Friday, December 19, 2014


Is the only way to describe a proposal Monika Grütters, Germany's Commissioner for Culture, has made at the behest of archaeologists with an axe to grind against collectors and cultural bureaucrats of failed states and/or dictatorships like Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq and Syria. 

According to the report,

Ms. Grütters outlined plans for a new law that would require documented provenance for any object entering or leaving Germany, long among the laxest of regulators of the art market. Among other measures, dealers would be required to show a valid export permit from the source of the piece’s origins when entering Germany.

It's unclear how Grütters believes German dealers and collectors are going to come up with documentation that simply does not exist for artifacts that have been traded legally for generations without such paperwork.

Meanwhile, there was apparently no discussion about simple steps archaeologists can take that will discourage looting like hiring site guards and paying local diggers a living wage.    

Ethical archaeologists are already taking similar steps.  So why not make them a legal requirement for every archaeologist excavating abroad?  It's always better to tackle any problem at the source. 

And, if the point of Grütters' proposals is to ensure Germans appear ethical to the world, shouldn't that start with archaeologists, who after all, have direct contact with the people of source countries?

Thursday, December 18, 2014


In far off Poland, one archaeo-blogger fantasizes about vast treasure houses of looted material in the deserts of Iraq or Syria:

One possibility remains that the 2003+ looting in Iraq (documented on the ground and in satellite photos) resulted in stockpiles of antiquities, bought cheap at source and mothballed in a secure store as an investment, say a retirement nest-egg for some local wiseguy - intended to be sold piecemeal when the fuss dies down in a decade or so. We know holes were dug, stuff hoiked, US and European dealers tell us it never arrived on any market they know -  postulating such warehouses is therefore one (pretty good) way of explaining that evidence.  What's more nobody can say that there are not such warehouses.
Somewhere in Iraq, what's in this building?
If they exist, they could be veritable treasure houses, the buyer had the pick of a vast amount of numbers of objects from the tens of thousands of holes dug in 'productive' areas of productive sites. They could afford to buy the best of the best, sawn-up Assyrian friezes, glyptic  material, cunies, Sumerian statues, Akkadian jewellery, Seleucid bronzes, and coins, loads of coins. You can just imagine it. Rather like a Swiss freeport, just somewhere at the end of a dirt track in the Middle Eastern desert.

You can also imagine it when one day some armed thugs bust their way into the hoarder's house, thrust an AK in the face of his daughter and bawls out that he'll pull the trigger if he does not hand over the keys - and when he gets the keys anyway blows a hole in her head. And then his. They'd come with some guy who knows the trade - ISIL has access to specialists in many fields - who picks out the pieces that give more bucks per transport costs, load them up on some trucks and off they go with them to some market. They can come back for more with impunity until they empty the store of the best bits. Them they might use informants to tell them where the next one is. Plausible? You bet. Did it happen? Could have.

You can imagine too, can't you, the smiling Lebanese dealer shaking hands with the well-dressed man offering him some prime antiquities. The seller is an ISIL political officer, suave and well-groomed in a suit. The dealer is anticipating a good profit, he has some clients on his list (15000 people, you know) who he knows will be very interested in those Assyrian reliefs, no need to put them on open sale, he can sell directly. The coins he can shift too, to America - nobody there asks any difficult questions. Plausible? You bet. Did it happen? Could have.

And he goes further.  Not content to fantasize himself, he also fantasizes that a serious, knowledgeable commentator on the subject shares that same fantasy.  Yet, the fact that this archaeo-blogger does not link to what the commentator actually said, though it is available on the Internet, should raise yet another red flag.  Once again, caveat emptor.

Tackle the Problem at the Source

Jim McAndrew, a former senior special agent with Homeland Security, warns against assumptions that looted Syrian material is coming here in any quantity.  In so doing, he rightly concludes the best place to focus resources is on Syria's borders.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Cold Storage?

Now that claims that looting is "the most important funding source for ISIS after 'hot oil'" and "$36 million in looted antiquities were taken by ISIS from one area in Syria alone" have been thoroughly debunked, the archaeological blogosphere is desperately seeking an easy explanation for where all those stolen antiquities must have gone. 

That easy "answer?"  "Cold storage." 

But, once again, caveat emptor.  This red herring first appeared after the initial phase of the Second Gulf War in 2003-2004 to explain why a promised avalanche of  looted Iraqi antiquities never surfaced in the United States and other Western markets.  As of 2013, before the rise of ISIS, these stolen artifacts still had not appeared in quantity.

In any event, while it is true at least one such infamous storage space did exist for looted Italian artifacts back in 1980's Switzerland, is it reasonable to assume similar secret facilities exist in today's Iraq and Syria?  Or, is it more reasonable to believe that no rational middle man would create such "cold storage" in a "hot war zone" where one bomb or mortar shell could easily turn a treasure house into dust. 

But what of all those holes at Apamea (a site the archaeological lobby is also loath to admit is controlled by the Assad regime)?   CPO agrees satellite imagery appears to show looter's holes, but notes again reports out of Iraq after the Second Gulf War suggest all may not be what it seems.

Under the circumstances, isn't it at least possible most of holes at Apamea (and other sites like Dura Europos) were "dry," i.e., they produced little of value or that the excavations were actually for military purposes, i.e., "fox holes" for the troops of the warring factions?

Or, is this again yet another case where such obvious possibilities cannot be seriously considered because they would  further undermine the archaeological lobby's efforts to encourage government decision makers to impose the "devil's proof" on collectors of ancient artifacts?

Monday, December 15, 2014

They Shoot Looters, Don't They?

While the general public probably views looting as no worse than a traffic violation, incredibly they are actually debating in the archaeological blogosphere whether execution is an appropriate sanction for disturbing archaeological context for personal gain.   To be fair, the author is opposed to it and even has sympathy for subsistence diggers, but the fact that some in the archaeological lobby have supported the ultimate sanction in the past should give everyone pause.  The death penalty was imposed selectively in Saddam's Iraq; while those associated with the regime apparently looted with the Dictator's blessing, others without connections forfeited their lives if caught.  The same kind of selective  prosecution also  apparently lives on in today's Iraq, but at least no one is getting executed for looting in areas under government control.  And isn't that a good thing?

Caveat Emptor

The dramatic unraveling of the claim that $36 million in antiquities were looted under the authority of the terrorists of ISIS from one area in Syria alone should raise serious questions for mainstream media and government officials.  We know that archaeologists are smart, careful people, engaged in important scholarship and deeply caring about the exposure and investigation of history and culture.  We also know that most haven't the faintest idea of what goes on in the antiquities market -- indeed many choose a path of willful blindness, turning their eyes away from the trade in and collection of cultural material, whether licit or not.  Some of this may be motivated by the ideological view that all culture belongs to the states where it is found, and that collecting, even legitimate collecting, is nothing short of theft.  Many, we know, willfully and blindly accept the views of countries (many of which are dictatorships) that declare anything old state property, or, worse, forget their own commitment to science by seizing on and promoting truly ridiculous claims about looting and vastly inflated values of the traffic in stolen material, no matter what evidence may exist to the contrary. Caveat emptor. 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

More Debunking of the $36 million figure

Artnet news, citing German sources, has also debunked the claim that $36 million in antiquities were looted from one area in Syria.   Why is this so important?  - because the figure has been used to justify proposed changes in the law in both Germany and the United States that will impose the "devil's proof" on collectors of common artifacts which have been legally held for generations.