Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Numbers that matter: the AAAS Report on Site Looting in Syria, and where we go from here

The tempest in a teapot about how much the looted artifacts are worth or whether they are the third or fourth largest source of revenue for ISIS should not distract us from the main point, made irrefutably by this gold-standard analysis of the hardest of hard data: market-driven looting of archaeological sites is rampant in Syria.

What's needed most now, the next step, is not more argument about how much, but more clarity about where and how looted materials move from site to various destinations, through what exchanges, with what participants.  That information in turn will help inform market design research by economists, by providing answers to such questions as:  Where, if anywhere, are the most fragile links in the supply-chains? Where can leverage be most effectively brought to bear (for instance, by the US on emirates that are providing freeports for transiting illicit antiquities and enabling their own wealthy citizens to amass collections of illicit antiquities)? How can the various tools of governmental and intergovernmental action be used not to make these markets more efficient but to disrupt, cool, or smother them?

This is the direction, at least, that we're trying to pursue more generally in the project now getting underway at Chicago,

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Pick a Number, Any Number

A new post on Chasing Aphrodite continues the scolding of the press and of those who are passing on unsubstantiated claims about just how much money ISIS is making from the sale of looted antiquities.

I'm all for data-informed policymaking; I'm an academic, after all. But with regard to the "second largest source of revenue to ISIS" meme, it is worth remembering a few things:

1. In the long term we are all dead, said Keynes, and in the short term getting attention paid to archaeological looting has had very positive stimulative effects in the area of heritage protection at least (witness the White House Coordinator law just proposed).

2.  More generally, the notion that credibility will be sapped by the flogging of dubious factoids is not supported by any evidence I know of in public policy studies, and indeed there's plenty of evidence that even outright lies have very long tails and only sap credibility when they lead to what are retrospectively recognized to have been disastrous policy decisions.

3.  There are, of course, two, not just one policy decision in play: one having to do with heritage protection efforts, the other, much bigger one having to do with how to deal with the challenge posed by ISIS. Here we need to make a distinction that I don't see Felch making between information that drives and information that helps sell policymaking. The policy decision to escalate, while perhaps disastrous (time will tell), may have been justified ex post facto by the meme about antiquities looting, but it surely wasn't caused by it.  What got that decision made was not the lopping off of the heads of statues but the lopping off of human heads.

4. What we need more than strictly accurate numbers is a general sense of the scale, drivers, and vectors of looting and the market that can help guide policymaking to intervene in the most effective ways possible.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Scathing critique of UNESCO's ineffectual response to Syrian crisis

Michel al-Maqdissi, former director of the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums' Archaeological Excavations department, points out the ways in which UNESCO has failed to go beyond the traditional list of UNESCO measures to do more than what it traditionally does (i.e., training customs officials, putting monuments that are already damaged on the "threatened" list) -- and does, Maqdissi notes, too little too late. The article is interesting throughout, but for me the following points stood out:

-- Qatna-Mishirfeh, a famous site, has not been looted. Maqdissi says this is because it is too famous and people would know, but he also notes that "in contrast to other sites, Qatna-Mishirfeh is still being guarded."

--the majority of looters are professionals working in gangs that learned their trade in Iraq. 

-- it does not make economic sense for armed groups to go into the antiquities trade, since it is not a quick business and rebels need money fast. (This is true, but if the gangs are being taxed, as reports have suggested, then rebels can milk the trade, assuming the gangs are adequately capitalized to be able to retain inventory as we know they have done with the massive amounts looted in Iraq from 2004-2006.)

-- UNESCO has been training the staff of the General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums but not the activist groups engaged directly in trying to protect sites and museums.

-- Nor is UNESCO thinking about ways to get Syria's site guards paid:
Traditionally, the guards are paid by the Syrian government and by foreign archaeological missions, which usually brought the money into the country themselves. 
For more than three years now, foreigners have stayed away. I have tried to help by picking up the money personally at foreign institutions and sending it from Lebanon to trustworthy Syrians, who gave it to the Directorate of Antiquities so that the guards' wages can be paid for another year. But that only helped a small number of the guards. According to my estimates, 30 to 40 per cent of them no longer receive any money. The sites of the ancient trading city of Mari-Tell Hariri, for example, are currently being guarded by overburdened villagers.
It would be interesting to take a look at UNESCO's budget to see how much has been spent on its international meetings and on conservation training, and to ask how many sites would have been saved from looters had the funds instead gone to pay site guards' salaries. But that's an academic question, since as Maqdissi says, UNESCO's bureaucracy is very entrenched -- including, notably, the experts whose expertise is not in guarding but in conserving -- , making it almost impossible to redirect resources.
And one can see why paying for site guards might open a can of worms for UNESCO. The World Heritage Fund's annual assistance budget for the entire world is only $4 million, and while Syria's situation is perhaps the most desperate, there are many, many countries lacking the money to pay for enough site guards. 
So where is the money to come from? One answer, laid out by Mounir Bouchenaki in his contribution to Antiquities Under Siege, might be actually funding the Intergovernmental Fund for the Protection of Cultural Property in Times of Conflict, established but (to my knowledge) never actually contributed to by any state party. 
Don't hold your breath on that happening any time soon. It would take leadership from the US, which sends John Kerry to talk loftily at the Metropolitan Museum about the need to do something to stop the looting of sites in Syria but whose policy moves have been limited to helping document the damage. 
There are, to be sure, other funding sources in the world aside from governments and foreign archaeological missions. One could imagine, for instance, the antiquities dealers associations, museum directors' associations, and a phalanx of ultra-wealthy enlightened collectors, all led perhaps by James Cuno, coming together to set up their own fund. Or, better still, lobbying the governments of major collecting nations to set up funds and generate the revenues to go into those funds via a tax on antiquities sales. 
Wouldn't that be great?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Zahi Hawass and the theory of deterrence

Zahi Hawass calls for Egypt's Antiquities Law to be amended to provide for harsher punishment for antiquities crimes, arguing that this will deter looters. But the law, according to the article, already calls for a minimum three year sentence.

Would ratcheting that sentence up to five or more years make any difference? That depends. As Gary Becker and Michel Foucault in their very different ways have both noted, deterrence only works if three things are all true: the risk of being caught is substantial; punishment is severe and certain enough to induce fear; and criminals know the risks of being caught and the price they would pay. The key point for Egypt, presumably is that if the risk of being caught continues to be low, then making an already substantial penalty more severe is not going to change the calculations of looters.

We have evidence for this from 1990s Iraq. Saddam introduced the death penalty for looting after the US established no-fly zones that made it impossible to effectively police the archaeological sites and looting soared. Even though ten looters were beheaded on national television, the Draconian penalties did little to slow down the looting.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Kaylan's review of the new Metropolitan Museum show

Melik Kaylan reviews the awesome new show at the Metropolitan Museum. As he makes clear, it is well worth seeing. One sentence in the review, however, gives us pause: "That their civilization was centered for a while in what is now Mosul, Iraq, gives us pause. Many such objects would now be endangered—originating, as they do, from the famed palace of Nimrud and its environs."  A sense of irony is called for here about what endangers museum-worthy artifacts in Mesopotamia. Reports, including one just this week at UNESCO, indicate that while mosques, shrines, and religious manuscripts are endangered by ISIS' iconoclasm, antiquities are not for the most part being destroyed. Instead, they are being dug up or pillaged and sold (with tax paid to ISIS). And where do they go? "According to Baghdad Museum director Qais Rashid, 'Assyrian tablets were stolen and suddenly found in European cities.'” 

The European collectors who are buying these artifacts illicit will over the long haul undoubtedly either sell them onto the international market or donate them to museums like the Met, for future exhibitions like this one. 

So Kaylan doesn't have it quite right. What is most endangered is not the small number of museum-worthy antiquities like those displayed at the Met. ISIS is implementing a regulated "licit" market in areas under its control, and permitting the international export of artifacts -- a kind of parodic realization of the market structure advocates from the collecting community drawing on John Merryman's work have called for. Those artifacts are safe. What is endangered, rather is the context of the sites out of which they will be snatched or chiseled, and the knowledge of the past that this context holds.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Protecting heritage in Mesopotamia Redux: Will the US military get it right this time?

It is telling, I think, that the news out of the Metropolitan Museum event focused almost completely on Secretary Kerry's comments and on what the monitoring shows is happening in Syria, and almost not at all on what might be done beyond vague calls for help. Now at least one blogger has indicated at least one more specific suggestion:

Bonnie Earnham (sic)  of the World Monuments Fund proposed an even more radical step: incorporating heritage protection training into American efforts to train Syrian rebels and Iraqi military personnel.
This is a very good idea in principle (and one that Bonnie Burnham may have proffered back in 2007-9 when she participated in the meetings that eventuated in the recommendations and articles, including one by her, in Antiquities under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection after the Iraq War).  As I have argued repeatedly, heritage protection -- especially in times of armed conflict -- needs to go beyond the valuable but insufficient focus on monitoring and conservation to also encompass the kind of expertise needed to secure sites from looters. Archaeologists and conservators simply do not know how to train military personnel in how best to deploy guards at archaeological sites, with what kinds of weaponry and other technologies, etc.

In practice, however, it is far from clear that the American military has the kind of expertise in archaeological site security or antiquities policing to do much if any good. Military policing in general has never been a high priority of our military. On the other hand, it would take an incredibly tiny fraction of the American military budget to set up a heritage security unit better than any other military's. That's why in Antiquities under Siege we urged that the US do so. In the meanwhile, we also suggested, any military intervention by the US be planned with an eye to making use of the expertise of some of our allies in this area, notably Italy, Spain, and others.

Is anything like this in the works?

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Parallax View: the US Responses to Cultural Heritage Destruction in Syria versus Iraq

The State Department has issued a fact sheet related to Secretary Kerry's announcement of steps the US is taking in response to the destruction of cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq by ISIS. Those steps, Kerry said, included funding ASOR's documentation of conditions on sites and "doubling down on our support for Iraqi conservation experts and providing them with critical training on emergency documentation and disaster preparedness and response at the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage."

The State Department's fact sheet fills in more details about what the support in Iraq has focused on:
In Iraq, the United States government has provided nearly $33 million since 2003 for a broad range of cultural heritage projects, including infrastructure upgrades to the Iraq National Museum, establishment of a cultural heritage preservation training institute in Erbil, and site management planning and conservation work at the site of ancient Babylon. The Department of State also partnered with international organizations to develop the Emergency Red List of Iraqi Antiquities at Risk to enable customs officials to identify and detain objects from Iraq that are particularly at risk of looting, theft, and illicit trafficking. Since 1990, the United States has restricted the importation of cultural property of Iraq and other items of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific or religious importance.
A few things are worth noting about these facts:

There is no mention in the State Department's fact sheet of any of the $33 million spent since 2003 going to monitor and document conditions on archaeological sites, as they are now doing. That's because the State Department and the US military stonewalled repeated demands by archaeologists and heritage protection advocates for satellite imagery that would enable conditions on sites to be monitored and documented.  (For more details on the sad history of America's stewardship of archaeological sites and the museum during and after the 2003 invasion, see Antiquities Under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection after the Iraq War and The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum.)

Nor is there any mention of any of that $33 million going to pay for site guards or antiquities police. The vast majority of Iraq's archaeological sites were left unguarded for years, while millions were plowed into turning Babylon into an unvisitable tourist site for PR purposes, and millions more on training conservators. The latter is at least of some efficacy and worth funding, but we know that the few sites that have been spared have included those on which armed guards remained (including some in Syria in recent days) because they continued to be paid or had faith that they would eventually be paid by the archaeologists who had hired them as guards.

Secretary of State Kerry's remarks contain no mention of restricting the import of cultural property from Syria, as was done for Iraqi material, and done not just for the importation of material into the US, but via UN Resolution 1483, on a worldwide basis. Why is the US not declaring an emergency ban for Syrian material itself, and why is the US not pushing through a worldwide ban at the UN?

Would you rather be immersed online in the museum or in the world the work of art was plucked from for the museum?

The British Museum is going to build a replica of itself inside the gaming world of Minecraft. That will, one assumes, permit visitors to go up to the artworks and look at them closely or even walk around them. Fine. But the major advantage of online environments is that one can immerse oneself and appreciate objects within their contexts, noticing how they are situated in relation to other objects, and how they are embedded in rituals, practices, whole ways of life that the game environment can reconstruct. Museums themselves are technologies designed sometimes to do something like this, but seldom in anything but a very piecework way, given the limits of acquisitions. The best we're likely to get is the museum director acting as cicerone talking to us as we look at the artifacts. But imagine, for example, that instead of a scholarly summary of the Parthenon marbles' role in ceremonies in ancient Athens, one could actually walk up to the Acropolis and participate in the ceremonies (of course there would probably need to be several versions, since we're still arguing about what went on up there).

The British Museum would be much better advised to launch an initiative to put replicas of its artworks inside an online version of the original (or to be more specific, the most meaningful) locations from which those artworks were removed and brought to the Museum. For many artifacts, of course, this would be impossible given that they were looted and their context obliterated. But for many of the BM's holdings it would surely be fascinating to put them back in situ electronically, if arrangements could be made with the holders of other parts of the predella and the original church location, for instance, or with the holders of bits of the Parthenon marbles and the Greek authorities holding image rights to the Parthenon.