Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Zahi Hawass's Most Important Accomplishment: High-Res King Tut

Way back in 2008, I was invited to a conference being held in Alexandria, Egypt, about cultural heritage policy. There was a lot of talk about economic development through tourism, and a lot of quieter complaining about the damage tourists were doing to overvisited sites, and about inadequate budgets to enable the Supreme Council for Antiquities to do all it needed to do to protect, secure, and conserve its massive portfolio of sites and to improve its mostly dilapidated museums. One thing no one was talking about at that meeting was the possibility of tapping the vast revenue potential represented by image rights (except for trademarking the Pyramids, a pretty silly idea). I had run a conference several years earlier on the policy challenges of videogames and had learned that even then 3-D image-capturing was already beginning to be done, with the pilot project I recall being a 360-degree camera sweeping around the interior of Saint Peter's in Rome. It was not hard to imagine a huge demand by videogame makers and film makers for computer-generated graphics built out of laser-captured imagery allowing one to go into King Tut's tomb (imagine Spielberg wanting to make another Indiana Jones film and knowing he could have the "real" interior of the Pyramid of Giza if he paid a licensing fee). I raised this idea at the meeting, to resounding silence.

Little did I know that Zahi Hawass had already made a deal, back in 2002, for something like what I was suggesting. Only a decade later, the imagery is beginning to be made public. Here's a story about it. What's missing from the story is the economic boon the imagery represents. For that, one needs to go to the report by the company doing the work for the SCA. The key sentence is buried deep in the report, but is reassuring: "The copyright of the data will belong to the Supreme Council of Antiquities."

This might be the best thing that Zahi Hawass accomplished. It should pay dividends forever, and is a win-win-win: fragile tombs can be closed to save them from further degradation by overtouristing; licensing of image rights will bring in a substantial and permanently renewable revenue stream; and the ability of millions of people to see, in movies and videogames, the incredible beauty of Egyptian antiquity as never before shown to them will also act as a powerful advertising tool to spur future tourism.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Cellphones as Weapons Against Illicit (Antiquities) Networks: Google Ideas Has My Idea

Jason Felch, ahead of the pack as always, has posted on the Wikiloots facebook page links to an organization that looks as if it might actually be able to push forward the anti-looting agenda in a big way. Google Ideas, a self-described "think/do tank" spun off, it appears, by a few Google millionaires and run by a former State Department official, Jared Cohen, "convenes unorthodox stakeholders, commissions research, and seeds initiatives to explore the role that technology can play in tackling some of the toughest human challenges."

One of those challenge, as it happens, is illicit networks, about which the site says:

The persistence of illicit networks—including organized crime, narcotics, human trafficking, arms trafficking, terrorism, and cybercrime—affects every country and every demographic. While various illicit networks may differ from each other in terms of the goods they move and the objectives they pursue, their tactics are often remarkably similar.
Illicit networks strive for maximum secrecy and efficiency to evade law enforcement. Despite all of this, most efforts to investigate and intercept illicit networks have been siloed rather than holistic, depriving those who seek to combat them of opportunities to learn from one another. 
The increasing ubiquity of connection technologies will both empower those driving illicit networks as well as the citizens seeking to curb them. These networks have been around for centuries, but one thing has changed—the vast majority of people now have a mobile device, empowering citizens with the potential to disrupt the secrecy, discretion, and fear that allow illicit networks to persist. As illicit networks grow in scope and complexity, society’s strategy to reduce their negative impact must draw on the tremendous power of technology.
In brief: use social networks powered by cellphone technology to force into visibility looters, smugglers, dealers, and collectors of illicit antiquities. Since this is basically what I have been urging for the past several years on this blog, I am thrilled to find the basic concept is being thought about by people with the means to realize it.

My joy is tempered and made a bit bittersweet, however, by the knowledge that antiquities are not mentioned (at least not so far as I can discern, though I'd be happy to be shown otherwise) in the very minimal copy provided on the organization's site. This is all the more depressing because it turns out that Jared Cohen has direct experience of looted antiquities. He was the point person for the Google project to put the Iraq National Museum's artifacts online, a task that led him to visit Baghdad. Was he apprised then of the massive looting of archaeological sites by his State Department colleagues? I wrote at the time that the failure to get Google engaged in trying to help the Iraqis monitor their archaeological sites was a major missed opportunity. It would be terrible to miss the chance this time round as well. So if anyone reading this knows how to get hold of Jared Cohen, please pass along the heartfelt hope that he and Google Ideas will recognize that illicit antiquities networks would make an excellent candidate for a proof-of-concept.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Antiquities Looting: An American Phenonemon

It is salutary to be reminded that antiquities looting is not a function of ignorance on the part of uneducated people, nor of poverty. It occurs not just in those countries that collectors love to blame for the fact that their archaeological heritage is being pillaged for sale to those same collectors, but also right here where those collectors live.

Petroglyphs have been stolen from a sacred site in California. The looters were not acting on a whim:

The theft required extraordinary effort: Ladders, electric generators and power saws had to be driven into the remote and arid high desert site near Bishop. Thieves gouged holes in the rock and sheared off slabs that were up to 15 feet above ground and 2 feet high and wide.
All this effort, despite the fact that according to authorities, "the petroglyphs aren't worth a great deal on the illicit market, probably $500 to $1,500 each."

A few thousand dollars in value is more than enough to get a gang to organize a well-planned, lengthy operation.

What is to be done?
...desecration of the site, which Native Americans still use in spiritual ceremonies, has forced reservation officials and U.S. authorities to come together and ask a tough question: Can further vandalism be prevented?
"How do we manage fragile resources that have survived as much as 10,000 years but can be destroyed in an instant?" asked archaeologist David Whitley, who in 2000 wrote the nomination that succeeded in getting the site listed on the National Register of Historic Places. "Do we keep them secret in hopes that no one vandalizes them? Or, do we open them to the public so that visitors can serve as stewards of the resources?"
The easy answer is to police the site and others listed under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. But that's not possible given the condition of cash-strapped federal lands agencies, authorities said.
Forget about Greece -- the US is too poor (or to be accurate, too cheap) to afford to police its own heritage.

What then can be done? One answer is given in the article:
The site is one of dozens of such locations managed by the BLM office in Bishop. A small army of volunteers has stepped up surveillance of the area.
 Enlisting citizens to help keep an eye on sites has to be on the agenda for all future cultural heritage protection planning, whether here or in other countries. But, as I have argued repeatedly, the key to solving the problem has to be some new funding mechanism to beef up cash-strapped agencies' capacities to watch over sites and deter looters.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Want to secure a site? Use mines! Want to monitor it? Use kites!

Fascinating story on the fabled site at Carcemish, on the Turkey/Syria border. Its precarous position has  paradoxically meant it was protected by mines meant to deter aggression but happily also deterring looters. Now archaeologists are getting overhead shots by sending up kites. Now all we need are cameras that can upload those images automatically so kiteflying citizens can crowdsource site monitoring. 

Friday, October 26, 2012

Looting on Demand, Shipping Included!

ICE announces the return to Mexico of more than 4,000 antiquities. While it is not clear from the press release what the time frame is within which these pieces were seized, the dates indicated imply that the period is probably 2009 onward. Most interesting is the level of detail the ICE offers about how, why, and for whom such artifacts are being smuggled. Some were seized coming over the Mexican border, but others were discovered in cargo being shipped from Sweden to San Diego, or even from Chicago.

One detail sheds important light on the way in which archaeological looting in poorer "source" countries is driven by the demand side in wealthy "market" countries -- and not just spontaneously, but in some cases intentionally as an organized business:

HSI special agents seized 26 pieces of pottery greater than 1,500 years-old following an investigation in Kalispell, Mont., regarding a consignor who had paid members of the Tarahumara tribe to loot artifacts from burial caves in the Copper Canyon area of Chihuahua, Mexico, so he could consign them in a local art gallery.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Antiquities Auction Houses Must Now Reveal the Names of Sellers

I am not a lawyer, and look forward to hearing what Derek Fincham, Stephen Urice, Patti Gerstenblith, Rick St. Hilaire, and other legal scholars make of this new ruling. If it sticks it will make it far easier for researchers and police to track the chain of ownership for dodgy antiquities, which should be helpful.

Beyond creating transparency in at least one area of the market for antiquities, however, the ruling, one hopes, will give policymakers a reason to start thinking more carefully about how that market could and should be regulated in ways that do the most possible to prevent looting of archaeological sites (i.e., not just by keeping illicit pieces off the licit market via registration of antiquities -- something one assumes collectors and dealers might now support -- but harnessing the power of the licit market to help pay, via a dedicated tax, for the policing of the illicit market).

The Middle Eastern Geodatabase: A Monitoring System, But Can It Monitor Looters and Armies?

Timothy Whalen, Director of the Getty Conservation Institute, comments on my earlier post,

"This Is the Future of Archaeological Site Protection. Are Heritage Protection Advocates Listening?":

You call on the Getty to step in, but neglect to mention the important work the Getty and its partners are doing in the Middle East to help countries manage and monitor their cultural heritage.
The Middle Eastern Geodatabase for Antiquities, or MEGA, is a bilingual Arabic-English, Web-based national geographic information system created by the Getty Conservation Institute with its partner the World Monuments Fund to assist heritage officials in inventorying, monitoring, and managing the Middle East’s vast number of archaeological sites. We helped the Jordanian Department of Antiquities (DoA) customize it for Jordan, where it was called MEGA-J. The DoA deployed MEGA–Jordan nationwide in April 2011. (getty.edu/conservation/our_projects/field_projects/jordan/mega_overview.html)
The GCI and WMF also have adapted and made MEGA available for use by the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. Its implementation in Iraq has been delayed due to administrative changes in the country.
The MEGA system, which incorporates internationally accepted documentation standards, can be customized and is designed for adaptation and use by other countries. It uses open source software that does not impose licensing fees on financially strapped antiquities authorities.
Despite ongoing conflict in the region, we continue to work on projects in the area to aid heritage professionals in a variety of other ways as well.
As recently as July, a group of Syrian heritage professionals participated in training in Rome as part of MOSAIKON, a partnership of the GCI, the Getty Foundation, ICCROM, and the International Committee for the Conservation of Mosaics to conserve Roman mosaic pavements and manage archaeological sites in the Mediterranean region through strategic targeting of priorities and deployment of resources.
The first phase of MOSAIKON began in 2008. The partners will shortly be undertaking an evaluation to ensure that the strategy is meeting its objectives. The results of this evaluation will inform subsequent phases of work.
I have noted the MEGA system in earlier blogs as a very positive innovation, a helpful tool for longterm management and conservation of archaeological sites. But so far as I can tell (and I would be delighted to hear otherwise), the MEGA system is intended to help governments do a better job planning for development and to address longterm encroachment or ecological challenges, important problems but not the same as the problems of looting and war-related destruction. MEGA seems not so well designed to do what I am begging the Getty and other defenders of cultural heritage to develop the tools to make it possible to do: facilitate the realtime visual monitoring that could identify looting as it is happening and deter militaries from moving operations onto sites. 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Syrian rebels helping move museum's holdings to safety

Interesting story showing that the Syrian rebels are aware of the importance of protecting cultural heritage, and that they are also aware of the importance of showing themselves protecting cultural heritage. It would probably have been even more effective as propaganda had the report not also mentioned that the rebels are using the museum as a base themselves.

Interested in getting a PhD or Masters researching the illicit antiquities trade?

An opportunity from the Trafficking Culture folks:
Trafficking Culture aims to produce an evidence-based picture of the contemporary global trade in looted cultural objects. This research programme is based at the University of Glasgow and is funded by the European Research Council.We very much welcome communication from researchers and others interested in the topic. For general communication please get in touch with us using the form on the Contact page, or if you want to contact a particular member of the team you’ll find individual email addresses listed on our People pages.
The Trafficking Culture project is always interested in particular in hearing from potential students for our PhD and Research Masters programmes. There are a number of funding bodies that may provide support for students wishing to explore topics related to our project. If you are interested in studying with us, please forward a brief synopsis of your proposed research (not more than three pages) plus a CV to the Trafficking Culture post-graduate coordinator.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Heritage Tourism and Economic Development, 6,000 BC

Evidence that heritage tourism spurred economic development, even 8,000 years ago:

The settlers used the cave as a shelter, a cemetery and a sacred worship place. The population expanded outside of the cave and bloomed into an early urban center. The pottery and “ancient people’s garbage” the settlers left behind are the strongest evidence of a densely populated village, Parkinson said. A two-by-two meter unit revealed more than 30 pounds of pottery. The archaeologists unearthed materials and pottery styles from different regions, which indicate economic activity and a mingling of cultures.
“If you’re in an area where there is more trade more interaction, there’s more variety in not just in food, but in life and the people you meet,” Parkinson said. People may have gravitated toward Alepotrypa just for the sake of “wanting to live together.” But Parkinson said all life in Alepotrypa abruptly ended, around 5,000 years ago, when the cave’s population was most dense and dynamic. The cave entrance collapsed, possibly due to an earthquake. The cave’s occupants were buried alive.
“It’s sealed,” Parkinson said. “And it’s not opened again until the 1950s.”
After the collapse, settlers outside the cave fled the peninsula. Even today, the area surrounding the cave is scarcely populated.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Who Are the Looters? An Example from El Hibeh

Egyptologist Carol Redmount, who has led efforts to draw attention to looting at the site of El Hibeh in Egypt, reports on the facebook site "Save El Hibeh Egypt" that 

apparently two or three months ago several MSA inspectors went to visit El Hibeh and were threatened by Abu Kotia, the 'criminal" who has been overseeing the looting of Hibeh. He told them if they returned to Hibeh he would kill them. Then, about two weeks ago, Abu Kotia was shot (by whom I'm not sure) and wound up in the local hospital, where he died. I'm still trying to get further details. I very much hope that this means the looting at Hibeh has or will stop, but who knows at this point. If and when I get more details I will post them. I have heard rumors of items from Hibeh being for sale in Cairo and Luxor, but I haven't been able to confirm any of them. 
The lack of investigative journalistic coverage of this extremely scary story is almost as depressing as what the story itself tells us about who the looters are (hint: not just otherwise nice people driven to dig by poverty who could easily be convinced to go legal if only they were given a stake in sustainable tourism). As is the case in every other country where there is a lot of money to be made by digging and trafficking antiquities, mafiosi will bring violence to bear if and when needed to keep their business going. 

What that means is that securing sites from looters is not a task to be left to antiquities inspectors alone -- it requires real police with adequate authority and the training, weapons, transport, surveillance and communications gear to keep the bad guys away or arrest them. As I have said before on many occasions, however, most countries -- and especially Egypt given its drastic loss of tourism revenues during the past year -- do not have the resources to pay for better policing. The monies needed could, on the other hand, be generated by a "sin" or "pollution" style tax imposed on licit purchases of high-priced Egyptian antiquities in the US, Great, Britain, and other countries. 

Someday, I believe some such tax will be recognized by dealers, collectors, and museum directors as their best hope to transform relations between themselves and countries like Egypt that rightly see the illicit trade and the violence that accompanies it as the fault of those who collect -- even with a "clean hands" approach, since the enormous sums paid for licit pieces signal criminals that similar but unprovenanced objects must be worth enough to justify looting.

In the meantime, what can concerned Egyptians, Egyptologists, and heritage protection advocates do to help stop the bad guys? Investigative journalism is clearly too dangerous right now, or there would have been reporting done on what is clearly a highly colorful story. We need to do our own reporting, insofar as that is possible without putting lives in danger. Is there any way to empower Egyptians who live near the sites to anonymously crowdsource monitor (i.e., get Google or some other tech leader to design and then provide Egyptologists in Egypt with lots of cellphones designed to enable uploading of photos, phones that could be disseminated to local Egyptian citizens)?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Provenance of the Jesus' Wife Papyrus Doesn't Pass the Smell Test

File this in under "antiquities: fishy provenance": The NY Times explains how it is that the fragment of papyrus containing the tantalizing references to Jesus' wife came to Harvard:

Dr. King first learned about what she calls “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” when she received an e-mail in 2010 from a private collector who asked her to translate it. Dr. King, 58, specializes in Coptic literature, and has written books on the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Mary of Magdala, Gnosticism and women in antiquity. 
The owner, who has a collection of Greek, Coptic and Arabic papyri, is not willing to be identified by name, nationality or location, because, Dr. King said, “He doesn’t want to be hounded by people who want to buy this.” 
When, where or how the fragment was discovered is unknown. The collector acquired it in a batch of papyri in 1997 from the previous owner, a German. It came with a handwritten note in German that names a professor of Egyptology in Berlin, now deceased, and cited him calling the fragment “the sole example” of a text in which Jesus claims a wife.

So a professor of Egyptology, now conveniently dead, told the previous owner, also now conveniently dead, this bombshell information, and the previous owner then did not announce the astounding fact to the world or try to donate the fragment to a museum or put it up on the market for millions, but instead sold the papyri privately to another owner who kept it for 13 years before asking the Harvard prof to translate it. As they say on Saturday Night Live, oh realllly?!

It would be interesting to know whether Dr. King raised any questions or an eyebrow when told this tale, but it would appear not, since she seems to be passing it on as if it were simply to be taken at face value. Don't look a gift horse in the mouth.

The owner could certainly answer some questions by authorities that might make it possible to retrace the trail the owner describes, and perhaps eventually lead to the discovery of other pieces of the fragment. On the other hand, we might well learn that the provenance provided is a cover story. But of course, none of these questions can be posed, since the owner is remaining anonymous becausehe doesn't want to be hounded, Dr King tells us, by buyers.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

This Is the Future of Archaeological Site Protection. Are Heritage Protection Advocates Listening?

40 hours, a GPS tracker, a radio transmitter, and a used video camera. Cost: about $300. Results: the equivalent of an almost-realtime satellitelike monitor's view. This is exactly the kind of cheap, individually-launchable technology that could with a bit of tweaking allow heritage protection advocates to watch over remote sites where looters dig with impunity because antiquities police have inadequate intelligence about what is happening where, or where, as in Syria today, parties to armed conflict are themselves doing the looting to fund their fights and the international community has no way to assign blame because the visual proof is lacking. (Had such technology been available and deployed in Iraq, where for several years the only way to find out what was happening on the archaeological sites was to risk being kidnapped as Micah Garen and Susanne Osthoff both were, those of us who were hearing anecdotal reports of massive looting might have been able to confront US policymakers with embarrassing visual evidence and forced the US military to address the problem instead of sweeping it under the rug.)

The supporters of heritage protection -- UNESCO, ICOM, ICOMOS, ICCROM, archaeological organizations such as the AIA, SAA, and others, foundations, deep-pocketed museums like James Cuno's Getty and the Metropolitan, and wealthy collectors with consciences, the Smithsonian, etc. -- should be focusing now on this very doable technological advancement. Why not go to Google and ask them to sponsor a contest with a prize for the best invention in the field of remote site monitoring?

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

The Impact of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Antiquities Trade: Not Much Now, Not Much Likely Later

Souren Melikian offers a rosy-tinted view of the impact the 1970 UNESCO Convention is having on the antiquities trade. There is no doubt that the visible market is being impacted to some extent, though Melikian's evidence is purely anecdotal, and as Nord Wennerstrom points out, a glance at the auction catalogues shows that there are still a great number of unprovenanced pieces going up on the block. Mackenzie and Brodie's crew is likely to weigh in soon with authoritative statistics making clear that we have a long way to go before the auction houses have clean hands.

But even if we were to reach a point at which auction houses sold only adequately provenanced antiquities, it is far from clear that this would have all that much effect on looting, because:

a) a lot of the trade in antiquities is done privately, so that it seems very likely that as the trade cleans up its public image the more dodgy pieces will simply not be brought to auction or advertised but will continue to be bought and sold in the back rooms (as, for instance, Dr Arnold Peter Weiss attempted to do recently at the national coin convention with coins he thought were stolen);
b) Melikian's claim that "dealers are paying attention" is so weak that even Melikian offers no evidence beyond the fact that Jerome Eisenberg returned illicitly excavated antiquities (not so surprisingly, Melikian omits to add that Eisenberg only returned the pieces after being pointedly requested to do so by Italian authorities);
c) not all collectors plan to sell what they collect or to give it to a museum, at least not during their lifetimes, and such collectors are therefore unlikely to give a damn whether or not the auction house or museum is unwilling to handle the pieces they love; 
d) there are many deep-pocketed collectors in other countries where there is little concern about the Convention, and as the number of millionaires in non-Western countries skyrockets they will almost certainly take up any slack created by the reduction in demand for unprovenanced antiquities by Western collectors; 
e) as ethical collectors increasingly are willing to pay a premium for kosher antiquities, the higher prices commanded for high-end antiquities with pristine provenance will provide powerful signals to looters that similar pieces will almost certainly be worth digging up even if not quite as much as the kosher pieces (if one figurine is worth $57 million on the licit market, surely a similar illicit one will be worth at least hundreds of thousands).

The point I am trying to make is two-fold: the licit market is far, far from being sealed off from the illicit one, and even if it   could be the illicit market would continue to exist. That does not mean we should give up on the 1970 UNESCO Convention and say, "provenance be damned." It means that we need to go beyond just establishing a strictly licit market to begin thinking about how the power of that market could be used to pay for the policing needed not just to keep it licit but to crush the black market and secure archaeological sites around the world.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Protecting Cultural Heritage: The Burnham Plan

Bonnie Burnham, president of the World Monuments Fund, has weighed in on "Protecting Cultural Heritage: Lessons from the Syrian Conflict." Her words carry added weight because they are posted on the Huffington Post and thereby are reaching an audience magnitudes of order larger than any normally available to those of us who care about protecting cultural heritage in times of armed conflict. This is an all-too-rare opportunity not just to alert the public to the terrible damage being done in Syria (there have been a fair number of media reports already about the destruction), but to offer specific, pointed, and actionable policy proposals laying out things that could or should be done to minimize future damage, in Syria and other future conflicts.

Unfortunately, this is an opportunity missed. Though Burnham does offer three suggestions, they are vague and unrealistic proposals:
The international community must do more to address the issue of protecting cultural patrimony during conflicts. Plans should be in place before conflicts escalate. The more-than 100 countries that have ratified the Hague Convention should examine the possibilities of more strenuous enforcement. In the immediate aftermath of conflict, neutral bodies should sequester and protect cultural sites from further damage, as the U.S. Army's famous Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Unit did following World War II.
Let's take these one at a time.

"Plans should be in place before conflicts escalate."Agreed, but the passive voice leaves unclear just who should be making such contingency plans, and no indication is given of what such plans might or should include. That is all the more disappointing given that Burnham contributed a chapter to Antiquities Under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection after the Iraq War, a volume which includes a number of planning recommendations by a range of experts. And since that book came out, we have learned more, from the experiences of Libya (where shepherds were permitted to graze their flocks on World Heritage sites in exchange for keeping guard there) and Cairo (where Egyptians formed a human chain to protect their museum), about how local citizens might be encouraged or enlisted in advance to be prepared to come to the aid of their cultural heritage when the going gets rough.

That sort of direct action, of course, involves risks, and in Syria today it would probably be too dangerous for it to make sense to ask locals to put their lives on the line at many sites. Even in Syria, however, some sites far from any fighting are now at risk of looting and could have been protected had heritage officials in Syria, and foreign archaeologists who are now shut out from the country, managed to develop local networks to be called upon.

"The more-than 100 countries that have ratified the Hague Convention should examine the possibilities of more strenuous enforcement." That would be nice, since the enforcement mechanisms now attached to the Convention are, to put it mildly, weak. But enforcing Hague would be of little help in cases such as Libya, where the loophole of "military necessity" would get the Assad the regime off the hook for most of the damage it is doing, and where the rebels do not constitute a state (much less a state party to the Convention). The 1954 Hague Convention was designed to deal with the actions of armies battling each other on battlefields, not with irregular civil warfare conducted in the midst of population centers.

What could dissuade or at least discourage both sides in Syria from fighting each other for control of militarily advantageous sites that also happen to be World Heritage sites? Changing the Convention to do away with the military necessity loophole will never happen. Short of that the only strategy that stands any chance of success would be one that calls upon specific states that are backing each side of the conflict to use their leverage to make clear to those they support that if evidence emerges that they were the first to move onto a protected site there will be a cost to be paid in terms of reduced military assistance (and vice versa). 

Of course, such evidence is very hard to come by and evaluate. What is needed, and what Burnham and other heritage advocates should be pushing hard for, is the development of new technologies capable of providing reliable and verifiable real-time monitoring of sites. This is an area where huge advances are easily imaginable -- for example, cellphone users in Syria could be enabled to upload images that would also automatically geocode information and that could then be collated to provide a crowd-sourced dossier. It would be great if the UN could take the lead on such a program, but the funding is lacking. If I were Burnham, I would get together a posse with other heritage protection advocates and make a pitch to Google and Getty for money for that sort of thing. 

"In the immediate aftermath of conflict, neutral bodies should sequester and protect cultural sites from further damage, as the U.S. Army's famous Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Unit did following World War II." This is one suggestion I endorse, though it would have little impact on the kinds of conflicts we are seeing now. Remember, the Monuments Men were part of a gigantic military operation that was pushing an occupier out and setting up its own occupation, not a neutral body, and they were able to protect sites from further military-related damage because they had the ear and support of military commanders. In principle, a UN-negotiated cease-fire might enable the carabinieri or other militarized cultural police to be dropped in, and developing a standing international force capable of joining in peacekeeping operations is an objective worth pursuing, especially because such a force might be able to do important work preventing looting by civilians (something else the 1954 Hague Convention did not anticipate becoming the major problem it is today). But this would have to be done very gingerly, since what counts as "neutral" to internationalists may appear very differently to nationalists, as we know from the fate of the carabinieri's heritage protection units, who were driven out of Iraq after a number of these brave souls were killed by insurgents.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Syrian Archaeological Looting: A Wake-Up Call for Archaeologists, Heritage Protection Advocates, and Collectors

One of the myriad terrible consequences of the 2003 Iraq invasion was to give rise to a mode of archaeological looting new to the Middle East -- neither ad hoc "substinence" dirtscratching by impoverished locals, nor a side-occupation for "tombaroli" whom tomb robbing was a cottage industry or family business, but an organized crime operation: highly organized, international in scope and multinational in reach, aimed at high-end artifacts (including those in museums and on well-known sites). We know that an Iraqi gang shifted its operations to Tunisia during the tumult there, and now there is a report by an Italian archaeologist who had been running a dig in Syria that a similar group seems to be operating there.

The Syrian government shut down all 80 foreign excavations, this report notes. Were the archaeologists prescient enough to have tried to develop ties to locals in previous years that might have proven helpful now as possible sources of site protection? Was such interaction even possible under the conditions of digging in Syria under the Assad regime? In any case, archaeologists working anywhere, but especially in brittle, fragile, or weak states should be thinking hard now about what if anything they could do to stop their own sites from being ruined in the chaos that accompanies armed conflicts.

And, as the fighting and looting goes on in and around Syria's heritage sites, with horrific results for the sites (leaving aside the human toll, which of course is infinitely more terrible), it may be time for heritage policy to start paying less attention to sustainable preservation through tourism, whether of the World Heritage kind championed by UNESCO and the Global Heritage Fund or the little-visited-site kind championed by the Sustainable Preservation Initiative, and more attention to the less happy but arguably more critical problem of how sites can be secured when there is no state to provide security.

The fact that even World Heritage sites are being shelled by the Syrian government, presumably because rebels are taking up positions in them, also points to the need of UNESCO and the international community of heritage advocacy groups to wake up to the reality that the international conventions designed to protect cultural heritage in times of armed conflict are not working well and need to be updated and strengthened. One way they might be improved, as I have argued elsewhere, would be new rules requiring countries to contribute to an international fund to support site protection efforts of all sorts, and to agree to regulate their antiquities markets (of course, a regulated market could also be taxed to generate the contributions to the international fund). Unfortunately, UNESCO itself is in no position to stir the policy pot, and heritage advocacy organizations have little clout. We may need to wait for a wealthy collector or cultural institution to provide the leadership needed to focus on this issue properly. In the meantime, the world of the ancient past is disintegrating day by day.


Friday, August 03, 2012

Fake Antiquities: A Weapon against Illicit Dealers, or a Tool for Them?

The notion that high-quality fakes might ruin the illicit antiquities market, floated by UCLA archaeologist Chip Stanish in an important article, has taken a couple of hits recently. First there was the arrest and conviction of Arnold Peter Weiss for hawking coins he believed were genuine but which turned out to be fakes. Now comes the Kapoor case and word that the dealer mixed up real antiquities amongst fakes in order to get them by Indian customs:

The paperwork would say they were all fakes. They used those to get them out of India,” a source is reported as saying.


Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Why it is Pollyannaish to imagine that antiquities looting can be stopped if onlycated about the relationship between antiquities and their own country's history

It is not uncommon to hear archaeologists and cultural heritage advocates argue that looting stems largely from ignorance on the part of locals about the past they are destroying, and that the best way to stop those who would dig is to educate them to care about and embrace heritage as their own. That view is difficult to square with this news report about metal detectorists digging on the battleground at Gettysburg.


Thursday, July 05, 2012

The Weiss Case: another shoe still to drop?

Brown professor of orthopedics Arnold-Peter Weiss has pled guilty to trying to sell a coin he told an undercover Customs agent was a "fresh coin... dug up a few years ago" -- in other words, a coin he knew (or at least believed) to be stolen. That is not the sort of behavior one would expect from a collector respected enough to be named a trustee of the American Numismatic Society and to have formerly sat on the board of the Harvard University Art Museums, and certainly not what one would expect to go on during the International Numismatic Convention at the Waldorf-Astoria. Ironically, the coin, along with two other extremely rare coins Weiss planned to sell, were revealed to be fakes when tested using electron microscopy.

Weiss' downfall bears some resemblance to the conviction upheld in 2003 of Frederick Schultz, the former president of the National Association of Dealers in Ancient, Oriental, and Primitive Art, though as Rick St-Hilaire notes, it marks the opening of a new prosecutorial front, having been argued at the state rather than federal level. The penalty also differs markedly: Schultz went to jail for years on a felony rap, while Weiss pled down to a misdemeanor (for trying to sell a knowingly stolen coin he valued at over $300,000!), and got off relatively lightly with 70 hours of community service, a $3000 fine, and forfeiture of 20 other ancient coins. In addition, in a brilliant decision, the judge has ordered Weiss to write an article for a coin collecting magazine warning of the risks of dealing in coins of unknown or looted provenance.

That should send a shiver through the ranks of coin dealers, though for the more hardened dealers the lesson learned may be only to not be stupid enough to say what Weiss said, in talking about provenance. Collectors, on the other hand, are likely to be deeply troubled by the discovery that even experts asked by prosecutor Matthew Bogdanos to vet the coins mistakenly declared them genuine. SAFECorner suggests that this case may "prompt coin dealers, auctioneers and collectors to agree that verifiable provenances and scientific testing are necessary for all coins above a certain price level." I would agree that collectors will be more aware now than before that they need coins scientifically tested for authenticity, but like dealers they will probably also become more wary about talking about provenance rather than more demanding verification of the source of a coin they covet.

The most interesting remaining aspect of the case is flagged by the following pregnant facts:

*the sentence was exactly what the prosecutor recommended to the judge, following a plea bargain

*the prosecutor did not simply accept the judgment of experts but chose to do further testing using the electron microscope

*there was no recommendation made by the prosecutor to destroy the forgeries, nor did the judge order them to be destroyed

*the dealer who purportedly sold the coins to Weiss was not charged

Did Weiss flip? What led Bogdanos to test the coins after having solicited expert opinions? Is the dealer now being sweated? Clearly, there are indications there is more to come.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Harvard, MFA Unveil Virtual 3D Tour Of Ancient Egyptian Pyramids

Now you will be able to fly around and into pyramids. Fabulous, and educationally potentially wonderful! It would be interesting to know though whether the revenues that one can imagine could and will be generated by selling the trip to Giza to virtual tourists -- and the much larger revenues one imagines lie down the road once this academic tool gets turned into Sim Pyramid or Grand Theft Chariot or the obvious Raiders-of-the-Lost Ark videogame -- are going to be shared with the Egyptian SCA to help it better protect the actual sites, or whether the software company is going to pocket the profits. At a meeting I attended a few years ago in Alexandria I suggested that the SCA could raise quite a lot of money by licensing image capture rights to the videogame industry, and got blank stares. Let's hope they haven't gotten snookered.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Iraq using satellites to monitor archaeological sites

The Tourism Authority, it is reported, has set up a special department to control and monitor areas using satellite imaging. That sounds promising. It is difficult to assess what this means, however, especially as the measure is being presented in the context of complaints about inadequate funding. Satellite monitoring, if it is to be done in a timely enough way to nip looting in the bud, is likely to be quite expensive, and the site monitoring systems being deployed in other countries in the region have turned out to entail image gathering once every six months or so, despite being hyped as anti-looting tools. So if the time series is short, Iraq's new satellite monitoring may well be a valuable way to extend the capabilities of the antiquities police, but we need to learn more. And the cost-benefit analysis needs to be done as well. Are these images going to be costing Iraq money to purchase, or is Google (or whoever the source is) donating them?

Sunday, April 29, 2012

What's that on the ground next to the hole? Oh, a mummy's foot...

Stunning photos have been put up on this facebook page by Egyptologists hoping to draw attention to ongoing looting, especially at the archaeological site of El Hibbeh. The question, though, is how the revulsion that such imagery generates could be converted into activism that might have some impact in restoring security to the sites in Egypt. Putting pressure on the Egyptian government is of course one possible way to use the anger, but how much impact do petitions have, especially if they are filled with the names of foreigners? Moreover, it is far from clear, at least from Chicago, who within the Egyptian government has the power to bring security to the sites. Is there anything that could be done to help Egyptians on a people-to-people level bypassing the government? Are there non-governmental groups of Egyptian citizens whose efforts could be enhanced by contributions? Would a Kickstarter-style campaign be able to pool such contributions towards something concrete, i.e., a site guard fund? Other suggestions for alternative approaches to channeling outrage are welcome.

PhD Opportunity in Cultural Policy and Place at University of Leicester

It is heartening to see opportunities like this beginning to appear, as the need for better-informed, data/research/theory-driven cultural policy is increasingly recognized. 

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Hot Conversation on Jason Felch's new Wikiloot Facebook site

There is a very interesting set of discussions unfolding now on the Wikiloot Facebook group that Jason Felch has started to get input into a new project. David Gill, Fabio Isman, Stefano Allesandrini, Derek Fincham, and others who know whereof they speak are mixing it up.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Turkey's Ministry of Culture has decided that "artifacts which have been brought to museums and have not been claimed by valid owners... can be valued by a specially formed commission and sold." That should make private collectors happy, at least Turkish ones (I do not know off the top of my head what the export rules are in Turkey), but it is, like deaccessioning in general, a loss to the public whose interest in access to antiquities museums ought to be protecting. The public interest could be protected and indeed enhanced if museums adhered to a policy of selling deaccessioned pieces only to other museums where they can be curated and displayed.

The Ministry's response to criticism seems to track this consideration:

The Ministry of Culture and Tourism defended the new measures in a press release which expressed the ministry’s hope that the changes would allow for a better management of artifacts and avoid situations where items are forgotten or lost track of. The aim of the change in law is not to ship off items for cash, but to open new avenues for the exhibition of artifacts which are not being put to use or valued in other institutes, the statement said.

The translation is a little ragged, but if sales are only to other "institutes" rather than to private collectors, it might not be such a bad thing, even if it does do some harm by sending a price signal to looters as well. On the other hand, there is a real possibility that museums might get hooked on the income generated by deaccessioning looted-but-recovered antiquities, and one can imagine a nightmarish situation of corruption developing in which secondary sites are looted to provide a stream of disposable pieces, with the looters being paid off by kickbacks from curators after the pieces sell.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

"We have to support better policing of the sites", says the new Getty Museum Director. What does he have in mind?

Lee Rosenbaum has a disturbingly revealing Q and A with Timothy Potts on the new Getty Museum director's views on antiquities collecting policy. I happen to agree with Potts that even with the 1970 rule now being adhered to by American museums, "there is still a huge amount of ongoing looting and this issue is not being addressed." I also agree that

The only way to address it is on the ground in the source countries. We have to support better policing of the sites, better understanding by the local communities of the importance of the archaeological heritage, particularly to them. And it's only through these programs that we're really going to tackle the core problem, which is the illicit excavation that's still going on and the huge urban projects, dam building, and so on.

What would it mean to "support better policing of the sites"? One thing it might mean is that the Getty would urge new policies here in the US that would generate funding to help poor countries pay for better policing. For example, the Getty might join forces with some of the most wealthy collectors, dealers, and other major museums with deep-pocketed boards, to establish an endowment for site protection; or the Getty might spearhead an effort along with collectors to expand the Getty Conservation Institute's important new Middle Eastern Geodatabase for Antiquities, by subsidizing the creation of local volunteer site monitoring groups to feed realtime information about looting into it; or the Getty might push for the licit antiquities trade in the US to be regulated and purchases by Americans whether here or abroad taxed to provide funding that would support better policing of the sites.

Unfortunately, the concluding sentence of Potts' answer makes clear that what he has in mind is none of these things. Instead, the burden is placed on the citizens and governments of countries being looted. It is ultimately, for Potts, a matter of educating the benighted: "The educational process has to happen not only with the local community but also with the government and ministers." That is an extraordinarily impolitic attitude, one likely to enrage governments and ministers struggling to stem the tide of looting in the midst of massive cuts in their budgets. The Italians and Greeks, certainly, are hardly ignorant about their country's archaeological heritage. What they need is not education but material support for more and better monitoring, site police, and the like.

If Potts' position on what the Getty could do to "support better policing of the sites" is disappointingly weak-kneed, his position on the clean-hands policy that the Getty and other museums now follow is downright retrograde. As Rosenbaum reminds him (and us), Potts had supported a rolling 10-year statute of limitations on the ban on buying unprovenanced antiquities. That position was rejected for the quite obvious reason that it would give thieves an easy way to loot with impunity: simply warehouse your finds for a decade. But Potts has not taken the point:

ROSENBAUM: Do you still think the "rolling 10-year rule," which you supported, was a good idea or have you revised your thinking on that?

POTTS: Has my thinking evolved? No. I think the same issues are still there. The difference between the policies is the extent to which they prioritize the question of what happens to the material that, through no fault of its own, is discovered through development, through road-building, through accidental discoveries of all different kinds. And that is the majority of the category we're talking about. [There is no data to support that claim, of course, and in any case, whether discovered accidentally or not, antiquities ought not to be removed from their contexts without previous site documentation by archaeologists.]
The 10-year rule was an attempt to find a way of putting enough distance between the excavation of the object---by someone who shouldn't have been doing it, in some cases---and the acquisition, but to still provide a mechanism where it could be properly documented, recorded, published and therefore could make its contribution to the understanding of the culture.

The later policy clearly took the view that this was less of a priority than the clarity of a single line and date of 1970. There's no inconsistency between those policies. They're just weighing those two different considerations slightly differently.

ROSENBAUM: I think the first policy was seen as essentially giving an opportunity for object-laundering: You hold it for long enough time, and then it becomes clean. That's what the critique of that policy was.

POTTS: Both policies say that if they've been held long enough, it is okay to buy them. They're just drawing that line at different points: One's a fixed line and one's a moving line.

Potts' geometry is incoherent, reflecting the incoherence of his claim that there is no real difference between the moving ten-year limit and the line drawn at 1970.

This is not to say that the 1970 rule cannot be criticized. It does create "orphan" antiquities, and it does not do a great deal to disincentivize looting, since even with the Getty out of the game (and there can be no doubt that the Getty's buying spree back in the day did incentivize looting) there are still many millionaires around the world willing to pay enough to keep the illicit antiquities industry going. The world does need to go further to support better policing of sites, though, not backward, and it needs the Getty to provide policy leadership to get that done. Unfortunately, it does not appear that Tim Potts is ready yet to do that. As Rosenbaum notes, he did not think it necessary to familiarize himself with the details of the Getty's acquisitions policy before taking the job, despite the sensitivity of the Getty's position and Cuno's signaling that the Getty will continue to buy aggressively. Let's hope that Potts and Cuno will recognize that they have an opportunity to move the policy ball forward, and push for new and better solutions, rather than merely paying lip service to the need to do something to stop the looting-driven destruction of archaeological sites.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

US-Iraq Joint Coordinating Committee for Cultural Cooperation -- Preserve, But Don't Bother to Protect

The US-Iraq Joint Coordinating Committee for Cultural Cooperation has released a fact sheet. Here's what they are up to in the area of cultural heritage:

The United States, Iraq, and premier American academic institutions, museums, and NGOs are collaborating to ensure sustainable preservation of Iraqi national sites, monuments, and collections of world importance. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has committed $550,000 to continue support for the educational programs of the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage (IICAH) in Erbil through 2013. The Institute has also recently secured $650,000 in funding from private American foundations to continue its education and training programs. U.S.-supported infrastructure upgrades to the National Museum of Iraq are complete, and the U.S. is now assisting site management and preservation of the ancient site of Babylon through a $3.7 million grant to the World Monuments Fund. The United States supported a month-long residency at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for Iraqi museum professionals in fall 2011 and will host Iraqi graduate students in the summer of 2012 as part of the Iraqi Museum Residencies Program.

All these are wonderful projects, and are, one might suggest, the least the US could do to help after having wrecked Iraq. But it is important to note that aside from the infrastructure upgrades to the Iraq Museum, which one presumes includes paying for the barbed wire and other security improvements, nothing on this list addresses the concern for protecting Iraq's cultural heritage from the threat of antiquities looting. The notion that tourism is going to ensure "sustainable preservation" for the entirety of a country's heritage -- not just for a Babylon or Pompeii -- is a dubious one even for countries in which tourists need not fear for their safety and in which there is not a plethora of difficult-to-reach, seemingly innocuous or even downright ugly (=untouristworthy) sites, including of course the totally untouristable undug sites, which are precisely those about which we should be most concerned. Those sites are going to remain tempting targets for looters, and to preserve them will require police, not educators or museum professionals. Yet not a cent appears to have been allocated toward antiquities policing assistance: no money for guards, no money for developing locally based citizens' groups to help Iraqi antiquities police monitor remote sites, no logistical support in the form of equipment, vehicles, walkie talkies, etc. It is understandable that the US and Iraqi governments both should wish to behave as if antiquities looting did not pose a problem going forward -- for the US this see-no-evil attitude is nothing new, since even when massive looting was occurring almost no attention was paid by coalition forces. Let us hope that security in general does not devolve and that the Iraqi government has the will to itself eventually more fully invest again in the kind of robust antiquities policing and site guard system it once had but which it has failed to rebuild completely since regaining its sovereignty.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

New Getty Head Says, "Do more to protect sites" -- but not who should do it or how

James Cuno's hiring of Timothy Potts as the new director of the Getty Museum has been taken by some anti-looting advocates as a worrisome development, in part because of Potts' having aligned himself, as did Cuno, with Philippe de Montebello as the leaders of those resisting the ultimately successful effort to establish a "clean hands" policy for American museums collecting antiquities. That battle is over, however, and both Cuno and Potts have made it clear that there will be no backsliding on the Getty's acceptance of that policy.

More interesting is the possibility that Potts and Cuno might take the opportunity to push the museum and collecting community to go beyond merely having clean hands and get them to lend helping hands to the many countries now facing major financial challenges covering the costs of protecting their heritage from looters. Here is Potts quoted in Jason Felch's latest article:

"I have persistently emphasized the need to do more to protect sites and contexts on the ground before the looting takes place," he said, adding, "Perhaps the nearest thing to a certainty is that whatever policy we have in place today will be seen to have been flawed in the future."

The passive voice ("the need to do more") leaves open the question of who needs to do more, and of course in the past Cuno and others from the collecting community have put the burden on the countries of origin, who are urged to do politically impossible things like "mine" their antiquities for export sale to raise money to protect them. But the passive voice also enables one to hope that the "we" Potts has in mind is his own community of museum directors and the wealthy collectors who fund museums and donate antiquities to them. It would be wonderful to hear more about what new policies he and Cuno, as leaders of the collecting community, think that community could adopt voluntarily (or better, advocate that our government require of them) to help pay for the costs of the guards needed to protect sites -- and, as the looting of the Olympic Museum shows, museums as well -- before looting takes place.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Batten Down the Hatches!

A Greek museum containing major antiquities is looted: "Two armed robbers broke into an Olympia Museum and made off with between 60 to 70 bronze and clay pottery objects. They tied up and gagged the female security guard before using hammers to smash display cases and grab the loot."

What can we learn from this? The key lesson is that the mere fact that artifacts are in a museum and recorded is not going to deter criminals who believe they are worth a lot of money on the black market. The criminals may be too stupid to know that fencing these hot objects may be difficult because a recorded artifact on the Art Loss Register or the like is almost certain to eventually be spotted if they come onto the auction house market or get donated to a museum. Or the criminals may be smart enough to have already set up a deal with a middleman or with a collector. Either way,the point is clear: antiquities cannot be protected only by a registry, if an illicit market exists.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

EU Backs Major Research Study of Illicit Antiquities Market

The announcement that Simon Mackenzie and Neil Brodie have received a hefty grant to study the workings of the illicit antiquities market is wonderful news for all who care about improving policies to address the destruction of archaeological sites by market-driven antiquities looters. Studying any black market is a difficult matter, for obvious reasons, and in the case of the illicit antiquities market the paucity, spottiness, and unreliability of data has hobbled policy analysis, forcing more reliance on case studies, ethnography, and journalistic reporting. Mackenzie and Brodie have already both demonstrated they are the best in the business at looking systematically and objectively at what the empirical evidence can show us, and so the prospect of their being able to do so with ample resources over a four-year period is especially exciting. Congratulations to them both!

First George Clooney announces he is making a film on the Monuments Men, and now this: it is shaping up as a very good year.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Protecting Archaeological Sites from Looting: What Can Google Do to Help?

Jason Felch, lucky dog, will be speaking at Google today about "crowdsourcing a solution to the illicit antiquities trade." Sounds promising, though too vague to evaluate before the fact. If the idea is just to put the power of the crowd to work monitoring auction-house catalogs and eBay, however, that is not going to solve the problem of market-driven looting of archaeological sites. Not that catching Sotheby's or the occasional antiquities dealer holding stolen pieces is without value; the market needs this kind of policing. But the market is global, and most of it is not going to be visible to the crowd. Moreover, the antiquities most in need of protection, unexcavated ones, by definition lack the photographic information (or any other information) that Google is designed to share.

Google might, on the other hand, assist in a different mobilization of crowd-policing, by creating in-country means for locals to report looting in progress to their antiquities police. Something like that, on the model of the successful neighborhood watches for petty crimes in South Korea (discussed elsewhere in this blog), could and should be developed to supplement the capacity of under-resourced antiquities police in all countries.

That, though, does not strike me as a Google-ish project either.

The most important way Google could help stop the illicit digging of archaeological sites, as I have argued, would be to provide antiquities police with real-time, or at least very frequently refreshed, satellite imagery of archaeologically rich areas -- imagery analyzed automatically by Google-designed data analysis programs, one hopes -- that would help pinpoint areas where looting is surging. Such imagery would have come in very handy in Iraq during the 2003-2008 period, if only to shame the US for allowing massive looting during its occupation. It would also come in handy in Iraq today,according to the Iraqi government:

Ali al-Shallah, chairman of the committee on culture, tourism and antiquities in the Iraqi parliament, said the government has put regaining looted Iraqi antiquities and securing the country's museums and archaeological sites at the top of its priorities.

"The spread of those sites across vast unmarked areas of the country makes the provision of total security for them in the traditional way almost impossible because we would then need huge numbers of security men and vast physical and financial resources," he said.

"Therefore the government, and as part of its campaign, will approach advanced countries to help Iraq in this respect by providing technical expertise and supplying it with modern monitoring equipment that employ satellites for surveillance and follow up," he added.

That would be true of other countries as well, of course.