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.