Wednesday, April 16, 2014

CPAC Hearing Scheduled for Pre-Judged Egyptian MOU

Egypt has scheduled an election for President on May 26-27 to formally replace its deposed Muslim Brotherhood President, Mohammed Morsi.  Although there will be others on the ballot, there is only one real candidate, former army chief, Abdel Fattah el-Sissi.  So, while Egyptians will go through the motions of electing their leader, the result has been predetermined.  El-Sissi will be Egypt's next President one way or the other.

So, how fitting then that weeks after Egyptian authorities and the New York Times both suggested that the US had already agreed to ban imports of Egyptian artifacts and days after Egyptologist-Heritage Hero Monica Hanna finished promoting restrictions on American collectors at events staged in New York and Washington, D.C., the State Department's Bureau of Educational Affairs has announced that CPAC will meet to discuss a proposed MOU with Egypt.

Given this history, does anyone seriously believe the upcoming CPAC meeting will in the end be anything more than an orchestrated farce not dissimilar to what's happening in Egypt itself?  Still, if one feels strongly about their continued ability to collect Egyptian artifacts, CPO believes they should comment on website.  Why? Because silence will only be spun as acquiesce by the US and Egyptian cultural bureaucracies as well as the powerful archaeological lobby.

More later on how to comment, but the above link about the CPAC meeting should provide the basics.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Monica Hanna: The Arab Spring and the State of Egyptian Antiquities

On April 14, 2014, Monica Hanna, an Egyptologist and social media activist, spoke at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.  She was introduced by Haleh Esfandiari, the Director of Middle East Programs at the Center.  There were approximately forty (40) attendees in the audience.

Esfandiari indicated Hanna’s talk was co-sponsored by the Antiquities Coalition.  Hanna is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Humboldt University (Berlin) and was recently awarded the SAFE Beacon Award.  She created Egypt’s “Heritage Task Force” as a social media platform to combat looting.

Dr. Hanna discussed serious damage done at several Pharaonic, Ptolemaic, Coptic, and Islamic sites. Those most at risk are in urban areas.  A “Land Mafia” typically repurposes sites over time so they lose their character as archaeological sites in the mind of locals.  Tactics include using the sites as garbage dumps, farms and cemeteries.  Cemeteries in particular are difficult to remove for obvious reasons.   Local government, Religious Institutes or even National Government ministries have also been at fault.  They have built football pitches or even buildings adjoining or directly on archaeologically sensitive sites.  In the process, monuments are either defaced or utterly destroyed.  In this regard, Dr. Hanna displayed several slides that compared 19th century prints with present day vistas.  In each case, significant monuments are no longer visible at all or have suffered considerable damage.

Villagers are a problem.  Families with children go out for a picnic and then loot.   There also is more organized looting that Hanna attributes to the illicit international antiquities trade.  They use bulldozers and dynamite to destroy sites in search for loot.  Hanna showed pictures of a looted Coptic site where religious reliefs were pried out from stonework.  She also showed other pictures of looters’ pits where remnants of mummies and mummy cases were left behind.  Apparently, families know not to store looted material in their houses because of the danger of arrest.  Instead, they bury it elsewhere for later retrieval once a middleman is found.

Hanna next discussed looting and destruction at the Malawi Museum in Minya.  She showed before and after slides of mummies that had been burnt by the mob.  Unfortunately, mummies burn quite easily.  Little kids destroyed pottery and other artifacts.  She asked one teenager why he did it.  In response, he told her, “Because they belong to the Government and I’m mad at the Government.”   [Looting of the museum was tied to rioting following a military coup that overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood Government of deposed President Mohamed Morsi.]  Hanna blamed the government for a slow response.  She was finally able to persuade a local police official to bring his family along to drive out the looters.  It took the army three days to send one tank to protect the museum.  [This sounds familiar.  The archaeological community registered similar complaints against the American Army’s alleged slow response to the looting of the Iraq National Museum.]

Hanna asserts that looting destroys history because 70% of an object’s historical value comes from the context in which it was found.  [Others will disagree.]  She advocates that activists report on anyone they believe is selling looted material.

Hanna  then answered some questions.  The first questioner [who appeared to be associated with the Wilson Center] asked about government involvement in looting, but Hanna did not answer that question.  Instead, she maintained that 20% of the looting came from locals selling to antiquities dealers and 80% was attributable to “the Mafia.”  She did not explain how she came by these figures.  She indicated that there needs to be much better community outreach to stem looting.  She wants to use social media to get information about sites being looted.  She said that the same networks that move drugs and guns move antiquities. Again, she did not disclose the source of this information.  She also stated that there are direct channels to middle men in the United States.  Again, no source was provided for this information.  She stated that two (2) recently looted artifacts surfaced at auction in London.  These were discovered because they were from museum stores and were published in 1956.  

The first questioner again asked Hanna if the authorities were involved.  In response, she stated the Mubarak regime was certainly involved and that the Chief of Police for Cairo was arrested for running a smuggling ring.  The questioner then pressed Hanna about any involvement by the current government.  Hanna indicated that it was too soon to tell.

Another questioner asked about whether there was a “concerted international response” to looting.   Hanna indicated it was essential to get the UN involved.  There are markets in the US and the Gulf.  If these markets were closed, the problem would be lessened.  Over the long term there needs to be more investment in local communities in Egypt.  The people must see that antiquities have a value to them.  One reason they loot is that they think it’s their right to do so because corrupt government officials are doing it too.  

Another questioner asked Hanna about the MOU with the United States.  Hanna indicated that it is essential to close markets.  She indicated that Egyptian authorities recently recovered 6,000 artifacts destined for a Swiss collector.   

Another individual indicated he had a State Department contract with a company that planned to assist Egypt create a database of artifacts in State Museum stores.  He wanted it to be known that two consecutive US Ambassadors had tried to get the Egyptian government to cooperate with the project, but the Mubarak Government stymied it.

Hanna indicated that governments need to be pressured to take a strong stance against illicit antiquities collecting.   The last time this was successful was Iraq.  In response to another question, Hanna indicated that she does not approve of private collecting.  She indicated that private collectors should be satisfied with objects with a demonstrable provenance back to 1970 or 1983, the date of a clear Egyptian patrimony law.   She does not think collectors should be able to “get away with” collecting unprovenanced artifacts.  They are likely stolen.  [CPO disagrees.  Egyptian artifacts have been actively and legally collected since the 19th c. and Egypt itself has only had clear law vesting title in the State since 1983.   Many Egyptian artifacts, particularly minor ones, have lost any information on how and where they were found over the years.  CPO submits to assume they are “stolen” is both factually wrong and grossly unfair to law abiding collectors.]

Hanna: Mubarak Regime Involved in Antiquities Trafficking

In response to a question from the audience at yesterday's event at the Wilson Center, Dr. Monica Hanna stated unequivocally that the Mubarak Regime (her words) was deeply involved in antiquities trafficking.  Specifically, Hanna identified the former police chief of Cairo as a major smuggler.

But that is not all.  Another speaker from the floor complained that two successive US Ambassadors had offered the Egyptian Government money to help complete an inventory of artifacts in state collections, but this effort was stymied by the Egyptian Government itself.  No wonder. Without an inventory, it's far easier for corrupt Egyptian cultural bureaucrats to sell antiquities from "the museum store" without notice.  And yet, the same Egyptian cultural bureaucracy has  convinced the US Government to bring criminal cases and forfeiture actions to recover Egyptian artifacts from US citizens in the recent past.

When asked if the current military government was also involved in antiquities trafficking, Hanna could only meekly state that it was too soon to tell.  But just how different is the current military government from the Mubarak regime, which was also dominated by military men?   And, if the differences are as it appears only "skin deep," why should the US Government clamp down on US collectors on behalf of a deeply hypocritical and corrupt Egyptian cultural establishment?

CPO hopes to post a full report of  Dr. Hanna's talk in the not too distant future, but in the interim will highlight some of her admissions that should give US Government decision makers and the press pause.

Monday, April 14, 2014

"I destroyed them because they belong to the Government and I'm mad at the Government."

So a young man reportedly said to SAFE award winner Monica Hanna to explain his participation in the looting and destruction of the Minya Museum with other locals angry that the military had  deposed their Muslim Brotherhood president.

CPO will report more on other revealing admissions Ms. Hanna made at an event organized by the so-called Antiquities Coalition soon, but this statement in particular gets to the heart of what's wrong with Egypt's cultural establishment and why US Collectors should not be made to pay the price for a mess entirely of Egypt's own making.

The Military Government that has run Egypt for decades,  like its much more bloodthirsty cousins in Syria and the former Baathist state of Iraq, has declared ownership of all antiquities as part of nationalist campaign to associate the regime with the glories of the ancient past.  This may sit well with collector-hating foreign and domestic archaeologists, but it also means that common people associate antiquities with their government oppressors.  The results have been sadly predictable in all three countries, what with wanton destruction of archaeological artifacts during times of strife.

And yet, rather than facing this basic truth, the media and government decision-makers uncritically accept the received wisdom from archaeologists with an axe to grind against collectors and self-interested foreign cultural bureaucrats that the real culprits are foreign collectors and shadowy antiquities dealers.  No, the real problem is the state ownership model they support, particularly when this approach awards absolute control to violent and venal governments at war with their own people.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

FBI Believes Antiquities Laws Apply Retroactively?

The FBI's actions in descending on the home of a 91 year old war veteran and missionary who has collected artifacts all his life has become even more troubling.  According to a spokesman for the Bureau, some of the treaties and laws that provided a basis for the seizure are "retroactive."

But then what of the US Constitution's strict prohibition on ex post facto or retroactive criminal laws?  Does the FBI believe such constitutional protections no longer apply to collectors?  And, if so, who will tell them otherwise?

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Egypt's Face to the World

While the archaeological community seeks to make archaeologist Monica Hanna the Face of Egypt when it comes to "emergency import restrictions," we must not forget Ms. Hanna is in effect doing the bidding of a military government that has presented quite another face to the world.

Looting in Egypt may or may not be a serious problem, but the question remains why should American collectors and the small businesses of the antiquities and numismatic trade be made to pay for a mess entirely of Egypt's own making?

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

BM to Determine Whether PAS Has Led to the Discovery of New Archaeological Sites

While the archaeological blogosphere has raised valid questions about the methodology of a new study that equates the passage of restrictive laws with declines in the discovery of archaeological sites, that study still asks an important question:  Do such laws work or do they just award a monopoly to a chosen few state-sponsored archaeologists and so ultimately discourage reported finds?

Or, stated another, more affirmative way, would a less restrictive approach that actually encourages the public to report their finds and work with professional archaeologists be a better way forward?

CPO suspects so and hopes that a British Museum own study  will help elucidate that issue.  According to the BM's website, that study asks the following:

Comparing the metal detected data with other forms of archaeological information, this research seeks to determine whether the information gathered by the Portable Antiquities Scheme can be used to tell us about previously unknown Roman sites, and whether it can add to our knowledge of those Roman sites that are already known.