Monday, November 30, 2009

Google Documents Iraqi Museum Treasures-- How about Documenting Site Looting Next?

Sci-Tech Today | Google Documents Iraqi Museum Treasures

Google chief Eric Schmidt is quoted saying, "I can think of no better use of our time and our resources than to make the images and ideas from your civilization, from the very beginnings of time, available to billions of people worldwide."

Here's another use of Google's time and resources that might be better: gather time-series satellite images of archaeological sites in Iraq (and other looting-prone countries) from GoogleEarth, and use your programmers' expertise together with archaeologists to develop automated methods for counting holes. That would enable countries to finally be able to track what has happened, and what is happening right now, on their sites.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

guest post from Maj. Corine Wegener on Kaylan's downplaying of damage to Iraq's cultural heritage during the U.S. occupation

Corine Wegener, a now-retired major in Civil Affairs who deployed to Iraq after the looting of the museum to assist in mitigating the damage there, is now President of the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield, has written a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal responding to Melik Kaylan's article there. She has kindly agreed to allow me to post it here as well:

To the Editor:

Melik Kaylan’s efforts (Nov. 13, 2009, Myths of Babylon) to downplay damage to Iraq’s cultural heritage during the U.S. occupation actually do a disservice to our military and carry political overtones which serve neither our troops nor our reputation on the international stage. In 2003-2004, I served in Baghdad as the Arts, Monuments, and Archives Officer for the 352d Civil Affairs Command. Inadequate planning for the protection of Iraqi cultural property prior to the invasion of Iraq resulted in harm to an ancient cultural heritage shared by us all, and it could have been prevented.

As much as I respect Chaplain Marrero and the Marines’ efforts to secure Babylon in 2003, the subsequent damage done by contractor KBR’s continuously improving and expanding the site as an operating base was significant and avoidable. That Babylon had suffered damage under Saddam’s regime does not make additional damage while under the control of Coalition Forces any more acceptable to the Iraqi people or the international community. Damage did occur at many sites, and certainly did not help us to win hearts and minds.

The U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield, a nongovernmental organization founded in 2006, has provided cultural property training to dozens of deploying U.S. Army Civil Affairs units. Informed with this training, military personnel demonstrate an understanding and respect for local cultural heritage that helps build relationships and, ultimately, saves lives. We do not believe diminishing or denying the mistakes of the past will move us forward. The U.S. military has a proud tradition for respecting cultural heritage that goes back to WWII - we must rebuild that reputation and provide military personnel with the tools and training they need to accomplish their mission while preserving cultural heritage for future generations.

Major (Retired) Corine Wegener
President, U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield
Minneapolis, MN

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Kaylan Continues to Try to Rewrite History, Now Smearing Bogdanos as Well as Curtis and Stone

Melik Kaylan's attempt to rewrite history continues, now with increased desperation including a smear of Matthew Bogdanos. I've posted a comment on the Forbes site, which I append here:

Col. Bogdanos is certainly inconvenient for Kaylan's story. A Marine war-hero and Republican who is a prosecutor in NYC when not on anti-terrorism missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, he hardly fits the anti-American, anti-military mold, yet he concluded that approximately 15,000 artifacts were looted in April 2003. 5,000 or so of these were cylinder seals, the best of which (that is, the kind that would go to the museum) sell for over $100,000 apiece; that is an inconvenient truth that would explain why looters would target the museum and thousands of archaeological sites. Kaylan therefore chooses, shamefully, to smear him as self-serving, ignoring that Bogdanos has donated to charity the profits from his book (for which he received the National Humanities Medal from George W. Bush). Kaylan also chooses to ignore reports by the Italian carabinieri and Polish forces that describe ongoing looting in the 2003-4 period, and ignores as well the evidence from satellite photos proving a massive surge in site looting began just before the war when Saddam moved his troops away from archaeological sites to the front lines. All this information, and much more, I shared with Kaylan when he contacted me in July 2008 while he was preparing his first story. For him to claim now that he got no help from the archaeological community is... well, I leave it to readers of Forbes to decide what it is. Professor Lawrence Rothfield University of Chicago

Rereading this I realize I forgot to also defend the honor of Donny George, also smeared.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

"Orphan" Antiquities Study

The Cultural Policy Research Institute, a think tank formed last year "to build a viable legal framework for the protection of world historical remains", has issued its first research study. It focuses on "orphan" artifacts: archaeological material or ancient art in private hands that the AAMD's recently-adopted guidelines exclude from being acquired by Member museums because these artifacts lack clear provenance showing they were outside their country of probable modern discovery before 1970 (or were exported legally after 1970). This first pilot study limited itself to Greek, Roman, and associated material, coins excluded, with a value of $1000 or more. CPRI researchers -- unnamed in the report -- interviewed museum staffers, major US dealers, private collectors, and scholars. The interviewing methodology is not described, and sources remain anonymous, so there is no way to evaluate the accuracy of the results. We have no way of knowing how those interviewed determined that provenances were inadequate, but it seems obvious that dealers and collectors have a vested interest in exaggerating the number, so these figures need to be taken with a big grain of salt.

The study estimates that 67,500-111,900 classical artifacts with inadequate provenance are being held by collectors or dealers. It would be very interesting to know what percentage is in the hands of dealers rather than collectors, and even more interesting to know how many total artifacts, well-provenanced as well as "orphaned", worth $1000 or more are now in private hands. One thing at least is deducible: the market for only inadequately provenanced Roman/Greek/related antiquities involves capital to the tune of at least $67,500,000-111,900,000 (since all the artifacts reported are supposedly worth at least $1000 each).

The CPRI could do a major service to all students of the antiquities markets if it could ascertain how many of these "orphans" change hands annually, at what prices, and in what country.

But the aim of the CPRI is not to throw light on the operations of the antiquities market. Rather, it is to call attention to the existence of these objects, which supposedly are endangered by being held in private hands:

objects excluded from acquisition by Member museums cannot have the benefit of professional museum exhibition, publication, or conservation. ... Such objects can have no permanent parentage or protection (many run the risk, over time, of deterioration, damage or destruction).

The problem with this line of argument is that even if the objects in question were not excluded from acquisition most of them would not be acquired. And the notion that dealers and collectors would be negligent towards objects worth thousands of dollars seems very questionable.

The hope seems to be to persuade AAMD to rescind its guidelines. But those guidelines were created in response to a recognition that the antiquities market is being fed by looters. One has no way of knowing how many of the 67,500 "orphaned" artifacts were orphaned from their contexts by Bulgarian, Cypriot, or Turkish looters, but we do know that site looting of these countries' Greek and Roman sites is ongoing.

That does not mean that the guidelines in themselves will have much if any effect on this ongoing looting, at least not in the short run. The market will continue to function, and "orphaned" antiquities will continue to flow into it. But at least the guidelines lay down a challenge to dealers and collectors: figure out some way for your industry to play a progressive role in
reducing looting and clean up its act by establishing a strictly licit market. Come up with a plan like that and maybe bringing in the orphans can be part of the final deal.