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. (
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)?