looting


Another country, same upheaval, same “opportunities” for looting of archaeological patrimony (sites, museums, storage facilities): after Iraq, now it’s Egypt’s turn. Hopefully, this will only be an unfortunate but short-lived episode. A specialized Facebook group has been started to attempt to gather news, Restore + Save the Egyptian Museum!, an upgrade from the Iraqcrisis mailing list approach—in 2003, Facebook wasn’t yet the mass phenomenon it is now. Also, an ad hoc website, Egyptological Looting Database 2011, has been thrown up to try to keep track of what (and to which extent) we know about looting in different regions of the country. Compared with The Iraq War & Archaeology, this site endeavors to be a bit more systematic. I applaud all initiatives. Again, my sincerest hope is that all this will prove to be “overkill” but history has taught us to be prepared for the worst.

WikiLeaks is all the rage nowadays—that is, if you can actually reach it online. One good thing, the term “wiki” is now surely well known if probably still not really understood by the general public. I hoped that the cache of documents dealing with the Iraq War might provide some insights regarding the plight of the archaeological heritage of Iraq and esp. the way US and Iraqi authorities and law enforcement might have dealt with it. The search function on the wikileaks.org site though seems disabled, I guess the denial-of-service attacks are taking their toll. Fortunately, some people were able to get some relevant information before the DoS attack:

  • Larry Rothfield (U. of Chicago), ”Wikileaks Provides Evidence Linking Illicit Iraqi Antiquities to Weapons Sales,” in The Punching Bag blog:

More proof, on top of what Matthew Bogdanos has reported, that looted antiquities were part of the revenue stream for the same folks that were/are supplying weapons to insurgents in Iraq: (FRIENDLY ACTION) RAID RPT : ___ INJ/DAM

The actual text of that document is:

(FRIENDLY ACTION) RAID RPT : %%% INJ/DAM  —  2007-12-07 00:00:00  —  A FORCE FROM THE NATIONAL SECURITY ALONG WITH A FORCE FROM THE CRIMINAL %%% ONE OF THE HOUSES AFTER RECEIVING SOME TIPS THAT THEIR IS SOME ILLEGAL %%% ( SELLING WEAPONS AND ANTIQUES) THE HOUSE LOCATED AT %%% KUT – BAGHDAD %%% ROAD THEY ALSO FOUND A , %%% ,FOUR MORTAR , AND TWO GRENADES FOR ATTACKS.THEY ALSO CAPTURED %%% SUSPECTS.

  • Larry Rothfield (U. of Chicago), ”More from Wikileaks on Looted Antiquities Recovered in Operations Against Insurgents,” in The Punching Bag blog:
… there are 1020 documents in the WarLogs that mention smuggling (and many of these are duplicate reports, so the actual number of anti-smuggling operations is probably closer to 500); that is out of a total of almost 392,000 total reports posted to WarLogs. The total number of reports in which antiquities are reported found together with weapons, then, is very low, in the neighborhood of 1-2% (only 6 or so out of something like 500 smuggling incidents).
… the WarLogs do not contain all reports made during the war; missing are reports of smuggling of any kind before 1/1/2004.
2004-10-28 23:40:00  —  … The INFO-OPS, which started yesterday, carried out by Task force MSU joint with provincial archaeological local guard in , , %%% and %%% (located north west of ( %%%)) ended this morning. The op. Aim was to oppose and repress the illegal trade of archaeological stolen finds in %%% province. As result of the op. several vases, statues and tools dated %%% bc. All finds were given to archaeological authority of %%%.
2005-06-03 11:14:00  —  … AND 31X ARTIFACTSRECOVERED. ARTIFACTS WERE STOLEN FROM THE BAGHDAD MUSEUM.
  • Owen Jarus, “Statues, Vases and 120 mm Rounds – Wikileaks documents tell harrowing stories of Iraq’s antiquities,” in Heritage Key:
The documents indicate that the Iraqis took great risks to protect their past. On November 2, 2008 officers from Iraq’s “Antiquities Protection” service participated in a dangerous operation in Karbala. Working with the “Establishment Protection” service, they “found and cleared” a weapons cache containing an astounding amount of firepower.
One of the documents reveals that on February 19, 2004 an entire missile was found at an archaeological site. …

I was able to access one more document not yet mentioned, for what it is worth:

RAID BY WOLF BDE IN BAGHDAD(ZONE ): %%% DET, %%% INJ/DAMAGE  —  2005-07-18 23:50:00  —  %%%, WOLF BDE CONDUCTS RAID TO DETAIN AIF %%% FOR STEALING ANTIQUES VALUED AT -,%%%. MISSION COMPLETE: %%% DETAINED AND ANTIQUES RECOVERED NO INJ/DAM

Others mused on the topic and related issues touching on archaeological research:

  • Colleen Morgan (UC Berkeley), ”Wikileaks, Radical Transparency, and Archaeology,” in the Middle Savagery blog:

Sadly, [my students'] eagerness to interact with these past materials is often met with serious resistance from the local archives. While the individual archivists may be sympathetic, the archive often has stipulations that the materials cannot be shared. At all. This mystifies and frustrates the students, and this makes me both sympathetic (I have been through this constantly during my tenure at UC Berkeley) and grimly determined. I truly believe that institutions that house collections need to make these collections available to the public that pays for them. Period. The students can sense this and it leads to a process of negotiation in the classroom.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? The Getty museum is talking about destroying their collection of 100,000 study slides. Why? Because when they decided to digitize them several years ago, they discovered that the original vendors who sold them the slides made the Getty promise to never scan them. They don’t have slide projectors anymore and the last time a slide was checked out was a year ago. The only thing they can do is trash them. They will probably do it.

Finally, here’s one more article referencing one of the documents from the diplomatic cables cache on WikiLeaks that has archaeological importance:

  • Giles Tremlett, “WikiLeaks cables: Art looted by Nazis, Spanish gold and an embassy offer. Spain rejected attempt to tie together claim on coins found by US firm and row over painting in Madrid museum, cables show,” in The Guardian:

In a conversation with the Spanish culture minister, César Antonio Molina, the US ambassador in Madrid, Eduardo Aguirre, sought to tie the treasure found off the Iberian peninsula by Odyssey together with attempts by an American citizen, Claude Cassirer, to recover a painting by Camille Pisarro that hangs in a Madrid museum. ”The ambassador noted also that while the Odyssey and Cassirer claim were on separate legal tracks, it was in both governments’ interest to avail themselves of whatever margin for manouevre they had, consistent with their legal obligations, to resolve both matters in a way that favoured the bilateral relationship,” the embassy reported in a cable on 2 July 2008. The offer was made after the Spanish government claimed ownership of half a million gold and silver coins found on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean by Odyssey’s underwater robots. The company had provoked Spanish fury by landing the treasure at Gibraltar and flying it straight to the US. … Molina refused to tie the Odyssey case to the Pisarro painting, …

Spain claims that the Black Swan treasure find comes from a Spanish galleon, the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, which sank off Portugal’s Algarve coast in 1804. The vessel had just returned from Montevideo when it was attacked by four Royal Navy ships, and was carrying half a million coins that had been minted in Peru. Descendants of the 249 Spanish sailors who went down with the ship joined the Spanish government’s case against Odyssey in a court in Altanta, Georgia. The court ruled that the cargo belonged to Spain; Odyssey has appealed.

The leaked cables reveal that the US embassy had the previous year handed over to Spanish authorities the customs documents filed by Odyssey when it flew its hoard of coins into the US in mid-2007.

Martin Bailey has another good article in the June issue of The Art Newspaper, this time on the new director-general of UNESCO, Francesco Bandarin. He was promoted from within: he comes from the World Heritage Centre. A few excerpts:

From organising the restoration and re-erection of the 1,700-year-old Obelisk of Axum in Ethiopia more than 70 years after it was looted by Mussolini, to working to protect the ancient capital city of Samarra in war-torn Iraq, Italian-born Francesco Bandarin has been involved in many well-known projects during the decade he has served as the director of the World Heritage Centre, …

How damaging is tourism to the major world heritage sites? —— FB: It is an issue of scale, and context. Machu Picchu now has one million tourists a year, which may not seem so many, but it is an isolated mountain site. This led to the development of the city of Aguas Calientes at the foot of Machu Picchu. All the rules of conservation have been overrun by the sheer volume of tourists. At Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, the temples are being conserved, but we did not realise that nearby, at Siem Reap, 150 luxury hotels have sprung up like mushrooms. —— Should Unesco have been tougher in monitoring Angkor Wat? —— FB: We were distracted because we were focusing on conservation of the temples, not on the environment. Now it is a problem. We are not an international police force, but we do run a substantial monitoring system. This year we will be reporting on 180 World Heritage Sites, out of 890. Sometimes monitoring works in terms of results and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s a bit frustrating.

Culture is not a luxury, it is a constituent of development, both economic and social. Culture is not entertainment, it is actually production or capital for development. … Unesco deals with four aspects of culture. First, conservation of heritage sites, both cultural and natural. Secondly, preservation of intangible culture. That comprises traditional knowledge, such as rituals, dance or skills. For instance, the Tango was born in Argentina and Uruguay, but it is now found all around the world. Thirdly, museums. And finally, intercultural dialogue.

I will be organising a major international conference on the future of the book. The book is the most important cultural object, but Unesco has been absent from the debate. The argument between Google and the French government is not healthy, and I think we should provide a forum for the actors [French publishers are resisting Google’s attempts to scan their books]. There is the issue between the Anglo-Saxons and the rest of the world, with English dominating language and technology. Amazon did not exist a few years ago. Books won’t disappear, but they will mutate.

The Art Newspaper of 4-17-09 has an interesting article on an archaeological issue in Indonesia that has reached the highest level of government. It’s not everyday you see a minister apologize about disrespecting an archaeological site. There is hope after all! See the article for details.

Sarah Kansa just alerted me to an outrageous article in Time Magazine advocating the antiquities trade. She found a link to it from the SAA’s website and critique. Here’s a little excerpt:

The good news is that it is possible for the individual investor to buy antiquities — and for a surprisingly moderate sum. According to John Ambrose, founder and director of Fragments of Time, a Boston-area antiquities dealer, they’re within even a modest investor’s reach. “For under $10,000 a year you could acquire two to four quality objects with good provenance that you could expect would not only hold their value but increase in value over time,” he says. In the past, the increase was anywhere from 8 to 9% annually, but in recent years that figure has gone up.

Ugh. As if that’s the whole story. Not even a hint at the larger external costs and widespread destruction that is part of this trade. The article is particularly sad given all the devastation going on now to Iraqi sites, as it opens with an account of the market value of a Mesopotamian figurine.

Time is one of the flagships of the mainstream media. But the beauty of the blogosphere, is that even a niche community like archaeology can also have a large voice and confront this kind of outrageous “reporting”. This could a good time for the now fairly large archaeological blogosphere to flex a little muscle on this important issue. This is well worth some strident commentary back to Time to let them know about what’s missing in their fawning account of the antiquities trade.