Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Numbers that matter: the AAAS Report on Site Looting in Syria, and where we go from here

The tempest in a teapot about how much the looted artifacts are worth or whether they are the third or fourth largest source of revenue for ISIS should not distract us from the main point, made irrefutably by this gold-standard analysis of the hardest of hard data: market-driven looting of archaeological sites is rampant in Syria.

What's needed most now, the next step, is not more argument about how much, but more clarity about where and how looted materials move from site to various destinations, through what exchanges, with what participants.  That information in turn will help inform market design research by economists, by providing answers to such questions as:  Where, if anywhere, are the most fragile links in the supply-chains? Where can leverage be most effectively brought to bear (for instance, by the US on emirates that are providing freeports for transiting illicit antiquities and enabling their own wealthy citizens to amass collections of illicit antiquities)? How can the various tools of governmental and intergovernmental action be used not to make these markets more efficient but to disrupt, cool, or smother them?

This is the direction, at least, that we're trying to pursue more generally in the project now getting underway at Chicago,

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Pick a Number, Any Number

A new post on Chasing Aphrodite continues the scolding of the press and of those who are passing on unsubstantiated claims about just how much money ISIS is making from the sale of looted antiquities.

I'm all for data-informed policymaking; I'm an academic, after all. But with regard to the "second largest source of revenue to ISIS" meme, it is worth remembering a few things:

1. In the long term we are all dead, said Keynes, and in the short term getting attention paid to archaeological looting has had very positive stimulative effects in the area of heritage protection at least (witness the White House Coordinator law just proposed).

2.  More generally, the notion that credibility will be sapped by the flogging of dubious factoids is not supported by any evidence I know of in public policy studies, and indeed there's plenty of evidence that even outright lies have very long tails and only sap credibility when they lead to what are retrospectively recognized to have been disastrous policy decisions.

3.  There are, of course, two, not just one policy decision in play: one having to do with heritage protection efforts, the other, much bigger one having to do with how to deal with the challenge posed by ISIS. Here we need to make a distinction that I don't see Felch making between information that drives and information that helps sell policymaking. The policy decision to escalate, while perhaps disastrous (time will tell), may have been justified ex post facto by the meme about antiquities looting, but it surely wasn't caused by it.  What got that decision made was not the lopping off of the heads of statues but the lopping off of human heads.

4. What we need more than strictly accurate numbers is a general sense of the scale, drivers, and vectors of looting and the market that can help guide policymaking to intervene in the most effective ways possible.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Scathing critique of UNESCO's ineffectual response to Syrian crisis

Michel al-Maqdissi, former director of the Syrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums' Archaeological Excavations department, points out the ways in which UNESCO has failed to go beyond the traditional list of UNESCO measures to do more than what it traditionally does (i.e., training customs officials, putting monuments that are already damaged on the "threatened" list) -- and does, Maqdissi notes, too little too late. The article is interesting throughout, but for me the following points stood out:

-- Qatna-Mishirfeh, a famous site, has not been looted. Maqdissi says this is because it is too famous and people would know, but he also notes that "in contrast to other sites, Qatna-Mishirfeh is still being guarded."

--the majority of looters are professionals working in gangs that learned their trade in Iraq. 

-- it does not make economic sense for armed groups to go into the antiquities trade, since it is not a quick business and rebels need money fast. (This is true, but if the gangs are being taxed, as reports have suggested, then rebels can milk the trade, assuming the gangs are adequately capitalized to be able to retain inventory as we know they have done with the massive amounts looted in Iraq from 2004-2006.)

-- UNESCO has been training the staff of the General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums but not the activist groups engaged directly in trying to protect sites and museums.

-- Nor is UNESCO thinking about ways to get Syria's site guards paid:
Traditionally, the guards are paid by the Syrian government and by foreign archaeological missions, which usually brought the money into the country themselves. 
For more than three years now, foreigners have stayed away. I have tried to help by picking up the money personally at foreign institutions and sending it from Lebanon to trustworthy Syrians, who gave it to the Directorate of Antiquities so that the guards' wages can be paid for another year. But that only helped a small number of the guards. According to my estimates, 30 to 40 per cent of them no longer receive any money. The sites of the ancient trading city of Mari-Tell Hariri, for example, are currently being guarded by overburdened villagers.
It would be interesting to take a look at UNESCO's budget to see how much has been spent on its international meetings and on conservation training, and to ask how many sites would have been saved from looters had the funds instead gone to pay site guards' salaries. But that's an academic question, since as Maqdissi says, UNESCO's bureaucracy is very entrenched -- including, notably, the experts whose expertise is not in guarding but in conserving -- , making it almost impossible to redirect resources.
And one can see why paying for site guards might open a can of worms for UNESCO. The World Heritage Fund's annual assistance budget for the entire world is only $4 million, and while Syria's situation is perhaps the most desperate, there are many, many countries lacking the money to pay for enough site guards. 
So where is the money to come from? One answer, laid out by Mounir Bouchenaki in his contribution to Antiquities Under Siege, might be actually funding the Intergovernmental Fund for the Protection of Cultural Property in Times of Conflict, established but (to my knowledge) never actually contributed to by any state party. 
Don't hold your breath on that happening any time soon. It would take leadership from the US, which sends John Kerry to talk loftily at the Metropolitan Museum about the need to do something to stop the looting of sites in Syria but whose policy moves have been limited to helping document the damage. 
There are, to be sure, other funding sources in the world aside from governments and foreign archaeological missions. One could imagine, for instance, the antiquities dealers associations, museum directors' associations, and a phalanx of ultra-wealthy enlightened collectors, all led perhaps by James Cuno, coming together to set up their own fund. Or, better still, lobbying the governments of major collecting nations to set up funds and generate the revenues to go into those funds via a tax on antiquities sales. 
Wouldn't that be great?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Zahi Hawass and the theory of deterrence

Zahi Hawass calls for Egypt's Antiquities Law to be amended to provide for harsher punishment for antiquities crimes, arguing that this will deter looters. But the law, according to the article, already calls for a minimum three year sentence.

Would ratcheting that sentence up to five or more years make any difference? That depends. As Gary Becker and Michel Foucault in their very different ways have both noted, deterrence only works if three things are all true: the risk of being caught is substantial; punishment is severe and certain enough to induce fear; and criminals know the risks of being caught and the price they would pay. The key point for Egypt, presumably is that if the risk of being caught continues to be low, then making an already substantial penalty more severe is not going to change the calculations of looters.

We have evidence for this from 1990s Iraq. Saddam introduced the death penalty for looting after the US established no-fly zones that made it impossible to effectively police the archaeological sites and looting soared. Even though ten looters were beheaded on national television, the Draconian penalties did little to slow down the looting.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Kaylan's review of the new Metropolitan Museum show

Melik Kaylan reviews the awesome new show at the Metropolitan Museum. As he makes clear, it is well worth seeing. One sentence in the review, however, gives us pause: "That their civilization was centered for a while in what is now Mosul, Iraq, gives us pause. Many such objects would now be endangered—originating, as they do, from the famed palace of Nimrud and its environs."  A sense of irony is called for here about what endangers museum-worthy artifacts in Mesopotamia. Reports, including one just this week at UNESCO, indicate that while mosques, shrines, and religious manuscripts are endangered by ISIS' iconoclasm, antiquities are not for the most part being destroyed. Instead, they are being dug up or pillaged and sold (with tax paid to ISIS). And where do they go? "According to Baghdad Museum director Qais Rashid, 'Assyrian tablets were stolen and suddenly found in European cities.'” 

The European collectors who are buying these artifacts illicit will over the long haul undoubtedly either sell them onto the international market or donate them to museums like the Met, for future exhibitions like this one. 

So Kaylan doesn't have it quite right. What is most endangered is not the small number of museum-worthy antiquities like those displayed at the Met. ISIS is implementing a regulated "licit" market in areas under its control, and permitting the international export of artifacts -- a kind of parodic realization of the market structure advocates from the collecting community drawing on John Merryman's work have called for. Those artifacts are safe. What is endangered, rather is the context of the sites out of which they will be snatched or chiseled, and the knowledge of the past that this context holds.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Protecting heritage in Mesopotamia Redux: Will the US military get it right this time?

It is telling, I think, that the news out of the Metropolitan Museum event focused almost completely on Secretary Kerry's comments and on what the monitoring shows is happening in Syria, and almost not at all on what might be done beyond vague calls for help. Now at least one blogger has indicated at least one more specific suggestion:

Bonnie Earnham (sic)  of the World Monuments Fund proposed an even more radical step: incorporating heritage protection training into American efforts to train Syrian rebels and Iraqi military personnel.
This is a very good idea in principle (and one that Bonnie Burnham may have proffered back in 2007-9 when she participated in the meetings that eventuated in the recommendations and articles, including one by her, in Antiquities under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection after the Iraq War).  As I have argued repeatedly, heritage protection -- especially in times of armed conflict -- needs to go beyond the valuable but insufficient focus on monitoring and conservation to also encompass the kind of expertise needed to secure sites from looters. Archaeologists and conservators simply do not know how to train military personnel in how best to deploy guards at archaeological sites, with what kinds of weaponry and other technologies, etc.

In practice, however, it is far from clear that the American military has the kind of expertise in archaeological site security or antiquities policing to do much if any good. Military policing in general has never been a high priority of our military. On the other hand, it would take an incredibly tiny fraction of the American military budget to set up a heritage security unit better than any other military's. That's why in Antiquities under Siege we urged that the US do so. In the meanwhile, we also suggested, any military intervention by the US be planned with an eye to making use of the expertise of some of our allies in this area, notably Italy, Spain, and others.

Is anything like this in the works?

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Parallax View: the US Responses to Cultural Heritage Destruction in Syria versus Iraq

The State Department has issued a fact sheet related to Secretary Kerry's announcement of steps the US is taking in response to the destruction of cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq by ISIS. Those steps, Kerry said, included funding ASOR's documentation of conditions on sites and "doubling down on our support for Iraqi conservation experts and providing them with critical training on emergency documentation and disaster preparedness and response at the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage."

The State Department's fact sheet fills in more details about what the support in Iraq has focused on:
In Iraq, the United States government has provided nearly $33 million since 2003 for a broad range of cultural heritage projects, including infrastructure upgrades to the Iraq National Museum, establishment of a cultural heritage preservation training institute in Erbil, and site management planning and conservation work at the site of ancient Babylon. The Department of State also partnered with international organizations to develop the Emergency Red List of Iraqi Antiquities at Risk to enable customs officials to identify and detain objects from Iraq that are particularly at risk of looting, theft, and illicit trafficking. Since 1990, the United States has restricted the importation of cultural property of Iraq and other items of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific or religious importance.
A few things are worth noting about these facts:

There is no mention in the State Department's fact sheet of any of the $33 million spent since 2003 going to monitor and document conditions on archaeological sites, as they are now doing. That's because the State Department and the US military stonewalled repeated demands by archaeologists and heritage protection advocates for satellite imagery that would enable conditions on sites to be monitored and documented.  (For more details on the sad history of America's stewardship of archaeological sites and the museum during and after the 2003 invasion, see Antiquities Under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection after the Iraq War and The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum.)

Nor is there any mention of any of that $33 million going to pay for site guards or antiquities police. The vast majority of Iraq's archaeological sites were left unguarded for years, while millions were plowed into turning Babylon into an unvisitable tourist site for PR purposes, and millions more on training conservators. The latter is at least of some efficacy and worth funding, but we know that the few sites that have been spared have included those on which armed guards remained (including some in Syria in recent days) because they continued to be paid or had faith that they would eventually be paid by the archaeologists who had hired them as guards.

Secretary of State Kerry's remarks contain no mention of restricting the import of cultural property from Syria, as was done for Iraqi material, and done not just for the importation of material into the US, but via UN Resolution 1483, on a worldwide basis. Why is the US not declaring an emergency ban for Syrian material itself, and why is the US not pushing through a worldwide ban at the UN?

Would you rather be immersed online in the museum or in the world the work of art was plucked from for the museum?

The British Museum is going to build a replica of itself inside the gaming world of Minecraft. That will, one assumes, permit visitors to go up to the artworks and look at them closely or even walk around them. Fine. But the major advantage of online environments is that one can immerse oneself and appreciate objects within their contexts, noticing how they are situated in relation to other objects, and how they are embedded in rituals, practices, whole ways of life that the game environment can reconstruct. Museums themselves are technologies designed sometimes to do something like this, but seldom in anything but a very piecework way, given the limits of acquisitions. The best we're likely to get is the museum director acting as cicerone talking to us as we look at the artifacts. But imagine, for example, that instead of a scholarly summary of the Parthenon marbles' role in ceremonies in ancient Athens, one could actually walk up to the Acropolis and participate in the ceremonies (of course there would probably need to be several versions, since we're still arguing about what went on up there).

The British Museum would be much better advised to launch an initiative to put replicas of its artworks inside an online version of the original (or to be more specific, the most meaningful) locations from which those artworks were removed and brought to the Museum. For many artifacts, of course, this would be impossible given that they were looted and their context obliterated. But for many of the BM's holdings it would surely be fascinating to put them back in situ electronically, if arrangements could be made with the holders of other parts of the predella and the original church location, for instance, or with the holders of bits of the Parthenon marbles and the Greek authorities holding image rights to the Parthenon.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Kerry Speaks at Met on Looting and Iconoclasm by ISIS

Wanted to put this up quickly, and will have more to say after I get a chance to read it more carefully. But I did want to flag three things that pop out:

First, it is wonderful that ASOR and others have succeeded in getting the administration to pay attention to the cultural disaster.

Second, the conflation of looting with iconoclasm is troubling, because the two phenomena are driven by different motives and therefore require different policy responses.

Third, and related to the conflation of looting with iconoclasm, there is no mention of any policy response beyond supporting documentation and conservation efforts -- both of these being laudable and useful things to do, but quite distinct from imposing international bans on antiquities trade, or beefing up INTERPOL and customs enforcement around the world to help enforce bans already in place, or calling on countries we know are conduits or important end-markets for these antiquities to tighten up, etc. etc. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Call for Papers: U of Chicago Conference on New Approaches to the Study of Archaeological Looting an dIllicit Antiquities Trafficking

Archaeological Looting: New Approaches to an Ancient Problem
A two-day conference at the University of Chicago
27-28 February 2015
Joseph Regenstein Library, room 122

The Past for Sale: New Approaches to the Study of Archaeological Looting and the Illicit Trafficking of Antiquities is a three-year interdisciplinary project hosted by the University of Chicago. With major funding from the Neubauer Family Collegium for Culture and Society, the project brings together anthropologists, archaeologists, art historians, legal scholars, museum professionals, and social scientists in order to develop new ways of safeguarding archaeological sites, cultural heritage sites, and museums from looting and illicit collecting. Our aim is to advance both scholarly and policy goals.

Our opening conference will address the topic of new approaches to archaeological looting. The ultimate aim of The Past for Sale is to generate new policy and conservation tools for the safeguarding of cultural heritage sites, archaeological sites, and artworks and artifacts. Along the way, we seek to clarify the grounds of inquiry. This includes definitional and methodological work, as well as empirical data. We are pleased to announce that Dr. Neil Brodie, co-director of the Trafficking Culture research center at the University of Glasgow, will present the keynote address on Saturday, February 28, 2015. Dr. Brodie is an internationally respected expert on the illicit trafficking of art and antiquities.

Some of the questions on the agenda for this conference include:
  • Who loots, and why? What are the economic and social factors that incentivize
    this practice?
  • How is the illicit trafficking of art and antiquities organized?
  • What is the impact of looting on local communities? What can we learn from
    local-level efforts to stop cultural looting and trafficking?
  • What recent innovations (in policy, law, technology, advocacy, etc.) hold promise
    – or only false promise -- to curb looting?
    Papers will be allocated 20-minute presentation slots as part of panels, with half an hour at the end of each panel for discussion. It is hoped that the conference will give rise to an edited volume of essays.

    200-word abstracts, with paper title and author’s contact details, should be submitted to Fiona Rose-Greenland at by 1 November 2014. Replies will be sent by November 21, 2014. More information about The Past for Sale is available here:
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Saturday, September 13, 2014

Friday, September 05, 2014

Egypt to Develop "high-tech" museum and site monitoring system

Egypt announces it is developing a high-tech security system to monitor archaeological sites and museums. This is good news, though a better strategy might have been for Egypt to join forces with a number of other countries and approach MIT, Google, and other tech innovators to create next-generation monitoring designed for the special needs of protecting sites.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Is there a major antiquities collector out there willing to step up and fund these heroic efforts to save heritage?

Some young Syrians are putting their lives on the line to try to protect what they can of their country's heritage. It would be a wonderful gesture on the part of super-wealthy antiquities collectors if one or more of them seized this opportunity to demonstrate that they care about and are willing to do something about the destruction of heritage, by putting some money on the table to help these brave souls. Would the Cultural Property Research Institute, or Christies and Sotheby's, or the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art, or the American Association of Art Museum Directors, or the Getty, or intellectuals such as James Cuno and Kwame Appiah or John Merryman or Philippe de Monebello who speak for the values of collecting, or individuals such as Shelby White who have shown great generosity funding archaeological and art historical research and education, be willing to promote such an effort? Perhaps as the first recipients of an annual prize for such efforts, as has recently been suggested by Melik Kaylan (and as has long been offered, though without any money attached, by Saving Antiquities for Everyone).

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Stings, Seizures, Restitution: Are they cost-effective? And who should pay?

Thinking hard about better policymaking to protect archaeological sites requires understanding the costs associated with pursuing different policing strategies, and the benefits they yield in the form of deterring future looting. As this article indicates, the sexiest strategies -- restitution and sting operations -- can be very expensive: 
Zimmerman opines that such investigations, both immediately and long term must be very costly. There were well over 100 people involved for a week in the initial stages of the Miller case,” he noted.
Processing of such items takes time according to Zimmerman. Indeed theSalt Lake Tribunestory notes that it could take years to determine the origin of such artifacts and work with tribes on repatriation. In the meantime, such collections must be properly stored and maintained.
Northern did not provide a budget for the Miller investigation. He noted that typically the FBI doesn’t provide “dollar for dollar information about its activities.”
He did agree, however, that the work is costly.
In this (unusual) case, simply caring for the seized materials is a huge cost, on top of the investigation expense. 100 FBI agents working for a week = approximately 2 man-years of FBI salary, around $100K.
To be clear: This does not mean that such operations should never be undertaken. In fact, a certain number of these kinds of actions, as well as restitution demands against museums and dealers, are absolutely necessary in order to raise public awareness (which generates new tips that reduce the costs of future investigations, and makes potential wrongdoers think twice). But it does point to the need to think about other possibly more cost-effective uses of taxpayer money, i.e., by investing in better site protection, monitoring, park-ranger-hirings, use of volunteers, the establishment of prizes to incentivize these various efforts, etc..
Just as important, it points to the need to think about ways to find more funding to make it possible to do more of all these things. Collectors and dealers often argue that no additional laws are needed to stop looters, suggesting that countries simply need to enforce the laws they already have on the books. But enforcement costs money: site guards cost money; remote monitoring costs money; sting operations cost money. The question collectors, dealers, auction house execs, and museum directors need to be asked, then, is where the money should come from to cover these costs. 
The answer is not hard to arrive at, and it is not "from general tax revenues." Tax the trade. 

Monday, July 07, 2014

Who's Using Drones to Monitor Archaeological Sites? Looters!

An article on an excellent program, one which offers a model for how understaffed archaeological police could collaborate with concerned citizens to improve their overall capabilities for monitoring sites. 

But at the same time, the article also underlines, without saying so, the pressing need for a crash program to develop monitoring technologies -- and in particular drones -- for use by archaeological police. What prompted the volunteers to focus where they did was the discovery of "Internet footage shot by a drone-mounted camera at Folsom Lake directing looters to previously submerged artifact-rich areas." 

Friday, March 14, 2014

Why Christie's Thinks It Can Find Buyers for Antiquities Lacking Pre-1970s Provenance

Nord on Art points out that the e-catalogue for Christie's upcoming London antiquities sale includes a number of items lacking in the pre-1970s provenance that museums belong to the AAMD should require for any objects they acquire, and that makes buyers more vulnerable to potential repatriation claims. 

For Wennerstrom, that Christie's thinks these items can be sold is puzzling:
as the repatriation of antiquities continues to make international news, one wonders why any potential buyer would consider acquiring works without clear datable pre-1970 provenance.
But there is really not much to wonder about here for two reasons. 

First, not all buyers care whether museums are some day going to be willing to accept donations of their artifacts. They are happy enough to acquire for themselves such beautiful objects, and perhaps eventually even display them in private museums; or they anticipate that eventually some solution to the problem of so-called "orphan" antiquities will be found and the very caring foster-parents who purchased these "orphans" will then be permitted to donate them. 

Second, the risk of having a repatriation claim brought is a calculated one for any buyer, and depends on several factors that may reduce it substantially: where the object's country of origin is difficult to establish that risk drops substantially, for instance, and the resources available to the country of origin are likely to be scarce, requiring them to focus on the highest-end objects and on repatriating items owned by countries, museums, or universities where leverage can be exerted in the form of threats to ban archaeological digs or exchanges. 

The continued saleability at auction of the kinds of items noted in the Nord post is only the tip of the iceberg. One can only imagine what goes on in the back rooms of antiquities dealers' shops where presumably the very highest-end provenance-challenged pieces are sold directly to collectors. But the key point here is that heritage protection advocates are deluding themselves if they think that the 1970 rule in itself is making much of a dent in the trade in non-archaeologically-excavated artifacts.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

US Military in Iraq Used Remote Sensors Near Archaeological Sites -- Unfortunately, Not to Monitor the Sites

Levi Keach, a graduate student at University of Nevada, Las Vegas and Iraq war veteran, has an ineresting post on the ASOR blog linking to a presentation he gave at the ASOR meeting. Keach reports on the results of his Freedom of Information Act requests for information about anything the military might have been doing on or around some major archaeological sites. The response he got was expectedly frustrating -- at least they got back to him (I'm still waiting for a response to my 2008 request), and the findings, also not unexpectedly, show no evidence that the military did nothing much to protect sites.

There was, however, one puzzling set of slides included in the materials that the military eventually did provide Keach. Several slides show remote ground vibration sensors. These were available at least as early as 2006. That they are included in the materials Keach requested might lead one to conclude that the military used remote sensing to monitor possible looting activity. Unfortunately, as Keach notes, the equipment appears to have been associated with the site (and therefore sent to him) only because there also was apparently insurgent activity in the area, including the burial of IEDs that seems to have been detected by the equipment.

What can we conclude, albeit tentatively given the possibility that more information might eventually surface?

1. the military did have remote sensing equipment at its disposal
2. this equipment nonetheless was not deployed to protect archaeological sites, despite massive looting.

One further question then needs to be asked:

Were the civil-military affairs officers advising these commanders aware that these technologies were available? If so, did they ever advise commanders it would be a good idea to use them?

I am assuming the answer will be: "No, we were not aware -- but even if we had been aware that this equipment was available, it was not within our remit to hector commanders." Would that have been the attitude of the Monuments Men?

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Two Cheers for Interdiction and Restitution!

A good post from Tess Davis following up on the Huffington Post piece she did with Mark Vlasic. I'd only add that while it is indeed laudable that the FBI et. al. are having some success nabbing individuals who are smuggling already looted artifacts, this doesn't really address the fundamental problem of how to prevent looting going forward, since the demand is global and effective interdiction difficult. Interdiction and restitution on a country-by-country basis, assisted by the always-understaffed INTERPOL, are necessary but not sufficient. And while it would be thrilling if the world could be persuaded to stand together and institute -- not to mention enforce -- a global ban on trade in antiquities, that is not going to happen. The real answer has to lie in providing more and better resources to those who are trying to guard and protect their own archaeological sites.

There is, in fact, some reason to worry about the otherwise happy-making emphasis on high-profile seizures and restitution.  Catching a few dealers here and giving stuff back might well be a policy substitute rather than a complement to developing policies that would actually protect the sites themselves.  And there's good reason to believe that our government might prefer seizure and restitution to site protection support. That's because, as Davis and Vlasic note, restitution, with its high-profile newsworthiness, is a handy tool for mending diplomatic fences, much sexier than, say, giving some remote sensing devices to the Cambodian antiquities police. Just as in Iraq, where Babylon was restored while thousands of sites were left unprotected, so more generally, splashy seizures may just mystify and obscure negligence about the real and more intractable issue, which is how to keep the looters from reducing sites to rubble in the first place.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Potentially Very Important News from Iraq about Archaeological Site Protection

I had begun reading this story, titled "Iraq Unveils Restoration Plan for Heritage Sites", prepared to be disappointed at another instance in which the focus was being placed on maintenance maintenance and tourist infrastructure rather than on protecting sites against looting. As usual, I thought, the World Heritage Site prize is skewing priorities.

But I was happy to find I was wrong: 

Another project aimed at protecting archaeological sites involves installing ground sensors around each site to detect and monitor movement and transmit it to specialised offices and security services via satellite, Saleh said.
"This project, which we hope to launch this year, is among the most important to help curtail random excavation by antiquities thieves at archaeological sites that do not have sufficient protection," he said.
"This in turn protects the human and cultural heritage of Iraq against theft and smuggling," he added.

The use of remote monitoring technology to enable antiquities police to detect looting is something that we've been calling for since at least 2007 (see the suggestions collated in Antiquities Under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection after the Iraq War). To my knowledge it has not been done elsewhere. There are of course GIS mapping projects and tracking via satellite imagery, but neither of these involves ground sensors and imagery collection and analysis is much too slow to be of great help, whereas one assumes that the ground sensors will stream real-time information. We need to know to be sure, but this Iraqi initiative could be a gamechanger.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Markdowns, gluts, and technological innovation: features of illicit antiquities trading in Egypt today

Four important tidbits of information in this brief article:

First, "only stupid people get caught." Clearly this statement must be taken with a grain of salt, reflecting some bluster here on the part of the dealer (and in talking to the press at all the dealer is already showing some lack of discretion). On the other hand, that he feels he can get away with talking to the press -- and even allowing Al Arabiya to film his stock! -- shows how unafraid of getting caught dealers can be.

Second, the risk of getting caught and the consequent costs of selling clandestinely are carried by the seller: "The trader, who allowed Al Arabiya to film his stock of illegal artifacts on sale, said every smuggled artifact loses about 70 percent of its value" -- presumably compared to what it would be worth to the dealer if the artifact were licit. And yet even with this markdown the dealer still finds it worth selling.

Third, the illicit market continues to function, despite lower profitability, not just in normal times but in the special conditions of a glut caused by the breakdown of site security and consequent looting of Egyptian sites:  'An artifact like this one, which I sell now for $718 used to be worth $7186, and it wasn’t easy to find such a piece.'” Prices for illicit antiquities have dropped by 90% - and yet the dealer continues to deal. Presumably the illicit $7000 piece would have been worth $23000 if licit, so the collector now can buy for $700 a piece that might someday or even today if he/she can get away with selling it as licit be worth thirty times its purchase price. 

Fourth, the extraction of antiquities is becoming more efficient thanks (sic) to the adoption of advanced technology in the form of higher-quality metal detectors. Just to give some sense of how clear the industrial tie-in between antiquities looting in Egypt and this equipment, here's a screenshot of the site of the company selling the jeodetector:

Metal detecting is supposedly illegal in Egypt without a permit, by the way.