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.