Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Egypt's archaeological sites and museums will be getting a security upgrade

This sounds like a very good development, not just because better-armed guards, if they are properly trained, will have more deterrent effect, but also because the security plans will "be updated periodically to meet new or unexpected challenges." One hopes that Egypt will settle down and fulfill its promise of establishing a stable democratically-run government, but gaming out the possible scenarios for political breakdown and creating agreed-upon contingency plans now is very prudent. It may be touchy to raise the question of whether the Tourism and Antiquities Police might once again melt away, as they did during the January uprising, but that sort of possibility has to be put on the table, just in case, so that if security does need to be turned over there are clear directions as to how the SCA can fill the security gap at least temporarily.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Libya's Sites Get the Once Over

The plucky team of Joris Kila and Karl von Habsburg, guided by Libyan archaeologist and assisted from Europe by Dr. Thomas Schuler, were able to make their way into Libya to produce the first on-the-ground assessment of that country's extraordinary cultural heritage, and have now issued this report. The news is mostly good, which is heartening, and the Blue Shield and the International Military Cultural Resources Work Group are to be commended for once again being first in, as they were in Egypt. UNESCO has now sent a mission as well. Among the most interesting findings in the Blue Shield/IMCuRWG report is that in the case of the Leptis Magna site, the museum staff, operating without a contingency plan, nonetheless took a series of steps that kept the site and its museum's pieces safe, despite efforts by Gaddafi militia on several occasions to take over the site. Shepherds were invited to bring their sheep onto the site, something not normally permitted; the shepherds helped the staff monitor the vast site and prevented mines and booby traps from being laid. The staff also was able to persuade armed members of the Qaddafi militia to rehabilitate themselves by patrolling the site's perimeter. In addition, according to this CNN report, but not mentioned in the Blue Shield report, the site director also distributed a thoroughly documented inventory to friends in the capital an hour's drive away, so even if the town were destroyed during the war its history would not be lost. Directors of archaeological sites everywhere should take notice of these smart moves, and especially of this last one. The dire consequences of not having a thorough inventory -- including photo documentation -- are being felt by the one museum in Libya that has sustained major losses from looting, the Benghazi Museum, which has been robbed of more than 7,000 rare and valuable coins dating back to Alexander the Great, as well as other artifacts. Strangely, the Blue Shield/IMCuRWG report makes no mention of this theft. So, not a fullscale assessment mission but valuable both in helping convey to Libyans that the world cares supports their laudable efforts to protect their heritage, and in waving the flag for a more robust cultural heritage protection effort on the part of NATO. As the report notes, despite the deep involvement of NATO in the war to liberate Libya, it does not appear that NATO's concern for protecting Libya's heritage has gone beyond the important but very limited accomplishment of creating a no-strike list of sites to be avoided in bombing campaigns. That is what is required under the 1954 Hague Convention. The report argues that NATO has a further obligation:
Military contacts and training about protection of cultural property are indispensable, this is for instance mandatory under IHL (Hague Convention) and is still not put into practice in many countries.
I do not share that reading of what the Hague Convention requires, but I am not a legal scholar so I am ready to stand corrected. In any case, whether Hague requires it, policymakers would be well-advised to do this as a matter of sound policy. Securing cultural sites from post-conflict looting is in the interests of mankind, since the archaeological past is our shared human past; but it is also in the interests of warfighters to win hearts and minds by showing that a nation's heritage is respected. The Libyans are going to need all the help they can get going forward to ensure that the new Libya, with its freedoms, and with the inevitable lure of profits to be made by mining and smuggling its antiquities to be sold to super-rich collectors abroad, does not see the emergence of industralized looting by mafia-like groups, as is the norm in countries where state power is weak.