Saturday, February 28, 2009

Site Looting Down Dramatically in Italy

Italy has demonstrated that it is possible to dramatically reduce the looting of archaeological sites, according to a new story in Scotland's Sunday Herald. What lies behind this success? Here's the money quote:

A three-pronged strategy from the government has made life increasingly difficult for Italy's would-be Indiana Joneses. Increased monitoring of archaeological sites means they are more likely to be caught; tougher penalties are in the parliamentary pipeline; and aggressive prosecution of museum curators and middlemen who trade in illegally excavated antiquities is drying up the market for their goods.
Last year, the carabinieri art squad discovered just 37 illegal digs, a tiny figure compared with the 1000 or so regularly found in the 1990s.

Assuming that the astonishing decline is not due to the carabinieri having cut back radically on site monitoring, the message here is clear: if the appropriate policies are put in place and -- crucially -- backed by adequate policing and enforcement resources, looting can be stopped. Dealers and collectors who suggest that the only feasible solution is to legalize the illicit market are wrong, as are archaeologists who put great stock in raising cultural awareness.

Of the three causes mentioned, it seems least likely that tougher penalties alone are responsible, since the decline has preceded the passage of stronger laws (though it may well be that even before the new laws have been passed, looters are being deterred by media attention). Nor is it likely that the high-profile prosecution of a small number of curators and middlemen -- really, only the Medici network -- could have done the trick by itself. While the Getty's buying spree surely poured oil on the fire, the demand for antiquities is primarily driven not by American museums but by the continued avidity of wealthy collectors worldwide; and the takedown of the Medici network must have left others intact.

That leaves increased monitoring of archaeological sites. The article provides no figures or additional information about how monitoring has improved, but whatever the specific measures -- better technology, additional personnel, information-sharing, etc -- they must have cost something. Those who are interested in assisting other countries where looting is out of control should focus on targeting their assistance on measures to improve the capacity for site monitoring. It is a lot less sexy than restoring a world heritage site or sponsoring archaeological digs, but much more cost-effective in preserving the past.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Finally, Policing Assistance For Iraq's Archaeological Sites -- On the Way, At Least

Obscured by the controversy over the photo op "reopening" of the Iraq Museum is something much more significant: the announcement by the Italian Ministry of Culture that Italy will help Iraq create a new police unit, modeled on Italy's crack carabinieri units, to fight the trafficking of stolen works. The Italians had been in Iraq during the first few years of the post-war period, and the area for which they were responsible was far better protected than others, remaining so even after they withdrew following an attack that killed several carabinieri.

While other forms of assistance such as site conservation and management, museum administration, and archaeological training, are of course valuable, without site policing and anti-looting efforts there will be far fewer sites to conserve, artifacts to catalogue, archaeological digs to conduct. Policing efforts should be a top priority for nations or NGOs hoping to assist Iraq in preserving its past, and it is deeply heartening to see that the Italians are again offering such assistance after a hiatus.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Add Peru to List of Countries Used as Smuggling Routes for Mesopotamian Antiquities Heading for the U.S.

The Peruvian Times reports:

Peruvian authorities and the Andean country’s National Culture Institute, INC, have been leading a campaign to stamp out the trade in antiquities illegally smuggled from Peru, reporting the seizure of more than 1,200 cultural and national heritage artifacts in 2008.
“Last year, we stopped 1,235 cultural objects from being smuggled out of Peru,” said the INC’s director, Dr. Cecilia Bákula, in comments to daily La República.
A team of three archaeologists and three art historians – on call 24 hours a day – carried out an average of 600 verifications every month, and recorded 30 seizures of artifacts.
Some of the most important pieces seized last year were not Inca or prehispanic treasures at all. Among the objects were three ancient clay tablets from Iraq, inscribed with cuneiform writing - one of the earliest known forms of written expression – and 21 macuquinas, or cobs, a crude style of irregularly shaped, hand-hammered coins, struck in Spain and colonial Spanish America. One of the Sumerian tablets was identified as originally from Babylon, south of Baghdad, and another from the region of Diyala, in southeastern Iraq. The tablets are between 4,000 and 5,000 years old.
Peru seized the ancient Mesopotamian tablets at Lima’s Jorge Chavez International Airport in February 2008, from where they were being smuggled to the United States.
The tablets were returned to Dr. Ameera Idan Hlaihel, head of Iraq’s Institute of Antiquities, last Friday.