-forgotten Machu Picchu in 1911, and brought thousands of artifacts home to Yale’s collection. Just last year, in a landmark decision, Yale and Peru agreed on a plan for repatriation, including co-sponsorship of a traveling exhibition and a new museum in Cuzco, Peru.

Recently, inspired by the release of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” NPR’s Tom Ashbrook hosted an “On Point” radio broadcast on the story. Featured interviewees are:

The broadcast is fascinating for Indy buffs and Cultural Property enthusiasts alike. The agreement reached last year between Yale and Peru was a landmark, and hopefully will be an example for future negotiations between source countries and institutions in the future. As you’re watching Harrison Ford bullwhip his way through ancient sites in the theater, take a moment to appreciate the strides taken in this story to ensure that Cultural Heritage is available to all.

A critical look at U.S. media coverage of antiquities issues

“Anyone who reads a newspaper knows that major American museums are facing unprecedented scrutiny in the press over their antiquities collections. Investigative-reporting teams more accustomed to covering government graft or corporate malfeasance have been probing museum acquisitions and finding dubious practices at some of the country’s most prestigious cultural institutions.” Author and journalist Roger Atwood compares “coverage by three major newspapers—The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and The New York Times—of antiquities issues as they relate to museums in the newspapers’ respective cities. Other news organizations, including National Public Radio and Bloomberg News, have also covered antiquities issues but these three metropolitan dailies have dedicated the most resources and set the pace within journalism.” Read the full story.