Saturday, December 19, 2009

Indiana Jones, but in reverse - The National Newspaper

Indiana Jones, but in reverse - The National Newspaper

Another profile of Zahi Hawass. Not much new here, but Matt Bradley mentions, as has already been reported by an Australian paper, that

Buoyed by his recent successes, Mr Hawass has called for an international conference next March for countries who are seeking the return of ancient objects. Greece, Italy, China and Mexico will be among about 12 nations he expects to attend.

This sounds a lot like the first real step towards the creation of an antiquities cartel, a strategy that Richard Leventhal has suggested would enable countries of origin to pool their bargaining power to extract more from wealthy collecting nations. The only question is whether the bargaining will remain, as it has, on the plane of restitution and loan agreements, which in themselves do nothing to address the problem of contemporary looting and other threats to heritage, or whether countries of origin will take the opportunity to press collecting institutions to materially assist in anti-looting initiatives. Museums could, for example, be told that no country will agree to loans unless the museums first persuade their donors to contribute voluntarily (or their governments to contribute via dedicated taxes on sales of antiquities) to an international fund. One already exists, established by UNESCO several years ago, but it has failed to attract any donations.

The key is to move beyond restitution to the real issue, which is what can be done to protect archaeological sites.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Australian Archaeologists Use Google Earth to Map Sites -- and Suggest Info Could Help With Site Protection Efforts

This is a potentially important project. Money quote at the end:
"The most important aspect of the work is that we'll be able to go to the Afghan archaeological institute and say these are the sites in this area, if you've got guys down there you can either go and visit them or you can at least start thinking about trying to protect them," Thomas said.
One hopes that the coalition forces are also going to be contacted, so that if any are operating in these areas they can at least avoid damage to sites where possible. And it would seem reasonable to try to build on the work already done by developing ways to use Google Earth to monitor a large number sites over time; it seems hard to believe that some sort of automated program could be devised to register whether holes are appearing. It would make little sense for the Afghan antiquities board -- or whoever is in charge of site policing -- to devote scarce resources to the dangerous work of protecting sites if they are not under threat while others are.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Google Documents Iraqi Museum Treasures-- How about Documenting Site Looting Next?

Sci-Tech Today | Google Documents Iraqi Museum Treasures

Google chief Eric Schmidt is quoted saying, "I can think of no better use of our time and our resources than to make the images and ideas from your civilization, from the very beginnings of time, available to billions of people worldwide."

Here's another use of Google's time and resources that might be better: gather time-series satellite images of archaeological sites in Iraq (and other looting-prone countries) from GoogleEarth, and use your programmers' expertise together with archaeologists to develop automated methods for counting holes. That would enable countries to finally be able to track what has happened, and what is happening right now, on their sites.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

guest post from Maj. Corine Wegener on Kaylan's downplaying of damage to Iraq's cultural heritage during the U.S. occupation

Corine Wegener, a now-retired major in Civil Affairs who deployed to Iraq after the looting of the museum to assist in mitigating the damage there, is now President of the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield, has written a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal responding to Melik Kaylan's article there. She has kindly agreed to allow me to post it here as well:

To the Editor:

Melik Kaylan’s efforts (Nov. 13, 2009, Myths of Babylon) to downplay damage to Iraq’s cultural heritage during the U.S. occupation actually do a disservice to our military and carry political overtones which serve neither our troops nor our reputation on the international stage. In 2003-2004, I served in Baghdad as the Arts, Monuments, and Archives Officer for the 352d Civil Affairs Command. Inadequate planning for the protection of Iraqi cultural property prior to the invasion of Iraq resulted in harm to an ancient cultural heritage shared by us all, and it could have been prevented.

As much as I respect Chaplain Marrero and the Marines’ efforts to secure Babylon in 2003, the subsequent damage done by contractor KBR’s continuously improving and expanding the site as an operating base was significant and avoidable. That Babylon had suffered damage under Saddam’s regime does not make additional damage while under the control of Coalition Forces any more acceptable to the Iraqi people or the international community. Damage did occur at many sites, and certainly did not help us to win hearts and minds.

The U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield, a nongovernmental organization founded in 2006, has provided cultural property training to dozens of deploying U.S. Army Civil Affairs units. Informed with this training, military personnel demonstrate an understanding and respect for local cultural heritage that helps build relationships and, ultimately, saves lives. We do not believe diminishing or denying the mistakes of the past will move us forward. The U.S. military has a proud tradition for respecting cultural heritage that goes back to WWII - we must rebuild that reputation and provide military personnel with the tools and training they need to accomplish their mission while preserving cultural heritage for future generations.

Major (Retired) Corine Wegener
President, U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield
Minneapolis, MN

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Kaylan Continues to Try to Rewrite History, Now Smearing Bogdanos as Well as Curtis and Stone

Melik Kaylan's attempt to rewrite history continues, now with increased desperation including a smear of Matthew Bogdanos. I've posted a comment on the Forbes site, which I append here:

Col. Bogdanos is certainly inconvenient for Kaylan's story. A Marine war-hero and Republican who is a prosecutor in NYC when not on anti-terrorism missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, he hardly fits the anti-American, anti-military mold, yet he concluded that approximately 15,000 artifacts were looted in April 2003. 5,000 or so of these were cylinder seals, the best of which (that is, the kind that would go to the museum) sell for over $100,000 apiece; that is an inconvenient truth that would explain why looters would target the museum and thousands of archaeological sites. Kaylan therefore chooses, shamefully, to smear him as self-serving, ignoring that Bogdanos has donated to charity the profits from his book (for which he received the National Humanities Medal from George W. Bush). Kaylan also chooses to ignore reports by the Italian carabinieri and Polish forces that describe ongoing looting in the 2003-4 period, and ignores as well the evidence from satellite photos proving a massive surge in site looting began just before the war when Saddam moved his troops away from archaeological sites to the front lines. All this information, and much more, I shared with Kaylan when he contacted me in July 2008 while he was preparing his first story. For him to claim now that he got no help from the archaeological community is... well, I leave it to readers of Forbes to decide what it is. Professor Lawrence Rothfield University of Chicago

Rereading this I realize I forgot to also defend the honor of Donny George, also smeared.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

"Orphan" Antiquities Study

The Cultural Policy Research Institute, a think tank formed last year "to build a viable legal framework for the protection of world historical remains", has issued its first research study. It focuses on "orphan" artifacts: archaeological material or ancient art in private hands that the AAMD's recently-adopted guidelines exclude from being acquired by Member museums because these artifacts lack clear provenance showing they were outside their country of probable modern discovery before 1970 (or were exported legally after 1970). This first pilot study limited itself to Greek, Roman, and associated material, coins excluded, with a value of $1000 or more. CPRI researchers -- unnamed in the report -- interviewed museum staffers, major US dealers, private collectors, and scholars. The interviewing methodology is not described, and sources remain anonymous, so there is no way to evaluate the accuracy of the results. We have no way of knowing how those interviewed determined that provenances were inadequate, but it seems obvious that dealers and collectors have a vested interest in exaggerating the number, so these figures need to be taken with a big grain of salt.

The study estimates that 67,500-111,900 classical artifacts with inadequate provenance are being held by collectors or dealers. It would be very interesting to know what percentage is in the hands of dealers rather than collectors, and even more interesting to know how many total artifacts, well-provenanced as well as "orphaned", worth $1000 or more are now in private hands. One thing at least is deducible: the market for only inadequately provenanced Roman/Greek/related antiquities involves capital to the tune of at least $67,500,000-111,900,000 (since all the artifacts reported are supposedly worth at least $1000 each).

The CPRI could do a major service to all students of the antiquities markets if it could ascertain how many of these "orphans" change hands annually, at what prices, and in what country.

But the aim of the CPRI is not to throw light on the operations of the antiquities market. Rather, it is to call attention to the existence of these objects, which supposedly are endangered by being held in private hands:

objects excluded from acquisition by Member museums cannot have the benefit of professional museum exhibition, publication, or conservation. ... Such objects can have no permanent parentage or protection (many run the risk, over time, of deterioration, damage or destruction).

The problem with this line of argument is that even if the objects in question were not excluded from acquisition most of them would not be acquired. And the notion that dealers and collectors would be negligent towards objects worth thousands of dollars seems very questionable.

The hope seems to be to persuade AAMD to rescind its guidelines. But those guidelines were created in response to a recognition that the antiquities market is being fed by looters. One has no way of knowing how many of the 67,500 "orphaned" artifacts were orphaned from their contexts by Bulgarian, Cypriot, or Turkish looters, but we do know that site looting of these countries' Greek and Roman sites is ongoing.

That does not mean that the guidelines in themselves will have much if any effect on this ongoing looting, at least not in the short run. The market will continue to function, and "orphaned" antiquities will continue to flow into it. But at least the guidelines lay down a challenge to dealers and collectors: figure out some way for your industry to play a progressive role in
reducing looting and clean up its act by establishing a strictly licit market. Come up with a plan like that and maybe bringing in the orphans can be part of the final deal.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Doonesbury on illicit antiquities/plants

"I can protect it better than the Turks." Gary Trudeau must be reading Cuno.

Friday, August 28, 2009

New Damage to the Iraq Museum

From Lamia al-Gailani Wehr, via the Iraqcrisis listhost:

SBAH and the Iraq Museum were victims to the bombing of the Foreign Ministry last week. Many of the glass windows were broken, part of the roof of the children’s nursery collapsed, fortunately there was no fatality, just bruises and minor injuries. One of the accounts was at the Ministry of Finance when it was also bombed, he was injured and taken to hospital. I understand some of the exhibited antiquities in the the Museum were also damaged. I hope they have already been photographed.

Worrying issue, I heard that most of the staff ran away. Was there any emergency plan to deal with this kind of situation, such as the closure of all the doors, particularly the ones leading to the Museum and the storerooms? Apart from the police guards, is there a team whose duty to take charge whenever the Museum is under threat?

Prof. al-Gailaini Wehr raises a very important question, one that it is to be hoped will be asked as well by all those who wish to help the Iraqi government do what it can to secure the museum for a future that may well involve more bombings and even, god forbid, a breakdown of civil order on a much larger scale. Until now, the State Department has blithely pursued a Pollyannish policy that has ignored repeated warnings by archaeologists that it was too dangerous to reopen the museum. Instead of focusing on security for the museum (or archaeological sites for that matter), we have acceded to the Maliki government's desires to use it for propaganda purposes as a symbol that things are returning to normal. As part of that fantasy, US money has been plowed into site assessments, sustainable tourism planning, and training for archaeologists -- all good ideas but surely secondary in importance to the need for far better protection of Iraq's cultural heritage against looting and bombing. If the report of damage to exhibited artifacts is true, our negligence has once again borne bitter fruit, albeit on a much smaller scale than the looting of the museum and archaeological sites in the 2003-2007 period.

Speaking recently about the State Department's involvement in a site assessment of the ancient city of Ashur, a Public Diplomacy Officer remarked,

As the U.S. forces look toward our draw down out of the country, this is a great potential legacy that we can leave behind; showing that we took proper care of the ancient sites and history of the Iraqi people. When the security situation arrives at the point when there is an opportunity for wide-spread tourism, our good stewardship of these sites will pay off because we will have met the immediate needs to preserve these sites now.

The danger is that if we do not recognize that taking proper care means worrying about security first and foremost, the legacy that we leave behind will be of a country whose heritage remains inexcusably vulnerable.Let us hope that we learn from it and refocus our cultural policy in Iraq.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Review of Rape of Mesopotamia in September issue of Harper's

Harper's has a nice review of my book in the just-out September print issue (the review unfortunately is available online only to subscribers).

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Reductio ad absurdum:

“[What] would it be if, in order to know the art, you always had to go to Greece, to know Mesopotamian art you had to go to [the Middle East]?” de Montebello asked. “What kind of a world would that be?"

Yes, and what kind of world would it be if when you went to the Middle East you found thousands of archaeological sites missing their artifacts?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

University College London - Cultural property conference

I'll be giving a keynote address at this meeting in London Friday Sept. 18 at 1:30.

review of Rape of Mesopotamia in Times Higher Ed. Supplement

Thursday, July 02, 2009

How to Sell a Masterpiece (without considering the public interest)

If a museum decides to sell an object, does the institution have any responsibility beyond maximizing monetary value?

James Snipes, legal counsel to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston described [the Albright-Knox decision to sell their pieces at auction] as an "optics issue, rather than an economic one. Going to auction may not provide the best return, but it is the most transparent" way of selling an object. Museums not only "have a fiduciary duty to maximize value when they deaccession objects, but they have to be seen fulfilling that duty."
What is missing here is the duty museums owe to the public (not just the local public but the public at large) to make sure that artworks that have entered the public domain at the cost to the public of a tax deduction do not disappear from public view into the living room of a collector. Maximizing value for the institution at the cost of public value is a bad deal for taxpayers.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Utah Looters' Arrest -- A Long Time Coming

It does not seem to have been noticed that at least one of the gang charged recently with violating ARPA by stealing or trafficking in Native American artifacts has been associated with the issue since the mid 1980s. Harold J. Lyman, now 78 (and a recent inductee into the Utah Tourism Hall of Fame for having "helped establish the 'Trail of the Ancients,' a scenic byway taking motorists past Indian cites in Utah and Colorado", was interviewed back in 1986 by Carol A. Bassett for an article in Science magazine about looting in the area (Science 86, July-August 1986, 22-29; the relevant passage can be found in  Archaeology, Relics, and the Law, ed. Richard B. Cunningham). Bassett quoted Lyman as an observer who reported that "because of the increased attention over the past year, enforcement has gone up dramatically. Folks are lying low now, but when the heat is off, looting will go up again." I guess he knew what he was talking about.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

'Ancient' artifacts, cyber scams - Los Angeles Times

An interesting new article on Charles Stanish's argument that Ebay has reduced looting by making it more profitable for looters to switch to making fakes for gullible, uninformed buyers, and poisoning the legitimate market. Antiquities dealer Jerome Eisenberg disagrees, noting that his annual sales are in the tens of millions of dollars, including an Internet trade that has "increased exponentially" over the past few years. Eisenberg believes that news about forgeries -- and one might add, the Internet's spreading of the news that it is possible to buy antiquities -- only succeeds in making the market grow. 

Eisenberg, of course, may simply be trying to reassure his clientele, and we do not know whether his sales revenues have increased, even if his internet trade has increased. But the fact that this reputable dealer is able to increase his sales on the internet tells us something that Stanish -- and even Steve Levitt -- do not adequately address. The basic economics of "lemons" teaches that warrantied used cars fetch a higher price than unwarrantied ones, and it would be odd if this were not also true of authenticated antiquities. The Guennol Lioness suggests the price for authenticated antiquities may be going way up. (There's an interesting economic question buried here, which is about the difference between a good that is not as good as it appears, i.e., a lemon, and a good that is no good at all if it is not as it appears, i.e., a fake.)

If that is the case, what does it mean for looting? One thing it might mean is that collectors -- even eBay ones -- will learn to distrust unauthenticated antiquities, and that might lead to declines in sales of both fakes and looted artifacts, assuming some archaeological body of experts could be created to vet artifacts. And since the costs of authentication will raise the price dealers need to charge, some buyers will be driven out of the market.

But if some buyers are driven out, many more will have been enticed in by the news stories and by eBay's seductive ease of perusal. Some among these new buyers will surely become cognoscenti, and bring additional money into the system. The more scrupulous will demand authentication from a recognized body, or put their trust in reputable dealers; there are sure, however, to be some less scrupulous who will be willing to pay a lot for artifacts that have been looted, if the middleman can show that the piece has come from the ground. That, after all, was what Giacomo Medici was doing with his Polaroids of dirt-encrusted vases. The Internet has made that technology quaint: a looter nowadays can snap and send a cellphone photo direct from site to buyer. Looting might well continue under these circumstances, not decline.

'Ancient' artifacts, cyber scams - Los Angeles Times

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Interview on WTTW's "Chicago Tonight"

I was interviewed last night on the public television station's daily news show.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

David Gill blogs smartly as usual on the new online site launched by the Aboutaams. His post makes clear why we need some alternative to the porous Art Loss Register -- a new registration system specifically designed provide a real vetting of archaeological material to leave no doubt about whether provenance passes muster. To be credible to the archaeological community, archaeologists appointed by major archaeological associations would be officially in charge of a registering commission. Dealers would have to pay for the costs of the commission's work -- and one could tack on an additional charge (or if the commission were legally sanctioned, a tax) to raise money to help pay for site guards in countries where antiquities are being looted.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Deep Thought about Brandeis' Attempt to Sell Off its Art Collection

Brandeis' trustees have apparently decided to slow-walk the university's Rose Museum into oblivion, in the hope that the furor will die down eventually and they will then be able to go ahead with the sale. But the way the art market is going now, by the time Brandeis pulls the trigger it may no longer be worth it to try to sell.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Iraqi Archaeologists Studying in Chicago

An interesting TV segment, with some footage of looting at the museums and some very old footage of digging on sites that I have never seen before. (Charles Jones kindly informs me that the old footage is from the Field Museum's long-ago expedition to Kish.) Bringing Iraqi archaeologists here to update their skills is heartwarming and the State Department is to be applauded for supporting this effort. But watch the story and you will see how this program is being promoted as a response to the looting, when in fact it does not do one thing (so far as I can tell from the coverage) to make the Iraqis better able to protect their sites. 

My colleagues are in a difficult position, and Gil Stein does an excellent job in this story of highlighting the immense losses that have occurred as a result of site looting. Unless it is made clearer, though, that while we all welcome the chance to assist Iraqi archaeologists other programs also need to be established to help cut down on looting, the archaeologists we train may have less and less to excavate.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Archaeologists Ignored Again as Babylon Re-Opens after US Turnover

The NY Times has an interesting article about the reopening of Babylon to tourist visitors. The writer makes clear that Iraq's archaeological heritage is no longer controlled by the professional archaeologists in the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, but by the Ministry of Tourism and Prime Minister Maliki, and that any concerns about the security of sites, whether from looting or development, are being superseded by the desire for tourist dollars and the wish to present a bella figura to the world.


The State Department will of course say that this is a purely internal matter for the sovereign government of Iraq to determine for itself. But as the article makes clear along the way, the Iraqi government would not be in control of the sites if the US had not agreed to turn over that control as part of the Status of Forces agreement reached with the Iraqi government. 


Here are the relevant clauses from the agreement:


5.  Upon the discovery of any historical or cultural site or finding any strategic resource in agreed facilities and areas, all works of construction, upgrading, or modification shall cease immediately and the Iraqi representatives at the Joint Committee shall be notified to determine appropriate steps in that regard.  

 6.  The United States shall return agreed facilities and areas and any non-relocatable structures and assemblies on them that it had built, installed, or established during the term of this Agreement, according to mechanisms and priorities set forth by the Joint Committee.  Such facilities and areas shall be handed over to the Government of Iraq free of any debts and financial burdens.  

 7.  The United States Forces shall return to the Government of Iraq the agreed facilities and areas that have heritage, moral, and political significance and any non-relocatable structures and assemblies on them that it had built, installed, or established, according to mechanisms, priorities, and a time period as mutually agreed by the Joint Committee, free of any debts or financial burdens.   

That the Iraqi government should wish to reassume responsibility for its country's heritage is both completely understandable and honorable, and that the US should be willing to turn them over is perfectly fine.  In fact, given the pathetic record of the military and the State Department in protecting Iraq’s archaeological sites, they may well be in better hands now, even if the government is disregarding the concerns of its own archaeologists. It is a shame, though, that the SOFA did not also include some provisions for assistance to the Iraq government for protecting sites. It would be interesting to know what kinds of conversations took place about this issue. The author of the Times piece suggests that it was at the insistence of the Iraqis that the sites were turned over. But what did we say? Were we surprised? Were there any negotiations about the issue?

Friday, May 01, 2009

Iraq War's cultural costs as seen through a Chicago prism

Chicago Tribune cultural critic Julia Keller interviewed me about Rape of Mesopotamia.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

New Yorker asks me about looting

The New Yorker has done a Q & A with me about my new book, The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Real Progress: Iraq Troops Bust Smuggling Ring, Recover 235 Looted Artifacts

Good news from Iraq: it appears that the Iraqi Army is beginning to score successes against antiquities smugglers in southern Iraq.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Brian Rose's radio interview -- a few comments

AIAPresident and Professor at University of Pennsylvania Brian Rose describes his recent first trip to Iraq where he saw ancient sites cratered by looters. Professor Rose also speaks about the cultural heritage briefings he has been giving to American soldiers on the archaeology of Iraq and Afghanistan, and his visit to the Iraq Museum. The interview can be heard here in the second part of the broadcast.

Rose was struck by the great number of sites that had been looted, and waxed eloquent on what has been lost: history has been murdered. Hammering home this reality is vital, and Rose is to be commended for doing so with great effectiveness. Even more important is to translate the despair at what has been lost into a determination to do something going forward to stop the looting. Here again Rose met the challenge. His visit, he said, had a purpose, which was to add to the credibility of suggestions for how to protect the sites, since “archaeologists have been talking about what would be the best way to safeguard the archaeological sites and antiquities yet few of us have actually been there on the ground witnessing the situation as it really exists, so we were making recommendations without a full deck of cards.”

No doubt Rose is correct in believing that speaking as one who has been “in country” will give recommendations the patina of being based on an assessment of the situation “as it really exists.” The problem, however, is that it is not clear from the interview how full or accurate a view of what really exists he achieved during a State Department-run tour that, at least from what one can glean from the interview, included stops at Babylon and at Ur, both sites that have been visited already by others and that have had military bases established on or near them since 2003. (See my earlier blogs on the visit of the British Museum team in June/July 2008.) A better view of the overall situation as it really exists would have been gained if the State Department had instead given the AIA time-series photos of a representative sample of sites, so archaeologists could count the number of new holes.

The more serious concern, however, is about whether recommendations from archaeologists for safeguarding the sites will go beyond site management plans such as the one for Ur that Rose mentions discussing with Iraqi officials eager to promote tourism to Abraham’s birthplace. For major sites like Ur and Babylon that have long been well-protected, site management may be just fine, but most sites are not so lucky. They need to be secured from looters, not managed for tourist visits.

And site security is not going to be achieved by cultural awareness training for troops, something Rose has been doing for the past five years. Not that such efforts are not extremely important for other reasons and worth continuing. They are crucial. But if sites are going to be secured archaeologists need to give the military and the State Department pointed practical directions for specific tasks they can and should undertake to secure them, and the tools needed to perform that job. It would have made no difference whatsoever had the tank crew that approached the Iraq Museum received a lecture in the history of Mesopotamia – they had no riot gear, no tear gas, no barbed wire, no crowd control training, and were barred under the rules of engagement from firing over the heads of looters.

Figuring out what these tasks and tools are is not that difficult, but it is not the kind of thing that archaeologists are used to thinking about. In fact, while Rose speaks of recommendations being made about how to protect sites, there are none from the archaeologists – at least not to my knowledge, and I would be delighted to be told otherwise – that are based on input from site security experts, cultural police like the carabinieri, or the Iraqis themselves, who have repeatedly decried shortages of money for site guards, gas for vehicles, communications equipment, etc.

The Italians are coming back in to help train Iraqis to fight the trafficking of antiquities, and it would be fantastic if the AIA set up a task force with them and other policing experts to develop teaching modules. When Brian Rose’s lectures for deploying officers include a powerpoint segment entitled “how to secure a site from looters”, with a bulleted tasklist linking to resources, this trip will have been worth it.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

eBay reduces looting -- maybe

There's a fascinating article in the May/June issue of Archaeology magazine, arguing that the electronic buying and selling of antiquities on eBay has actually reduced the looting of ancient objects, rather than fuelling it.

On a quick first read, it seems logically persuasive, with some caveats. One is that if eBay is expanding the market then even if fakes bring the prices down relative to what a market with lower level of supply would charge, the increase in the number of potential buyers might drive the price back up, leaving the incentive to loot about what it was before. 

A hat tip to Scott Rosenblum for alerting me to this.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Q & A with Chronicle for Higher Education

From the issue dated April 17, 2009
A Fragile History, Besieged

A post-mortem examination of the cultural disaster in Iraq

Six years ago this month, the National Museum of Iraq was extensively looted amid the chaos of the U.S. invasion of Baghdad. Among the stolen objects was the Mask of Warka, a 5,100-year-old Sumerian artifact that is believed to be one of the earliest surviving representations of a human face. The mask was found buried on an Iraqi farm five months later — but thousands of other precious objects were destroyed or disappeared into the black market.

"We do not know, and we may never know, a great many lessons about how human civilization first arose, because of this disaster," says Lawrence Rothfield, an associate professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Chicago and a former director of the university's Cultural Policy Center.

In his new book, The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum (University of Chicago Press), Rothfield examines the sacking of the museum and the "slow-motion disaster" of the looting of archaeological sites across Iraq since 2003.

Rothfield recently spoke with The Chronicle's David Glenn. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.

Q. Why should the world care about Iraqi antiquities? Doesn't this issue pale in comparison to the war's political struggles and tens of thousands of deaths?

I hear that question sometimes: Why should we care? Why should we worry that all of this material is being brought onto the black market? After all, isn't this making available to the rest of the world the beauty of all these objects that otherwise would not have been available for us to see?

One reason to worry is that this material is being ripped out of its context. The individual intact pieces that fall into the hands of collectors might be beautiful. But most of what we know about the origins of civilization has come from piecing together fragments and reconstructing contexts. The Epic of Gilgamesh was pieced together from fragments that looters today would have crushed underfoot.

Q. Before 2003 the National Museum of Iraq was regarded as one of the best in the region. Despite all of the cruelties and travails of Saddam Hussein's regime, this institution thrived. Why was that?

Saddam thought of the Mesopotamian past as a propaganda tool — which meant that at least he cared enough about it to impose severe penalties on looters, and to spend the resources needed to support the work of the museum. And even before Saddam came to power, Iraq had some longstanding relationships with European and American archaeological institutions, including the Oriental Institute here at Chicago. So for decades, they had been training archaeologists to produce work that was of very high quality.

Q. Why did the United States do such a bad job of protecting the museum in 2003?

Before the war, nobody except archaeologists was worried about civilians looting the archaeological sites and the museum. And that includes the Iraqi exiles who were advising the State Department's Future of Iraq Project, which was supposed to develop plans for the postwar period. They set up working groups on all sectors of society — but they forgot about culture.

Q. But would it have made a difference if the Future of Iraq Project had paid attention to culture?

No, it wouldn't have made any difference at all, given that the military threw all of their plans in the garbage can anyway.

Now, the military itself was very interested in doing its job in terms of protecting cultural sites and museums. But under international law, its job is defined as not destroying or looting cultural sites itself — not as preventing civilians from destroying sites.

So before the war, they reached out to archaeologists, and they did a perfect job of identifying sites to put on a no-strike list. None of those sites was destroyed in active combat operations.

Unfortunately, they ignored warnings from the same archaeologists they were working with that the museums and sites might be looted by Iraqis. The Pentagon should have known about that issue. Nine museums were looted after the 1991 Gulf War. The military did not learn its lesson from that experience.

Q. There were reports last year that the military had asked archaeologists to develop a similar no-strike list for cultural sites in Iran. And some archaeologists have argued that it is unethical to cooperate with that project, because they say an American attack on Iran would be immoral. Have you been part of those debates?

My thought is that requiring the military to spend time and effort to protect cultural sites actually makes the cost of war higher for the military than it would otherwise be. So if you're interested in doing what you can to discourage the U.S. from going to war, raising the cost of war is one way to do so.

There's no contradiction between speaking out publicly against the war and making sure that the military protects cultural sites if it does go to war.

Q. Do you believe the American military has learned lessons since 2003?

It's a mixed picture. The new Army Field Manual includes on its task list the imperative to secure and protect cultural sites and museums. That's a huge step forward in itself. They've also been developing excellent cultural-awareness training programs to sensitize soldiers heading into war zones, working with the Archaeological Institute of America.

But there is also the separate question about what to do going forward in Iraq — and in Afghanistan, where matters are arguably even worse. There is still severe looting in both countries. The British recently returned several tons of Afghan antiquities that had been seized at London airports since 2003, just to give you some sense of the size of the problem.

The looting of the Iraq museum was terrible, but the amount of material lost from the slow looting of Iraq's archaeological sites dwarfs the amount that was taken from the museum. Estimates are that roughly half a million pieces have been destroyed or taken from the ground since 2003.

Q. If you had half an hour to talk to people at the Pentagon or the State Department, what would you say?

Archaeologists have been asking for years now for the military to share satellite photographs of the Iraqi archaeological sites so that they could count the number of holes and track the rate of looting around the country. They're still waiting.

I would also urge the Pentagon to form a task force to develop operational plans to inject resources into those areas where it's possible to make a difference. In some cases that might mean providing cars, weapons, and walkie-talkies to the civilians who are supposed to be protecting sites.

And I would suggest a tax on all sales of antiquities from Iraq and Afghanistan. The proceeds could be used to help finance anti-looting efforts in those countries.

Q. At the end of your book, you wrote that you didn't expect the Iraq museum to reopen "for years to come." But in February, after your book went to press, a part of the museum reopened. Were you surprised?

Well, I was dismayed by it, as were [the museum's former director] Donny George and a number of other Iraqi archaeologists. Conditions in Baghdad are still very fragile. And the museum is nowhere near ready to be open to the public, even if the situation weren't so touchy. The recent reduction in violence is heartening, but it only brings us down to levels that are equivalent to other long-running civil wars.

David Glenn is a senior reporter at The Chronicle.
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 55, Issue 32, Page B17

Interview about Rape of Mesopotamia with ABC Radio Australia's PM Program

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Iraq Welcoming Archaeological Tourism, As Sites Remain Unprotected

The Iraqi Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities continues its public-relations offensive with the announcement that Iraqi archaeologists have uncovered 4,000 Babylonian artifacts. The good news, dutifully splashed across the headlines by Reuters ("Iraqi Archaeologists unearth Babylonian Treasures"), is engineered to support the Ministry's agenda, as the article notes:

Iraq, which lies in the heart of a region historians call the cradle of civilisation, is hoping a decrease in violence to levels not seen since late 2003 will encourage tourists to visit its ancient sites.

In late 2003, let us recall, looting of Iraq's archaeological sites was going into overdrive, and there is some reason to believe that despite improvements in security the looting continues. That dark underside of this tourism marketing is missing from the headline, but shows up at the end of the article:

Qais Hussein Rasheed, acting head of the antiquities and heritage committee, told reporters Iraq still had a big problem with looters ransacking archaeological sites.

"These sites are vulnerable to endless robbery by thieves, smugglers and organised gangs because they are not protected," he said. "We have asked the relevant ministries to allocate policemen but haven't received very many so far."

Thursday, March 12, 2009

More on Iraq's Amnesty/Rewards Program for Turning In Looted Antiquities

Donny George has kindly clarified that the amnesty program is not new, but is mentioned in Iraq's antiquities laws. Antiquities coming to the museum are brought before a special "Technical Committee" which decides on the amount to be awarded the person who brought them. The money comes from the annual budget of the SBAH, as a line item. Sometimes the funds are exhausted before year end, and more monies have been requested from the ministry of finance to support the program. In 2003-2004, for obvious reasons, it was difficult to get money for the program, but the SBAH kept records for every one that brought antiquities to the museum, and payments were eventually made.

Perhaps as useful as the artifacts themselves is the information that those returning items are supposed to provide the Committee regarding where and how they obtained the items to begin with. According to Donny George, such leads have in the past helped archaeologists locate hitherto unknown sites.

The problem with the turnover of materials by high-level officials, however, is that -- if these officials are to be believed -- they merely accepted antiquities from their constituents. If that is the case, and those constituents cannot be identified and brought before the Committee, then any chance of tracking antiquities back to their original sites is lost.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Iraq Appears to Have a Portable Antiquities Scheme of Its Own

According to a new report from Azzaman, Iraq has adopted a new law not only immunizing those who turn in looted antiquities but offering them compensation. It is not clear if there is any requirement to assist antiquities officials in locating the sites from which items may have been taken.

Government officials surrender 531 artifacts to Iraq Museum, among them gold and silver coins

By Zainab Khudair

Azzaman, March 9, 2009

The Iraq Museum has received 531 archeological pieces which were in the possession of senior government officials.

The pieces were handed over to the Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Qahtan al-Jibouri who in turn gave them to the Iraq Museum, according to the ministry's spokesman Abdulzahara al-Talaqani.

Talaqani said the first batch comprising a magnificent collection of numismatic coins was returned to the museum by Minister of National Security Shirwan al-Waili.

This batch included 366 gold and silver coins of various colors, Talaqani said.

He said the second batch of 165 artifacts was kept by two members of parliament and included mainly statues and cylinder seals.

Talaqani said Iraqi scientists who have examined both collections have said they were of astounding beauty and great value.

One magnificent piece, he said, was a pottery statue of a standing woman holding a beaker made of glass.

It is the first time senior government officials are reported to have been in possession of so many artifacts. The officials say the pieces were passed to them by ordinary people.

Under a new law in Iraq holders of ancient relics whether stolen or dug up illegally cannot be prosecuted if they choose to hand them over to the authorities willingly.

In fact, the law makes it incumbent on the authorities to compensate and reward anyone returning antiquities by their free will.

It is not clear whether the officials will get any compensation and Talaqani declined to say whether the pieces were among the thousands of missing artifacts or part of relics which are being dug up illegally by smugglers across the country.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Tons of Looted Afghan Antiquities Heading Back-- Why Now?

National Geographic has an interesting story about England's return of literally tons of Afghan antiquities seized at Heathrow over the past six years since the destruction of the Taliban regime. Although the story notes that

Poor villagers lacking other sources of income use shovels and wheelbarrows to cart off precious objects from historic spots around the country, while criminal gangs smuggle the loot to Pakistan and onwards.

The Kabul government remains too cash-strapped, and too caught up fighting the Taliban-led insurgency, to do anything about it. (Afghanistan's own Ministry of Culture was the target of a suicide bomb attack last October.) And despite efforts to raise awareness among Pakistani customs and law enforcement officials, the situation is no better across the border.

What is missing from the article is any indication of what, if anything, is being done by overstretched coalition forces to assist the Afghan government to protect some small fraction at least of its sites. Nor is there any indication whether the criminal gangs smuggling the loot to Pakistan might be linked to the Taliban, as Matthew Bogdanos has argued the antiquities smugglers in Iraq were also supplying insurgents there with weapons and even taxes on their revenues from antiquities sales.

Afghanistan offers an opportunity for all those who did far too little to protect Iraq's sites -- the military, the State Department, UNESCO, cultural heritage NGOs, collectors, dealers, and the museum community -- to develop a coherent, focused, and cost-effective set of initiatives. Granted, the task in Afghanistan is more formidable than in Iraq, for a number of reasons: the sheer size of the country; its not having developed the kind of well established cultural heritage protection bureaucracy that Iraq had over many decades; the lack of pizzazz associated with fabled Biblical names like Babylon, to name just a few. But surely a task force given modest resources could come up with some measures that could make a real difference. Is anyone working on this problem?

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Throwing a Monkey Wrench into the Antiquities Auction Market

Chinese collector pulls a fast one on Christie's in protest of auctioning of antiquities China deems looted.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Site Looting Down Dramatically in Italy

Italy has demonstrated that it is possible to dramatically reduce the looting of archaeological sites, according to a new story in Scotland's Sunday Herald. What lies behind this success? Here's the money quote:

A three-pronged strategy from the government has made life increasingly difficult for Italy's would-be Indiana Joneses. Increased monitoring of archaeological sites means they are more likely to be caught; tougher penalties are in the parliamentary pipeline; and aggressive prosecution of museum curators and middlemen who trade in illegally excavated antiquities is drying up the market for their goods.
Last year, the carabinieri art squad discovered just 37 illegal digs, a tiny figure compared with the 1000 or so regularly found in the 1990s.

Assuming that the astonishing decline is not due to the carabinieri having cut back radically on site monitoring, the message here is clear: if the appropriate policies are put in place and -- crucially -- backed by adequate policing and enforcement resources, looting can be stopped. Dealers and collectors who suggest that the only feasible solution is to legalize the illicit market are wrong, as are archaeologists who put great stock in raising cultural awareness.

Of the three causes mentioned, it seems least likely that tougher penalties alone are responsible, since the decline has preceded the passage of stronger laws (though it may well be that even before the new laws have been passed, looters are being deterred by media attention). Nor is it likely that the high-profile prosecution of a small number of curators and middlemen -- really, only the Medici network -- could have done the trick by itself. While the Getty's buying spree surely poured oil on the fire, the demand for antiquities is primarily driven not by American museums but by the continued avidity of wealthy collectors worldwide; and the takedown of the Medici network must have left others intact.

That leaves increased monitoring of archaeological sites. The article provides no figures or additional information about how monitoring has improved, but whatever the specific measures -- better technology, additional personnel, information-sharing, etc -- they must have cost something. Those who are interested in assisting other countries where looting is out of control should focus on targeting their assistance on measures to improve the capacity for site monitoring. It is a lot less sexy than restoring a world heritage site or sponsoring archaeological digs, but much more cost-effective in preserving the past.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Finally, Policing Assistance For Iraq's Archaeological Sites -- On the Way, At Least

Obscured by the controversy over the photo op "reopening" of the Iraq Museum is something much more significant: the announcement by the Italian Ministry of Culture that Italy will help Iraq create a new police unit, modeled on Italy's crack carabinieri units, to fight the trafficking of stolen works. The Italians had been in Iraq during the first few years of the post-war period, and the area for which they were responsible was far better protected than others, remaining so even after they withdrew following an attack that killed several carabinieri.

While other forms of assistance such as site conservation and management, museum administration, and archaeological training, are of course valuable, without site policing and anti-looting efforts there will be far fewer sites to conserve, artifacts to catalogue, archaeological digs to conduct. Policing efforts should be a top priority for nations or NGOs hoping to assist Iraq in preserving its past, and it is deeply heartening to see that the Italians are again offering such assistance after a hiatus.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Add Peru to List of Countries Used as Smuggling Routes for Mesopotamian Antiquities Heading for the U.S.

The Peruvian Times reports:

Peruvian authorities and the Andean country’s National Culture Institute, INC, have been leading a campaign to stamp out the trade in antiquities illegally smuggled from Peru, reporting the seizure of more than 1,200 cultural and national heritage artifacts in 2008.
“Last year, we stopped 1,235 cultural objects from being smuggled out of Peru,” said the INC’s director, Dr. Cecilia Bákula, in comments to daily La República.
A team of three archaeologists and three art historians – on call 24 hours a day – carried out an average of 600 verifications every month, and recorded 30 seizures of artifacts.
Some of the most important pieces seized last year were not Inca or prehispanic treasures at all. Among the objects were three ancient clay tablets from Iraq, inscribed with cuneiform writing - one of the earliest known forms of written expression – and 21 macuquinas, or cobs, a crude style of irregularly shaped, hand-hammered coins, struck in Spain and colonial Spanish America. One of the Sumerian tablets was identified as originally from Babylon, south of Baghdad, and another from the region of Diyala, in southeastern Iraq. The tablets are between 4,000 and 5,000 years old.
Peru seized the ancient Mesopotamian tablets at Lima’s Jorge Chavez International Airport in February 2008, from where they were being smuggled to the United States.
The tablets were returned to Dr. Ameera Idan Hlaihel, head of Iraq’s Institute of Antiquities, last Friday.