Saturday, December 13, 2008

State Department Admits No Mechanism Exists for Providing Ongoing Security for Sites or Museums, Defends Its Efforts

What has the State Department done to protect sites?

As readers of this blog already know, in October the State Department issued a fact sheet laying out its support of what was described as “numerous activities relating to the protection and preservation of Iraq’s cultural heritage”:

These include emergency response to the looting of the Iraq National Museum, training of Iraqi museum professionals, support for archaeological site protection, and instituting legal measures to mitigate illicit trafficking in Iraq’s looted cultural property. Since 2003, several million dollars have been applied to these needs resulting in professional and infrastructure improvements to the National Museum as well as other museums and institutions, and improved archaeological site security in Iraq.

As usual, the issue of site protection was lumped together with others, leaving it unclear how much money has been applied to supporting archaeological site protection, for what programs, protecting how many sites, with what results.

Addressing the problem? Not exactly.

In response to my request, Darlene Kirk, a spokesperson from the State Department’s Bureau of Cultural Affairs, has amplified on the fact sheet’s summary, and kindly permitted me to share this information with the public. Kirk admits that “the Department of State has no mechanisms at its disposal to provide ongoing security at archaeological sites and museums in Iraq,” but she goes on to argue that State “has taken steps to address the problem in a variety of ways:

• The Department of State is funding the newly announced Iraq Cultural Heritage Project (ICHP) and the development of a site management plan for Babylon. Together, these initiatives include programs that will focus on, inter alia, building Iraqi professional capacity for conservation, for preservation of sites including archaeological sites, and for museum governance and administration. It is expected that strengthening the ability of responsible entities within the Iraqi government and its citizens to serve as the responsible stewards of their rich heritage will have a positive impact on site and museum security on a sustainable basis.

• In April 2008, the Department of Homeland Security promulgated U.S. import restrictions on all Iraqi cultural property after a decision to do so was made by the Department of State acting under authority delegated by the President. This import restriction is in addition to the ongoing OFAC regulations banning importation of Iraqi cultural property since 1990.

• The Department of State supported two security assessments of the National Museum in Baghdad which resulted in $1 m. in contracts to implement security measures at the Museum.

• In 2004, in response to evidence of serious looting of archaeological sites in southern Iraq, the State Department used funds donated by the Packard Humanities Institute to purchase 20 trucks and communications equipment for site guards in Dhi, Qar, Diwanyah, and Babil provinces. It was determined that these guards needed such tools to monitor the sites and deter the pillage that was being carried out by very well equipped looters. These vehicles and equipment were given to the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH) which in turn issued them to the provinces for use by the site guards. According to SBAH officials in the affected provinces, this resulted in a substantial diminution of the looting in those provinces.

• U.S. personnel responsible for the Ministry of Culture during the period of the Coalition Provisional Authority until July 2004 worked closely with the SBAH and with the Department of State to build and train a Facilities Protection Service (FPS) Archaeological Site Protection Force devoted to site protection under the administration of SBAH.

• Throughout the past several years the Department has acted to address the problem of looting in other ways such as promoting coordination within the international law enforcement community and funding the development, publication and distribution of the Red List for Iraqi Antiquities at Risk which is produced by the International Council of Museums in Arabic, English and French. Now in its third printing, this publication helps raise awareness about the problem among law enforcement entities and would be collectors. The US Embassy in Baghdad recently distributed new copies of the Red List throughout the country and in particular at border crossings.

• The State Department has funded satellite imagery acquisition for large areas of Iraq to allow archaeolgists at SUNY Stony Brook to assess site looting. The Department has also funded training programs in satellite imagery analysis for Iraqi archaeologists.

• The State Department has recently allocated funding for meetings of a proposed Iraq archaeological site protection working group, to be composed of SBAH senior officials from Baghdad, and senior archaeologists and FPS commanders from governorates most affected by looting. The possibility of convening an international law enforcement working group on Iraqi cultural property is also under consideration. (Kirk added in a followup message that “$93,000 has been allocated for the site protection working group meetings. The budget for the international law enforcement working group on Iraqi cultural property has not yet been determined, as this meeting is in the early planning stages.”)

• In July 2008, State Department and US Embassy Baghdad personnel arranged a helicopter overflight of 40+ sites in Qadissiya, Dhi Qar, and Wasit governorates to assess current looting. The results of this mission are being analyzed and will be shared with SBAH authorities for followup. (Kirk later added that “the July 2008 overflight of 40+ sites was conducted by a pair of US military helicopters at the request of the US Embassy in Baghdad. The expert participants were the Cultural Heritage Liaison Officer of the US Embassy and the State Department Special Coordinator for Iraqi Cultural Heritage. The sites were extensively photographed from the air by both experts. The data are being analyzed by the expert participants.”)

This list says volumes about the failure of American policy to deal with the problem of site looting. Import restrictions, Red Lists, site management programs, and security efforts at the Iraq Museum do not secure archaeological sites. The funding for trucks by the Packard Foundation in 2004 was never supplemented by any governmental assistance, nor was any effort made to solicit additional support from other foundations. The FPS force was never given the funding and logistical support it needed, and I believe it has now been disbanded. The funding for satellite imagery was not for large areas of Iraq, but only for southern Iraq, and was provided only in part by the State Department; given that the US military certainly has time-series satellite images available for all sites, it remains puzzling why the State Department did not arrange for those images to be provided to archaeologists, rather than paying for a private company to provide images for only a fraction of sites (and not in a coherent time series even for those sites).

A hopeful development

Only the last two of these bullet points deal directly with contemporary site-protection efforts. Most welcome is the news that a working group on site protection has finally been proposed and allocated funding for meetings. It would have been even more welcome if the working group included some experts on securing and protecting sites (not archaeological sites but all kinds of sites) from the military or State Department.

Where's the Report?

The final bullet point raises interesting questions of its own. A similar helicopter tour of eight sites was conducted in June 2008, leaked almost immediately, and published in mid-July. Why is it taking so long to release the findings from the helicopter overflight in July? Could it be because they would contradict the message that both the US and the Iraqi governments want to present, that the looting is over? One hopes not, and it is always possible that the “expert participants” (presumably John Russell and Diane Siebrandt, neither of whom to my knowledge is an expert at analyzing imagery though both are highly competent, dedicated, and indeed heroic individuals putting their lives on the line in Iraq) simply are better at keeping things under wraps than the British Museum, but the delay certainly raises suspicions.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Progress in Raising Cultural Awareness within the US Military

As I have been somewhat disdainful of the initiative begun several years ago by Laurie Rush and others to raise cultural awareness within the military, I wanted to take this opportunity to report that this initiative has progressed dramatically since the original project to create decks of playing cards.

According to Laurie Rush,

Since last January, DOD has:
-Created the Central Command Historical Cultural Working Group
The working group has coordinated effectively with the State Department and has established a process for the military to consult when they recognize that a proposed project may be affecting an archaeological project. This process recently saved Tell Arba'ah Kabiir, where Diane Siebrandt was able to arrange a meeting between Iraqi subject matter experts and representatives of the Army during the expansion of a patrol base. The proposed expansion was redesigned and the site was saved. We also had a working group member serve as a de facto cultural resource manager at Warrior Base Kirkuk. Mr. Pinckney, an Airman and a professional archaeologist was able to review and monitor construction projects. He also helped develop an illustrated construction check list for military engineers.

The CENTCOM working group secured funding to bring military staff members to the upcoming AIA meeting.

The Central Command Working Group established an ancillary GIS working group. Since the January meeting, with cooperation of AIA colleagues,we have been able to bring 3000 sites into the Army Central Command and Air Force Central Command environmental data bases for Iraq. We are now hoping for a similar accomplishment for Afghanistan. There are 20 additional countries where the Commands could benefit from similar information.
-Central Command brought the heritage issue to the Eagle Resolve military exercises in Abu Dhabi as the lead topic at the Environmental focus group.
-We have translated the Soldier pocket cards into three languages and are getting ready to distribute them.
-The National Guard printed an additional 50,000 decks of the Iraq/Afghanistan playing cards and distributed them.
-With support from Laura Childs and the AIA Southwest Texas Archaeological Society, Dr. Rush went to San Antonio where she briefed six military agencies about the importance of heritage training. The week long visit has established an excellent network with a series of potential partner agencies like the Defense Language Institute.
-We have established an effective partnership with Air University. Staff there are going to include heritage property training in their cultural awareness modules.
-The US DoD Legacy program funded travel to a symposium at the World Archaeology Congress where Laurie Rush, Paul Green, Jim Zeidler, Cori Wegener, Joris Kila, Friedrich Schipper, and Darrell Pinckney all gave papers. Matthew Bogdanos was the discussant. We also used the opportunity to have an international military archaeologist meeting where we talked about international opportunities to train military personnel as coalition partners and to share materials. Two edited volumes are planned as a result of the symposium, one on Ethics and one on training military personnel about archaeology and heritage issues.

This is an extraordinary list of accomplishments, for which all involved deserve the thanks of anyone who cares about the protection of archaeological heritage in time of armed conflict (at least where that conflict involves the US).

The only caveat here is that all of these efforts focus on protecting sites from the harm that can be done to them by US military actions (particularly engineering projects). The much larger problem posed by the failure to protect archaeological sites and museums from looting is not on the radar screen.

Security Pact Affecting Security on Sites in Iraq -- How Not Clear

Not sure what to make of the announcement below. On the one hand, it is good news that the Iraqis are going to provide a police commando force to help provide security for sites. On the other hand, there is no indication of whether this force is intended to simply substitute for the US forces that are withdrawing from areas that happened to contain sites, or whether the force will replace the recently disbanded Iraqi site police force. One thing is for certain: the AP's way of framing the story leaves the false impression that the United States has until now been honoring its responsibilities to secure sites beyond the limited number around its bases.

Iraq: New security for Central Bank, historic sites
December 07, 2008 13:38 EST

BAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraq's national police chief has outlined new security plans for protecting the country's Central Bank, ancient sites and other landmarks.

The announcement comes as Iraqis prepare to take over more security responsibilities under a recently approved pact with the United States.

The National Police commander says hundreds of officers will be assigned to guard the Central Bank in Baghdad. A police commando force will also work up security for Iraqi archaeological sites and antiquities. A similar agency will protect diplomatic missions and embassies, which will eventually include the U.S. Embassy.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Why Context is Crucial: The Oriental Institute's New Find at Zincirli

The Oriental Institute announces a major new discovery of a stele at Zincirli in southeastern Turkey. A funerary monument recovered there reveals that people who lived in an important Iron Age city there believed the soul was separate from the body. They also believed the soul lived in the funerary slab. (Photo at left by Eudora Struble.)

This find offers a great illustration of the importance of context to understanding artifacts, even when those artifacts include writing. As the University of Chicago press release points out,

The stele is the first of its kind to be found intact in its original location, enabling scholars to learn about funerary customs and life in the eighth century B.C. At the time, vast empires emerged in the ancient Middle East, and cultures such as the Israelites and Phoenicians became part of a vibrant mix.

The man featured on the stele was probably cremated, a practice that Jewish and other cultures shun because of a belief in the unity of body and soul. According to the inscription, the soul of the deceased resided in the stele....

The stele was set against a stone wall in the corner of the small room, with its protruding tenon or "tab" still inserted into a slot in a flagstone platform. A handsome, bearded figure, Kuttamuwa is depicted on the stele wearing a tasseled cap and fringed cloak and raising a cup of wine in his right hand. He is seated on a chair in front of a table laden with food, symbolizing the pleasant afterlife he expected to enjoy. Beside him is his inscription, elegantly carved in raised relief, enjoining upon his descendants the regular duty of bringing food for his soul. Indeed, in front of the stele were remains of food offerings and fragments of polished stone bowls of the type depicted on Kuttamuwa's table.

Had this stele been looted, bought by a collector and presented to a museum, we would have no way of ever finding out whether cremation was practiced by this culture. Nor would we ever know for certain that the figure shown dining on the stele was being served real food as well. Nor would we be able to tell how or why religious ideas about the afterlife emerged when and where they did.

This is why looting must be prevented -- to preserve the very possibility of gaining these sorts of insights.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Loot versus Looting

The always astute Hugh Eakin concludes his review of Sharon Waxman's newly released Loot: The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World, by noting that restitution is a sideshow that distracts from the real and pressing issue, which is the looting of archaeological sites:
The larger problem is Waxman's portrayal of the antiquities crisis as mainly a "tug of war" over coveted museum pieces. In fact, the more important battle concerns unprotected archaeological sites, and it is far less a matter of repatriating objects than of figuring out how to stop latter-day looters from destroying our collective past. That vital challenge remains unsolved.
All of us who care about our collective past ought to be focusing now on generating and promoting realistic policy and legal measures that will reduce looting of sites in the most cost-effective way. I have suggested a few such solutions (impose a modest tax on antiquities sales with revenues dedicated to funding site protection in the countries or regions of origin; jawbone wealthy collectors to fund a non-profit foundation to develop low-cost anti-looting technologies and shunt assistance to those countries facing the most pressing difficulties; persuade countries, with the US leading the way, to contribute to the UNESCO fund dealing with the problem). Others have suggested market-based mechanisms that would incentivize site protection; public-spirited initiatives to spur cities, universities, or even facebook members to adopt particular archaeological sites; and, of course, cultural-sensitivity campaigns designed to tamp down on the demand side of the antiquities market by demonizing collecting as akin to buying baby seal fur.

With a new president -- from the University of Chicago, my home institution -- about to take office, there is a real opportunity to move forward. What we need now is a robust discussion where all these options and others are put on the table, critiqued, and refined.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Iraq Redux: No help for site protection in Afghanistan either

The plight of Afghanistan's archaeological sites has been even more underreported than that of Iraq's, but losses there have been enormous -- literally tons of artifacts. Now the Afghans are making a push for attention, announcing a new campaign. The initiative calls for building 10 provincial museums, training more archaeologists, repatriating stolen treasures, making a red-list of [looted] art works, and educating young Afghans about the importance of their culture.

All these are important steps, but just as with recent State Department and Defense Department initiatives in Iraq, they are unlikely to stanch the looting of sites. To do so requires investing not only -- or even primarily -- in archaeological training or museum-building or recovery efforts, but in local, on-site anti-looting measures. Unfortunately, according to deputy culture minister, Omar Sultan,

attempts to hire extra guards to protect sites have failed because the authorities were unable to pay them more than $10 (£6) a month, or even equip them with telephones and cars. The security vacuum has allowed illegal smugglers to prosper. Working at night, gangs of Afghans in the pay of warlords and plunderers have turned swaths of the country into the moonscapes that now stand as testimony to the cultural desecration.

"People are hungry and they're desperate, and smugglers play on that," said Sultan, a Greek-trained archaeologist. "There are heroes in Afghanistan who have worked without any credit to save our treasures. But I worry that if this continues, looters will take everything - such is the scale of the organised crime."

He is appealing for international funding to provide stronger protection for important sites and better equipment to guards.
The $10/month per guard figure says it all. At that rate, for $1.2 million a year, one could hire 10,000 guards (or 5000 if one doubled the salary); throw in another $800,000 for equipment and one is at $2 million per annum for a level of site protection that would almost certainly put an end to most looting. That is a piddling sum compared with what we are spending on the war there. International funding to secure Afghanistan's heritage (not to mention providing jobs and buy-in to their own country's cultural assets) would be wonderful, but to my knowledge no countries have contributed anything to the fund that UNESCO established for such purposes. Where then can the Afghans expect to find this funding? Are foundations listening? Antiquities collectors, dealers, museums? If such a relatively small sum is not going to be forthcoming voluntarily from either the collecting community or from the military or State Department, should lawmakers not be considering measures to raise the needed sums by taxing the market for antiquities?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Good news/bad news: New Iraq Cultural Heritage Project

The good news: in its waning days, the Bush administration seems finally to have ponied up substantial money ($13 million) to assist Iraq in conserving and preserving its cultural heritage.

The bad news: the new initiative, the Iraq Cultural Heritage Project, appears at first glance at least to focus solely on professional development for conservators and other museum professionals, rather than also including some funding to improve security on Iraq's archaeological sites. In fact, the ICHP is premised on the assumption that there is no need to improve security on the sites, since supposedly this has already been accomplished, as part of the overall improvement in security in Iraq. As Laura Bush puts it in her remarks announcing the Project, "Recent security gains and increased stability have set the stage now for a more vigorous effort to promote Iraq's cultural history."

It is true that there have been recent security gains and increased stability. The gains and increases have brought civilian casualty rates down to 2004 levels. But we know that in 2004 Iraq's archaeological sites were being looted. What we do not know is how successful the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage's site police, developed since 2004, have been in tamping down the looting. We only know that this new initiative offers no assistance to SBAH's site protection efforts.

That is disappointing, but hardly surprising. The State Department's fact sheet on the new Project touts its having spent several million dollars since 2003 in support of "numerous activities relating to the protection and preservation of Iraq’s cultural heritage," including "emergency response to the looting of the Iraq National Museum, training of Iraqi museum professionals, support for archaeological site protection, and instituting legal measures to mitigate illicit trafficking in Iraq’s looted cultural property." The results, it is claimed, include "improved archaeological site security in Iraq." But there is no further information available on how much has been spent, on what site protection programs, with what results. And of course, without time-series aerial photos (which the State Department surely could force the military to share with archaeologists), we cannot know if archaeological site security has improved at all, much less whether the efforts by State have had anything to do with improving site security.

Will the State Department now take the next step and announce an initiative to assist the Iraqis in securing their sites against a future that may well be much less stable and secure than today's? Or will the Iraq Cultural Heritage Project serve as a cover for washing our hands of the problem?

Monday, October 06, 2008

The Museums Will Be Protected Next Time Round

The military has just released FM 3.07, its new field manual on Stability Operations.  Those concerned that the lessons of the looting of the Iraq National Museum might not have been learned will be pleased to find that among the "Essential Stability Tasks" is that of protecting key personnel and facilities. The eight tasks under this heading include the requirements to "protect and secure places of religious worship and cultural sites," and to "protect and secure strategically important institutions (such as government buildings;medical and public health infrastructure; the central bank, national treasury, and integral commercial banks; museums; and religious sites)."

A bare mention, but nonetheless extremely important, and arguably far more consequential than the ratification of the 1954 Hague Convention. It means that cultural heritage protection is now embedded in the task matrix that operational planners will take as the starting point for future war planning. This is a victory for all those who have been working inside and outside the military and defense establishment to make sure that the U.S. never again acts with the indifference towards cultural heritage that it did in April 2003. 

The field manual also mentions cultural heritage protection in a very prominent place: the epigraph to Chapter 5 quotes Harry L. Coles and Albert K. Weinberg's history of Civil Affairs, Civil Affairs: Soldiers Become Governors:

Because of the ideological aspect of the struggle and because the United States acted as  a member of a coalition of Allies, U.S. military leaders sometimes had to add to their traditional roles as soldiers those of the statesman and the politician. They were beset by the problems of resolving conflicting national interests and of reconciling political idealism and military exigency. On another level—in feeding hungry populations, in tackling intricate financial and economic problems, and in protecting the cultural heritage of a rich and ancient civilization—they had to exercise skills that are also normally considered civilian rather than military.

Whether this quotation means that Civil Affairs will develop the capacity to protect the cultural heritage of a rich and ancient civilization is not clear. Certainly, the record in Iraq and Afghanistan does not reflect any major beefing up of capacity in that regard yet. But with Corine Wegener and others pushing hard on this, we may well also see a great improvement in the military's ability to protect sites and museums during transitions.

What still needs to be done is to help the military to think -- now, not when it is too late -- about what tactics and tools it can and should be prepared to use to secure and protect museums and archaeological sites (as well as other cultural sites).

Friday, September 26, 2008

Hague Ratification: Fighting the Last War?

The Senate has at long last ratified the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. This ends decades of unflagging lobbying by cultural heritage protection advocates, led by the indefatigable Patty Gerstenblith and others. They are to be congratulated on achieving this legislative victory.

But lest anyone think that the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict is now assured, it is important to recognize what ratification of Hague does and does not accomplish. Ratification does send a strong signal to countries around the world that the United States values their cultural heritage, and it also signals the importance of protecting cultural heritage from the ravages of war. 

Practically speaking, however, ratification will make little immediate difference in the measures that the United States takes to protect the cultural and historical record of humankind, because we already were observing the provisions of the Convention as a matter of customary international law. During both Gulf Wars, for instance, the United States military took considerable care to gather information on the locations of cultural sites in Iraq and avoided targeting them. We all know that despite this, neither Iraq's National Museum nor its archaeological sites were secured, with disastrous and tragic losses to the record of our human origins.

The problem is that the 1954 Hague Convention was designed to deal with a threat quite different from the one that Donny George faced in 2003 or that guards on archaeological sites have faced since then. In 1954, the danger was understood as posed by military actions: bombing and shelling, tank movements, and pillaging, theft, or vandalism by troops. These dangers still exist, and Hague is necessary to force militaries to avoid doing harm themselves to cultural sites. 

A new and quite distinct danger has emerged in the half-century since the 1954 Convention, however. It comes not from military action, but from military inaction in the face of looting by civilians, fueled by the global market for antiquities that has boomed over the last few decades. While Hague leads the military to fucus on avoiding harm, it imposes no requirement to actively protect cultural sites against the harm that comes from the breakdown in law and order and the concomitant surge in market-driven looting. The obligations it imposes on occupying powers, in fact, seem designed to limit the responsibility of occupiers for securing cultural property, with such responsibility applying only to "cultural property situated in occupied territory and damaged by military operations," only when national authorities are unable to protect it, and even then only so far as possible. Since looting by civilians is not damage inflicted by military operations, Iraq's archaeological sites are fair game and no necessary concern of the US military, which may in fact point to Hague as putting it off the hook for whatever goes wrong.

This is not to say that ratification of the 1954 Hague Convention is valueless -- far from it. For one thing, by formalizing what had been a customary observance, it will certainly have a ripple effect within military planning and war-fighting doctrine, and will give a helpful boost to the efforts by the Blue Shield and archaeological organizations to embed cultural awareness training within curricula. We should all celebrate this victory, and then turn our attention to ways of getting national authorities both civilian and military to focus on the real and still unaddressed challenge of securing cultural property from looting by civilians in the aftermath of armed conflict.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Another "news story" out as part of the public relations campaign to make it appear that the Provincial Reconstruction Teams are mopping up, now that the looting is over (or never happened).
This past May, Iraqi archaeologists were able to visit the areas for the first time since the start of the war. While sites like the carved walls of Nineveh were in drastic need of protection from the sun and wind, the fact that many areas were largely unexcavated probably protected them from looters, according to Diane Siebrandt, cultural heritage officer for the U.S. State Department in Baghdad.

It is nice to hear from the State Department that many areas around Mosul were spared the looting that has devastated thousands of archaeological sites in Iraq. But is it really true as a general statement? We have no time-series photos of all the areas around Mosul to verify this. And the sites that have been visited are among a small number that came under US military protection. They have been spared not, as the State Department officer claims, because Mosul's sites are largely unexcavated -- unexcavated sites elsewhere in Iraq have been decimated -- but because we have guarded them. That is something the State Department and the military have been unwilling to acknowledge, since it would obviously point to the  need to put military and security resources into guarding sites at a point when the overall administration policy has been to reduce our footprint. We owe it to the Iraqis, and to ourselves, to do more to secure the sites from the looting that is daily destroying more and more of the record of our origins. 

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Slight Correction on What We Know about Looting from Available Satellite Evidence

In my Aug. 30 post, I quoted my colleague McGuire Gibson to the effect that satellite imagery from 2006, 2007, and 2008 purchased by the Oriental Institute disproves the claim that looting declined severely in 2004. This turns out to be a misstatement: the Oriental Institute did have images of the same sites from 2003 and 2008 but not from 2006 or 2007. Images from the 2005-2007 period are being purchased, however, so we should have some more information soon, based on satellite analysis, about whether for those particular sites looting continued during the post-2004 period.

If the question is whether looting has ceased in Iraq, however, we do not need time-series satellite photos to prove that it has not. In addition to the other evidence mentioned in other posts to this blog, there is the image above of Tell Shmid, taken this year and posted on Google Earth. The entire site is pitted, and there are fresh holes on the south west side of the tell.
Again, as I noted previously, no one site's condition, or even that of several sites, can serve as a proxy for determining the degree or rate of looting for the entirety of the country. To determine that we would need to be able to compare, year by year, the satellite or aerial imagery for at least a representative sample of sites.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Looting on sites now -- video forthcoming

At Monday's panel discussion at the US Institute for Peace, Donny George Youkhanna responded to the recent articles (most notoriously, Martin Bailey's interview with Dr Abbas al-Husseini) pushing the claim that looting of sites in Iraq is over. Prof. George announced that informants in Iraq who were equipped with mini-cams have filmed looters at work during the past month. It is not clear when this footage will be available, but Micah Garen is said to be finishing his long-awaited documentary and it may appear in that piece.

Friday, September 05, 2008

More word on whether looting of Iraq's sites is over

If it were not already clear that the rosy scenario painted by Dr Abbas is difficult to accept at face value, Mounir Bouchenaki, the Director-General of the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property, writes to say that, although "we have unfortunately no direct information, since no mission can go to the field," the word he is getting is not terribly encouraging:

...according to various colleagues having been to Baghdad (only in the green zone) and one UNESCO colleague having been to Samarra, the situation is not completely under control. To give you one example from yesterday's meeting I had with one official from the Italian Ministry of Culture who was in Nassiriyah on August 10th. He said that the situation is still very tense and there are problems of security. He had to fly with the support of the American army from Baghdad to Nassiriyah. According to him the lack of control by the Department of Antiquities of the archaeological sites is certainly leading to ongoing illegal excavations.

Does this prove that looting is ongoing at sites throughout Iraq? No. Does it prove that the Department of Antiquities is not fully in control. Yes. Does it lead one to suspect that looting is going on at the many places where the Department of Antiquities is not in control? Yes. Does it underline, yet again, the importance of American military support for the efforts of the SBAH? Yes.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

"Cultural Heritage Sites Safe" (at least, those that have been guarded)

The State Department's Provincial Reconstruction Team in Ninewah Province has issued a report of an assessment of important archaeological sites in northern Iraq that was conducted jointly with Iraq's State Board of Antiquities and Heritage in May 2008. The headline trumpets the finding: "Cultural Sites Safe." To be more specific, the team visited Hatra, Nineveh, Nimrud, Khorsabad (Dur Sharrukin), the Mosul Cultural Museum, the al Hadba Leaning Minaret in the old city of Mosul, and the St. Elijah Chaldean Monastery ruins. They report that, "even though the sites showed signs of deterioration due to the lack of onsite archaeologists and conservators, none of the sites showed signs of looting or extensive vandalism."

The first thing to say about this report is that it is heartening to see that the Provincial Reconstruction Teams are working with Iraq's State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. That is an extremely positive development in itself, long overdue, and the State Department is to be applauded for it. That "this visit marked the first time since 2003 that any SBAH representatives have visited these important sites" says much about how little attention was paid by the US to archaeology in Iraq over the past five years, as well as about the unsettledness of the area in which the sites were located.

But before looting deniers leap upon this latest bit of evidence to proclaim that looting never happened, it is important to recall that Hatra, Nineveh, and Nimrud are all guarded (and Khorsabad is located across the street from a modern town), and have been guarded since they were looted soon after the invasion of 2003. Thanks to Francis Deblauwe's invaluable Iraq War & Archaeology Archive, it is easy to find reports about this:

--I. Watson, "Mosul Museum," in Morning Edition (NPR), with online audio, May 6, 2003: robbers broke into it just hours after the Iraqi army left the city; lots of pieces had been shipped to Baghdad's Museum, mostly big pieces left; subsequent waves of
looters; US commanders say they didn't have enough men to guard the museum;
Manhal Jabar, Director of Archaeology [of Mosul province] worried about the
archaeological sites: at Nineveh, looters have already dug new trenches, and
reliefs have been stolen from Nimrud
--P. Salopek, "Looters
Go to Source to Steal Iraq Artifacts
," in Chicago Tribune, May 7, 2003: "In
Nineveh, ... looters last week tunneled into a tel[l], or man-made hillock, in search of gold ornaments or jewels." "And last weekend at the stone palaces of Nimrud, ... gun-toting tribesmen from surrounding villages took sledgehammers and crowbars to alabaster sculptures that had been exhibited in museums around the globe. Chunks of two large wall slabs bearing the likeness of bearded angels were carted off. A third slab, weighing hundreds of pounds, was badly cracked when the robbers tried unsuccessfully to pull it from a wall." "The most vulnerable corner of the country includes the age-worn plains of northeastern Iraq, Jabr [director of Mosul Museum] said, because a stabilizing U.S. military presence is thinnest there. In that vanished heartland of the sprawling Assyrian empire, Iraqi researchers have logged more than 1,500 archeological sites. Only two still remain guarded by ragged and long-unpaid antiquities police." "Roving bands of looters from the neighboring Al-Jaburi tribe have laid siege to [Nimrud] at night, boring through walls and shooting locks off warehouse doors. The site's half-dozen guards--poorly equipped and technically unemployed since the fall of Hussein's government--fought them off. ... They stubbornly patrolled the site's cut fence. But finally, on Saturday, they were overwhelmed. 'More than 10 men came at night armed with AK-47s,' said Ismael, 28, a skinny, exhausted-looking man who has been providing security at Nimrud for four years. When we ran out of ammunition, they threatened our families. That was the end.' Demoralized, the small police force has threatened to quit." "The 101st Airborne Division, the main U.S. unit posted to nearby Mosul, dispatched a patrol to the vulnerable ruin Sunday. 'We'll stay here a while and maybe send up some flares
at night to scare off the bad guys,' said Capt. Tom Ehrhart, 29, the platoon commander. 'But the long-term job of protecting this site lies with the Iraqis.'" "At Nimrud, ... [t]he Americans took snapshots of each other standing in front of an exquisite carving of Assyrian angels that had been smashed by thieves."

That these sites came under US military protection relatively early on probably explains why the assessment team did not find signs of massive looting. It is puzzling, however, that they should report no looting whatsoever, since it is obvious that looting did occur there; perhaps the sites have been cleaned up over the years since to cover over the signs of what took place in 2003. But we also have this report from Kim Sengupta, from the Aug. 1, 2008 edition of The Independent (London):

In the autumn of 2002, I was being shown around the archaeological digs in the
city of Nineveh by the director of antiquities for northern Iraq. I was, he said, the first visitor to come to the site in months, and the first foreigner for years. A few weeks later, I climbed the extraordinary spiral minaret in the style of an ancient Mesopotamian ziggurat at Samarra. I wondered at the time whether these sites would one day be thronged with visitors again, or whether they would be reduced to ruins in the war looming just over the horizon. After the invasion of March 2003, some of us tried to return, security permitting, to some of the wonderful places we were able to visit before "liberation" - with varying degrees of success. Three years
on, the digs at Nineveh were in a sorry state, with signs of plundering. The museum at Mosul was empty and locked up, the director had fled abroad, and one of his assistants, Ahmed Hussein, had been shot dead, allegedly by the Scorpion Brigade, one of the Iraqi government's special forces.

So, at least in 2006, a reporter notes signs of plundering.

In any case, the lesson is clear: if sites are protected, they will not be looted. It is too bad that thousands of other sites that should and could have been protected as well were not famous enough to warrant sustained attention from the military, which never developed a policy for securing sites or for assisting the State Board of Antiquities in its efforts. The State Department's PRTs represent a civilian version of assistance -- but what is most needful is security rather than conservators, and providing security to assist the Iraqi government is the job of the military. It is not too late to do so now for the State Board of Antiquities, and one hopes that reports like this will serve as a spur to greater site policing assistance, not as an excuse for turning attention away from the problem of looting.

The week of May 17th provided an exciting opportunity for the Ninewa Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) to support Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH) with an assessment of conditions at some of the most important cultural heritage sites in Ninewa Province. The PRT hosted Mr. Qais Hussein Rashid, Director General of Excavations from SBAH and Ms. Diane Siebrandt, the Cultural Heritage Officer for the Department of State, US Embassy Baghdad.
This visit marked the first time since 2003 that any SBAH representatives have visited these important sites. The overall report was extremely positive and provided a good baseline for future conservation and restoration.
The total number of cultural heritage sites in Northern Iraq is too numerous to visit during a short fact-finding mission, so the team concentrated on the most significant sites, including Hatra, inscribed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites and the ancient city of Nineveh, Nimrud, Khorsabad (Dur Sharrukin), the Mosul Cultural Museum, the al Hadba Leaning Minaret in the old city of Mosul, and the St. Elijah Chaldean Monastery ruins.
Figure 2 - Hatra relief
(photo: Wolf)
Figure 1 - HATRA, UNESCO World Heritage Site (photo: Siebrandt)
The main goals of the visit were to assess site conditions, determine restoration needs, and coordinate long-range planning efforts between GOI offices, the U.S. government, the Ninewa Provincial governing bodies, site managers, and the international conservation community. Even though the sites showed signs of deterioration due to the lack of onsite archaeologists and conservators, none of the sites showed signs of looting or extensive vandalism.
The Mosul Cultural Museum, repository of many of the treasures of the region, requires extensive renovation. Experts will be brought to the province to provide technical advice on state-of-the art security, storage, and exhibition planning for the museum. The overarching goal is to allow the Mosul Cultural Museum to retrieve their collection from Baghdad where it was moved for safe-keeping prior to the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. The collection, which includes priceless treasures from excavations at Nimrud and other sites in the Province, will not be returned until security measures at the museum are improved.
The week-long fact-finding mission resulted in a plan of action for each site. PRT staff members are working with local officials and SBAH to develop long-term management strategies to be implemented jointly with the assistance of outside partners. In addition to UNESCO, the PRT hopes to involve universities, museums, and NGOs from around the world to assist in the conservation activities. Mosul University’s Archeological Department will become active partners in the restoration activities that will result in development of active partnerships with other interested universities and non-governmental organizations.
Immediate actions include for the sites include:

site clean-up and implementation of site protection measures (fencing and signage);

removal of illegal agriculture and building construction from the sites;

implementation of site surveys with assistance from military engineers;

renovation of the Mosul Cultural Museum;

training of local specialists and archaeologists in conservation and restoration practices including documentation, stone masonry, and earthen architecture conservation, and

generation of jobs and economic opportunities as part of a larger long range tourism economic development planning effort.

Figure 4 - Ninevah
(photo: Siebrandt)
Figure 3 - Mosul Cultural Museum
(photo: Siebrandt)
As a result of this important visit, the assessment team believes the cultural heritage resources of Ninewa will become a major economic driver for the region and contribute to the long-term economic success of Iraq, as well as serve as a significant source of pride for the Iraqi people.
Figure 5 - Nineveh Nergal Gate (photo: Siebrandt) Nineveh

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Is the Looting Really Over?

Martin Bailey strikes again, with an interview with Dr Abbas al-Husseini, described as "the leading archaeologist in Iraq," who tells readers of the Art Newspaper that "looting is over". Bailey's new piece is a followup on an article earlier this summer that as he notes "generated considerable controversy" because it suggested that no post-2003 looting had occurred. Though the article spins Abbas' comments as corroborating this view, at least now the Art Newspaper has admitted that some looting went on after 2003. The position now is that, in Abbas' words, looting did occur post-2003, though it "declined very considerably in 2004 and has diminished yet more since then." Paul Barford, fellow SAFEcorner blogger, is right to see this as cognitive progress of sorts. Still, the overall message to readers is: relax, looting is no longer a problem, since "professional looting has ended." But there is reason to treat Dr Abbas' claims, as reported by Mr Bailey, with some skepticism.

For one thing, Dr Abbas is not by any stretch of the imagination Iraq's "leading archaeologist". Originally trained as an historian, he is a Shia evangelist and supporter of Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi movement. After Sadr's party was given control of the ministry in which SBAH was housed and Donny George was forced to flee the country, Abbas was appointed President of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage despite his lack of archaeological qualifications. Ousted after a year, he moved to London on a scholarship to study archaeology, but returned to Baghdad this summer in hopes of regaining his post if, as expected, the SBAH is moved this fall from the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities back to the Ministry of Culture. With the assassination this past week of Kamil Shia, the last secular high official at the Ministry of Culture, that ministry is now dominated by Islamists, brightening the job prospects for Dr Abbas.

It is hardly surprising that someone in Dr Abbas' position might lean toward painting the rosiest possible picture, one in which the Iraqi government has matters totally under control, looks strong and independent, and has no need of outside help: "Guards with proper facilities are protecting sites," and Iraqi archaeologists have resumed excavating, which means the sites are better monitored. But there are thousands of sites, and very few digs. And we know from published reports that the site police have been hamstrung by shortages of equipment, gas, weaponry, and helicopters.

Given all this, and given the outrage that greeted his first article on the subject, Bailey should have at the very least asked around to find out whether there was any actual statistical evidence, in the form of satellite imagery, to corroborate Dr Abbas' happy news that looting is over. Had he done so, he might have learned that the Oriental Institute has purchased satellite images that offer incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. Posting to the iraqcrisis listhost, my colleague McGuire Gibson summarizes this new evidence:

The statement that looting declined severely in 2004 can be disproven by satellite images that compare the situation in 2003 and 2004 with images from 2006, 2007, and 2008. There is no question that there were greatly increased looting on hundreds of sites between 2003 and 2008, including the sites of Isin (near Diwaniyah), Fara, and Adab in Qadissiyah province. Continuing destruction to sites in Dhi Qar and Muthanna provinces, south of Qadissiyah, can also be documented by images from 2006-2008... In the past few months, the Oriental Institute bought new images of several sites, including Umma and Zabalam. The increase of looting at these sites is greater than it was in the images of 2006.

Now, it is true that we do not know for certain what the degree or rate of looting has been for the entirety of the country. To determine that we would need to be able to compare, year by year, the satellite or aerial imagery for at least a representative sample of sites. Unfortunately, purchasing these images on the market would be prohibitively expensive; for just two sets of imagery for the single small site analyzed by Hritz, the cost was over $7000. As I have noted elsewhere, the US military undoubtedly possesses these images and could share them with researchers. Why the images are not being shared is a question that an enterprising reporter should be asking Pentagon or State Department officials.

We all wish that the looting was over, just as we wish it were true that the looting of Iraq's sites had been limited to a brief period back in 2003-4, just as we wish the losses to the Iraq Museum had been insignificant. But wishing does not make it so.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

What Should an OPEC-style Antiquities Cartel Demand From Market Nations?

Derek Fincham has an interesting recent post here reflecting on the prospect that countries of origin for antiquities are likely to band together OPEC-style to negotiate as a bloc, rather than continuing the individual dealmaking that has so far been the case. Fincham assumes, perhaps rightly, however, that even as a bloc antiquities-rich nations are unlikely to play hardball in demanding restitution and/or more stringent import rules because of the need to maintain good relations and thereby encourage increased tourism that can provide revenues needed to bolster site protection.

Reliance on tourism, he points out,
carries with it the distasteful tradeoffs, such as the commodification of heritage, and the wear-and-tear which millions of visitors will always cause. Hopefully nations of origin will be able to move beyond the dramatic repatriations, which are a necessary step, and continue to work to preserve the sites themselves.
But it is difficult to see how countries of origin will be able to do more to preserve the sites themselves absent some concerted effort to demand that any deal involving repatriation and loan agreements also involve some mechanism for generating revenues for site protection from within the market states, not from tourism dollars. The most appropriate source for such revenues is the antiquities market. Imposing a tax on all sales of antiquities would require lawmaking, of course, and countries of origin may feel it would be easier to make a deal with individual museums and collectors than to pressure them to call on Congress to tax the antiquities market. Dealers are almost certain to oppose any such measure, as well. But a cartel is far more powerful than any individual country, and with the stick and carrot of repatriation and loans in hand countries of origin have at least a chance to succeed. Surely it is worth a try.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Fox News seeking to spread the "no looting" story

I can't guarantee it will happen tomorrow or at all, but Fox News wants to push the "news" that archaeological experts have been wrong about claims that looting of archaeological sites in Iraq since 2003 has been widespread. Someone should ask them why none of their reporters has been out to the sites to get the real story.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Contact for archaeologists wishing to provide site coordinates for Iran

Many will choose not to, a perfectly respectable position, but archaeologists who wish to assist the military in developing a database of no-strike facilities by providing information about Iran (and I presume other countries as well, but Iran would seem the country about which to be most anxious) should know that they can do so by contacting

Peter S. Fuhrer
Operational Environment Analysis Division
Defense Intelligence Agency

Please do not misconstrue this as indicating that the military is seeking this information. I had contacted the DIA last year to learn more about their role in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war, and I contacted them again recently because of my own concern about the possibility of some sort of military action being contemplated against Iran. I asked who could be contacted.

Assessment Report on 8 Southern Sites Released at Last

Weeks after the Art Newspaper ran its highly tilted account, which the Wall Street Journal picked up, the British Museum has finally released its report, which is highly instructive. Questions had arisen about how these sites could have escaped looting when experts were claiming that looting was widespread in Iraq. On this blogsite, Donny George responded by noting various reasons why these sites were unlikely to have been looted. The report supplements George's observations with some of its own. A few of these:

1. Ur: George had noted that "this site was protected before 2003 being surrounded by the Iraqi air base, then after 2003 protected by the American air base, together with the good protection of the Iraqi guards and FPS patrols." The new report notes: "Until recently there was unrestricted access to the archaeological site of Ur for coalition troops based at Tallil, and it is suspected that large numbers of troops wandering around the site at will did some damage. Now, however, the site is out of bounds and special permission is needed to visit it." Had all Iraqi sites were being visited by large numbers of coalition troops, one might be able to conclude there would have been no looting on them either!

No explanation is given as to why the site is now out of bounds, though we are told that "a crater north-east of the Old Babylonian houses was noted – this was caused by a rocket in February 2008. It was reported by the site guard that three rockets landed at Ur in April 2008; of these, one fell near the guard’s house and another some 23 m south-east of the ziggurat." Not exactly the ambience for looters either.

2. Eridu: "The visit began at a watchtower presumed to have been erected by the Italians in late 2003." The site is fenced in and has two site guards assigned to it.

3. Uruk: "There is no evidence of looting at the site which is protected by 15 SPF (Special Protection Force) personnel (one of whom arrived to check the presence of the inspection team) and an on-site guard (the German institutional system is able to maintain constant payments for the on-site guard)." The assessment team surely knew beforehand that this site was protected at this very high level, yet they chose to visit it anyway -- just as they chose to visit Ur (which a British Museum team had visited a year earlier).

4. Tell al- 'Ubaid: "There are no designated guards for Ubaid but guards from Ur protect the site along with SPF personnel." Interesting finding here that "the tell was extensively damaged by military installations when it was established as an Iraqi command post in early 2003: a four-metre square hollow (now about 1.5 m deep) on the summit of the mound was probably the position of a radar station." Firing positions are noted. What is worth noting here is that the US military did not obliterate the command post during the invasion. Under the law of war it would have been permissible to destroy the position even though it was established on a cultural site. It would be interesting to learn more about how the tell came to be spared.

5. Tallil airbase: one of the largest military airbases in the middle east, it contains two sites within its perimeter. Unsurprisingly, neither was looted.

6. Tell el- 'Oueilli:
"The site was looted in 2003 and there are extensive remains of looter pits, now filled with sand, visible across much of the mound. There is no evidence of recent looting." Donny George believes that because this is a prehistoric site that produces none of the most collectable material, it may have been abandoned by looters once they figured that out.

Tell Senkereh (Larsa): "The site was extensively looted in 2003; at the end of that year a guard tower was erected and the presence of a guard deterred further looting. There are at least five designated guards for the site, based at Nasiriya, but none was present during the inspection visit." Again, an important site, looted extensively for many months, but now highly protected unlike most of the other sites in Iraq.

8. Tell al-Hiba (Lagash): "The site, which is unfenced, is under the strong protection of the Beni Said tribe and has seven guards from two villages: Ali Khan and Rebaih. The team was met by the local guard and villagers who reported that there had been some small-scale looting in 2003 by people from the town of Fajr but none since that date."

9. Tell Lahm (Kisiga): "The south-western side and summit of the mound are covered by looter holes – pithos and bath-tub burials were the main attraction for the looters." "The appearance of the puddled mud in the bottom of the looters’ holes was similar to that in the bottom of the military installations, suggesting that the looters’ holes were not recent and probably dated from 2003. The presence of US forces at Tell Lahm is demonstrated by numerous military food packages scattered on the surface. The site is unfenced. A large number of SPF personnel arrived in three vehicles after the team had been at the site for an hour." Again, a site frequented by US forces and patrolled by SPF is by no means the norm. The SPF has been having trouble even getting gasoline for its vehicles.

Take-home lesson: If you want to protect a site from looting, build a base nearby. Or, more realistically, hire site guards, deploy site police, or pay the local tribe to guard it. Has the US done any of these things, or helped the Iraqis do them? On a countrywide basis, the answer is certainly no; there have been some local or regional programs over the years, but information on those is hard to come by. It would be good public relations for the US to lay out what it has done, and what it plans to do.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

World Archaeological Congress resolution update and clarification

Leif Isaksen blogs expressing concern that "the World Archaeological Congress’s voice with regard to archaeological ethics in conflict situations has been undermined by those whose task it is to support it." Isaksen adds more detail to the kerfuffle over what exactly was passed by whom at the WAC congress and whether this represents official WAC policy. WAC's website clarifies as well:

A resolution suggesting that no archaeologists or cultural heritage specialists assist the military in planning to protect the cultural heritage was passed by the Plenary session of the WAC-6 Congress for consideration by the World Archaeological Congress Assembly, Council and Executive but was not approved as a formal statement of the position of the organisation as a whole.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Will the Status of Forces agreement address antiquities protection?

A few blogs back I raised the question of whether the Status of Forces agreement under negotiation now would include any provisions for protecting Iraq's cultural heritage. Micah Garen has some new details about that. He reports having spoken to a Department of Defense spokesperson who "refused to say whether protecting cultural history was part of the negotiations." Garen adds however that the State Department has said on background that cultural history has been brought up in the discussions -- good news indeed, if true, though the devil is in the details.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The meme metastasizes

The Wall Street Journal picks up the line set by the Art Newspaper, and pushes it still further. No looting on 8 sites? Then there must have been no looting everywhere! No need to pay attention to all those dire reports. "So Much for the 'Looted Sites'", as the WSJ headline puts it.

Not only has the claim of massive looting been refuted, supposedly, but -- new theme -- those making it have lost all semblance of credibility. They pretend to be experts but are really driven by a political agenda, an agenda that the WAC resolution reflects clearly.

I've already detailed, below, the evidence for looting, much of which comes from those political radicals the Polish civil-military brigade and the Italian carabinieri. (I shared all this information with the writer of the WSJ article, by the way, but he chose not to use any of it, for reasons that should be clear.) I note here only that I opposed the WAC resolution, with objections laid out below as well.

It would be swell if we could clear up once and for all precisely how much looting took place year-by-year from 2003 on. All that is needed is time-series satellite or aerial imagery of all or at least most of the areas rich in sites (along with the funding to pay people to count the holes). Will the military provide this imagery? If not, why not?

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Gary Becker's got a lot of 'splainin' to do

A few days after the McCain campaign released a list of 300 economists who supposedly support his economic plan, we learn this was a bit of a bait-and-switch, since the statement they signed was extraordinarily vague.

The McCain campaign’s economic team, led by adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, began collecting signatures from economists several months ago, with the intention of showing support for McCain's broad economic priorities, rather than the specific items in his Jobs for America proposal.

The statement they signed is 403 words long — and there is no mention of the gas tax holiday or the deficit, which the Congressional Budget Office projects will approach $400 billion this year.

But the Jobs for America plan is a 15-page document that touts a gas tax holiday proposal on the second page and prominently features the promise that “John McCain will balance the budget by the end of his first term” on the fourth page. The press release accompanying the economists’ statement claimed it was “in support of John McCain's Jobs for America economic plan.”

“This really is a general statement on the overarching principles of McCain’s plan to grow jobs and spur economic growth,” said McCain spokesman Brian Rogers. “Obviously it is what it is and it’s a general statement about cutting spending and cutting taxes and making us more competitive to move forward.”

For that reason, Gary Becker, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago, said he definitely supports the plan, even if he is not completely familiar with its specifics.

"I like the main thrust of the plan,” he said. “I felt that I could support it without knowing every detail."
Yes, those pesky little details do get in the way. And really, it is too much to expect an economist to familiarize himself with such minutiae. If the average person is hornswaggled into believing that Gary Becker thinks a gas tax holiday makes economic sense, well, no big deal.

Seriously though: Does Gary Becker support a gas tax holiday? Does he believe that McCain's budget plans are credible? If not, will he please issue a clarification to the effect that while he supports McCain's plan, he thinks the gas tax holiday is a gimmick and the budget plan a fantasy? Or will he permit the McCain campaign to continue to use his name to mislead the American public?

First Thoughts on the World Archaeological Congress Resolution

Before turning to the question of whether the resolution passed by the WAC is a good idea, it is important to look at how the press release issued by the Congress frames and justifies what it is arguing should be done now in relation to war plans being prepared for Iran. The release implies strongly that archaeologists who prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq "were asked to provide (or volunteered) information on sites 'to be spared'" should have refused to do so because such providing such information lent "cultural credibility and respectability to the military action."

Did that really happen? Did archaeologists who provided site coordinates to the Defense Intelligence Agency or its British counterpart lend credibility and respectability? Such information, we know, did enable the military to avoid destroying archaeological sites, buildings, and monuments, as they were compelled to do in order not to be charged with war crimes under provisions of the 1954 Hague Convention. I suppose one could believe that not being a war criminal is the same thing as being respectable, but most people would make a distinction between the two. Would members of WAC be in favor of jettisoning the 1954 Hague Convention so that the military would have no legal obligation to collect site coordinates and create "no-strike" lists?

That the military felt obligated to do this does not necessarily mean that it did not also want to do so to burnish its cultural credentials and respectability. So one should ask: Did the military gain a public-relations advantage from being seen to have been getting advice and expertise from archaeologists? The historical record, which is laid out in detail in a book I have just completed (Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum, forthcoming April 2009 from the University of Chicago Press), shows the opposite. Far from loudly calling for help from the archaeological community, the Defense Intelligence Agency and its British counterpart kept their efforts to contact them quiet. And, given what happened to the museum, it is difficult to understand how anyone could think the military cared much about being seen by the world as a protector of culture

For archaeologists, on the other hand, engagement with the war planners made it possible for those involved to do what the WAC resolution insists they should do: emphasize "the detrimental consequences of such [military] actions for the people and the heritage of the area." They did so not just publicly but also directly and repeatedly to policymakers and planners.

Archaeologists who took the clean-hands approach advocated in the WAC resolution also attempted to influence public opinion, to be sure. They did garner some publicity. But they had no discernible effect on public opinion, either before or after the war. Those who worked with the military, on the other hand, were able to explain to the public, in the wake of the looting of the Iraq Museum, that they had directly warned officials in the Pentagon and the State Department (where their meeting was with Ryan Crocker, by the way) that the museum would almost certainly be a target of looters. Their testimony in the press had a very powerful negative impact on the credibility and respectability of the military action.

One more thing worth noting: Word that archaeologists in the US were meeting with Pentagon and State Department officials as well as targeters to make sure that the military knew the museum would be a target reached Donny George in Baghdad. George used this fact to try to persuade his superiors in the Iraqi cultural bureaucracy that it was time to begin packing up the museum and battening down its hatches. He would not have been able to make that argument had archaeologists merely boycotted the entire warplanning process.

World Archaeological Congress Plenary session issues resolution

This just out from the World Archaeological Congress plenary session.  I did not attend, so I did not hear the arguments that were made there, and I need to digest the statement, but it seems at first glance ethically misguided in several ways. More to come, but here's the statement. It is preceded by a press release which Jon Price, member of the WAC executive committee, notes (in his comment below) is not WAC's officially authorized press release. (WAC's official release does not specify that WAC has a policy to refuse to cooperate with the military, and WAC does support the Hague Convention.)

Archaeologists urged not to become part of the war planning against Iran

More than a thousand archaeologists from all over the world gathered in Dublin
at the end of June to attend the 6th World Archaeological Congress (WAC). WAC
is the only archaeological organisation with global elected representation, and
one which places particular emphasis on archaeological ethics.

In the final plenary session on Friday 4 July 2008, the delegates passed a
resolution which not only opposes any military attack on Iran, but also urges
archaeologists not to offer any advice to the military on archaeological issues
during the planning of such attack. In the recent past, archaeologists in the
USA were approached by the military and were asked to provide expertise and
advice on Iranian archaeological sites. The Congress felt that to provide such
information at this stage is to offer “cultural credibility and respectability
to the military action”. In 2003, prior to the invasion of Iraq, some
archaeologists both in the USA and the UK were asked to provide (or
volunteered) information on sites “to be spared”. Their actions attracted
considerably criticism from many of their colleagues.

The text of the resolution is as follows:

“The 6th World Archaeological Congress expresses its strong opposition to any
unilateral and unprovoked, covert or overt military action (including air
strikes) against Iran by the US government, or by any other government. Such
action will have catastrophic consequences for millions of people and will
seriously endanger the cultural heritage of Iran and of the Middle East in
general. Any differences with Iran (as with any other country) should be
resolved through peaceful and diplomatic means.

The Congress also urges its members, all archaeologists and heritage
professionals to resist any attempts by the military and governments to be
co-opted in any planned military operation, for example by providing advice and
expertise to the military on archaeological and cultural heritage matters. Such
advice would provide cultural credibility and respectability to the military
action. Archaeologists should continue emphasising instead the detrimental
consequences of such actions for the people and the heritage of the area, for
the past and the present alike. A universal refusal by archaeologists and
others would send the message that such a plan is hugely unpopular amongst
cultural professionals as well as the wider public”.

CONTACT: Dr Yannis Hamilakis, University of Southampton, co-ordinator, WAC
“Archaeologist and War Task Force” (

Dr Umberto Albarella, University of Sheffield, (

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Yet More Evidence of Looting in southern Iraq

In the new TAARII Newsletter of the American Academic Research Institute in Iraq, Issue no. 3-1, spring 2008, Carrie Hritz provides more concrete evidence of the extent of looting in southern Iraq. Hritz looked only at a 600-square kilometer area centered on one site, Isin, capital of a dynasty that ruled Babylonia from around 1100 -1000 BC. She was able to obtain time-series data for winters of 2002, 2003, and 2006, as well as from the mid-1990s, for this area.

The good news: the imagery revealed sixty additional possible archaeological sites beyond the 56 that had been identified through ground surveys.

The bad news: "site looting was widespread, and it increased between 2002 and 2006." On the site of Isin itself, "the 1960s and 1990s imagery does not show any visible looting damage. But in 2003, distinctive round lootingholes appear covering 37 hectares of the site. By 2006, looter holes expanded to cover 69 of the 193 hectares, more than doubling the area of damage within this three year span." (That would make for an annual rate of roughly 7% between 2003 and 2006, just slightly less than the 10% that archaeologists had been estimating for the country as a whole.) Many of these holes are on the newly detected sites, which means those pristine sites have been forever despoiled and whatever contextual information they might have yielded is probably gone forever as well. "Sites never visited by archaeological survey are subject to the same rates of looting as those known from archaeological survey."

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Another Corrective to Arts Newspaper Misreporting

Andrew Lawler's new piece in Science on the visit to 8 major sites in southern Iraq by John Curtis, Elizabeth Stone, Margarete Van Ess, et. al. makes clear how overblown was the Arts Newspaper reporting on their findings. The money quote from Lawler:

"The three archaeologists agree that their limited visit provides little new data on the host of other sites in southern Iraq that satellite data suggest may still be plagued by looting. Hamdani says that smaller and more remote sites are especially vulnerable. The international team was unable to visit any of these sites, although Stone confirmed that remote-sensing images show widespread damage to ancient settlements in the area."

So much for the notion that this report "contradicts" claims of widespread and sustained looting. One can only wonder why the reporter for the Art Newspaper did not ask the three archaeologists the question Lawler did. Could it be that the story's slant was designed to appeal to a readership eager to be told that it was fine to collect Iraqi antiquities since looting was non-existent?

Friday, July 04, 2008

3 Modest Suggestions for Improving Archaeological Site Protection

Derek Fincham suggests that if we want to protect antiquities currently at risk, "we need a cooperative coordinated approach which rests on a transparent market and loan procedure which works in conjunction with law enforcement and customs officials of many nations." This is exactly right, but needs a bit of flesh put on its bones. Here are three steps that need to be taken for this coordinated approach to work:

1. Transparency must be established in a way that satisfies the archaeological community that the provenance of antiquities is clear. That means creating a legally-binding mechanism for reviewing and approving antiquities for sale (presumably a board that would be run by archaeologists). It also means requiring all sales that take place to be registered so that it is known who is buying and selling, and at what price.

2. Sales of approved antiquities could then be not simply tracked, but taxed, in the model of sin taxes or user fees, with proceeds dedicated to a) paying for the provenance-review board, and b) funding programs (probably run out of the State Department's Cultural Heritage Center) that assist anti-looting and anti-smuggling efforts in those countries from which the artifacts originated. A tax of 5% on the Mesopotamian figurine recently sold for $57 million would have yielded a sum greater than the total 2003 budget of the Iraq State Board of Antiquities. Doubling their budget would dramatically improve their capacity to tamp down on site looting.

3. Both the provenance-review committee and the bureaucracy for administering anti-looting and anti-smuggling programs can be paid for from the tax proceeds. Ideally, there would be a governmental agency that would allocate tax proceeds to both these efforts, but the U.S. has no such agency. An oversight board should be created for this purpose.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Some Known Knowns and Known Unknowns about Extent of Site Looting

A bit more information about what we know and do not know about the extent of site looting:

Elizabeth Stone (Antiquity, vol 82, March 2008) quantifies the extent of looting in southern Iraq. Stone examined almost 10,000 square kilometres of imagery, containing some 1900 archaeological sites. She says 15.75 square kilometres of land have been intensively looted, including 213 archaeological sites. This is an area four times greater than all the archeological excavations undertaken in southern Iraq over the past century.

Stone has confirmed for me in an interview that the most recent imagery she has been working with is "not in the real heartland of looting. That area has not been imaged that recently."

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Sites in Iraq Not Looted? Get Real!

As expected, the Art Newspaper article is spawning claims of massive looting of sites in Iraq are somehow a myth promulgated by the left or by disgruntled archaeologists.

That would have to include those anti-war, anti-Americans, the carabinieri who deployed to Iraq in 2003 (and left after a number of them were killed in action), who report in Antiquities Under Siege that

"Widespread looting had affected the whole region [the southwestern Iraqi province of Dhi Qar] after the collapse of the regime in 2003. As of early 2007, grave robbers still combed archaeological sites, hunting for gold jewels, gems, and cuneiform tablets..." "Since the beginning of the operations in Nasiriyah... 1,636 looted archaeological objects have been seized..."

Also mythical would have to be the 17,000 artifacts looted from unregistered archaeological sites that had been returned to the museum, as reported by Donny George in 2006.

And let's not forget those mythmakers, the Polish civil-military contingent posted to Al Qadisiyah province, who reported in March 2005 that aerial reconnaissance showed "continuous and methodical illicit digging that neither the Coalition troops entering Iraq nor the local antiquity service have been able to prevent."

Now it is true that all these reports are now dated. Time does go by, and one can always say that we do not know what has happened within the last year, last six months, etc. etc. But there can be no doubt that since the invasion many, many sites have been looted. Donny George's figure of 17,000 items returned is greater than the number stolen from the museum, and of course must be only a small fraction of the total looted since the invasion. John Russell has estimated, based on the number of hectares known to have been looted compared to those that yielded the 170,000 items in the Iraq Museum, that 400-600,000 artifacts have been taken illicitly. These are of course very rough estimates, but they give a sense of the scope of the looting.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

No Recent Looting on 8 Sites in southern Iraq: What does it show us? Not what the Art Newspaper thinks it does

The Art Newspaper makes too much hay out of a new report by highly reputable archaeologists who visited 8 major sites in southern Iraq. (The article is at The lede is in-your-face (or at least in mine):

"An international team of archaeologists which made an unpublicised visit to southern Iraq last month found no evidence of recent looting—contrary to long-expressed claims about sustained illegal digging at major sites."

Who has been making these now-contradicted claims? Well, among others, me, supposedly:

"We reported last month, in a review of a new scholarly book on Iraq’s cultural heritage, that Professor Lawrence Rothfield of the University of Chicago claims that sites are being “destroyed at the rate of roughly 10% a year”.

One problem: there is no contradiction here. Archaeologists have been claiming that sustained digging has taken place at sites both major and minor, but that is not the same thing as claiming that every site in the country has been looted, or even that every major site has been looted. Indeed, it has been known for several years now, from analyses of satellite imagery by Elizabeth Stone, that in general the sites in the south had not seen as much looting as of those she studied from the middle of the country, where the devastation has been enormous. Stone's analysis showed that the major sites in the south -- the only area this assessment team visited --had for the most part remained unlooted, at least through 2005, the latest date for which satellite photos were available to her.

The archaeological assessment team, which included Stone, visited just eight major sites, of the 10,000 registered sites in the country. Is it possible that sustained looting is occurring or has already occurred at many of the 9,992 other sites? The answer is almost certainly yes. (The US military could easily clear up the question of how much looting has taken place where and when, if it would provide time-series photos of known sites. Don't hold your breath on that happening, though.)

It was already clear from Stone's analysis that the 8 sites visited were unusual in not having experienced the kind of severe looting that Stone found elsewhere in the country. The real question is: why were these sites spared?

I asked this question of Donny George. His response: The team "visited some specific and less troubled sites from the security point of view, and these sites happen to be protected for one reason or another:

1. Ur: this site was protected before 2003 being surrounded by the Iraqi air base, then after 2003 protected by the American air base, together with the good protection of the Iraqi guards and FPS patrols.

2. Larsa: this site is in a remote area, almost covered by sand dunes, which made it very difficult for the looters to approach, most of the times.

3. Uruk: This site had always been very good protected by its guards and their tribes, there have been some attempts of looting, but they were strongly stopped by the guards and the local authorities.

4. Lagash, There had been some attempts of looting to this site, but not that much all the time, yes it is very well known in the world of archaeology, but it never had extensive looting like the others.

5. Eridu, This site had been surrounded by water for some time before 2003, and later dried, so it was not so vulnerable by the looters, although it is very well known in the world of archaeology, but also known of having extensive archaeological excavations by the Iraqi antiquities service, which maybe left nothing for the looters, in their opinion, and the excavations there are completely covered, except for some bricks on the surface of one mound only.

5. Tell Lahm: This site has been looted to some extent, and has been disturbed by the diggings of the Iraqi army in 1991, first Gulf war, but since this site is in the closest point between the high way between Basra and Baghdad, and the local road between Basra and Nasiriyah, and there's always been been a check point there, because of that situation, and the American forces use both ways extensively, I think the looters abandoned the site from early times.

6. Ubaid: This site had had some looting just after the 1991 war, and maybe some more just after 2003, but since being very close to the city of Ur, made it on the way of the Iraqi FPS patrols and the American forces from the beginning, so I believe it was very hard for the looters to continue in these circumstances.

7. Oueili: very well known in the world of archaeology by the French excavations and publications, but it is a prehistoric site, it produces nothing of the materials that the looters want, maybe they have checked it and abandon it, because of that.

George concludes: "Again with all my respect to the courageous action these leading archaeologists had done, but this is my personal point of view, but I want to believe that there will be some more trips for other sites in the near future."

Why does it matter whether the story is badly slanted or not?

Two reasons: First, because its slantedness has political implications. The story has been pounced upon by the rightwing blogosphere -- posted it instantaneously -- since it leaves readers with the impression that, as one rightwing commenter on the story has already put it, the claim of massive looting of sites "was just another story fabricated by the Boston Globe and New York Times."

Second, and far more important, because in addition to enabling deniers to claim that nothing has happened or is happening that needs our attention, the reporter misses the real story, which is about what we can learn from the happy fate of these 8 sites. Nearby bases, checkpoints on major roads, increased FPS patrols, help from locals, as well as training equipment and guard towers bequeathed by the carabinieri: all these make a real difference.

That's the real surprise, one the story misses.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Ciggies, continued: Wittgenstein's lesson

The freedom to choose whichever brand of cigarette one prefers is thus constrained by the discursive framework that defines what smoking one brand or another can signify about the smoker. But as important as the choice of object is, equally important can be the choice of how to consume it. The way one smokes says something about one's thoughtfulness or nervousness or attitude toward pleasure, or any one of another of dispositions. The cigarette is a prop, as all actors know.
Long drags, short puffs?Holding the cigarette cupped Nazi-style conveys an attitude of analytical assessment and judgment ("very intereshting... but shtoopid!" as Arne Johnson's Laugh-In Nazi says). Oscar Wilde's heroes smoke languidly, reclining on Persian pillows and aphorizing that "A cigarette is the perfect type of the perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and leaves one unsatisfied." But not all smoking is about exquisite unsatisfying pleasure. Hardboiled Bogarts bogart, squeezing all the intensity possible from experiences that are scarce, fleeting, and perhaps not even pleasurable.

Wittgenstein was famous for the way he smoked while teaching. Without pausing from his thinking-out-loud he would take a cigarette from the pack, light a match, and then, as if he had forgotten what he was doing, continue to follow his own thoughts. Meanwhile, the match would burn down, coming closer and closer to singing the philosopher's fingers. Always, at the last possible second, Wittgenstein would in a single gesture bring cigarette to lips and match to cigarette, then shake the match out -- all without missing a beat in his philosophizing. It was a brilliant illustration of the rich embodiedness of language games. It also offered a lesson in power, for it fascinated philosophers studying with the master, who began to imitate him in their style of smoking. Generations later, this mannerism has spread through the philosophical community, infecting many who have no idea that Wittgenstein gave it salience to begin with.

What is true for cigarettes is true for all cultural goods. Cultural economics will remain hobbled unless it develops a multivariate methodology for analyzing the many dimensions in which symbols can be consumed, the many ways in which choosing a cigarette (or any other cultural good) involves expressing a preference, the many kinds of "good" that one can seek to make one's own via the consuming of a cigarette (or a book or a play or a song). Without a cultural stylistics, cultural economics will not be able to bring into view the costs and benefits of cultural choices.

I am a non-smoker, by the way.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Cigar... But What Brand of Cigar Really Makes the Difference!

David Sedaris offers a hilariously spot-on discussion of how choosing which brand of cigarette to smoke was for him like choosing a religion. He runs through all the ways in which what you smoke defines who you are for others: never lend money to someone who smokes Marlboro Lights but you can be sure you will get your money back from someone who smokes regular Marlboros, Camels are smoked by people who write bad poetry, etc. etc. Distinction here is not about class -- or at least, not about class alone, pace Bourdieu. The cost is pretty much the same (cigarettes are all about the same price). What is at stake is who you are as a person, what you saying about yourself as an ethical being.

Sedaris' monologue is brilliant not just because he is so astute at identifying the types of smokers associated with brands (though he could make millions as an ad executive based on these insights), but because he shows how a matter of taste is laden with power, a choice imbued with high anxiety. A wonderful illustration of the phenomenon Foucault analyzes in his last works on the history of sexuality.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The "Hyde Park as Liberal Enclave" Meme

The Spectator, picking up on the New York Times and LA Times meme: "One potential problem for Obama is his time in Hyde Park, the liberal enclave where the University of Chicago is. Hyde Park is like Berkeley or Cambridge, Massachusetts and definitely outside what would be normally seen as the American mainstream."

Hyde Park like Berkeley? I wish!

Where's my Chez Panisse, my Peet's, my Freight and Salvage folk music mecca, my sunshine, my City Council establishing a nuclear-free zone, my counter-cultural ambiance? All we have is fab bookstores and five mediocre Thai restaurants. Who lives here? Not aging hippies, but econ, law, business and med school profs who can afford the million-dollar properties, along with middle-class blacks and whites and thousands of hunkered-down students. The U of C itself ain't no Berkeley or Harvard. Our university has just announced a $200 million initiative for a new Milton Friedman Institute, for cripes sake, on top of the hundreds of million just spent on a brand-spanking-new business school. Our public policy school concentrates on survey design and econometrics. Our grad and undergrad students self-select for marine-corps-style learning experiences, not frisbee-flipping.

Hyde Park has been an enclave, but not a political enclave. What lies around it is not the real world where real, conservative Americans live -- it is a world of extreme poverty. And Hyde Park's survival as a middle-class integrated neighborhood enclave was the work not of liberals but of the conservatives who ran the University back in the 1950s.

This is not to say that there are no leftists in Hyde Park. It is only to say that the idea that Obama was living in a cushy Latteville where he never would meet a Republican is ludicrous.