Wednesday, March 23, 2011

UNESCO's Egyptian delegation: A New Role for UNESCO in Cultural Disasters?

The UNESCO delegation dispatched to Egypt at this particular point in the difficult transition to democracy has rubbed some archaeologists the wrong way, in large part since it comes at a very awkward time, given that the question of who is in charge of Egypt's antiquities is at the moment not clear. But more interesting from the viewpoint of a UNESCO-watcher perhaps is this tidbit from the story from Ahram Online:

El-Awadi told Ahram Online that Manhart offered to provide Egypt with technical experts, including on security measures. If funding is required due to the retreat of tourism, continued Manhart, in order to provide more security facilities, UNESCO could help find financial resources. has a slightly different take:

UNESCO will not offer crude financial help, but, according to Manhart, it can offer technical support, send security specialists, conduct a needs assessment, and define priorities.
What is interesting here is not just the dancing around the question of providing financial help (which is more or less to be expected, given UNESCO's generally ineffectual fundraising efforts for similar archaeological emergencies), but the double emphasis on sending security specialists and raising money specifically to provide  "more security facilities". So far as I know, that would be a new and extremely important role for UNESCO to assume. Let us hope "security specialists" doesn't mean site conservationists but experts on using guards, guns, barbed wire, walkie-talkies, and the like to lock down sites and museums.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Heavily Touristed Major Sites Do Not Translate Into Protection for Other Sites

120,000 tourists visit Gamarra annually, yet only 5 of the 250 sites in the region are protected.

Despite its status as a major site, Mirador is being devastated, with hundreds of archaeological sites being destroyed annually.

2 million tourists travel to or within Peru to see Machu Picchu, yet there are only three antiquities police officers in the Moche region of northern Peru where over a million people live.

The Global Heritage Fund calls upon Peru and other governments to divert visitors and revenues to local communities and lesser-visited sites. That is undoubtedly a good idea, but unlikely to be implemented. Even if it does get implemented, however, it is far from clear that local buy-in is sufficient in the absence of police. As we see in Egypt, even where the populace has a sense of the importance of archaeological heritage, there are always going to be criminals and hungry people who will have an incentive to loot. Governments need to spend more money for antiquities police.

The problem, of course, is that even countries as rich as the US don't spend the money they should to properly police their sites. For poorer countries the temptation to use tourist dollars for other more pressing social purposes is going to be even stronger. The solution is funding from overseas sources that is earmarked for building site policing capacity. What sources? The US State Department is unlikely to have any such funding available going forward (the Ambassador's Fund is under attack now by Republicans), so foundations, wealthy collectors, and museums are the only ones with the wherewithal.

Resistance to UNESCO Visit: Interference in Protecting Egypt's Heritage is "Antiquities Colonisation", Says Hawass

This is a painful article to read. One admires the patriotic spirit and sense of pride that leads Noureddin to assert that Egyptians "are totally able to protect our monuments" and that lead Hawass to reject offers by international organizations to help protect Egypt's heritage, and under normal circumstances these assertions and rejections would be warranted. But these aren't normal circumstances. Normally gangs of armed looters do not attack guarded sites or storehouses.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Public Archaeology Pays Dividends for Archaeologists

An interesting story about how non-archaeologists sensitized to the importance of digging things up properly have added to our scanty knowledge of America's prehistory.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

RIP Donny George Youkhanna

Word from Abdulamir Hamdani that Donny George has died. A great-hearted and brave soul, who put his life on the line to try to protect the Iraq National Museum in its most desperate hour, he is one of my heroes, and someone who deserves to be remembered and honored by the world.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Something the AAMD and AIA Could Do to Help Egyptian Archaeologists

A report in Nature on the risks to Egypt's heritage notes that

some break-ins, particularly those at storage warehouses, do seem to be targeting antiquities to be smuggled out of the country for sale on the international black market. "Some of this material has huge market value," says Malek. The warehouses hold material from archaeological digs, for example fragments of loose wall reliefs from tombs. Much of it has never been properly described or published, meaning that it will be impossible ever to know for sure what has been lost.
This last sentence is key, and points to a major failing on the part not just of Egypt but of the international community of archaeologists, museum directors, and others devoted to preserving the ancient past. Instead of merely providing "professional support to.. identify and reclaim missing objects", as the AIA/AAMD joint statement urges its members to do, these organizations should also be focusing on protecting what has not yet been stolen but is at risk. One step that could and should be taken immediately is to organize a crash program to at least create an archive of photos, if not full descriptions and publication (though they are trained to be fastidious, archaeologists should not let the best should be the enemy of the good here), for the huge number of artifacts that are piled up in Egypt's storerooms, warehouses and museums. Such a program might prove to be a useful pilot leading to similar efforts in other countries.

If cost is an issue, here's a suggestion. Collectors and dealers have long complained about the archaeological community's failure to publish finds, though these complaints have seldom if ever been accompanied by offers to underwrite the costs. Perhaps it is time for Kaywin Feldman and Elizabeth Bartman to sit down with Shelby White and Arthur Houghton. 

Monday, March 07, 2011

We're Going to Need More Guns

This report from Zahi Hawass (via Derek Fincham) is extremely disturbing. Even "well guarded" storage depots, in which guards have been armed with handguns, are vulnerable to attacks by gangs of automatic-weapon-wielding looters. The depot raided in this case contained finds from both Egyptian and British and French teams.

This is the first indication I have seen that guards have been armed at all; as noted in my post yesterday, Hawass has complained that his security is not armed. So this may be a step forward. But if so, it is clearly still inadequate, in ways that should easily have been anticipated. The basic modus operandi of Egyptian looters -- large gangs armed with automatic weapons -- mirrors the tactics employed in Iraq out on archaeological sites in the 2003-2007 period, when the antiquities board was not permitted to rebuild its site police and the US military ignored the problem, as the Egyptian military seems unfortunately to be doing here. In many cases in Iraq, as now in Egypt, site guards were driven off, or if not, were threatened with harm to themselves and to their families (the looters tended to be locals who knew the guards).

Some sites were protected in Iraq, however, by tribal groups that had longstanding relations with university-based archaeologists who paid the tribes to provide site security. One has to wonder whether the British or French made any effort to enlist some of the Egyptian locals they must have ties with, to try to beef up security at the depot. One also has to wonder what other foreign archaeologists are doing right now to help Egyptians protect the digs they may have worked on and the fruits of that work.

Those would just be stopgap measures. In the absence of police, only the Egyptian military can provide the kind of force needed to deter looting on a wide scale by large groups of determined looters armed with automatic weapons.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

1900 Security Police for Iraq's Archaeological Sites

Iraq announces a 1900-man security component to protect archaeological site and monuments. That's a big step forward from 106, but nowhere near the 5,000 that were supposed to be in place six months ago according to the 2008 plan to create this security force. As I have written about in Rape of Mesopotamia and on this blog, the 2008 plan itself was overdue about five years, a delay caused by the failure of the US to take responsibility for securing sites during its official occupation or to assist the Iraqis in standing up their own security force after the end of the official occupation. Let us hope that the Iraqis continue to build up this force to the levels needed to make Iraq once again one of the safest places for unexcavated antiquities in the Middle East.

Hawass: No Tourist Police, No Army on Sites

In a very illuminating interview, Zahi Hawass at long last makes clear how little power he wielded, despite his high public profile as head of an agency employing 30,000 responsible for one of Egypt's most important sources of revenue. The military, which had been protecting sites until 10 days ago, has withdrawn, but the tourist police have not filled the security gap, and Hawass now explains that the site guards under his control are unarmed and therefore incapable of protecting sites from gangs of looters:
people come with guns. They stand in front of my security people, who run away, because they are not armed. In the past, Police refused to give them weapons.
Assuming things are as bad as he claims (and there is no reason to think otherwise, since many of the sad facts he adduces here have been independently confirmed already by archaeologists), Hawass is to be commended for resigning under these conditions, and for using his resignation to call attention to the failure of the transitional military government to continue military security on sites. 

What can be done now by those outside Egypt who wish to help that country secure its heritage during this unstable phase in the democratic revolution? The answer can't just be to issue public statements deploring what is happening and calling on the Egyptian authorities to protect sites, as the AIA/AAMD press release does. While necessary, that is unlikely to have much effect on its own. And while these organizations rightly call on their own members to provide expertise supporting Egyptian efforts to identify and reclaim missing objects, curators and archaeologists are not trained in site security. One thing that the AAMD's member museums could do, however, would be to pull together resources -- money and their own best security people -- to at the very least try to hire locals to secure the storehouses and sites connected to archaeological digs that they have been jointly engaged in with the Egyptians. This need not, and probably cannot, involve buying AK-47s for site guards, as was done by some institutions and individuals for a few dig sites in Iraq; but many other steps short of that are doable.

But only the Egyptian military can really handle the security demands. We know that the Egyptian military has longstanding and strong professional connections with the US military, and that archaeologists have participated in joint military trainings in Egypt such as the Bright Star exercise. We also know that the Smithsonian has been developing new and potentially extremely valuable interagency links to the US military, largely as a result of the initiative spearheaded by the Smithsonian's Richard Kurin to bring disaster relief assistance for Haiti's cultural sector after the earthquake. It is these networks of relationships that the archaeological and museum community needs to somehow tap into. 

That means, for starters, a focus on:

  1. identifying and work contacts with the Egyptian military to urge them to deploy troops to secure sites.
  2. identifying and working contacts within the US military to urge them to contact their Egyptian counterparts to express concern about the security vacuum on archaeological sites.
  3. offering material support, not just in the form of archaeological expertise to put humpty dumpty together again, but also in ways that would make it easier for the Egyptians to secure and guard their sites. (Just to be clear: there is almost nothing the US military could do directly to help -- we have no deployable equivalent to the Italian carabinieri, and even if we did have such capability the Egyptian military would never countenance American troops being in a position where they might have to fire on Egyptian citizens. The support here would have to be in the form of financial and logistical support for whatever the Egyptian military says it needs.)