Wednesday, July 30, 2008

People to People Contacts Through a Shared Interest in Numismatics

I attended the American Numismatic Association (ANA) Convention in Baltimore, Maryland today. What makes this show different from others is the foreign participation. For example, I spoke with ancient coin dealers from the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland while I was there. I suspect there were also some foreign collectors in attendance, though not as many foreign dealers and collectors as those that come to the New York International Numismatic Convention (NYINC) every January. For more about the ANA and NYINC see: and

The State Department's Bureau of Educational Affairs (ECA) purports to support such people to people contacts, but typically does so through institutional exchanges. See ("ECA, comprises a team of 350 people who manage over 30,000 professional, academic and cultural exchanges worldwide every year.") Groups like the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute are the main beneficiaries of such federal largess. See This work costs the taxpayer money.

You would think that ECA would also support activities like the ANA and NYINC as way to promote such people to people contacts between Americans and foreigners AT NO COST TO THE US TAXPAYER. Yet, import restrictions like those ECA recently imposed on "coins of Cypriot type" threaten to make foreign participation in such coin fairs as a thing of the past.

Hopefully, the ECA's new bosses, James Glassman and Goli Ameri, will avoid the "tunnel vision" of members of the archaeological community that agitate for import restrictions and instead consider all the interests at stake before imposing such a draconian remedy in the future.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Kudos for Cuno

I finally had an opportunity to read Jim Cuno's book, "Who Owns Antiquity?" Cuno writes with the considerable experience of one who has been "on the receiving end" of criticism from elements within the archaeological community for years. Yet, he does not write out of bitterness. Rather, his book is a passionate but well reasoned defense of the encyclopedic museum against the forces of source country nationalism that have threatened its well being in the last decade or so.

A detailed review of Cuno's book is beyond the scope of this blog. Nevertheless, here are some of Cuno's points.
  • Source country nationalism rather than a desire to protect archaeological sites motivates most efforts to seek repatriations or import restrictions.
  • Source counties should return to the practice of allowing "partage" in return for help in excavating archaeological sites.
  • Archaeologists are dependent on source countries for excavation permits. Self-interest or fear of offending their hosts has led to unqualified support for source country rights over cultural artifacts even when that results in the neglect or destruction of those same artifacts.
  • One thing is certain. Whoever made a cultural artifact, it certainly was not made for a modern nation state.
  • Some source countries unashamedly assert rights over cultural artifacts of peoples and cultures they actively seek to subvert.
  • Encyclopedic museums have become a target for source nations and archaeologists because they stand in opposition to the nationalization of culture.
  • The trend of repatriations and import restrictions runs counter to the even more powerful trend of globalism.

Love it or hate it, after reading it, one cannot but help consider Cuno's book to be a valuable addition to the ongoing debate about "who owns the past."

Friday, July 25, 2008

CPAC, AAMD and Licit Markets

On July 24, 2008, I attended a Cultural Property Advisory Committee meeting to discuss the renewal of the MOU with Honduras. The renewal itself appeared uncontroversial. There were only three speakers, including the First Secretary of the Embassy. She did a good job given the fact that she was only told she was making the presentation that morning. An anthropologist from the University of California, Berkeley supporting the renewal was far better prepared. She arrived with another colleague from Berkeley and a representative of the Society of American Archaeology. Under the circumstances, I could not help but think that they may care more about the renewal of the MOU in Berkeley than they do in Honduras.

Josh Knerly, an attorney who represents the AAMD, made the most interesting presentation. He suggested that Honduras should create licit markets for duplicate archaeological artifacts as one part of a scheme to protect Honduras' culture. I suspect AAMD will put its prepared testimony on its web site in the near future. See

His testimony provoked an extensive interchange between Mr. Knerly and various CPAC members. Here is the flavor of the discussion. Sandy Boyd (museum representive - past director of the Field Museum) agreed with Knerly that the creation of licit markets would be a good idea, but did not think that the US should condition the renewal of the MOU on the commitment to study the issue. Nancy Wilkie (archaeological representative -past AIA President) indicated that she was wary of the creation of licit markets because she believed it would lessen the amount of material available in the public domain for scholars. Bob Korver (trade representative) thought that the renewal of the MOU could and should be conditioned on the creation of licit market within Honduras. Knerly agreed with Korver's view, but at this juncture was only advocating that the creation of licit markets be suggested and not mandated as a condition of any renewal. He also argued that Ms. Wilkie's concerns could be ameliorated if collectors were required to make their collections available to scholars for study.

The AAMD plans to continue to advocate the creation of licit markets in places like Honduras. It will be interesting to see how things develop.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Hugh Eakin and the Devastation of Iraq's Past

Hugh Eakin has written an article entitled "The Devastation of Iraq's Past" for the New York Review of Books. It can be found here:

Eakin writes well and carefully, attributes not always found in the news business of today. That said, one should keep in mind that an article is only as good as its sources. Here, by necessity, Eakin relies on several experts who have arguably exaggerated the situation "on the ground" in the past.

Verification has been a problem due to instability in the country since the invasion in 2003, but this is beginning to change. This probably helps explain why when information finally comes to light-- as it has recently-- that there has been no recent looting at several important sites in the South doubts set in as to whether there has been any looting at all.

Eakin tries to set the record strait and does an admirable job attempting to do so. Still, one can't help feel that past exaggeration continues to haunt his entire enterprise. For example, on page 2 Eakin quotes Elizabeth Stone as estimating that hundreds of thousands of artifacts have been looted from sites in Southern Iraq. Yet, in the corresponding footnote, Eakin acknowledges the conjectural nature of any such estimates. Moreover, as he must, Eakin suggests that the amount of such material that has surfaced in the West remains limited and further that the amount recovered in an international dragnet no where near approaches Stone's estimates.

The nature and extent of the looting of archaeological sites within Iraq will probably remain in dispute for years. Under the circumstances, what I found most helpful was Eakin's acknowledgement that the best defense to looting is to engage the local populace. To me at least, encouraging the local populace to respect their own heritage sounds more promising and fair than the wholly punitive measures that have been emphasized to date.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Short Recap of the Cultural Property Implementation Act

From some comments I have read, it has dawned on me that many subscribers to archaeological discussion lists may not realize that the United States has decided to retain its "independent judgment" as to whether and to what extent the US will honor export controls of another country.

When you think of it though, it makes sense. Laws in other countries may be patently unfair or may not be the products of democratic compromise. In addition, foreign countries may not be using self-help measures to protect their own cultural property or may be requesting the US to impose import restrictions without seeking similar restrictions from other countries.

Below is an admittedly gross oversimplification of the applicable law. For more detail, I would suggest a close review of the State Department's International Cultural Property Protection website:

1. The 1970 UNESCO Convention allows foreign states to ask other signatories for help in enforcing their export control laws. The UNESCO Convention is not self-executing. In other words, signatories need to pass implementing legislation before the 1970 UNESCO Convention has any force.

2. The US only agreed to the 1970 UNESCO Convention with reservations. The reservations were intended to ensure that the US maintained its "independent judgment" as to the extent it would recognize another country's export controls.

3. Those reservations were embodied in the 1983 Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA). The CPIA set up an architecture whereby the US would exercise that independent judgement. Generally speaking, after a foreign signatory makes a request the US Cultural Property Advisory Committee makes recommendations as to the extent the US should honor the request and on what artifacts restrictions should be imposed. The decision maker in the State Department has generally accepted those recommendations. (An apparent exception was a recent controversial decision to impose import restrictions on coins of Cypriot types.) The US currently has restrictions on various artifacts from 12 state signatories to UNESCO. Most are poor nations that arguably need help in controlling their borders. The two exceptions are Italy and Cyprus, two wealthy EU members. The Iraq restrictions are a special case.

4. Before "regular" import restrictions are imposed (the findings for "emergency restrictions" are narrower), the decision maker in the State Department is required to make certain findings.

a. First, the restrictions can only be put on archaeological objects first found in the ground of the country seeking import restrictions that are "of cultural significance" or "important" ethnological objects.

b. Second, the decision maker must find that the cultural patrimony of the country requesting import restrictions is in jeopardy from pillage of archaeological or ethnological artifacts.

c. Third, the decision maker must find that the country requesting import restrictions is taking adequate self help measures.

d. Fourth, the decision maker must find that the restrictions are part of a "concerted international response" (on the theory that America only restrictions will only disadvantage Americans) and that less drastic remedies are not available.

e. Fifth, the decision maker must find that the restrictions are consistent with the interests of the international community in the interchange of cultural property among nations for scientific, cultural, and educational purposes.

5. There must be an effort to ensure that the import restrictions are applied only to the archaeological and ethnological material covered by the agreement and that fair notice is given to importers and other persons as to what material is subject to such restrictions.

In sum, while some vocal members of the archaeological discussion lists may want to honor the export controls of foreign countries in all circumstances, the applicable US law (which itself was the product of compromise) seeks to temper such views.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Sad Story from Cyprus

Anyone reading this blog can guess I'm no fan of how the State Department or the Cypriot government handled the renewal of import restrictions on cultural artifacts and extended it to coins.

On the other hand, one can't help to be saddened about this story posted on the Museum Security List Serve about the destruction of a Greek Orthodox church in Cyprus:

UN condemns razing of 16th century church in north
By Jean Christou

THE UN yesterday condemned the razing of the 16th century church of Ayia Katerina in Karpasia in May during a time when the leadersof both sides had entered a new peace process.

The destruction of the church to create building plots came to light during the launch of a new book published by the KykkosMonastery Museum titled The religious monuments in Turkish occupied Cyprus

Museum chairman Stelios Perdikis said news of the destruction of Ayia Katerina had only emerged this week, and photographic evidencewas collected showing the church in Yerani village some 27 kilometres north of Famagusta, as a pile of debris.

The cemetery behind the church was also completely destroyed.

"We think the destruction of the cultural heritage is unacceptable in general and in this case in particular," UNFICYP spokesmanJose Diaz said yesterday when asked to comment.

"I think it points to the urgency of efforts to agree on modalities for the protection and restoration of the cultural heritage onboth sides.

"The UN was ready to assist both sides in this regard, Diaz added.To add insult to injury, the razing of Ayia Katerina came at a time not only when the leaders were engaged in discussions, but alsowhile a special technical committee on cultural heritage was meeting as part of the peace process.

Only a month ago, aides to the two leaders, Presidental Commissioner George Iacovou and Talat's adviser Ozdil Nami, announcedprogress in that committee by means of an agreement for joint educational programmes on cultural heritage.A western diplomatic source said he could not comment on the specific case. "But I believe respect for cultural heritage of bothcommunities is important and I hope that the relevant technical committee can discuss this important issue," he said.

Perdikis said the Kykkos Monastery Museum was in contact with the chairman and the members of the technical committee on culturalheritage, who had been informed on what had happened at Ayia Katerina."This is happening at a time when we have started a process to solve the Cyprus problem, while a technical committee has been set upfor cultural heritage issues," Perdikis said."It is not the only church that has been razed intentionally, and the timing in this case can only lead to disappointment about thefuture.

"Byzantine specialist Charalambos Hodjakoglu, the author of the book, said the church had been in bad shape after being neglected for34 years. It had already been plundered in 1974, he said.

Icons, artefacts, doors, windows and other items had been stolen from the church, but the bell tower with its bell and cross remained intact. The roof of the church had fallen in and the walls were either cracked or sloping."This monument was very important for the archaeological development in Cyprus," he said, adding that "it maintained important architectural elements on the influence of gothic monuments on the architecture of that period.

"Eerily the cover of the new book, which was printed before knowledge of its destruction was known, depicts the Ayia Katerina church.Hodjakoglu said the photograph was chosen by Bishop of Kykkos and Tylliria Nikiforos after a vision he had of the church during thetime it was being demolished. The new book launched about the destruction of Orthodox heritage in the north is available in Greek and English, and an Italian version is also in the works.

An exhibition of photographs gathered by Hodjakoglu's team is currently on show in Salonica and will later be moved to Italy.

Perdikis said the book was part of the research on Byzantine and post-Byzantine archaeology and art, which the Museum has established.

He said efforts to list religious sites in the occupied areas was difficult and at times dangerous but resulted in a unique list of monuments. He said the state has still to draw up such an archive, although it has the mechanism to do so.The book is aimed at researchers and the public, and contains an archive pulled from 20,000 photographs from all churches,monasteries and chapels in the north, except those within Turkish military zones.

The seven chapters include the use of religious monuments for purposes other than those intended, as well as the condition of Ottoman mosques in the government-controlled areas.The churches that have been salvaged in the north are those of Archangel Michael in Kyrenia, Ayios Mamas in Morphou, the Virgin Maryin Trikomo, and Saint Barnabas in Salamina. Some of them have been turned into museums.

"Most churches are on the verge of ruin," Perdikis said, adding that those were the ones being targeted for demolition.

Those that have been turned into mosques were in better condition because they were being preserved. Hodjakoglu said the destruction was not confined to Greek Orthodox churches, but those of other faiths such as Roman Catholic,Protestant, Maronite and even Jewish monuments. "We present this in the book in order to show that there is a conflict, not onlyagainst the Orthodox, but anything not Muslim," he said.

He added that the problem is that, as time goes by without progress in the Cyprus problem or the committee discussing these issues,the condition of the monuments will further deteriorate.

It's even more shocking that the article suggests that the destruction of the church happened just recently. There was much destruction and looting of Greek Orthodox churches in the North in the aftermath of the 1974 Turkish invasion, but evidently the destruction of monuments associated with Greek Cypriot culture continues on to today.

In any event, the authors of the described book are to be commended for also discussing the condition of religious monuments of other faiths as well. One wonders in particular about the fate of Ottoman monuments on the Greek side of the Island.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Made to Order News? -- "Looters Destroying Ancient Treasures"

This story showed up on the IraqCrisis list today:

The "Institute for War and Peace Reporting" posted the report. I for one can't help but wonder about the timing. Archaeologists who excavated in Iraq during the Saddam years have expressed outrage about recent Art Newspaper and Wall Street Journal reports suggesting that they had exaggerated the extent of looting of archaeological sites. Only one thing is certain. No doubt one's prejudices one way or the other will strongly influence their conclusions.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Very Low Cost Antiquities Registries

Ed Snible has this thought-provoking post on his blog:

It would be interesting to hear what others think, particularly any coin dealers out there. Coin dealers tend to have very large inventories. Even smaller ones can have 10,000-20,000 coins on hand at any given time. Given the numbers, I suspect many of them will consider this plan to be impractical. On the other hand, if there is demand for "registered coins" won't there be a financial incentive to supply them to the marketplace?

Registering coins would presumably be easier for collectors. Collectors tend to hold hundreds not thousands of coins. Still, registering even that number could be both time consuming and at least somewhat expensive. Nevertheless, such registries could also be used for insurance purchases.

Overall, any plan of this nature would probably need some form of government blessing. Very few will undertake such a task without it. Of course, under current law, date stamping a picture of a coin today won't help you much to prove a coin of Cypriot type was out of the country before import restrictions were imposed last year.

And what of the archaeological community? The AIA and other archaeological organizations seem stuck on idea that the ownership history of any artifact must be traced back almost 40 years to 1970 before they will (with some reluctance) consider it "legitimate." Obviously, registering a coin today will do little to assuage ideologues hung up on a 1970 date based upon when the UNESCO Convention was promulgated.

One final thought. Why not also require archaeologists to use an identical system to record coins found at excavations? At the very least, registries of coins from all sources would give us some idea of how many ancient coins are actually out there.

Despite my concerns, I think this idea merits serious discussion.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Cyprus and Some Stubborn Facts

It has been one year since the State Department imposed its controversial import restrictions on coins of Cypriot type. The proponents of the decision claim that it will help preserve archaeological sites and the study of coins. However, the following "stubborn facts"suggest otherwise:

1. Greek Cypriot archaeological authorities have long maintained that most looting takes place in the occupied North outside the control of Greek Cypriot archaeological authorities, but Greek Cypriot intransigence has certainly helped prolong the division of the Island. See generally and;

2. Cyprus may play the role of host for CAARI and other international groups, but Cyprus' handling of its own archaeological heritage has been described as a "mess." See:;

3. Coins have not always been treated well at archaeological sites, and the excavations within Cyprus are no exception. See: Frank L. Holt, Thundering Zeus: The Making of Hellenistic Bactria 109 (University of California Press 1999) (“Even some advocates of the ‘New Archaeology,’ which treats every shred of evidence (even stray seeds and splinters) with utmost care, seem all too willing to sacrifice bronze coins. At Kourion, for example, the excavation director speaks of a ‘power struggle’ over the handling of stray coins: ‘I needed the coins cleaned as soon as possible for purposes of dating and identification; but the conservators, as is their wont, lobbied for the safest and slowest methods. The reader will perhaps not be surprised to learn that the dig director won out, particularly since the coins were hardly art treasures, and were in very bad shape.’ Bronze coins have long been valued as chronological indicators and little more; old habits die hard.”);

4. Cypriot archaeological authorities do not appear to have detailed knowledge about Cypriot coinage. If they did, one would have thought they could have put together more accurate illustrations of the "designated list" of coins subject to restriction. See: That suggests nationalistic concerns rather than a sincere interest in studying and preserving early Cypriot coinage has been a primary motivating factor for the Cypriot request for import restrictions.

Import restrictions have made it much more difficult for American collectors to import coins of Cypriot type legally. They certainly have helped satisfy jingoistic impulses within the Cypriot archaeological establishment. But have they really helped Cypriot archaeology? I really doubt it.

If anything, the publicity surrounding restrictions will only provide a diversion from addressing the real problems facing Cypriot archaeology.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

"So Much for the 'Looted Sites.'"

The Wall Street Journal published this article today.

Despite the way some associated with the archaeological community might try to belittle such stories, the issue of the extent and dates of any looting is quite relevant. It has now become apparent that Congress based legislation granting the State Department the authority to impose "emergency import restrictions" without the normal CPAC review based on exaggerated information. Ad hominem attacks meant to divert attention from this central issue will hopefully fail in the long run.

In any event, this article should be of particular interest:

So Much for the 'Looted Sites'

July 15, 2008; Page D9

A recent mission to Iraq headed by top archaeologists from the U.S. and U.K. who specialize in Mesopotamia found that, contrary to received wisdom, southern Iraq's most important historic sites -- eight of them -- had neither been seriously damaged nor looted after the American invasion. This, according to a report by staff writer Martin Bailey in the July issue of the Art Newspaper. The article has caused confusion, not to say consternation, among archaeologists and has been largely ignored by the mainstream press. Not surprising perhaps, since reports by experts blaming the U.S. for the post invasion destruction of Iraq's heritage have been regular fixtures of the news.

Up to now, it had seemed a clear-cut case. It stood to reason that a chaotic land rich with artifacts would be easy to loot and plunder. Ergo, the accusations against the U.S., the de facto governing authority, had been taken on faith. No one had bothered to challenge the reports, the evidence or the logic, not least because many ancient sites were in hostile terrain and couldn't be double-checked. By implication, the U.S. had been blamed for that too: After all, the presiding authority is effectively responsible for allowing no-go areas to exist where such things can occur.

Yet, paradoxically, there always was thought to be enough evidence to adduce blame. "We believe that every major site in Southern Iraq is in serious danger," Donny George, the former head of the Baghdad Museum, was quoted as saying in the New York Times in 2003. A recent book by Lawrence Rothfield of the University of Chicago's Cultural Policy Institute carried the estimate that, every year, roughly 10% of Iraq's heritage was being destroyed.

One of the foremost specialists who went on the trip, Elizabeth Stone from Stony Brook University, actually quantified the damage with the help of satellite images -- just before going. Alarmingly, and prematurely it seems, she concluded that nearly 10 miles of land had been looted and hundreds of thousands of objects had been taken. Confident statistics of this kind have been regularly tossed around, yet one wonders how such calculations can be made, not least by viewing the remains of illicit digs from satellite pictures. When looters attacked the Baghdad Museum in 2003, the news media put the number of destroyed and looted objects at 170,000 -- a figure equal to the entire collection. It emerged later that most of the important pieces had been successfully hidden away. Others were soon found. The number of missing objects that is cited has since fluctuated between 3,000 and 15,000, with the figure never taking into account the systematic semiofficial looting and frequent substituting with fakes that occurred in Saddam's time.

Considering the political impact of such data, one would expect the experts to approach the subject with scientific circumspection, using numbers sparingly and conservatively. Too often they seem to have done the reverse. So now, as a matter of course, their method, their probity in sifting the evidence -- do they have a political agenda? -- has come into question.
It's a question that equally hangs over the deliberations of a meeting that took place recently in Dublin of the World Archeological Congress. The members reportedly considered a lengthy statement urging colleagues to refuse any military requests for a list of Iran's sites that should be exempt from possible air strikes. Finally they settled for a shorter July 11 press release. Among other things, the final press release says that WAC "expresses strong opposition to aggressive military action . . . by the U.S. government, or by any other government." The release quotes WAC's president as saying that WAC "strongly opposed the war in Iraq and . . . we strongly oppose any war in Iran" and that "any differences with Iran should be resolved through peaceful and diplomatic means."

If as scholars, archeologists take a priori public positions on political matters, what are we to make of the field-data they produce? How impartial can it be? And with their own credibility marred, who is there left as an impartial body of experts for the public to turn to?
The archaeologists' mission to southern Iraq took place in early June. Besides Prof. Stone, the experts included John Curtis, head of the British Museum's Middle East Department; Paul Collins, a Mesopotamia specialist at that museum; a top German expert; and Iraqi experts. It was conducted through the British military, which is in charge of the area, using a helicopter and armed escorts to visit the locations. They included such celebrated "cradle of civilization" sites as Ur, Eridu (the earliest Sumerian city), Warka (Sumerian Uruk), Larsa (a Babylonian city), Tell el-Ouelli (ancient Ubaid) and Tell el-Lahm (an Assyrian site).

According to the Art Newspaper article, "The international team . . . had been expecting to find considerable evidence of looting after 2003 but to their astonishment and relief there was none. Not a single recent dig hole was found at the eight sites, and the only evidence of illegal digging came from holes which were partially covered with silt and vegetation, which means they [were] several years old." Furthermore, the most recent damage "probably dated back to 2003," to just before and after the invasion when the Iraqi army maneuvered for the allied attack. (According to other experts, looting probably took place when the Iraqi army first moved out of areas near sites to counter the invasion.)

Neither the British Museum pair nor Prof. Stone responded to my calls seeking comment. The British Museum press official for the Middle Eastern department cautioned that the official report had not yet been compiled, but it seemed that the article was generally accurate. Certainly none of the experts have denied any of it. In the article, Dr. Curtis "admits that he was 'very surprised' at the lack of recent looting, but stresses that . . . 'it may not be typical of the country as a whole, and the situation could be worse further north.'"

No doubt. But how could previous assessments have been so wrong, and why would one expect anything to be worse elsewhere? In phone conversations with me, both Donny George and Lawrence Rothfield argued that the eight sites were all known to be well-protected. Dr. George was able to itemize each one: "Ur was an Iraqi airbase and then a U.S. airbase. Uruk Warka was protected by guards from nearby tribes -- we always knew that. Ouelli is largely prehistoric and of no use to looters. . . ." And so on. But Dr. George, perhaps the world's leading authority on the subject, also conceded that the greatest damage done by looters had generally occurred in the 1990s, in Saddam's time. Prof. Rothfield said that the no-fly zones back then had allowed illicit digging to occur.

The mission also refuted the welter of news items we've all become familiar with accusing allied forces of damaging ancient sites with emplacements, tank tracks and the like. According to the Art Newspaper report, "little damage was . . . caused by coalition forces." Much of it was done by Saddam's forces.

One is left with these questions: If the visited sites were known to be well-protected, why did the team choose only those sites, and why were team members surprised at the lack of damage? It has been hard to get convincing answers. Some have speculated that, to get further cooperation, the visitors made a tacit deal with the British authorities not to raise a scandal. Dr. George felt that perhaps the eight were the only sites with adequate security, while he couldn't explain the surprise expressed by the experts. He warned against putting too much faith in newspaper reporting. Quite right.

But it is all a far cry from the hitherto prevailing impression abroad in the world that the invasion has directly led to the mass destruction of Iraq's archaeological heritage.
Mr. Kaylan writes about the arts and culture for the Journal.

URL for this article:

Sunday, July 13, 2008

BBC Report on Exaggerated Looting of Iraq Museum

This showed up on list serves yesterday, though Donnie George and Patty Gerstenblith have indicated on the IraqCrisis List that this is recycled news.

In any event, the item does suggest that the story of the looting of the museum was exaggerated. Just recently (and as reported on this blog), the Art Newspaper also suggested that stories about looting of archaeological sites were also exaggerated. Does anyone see a pattern here?:

Priceless Treasures Saved From Looters of Baghdad Museum

It is known as one of the worst episodes of the war in Iraq: one of the world's greatest archaeological collections ransacked while American troops stood by, unable or unwilling to act. But now a different picture is emerging of the looting of the National Museum in Baghdad. Only a few dozen significant pieces, not thousands as originally reported, were stolen. And many, a new investigation has found, may have gone missing long before the Americans arrived in the Iraqi capital.

US officials revealed yesterday that several of the most important pieces that were thought to have been stolen have now turned up safe. The world-famous treasure of Nimrud, an extraordinary series of priceless 4,500-year-old gold artifacts, has been found in a flooded vault under the Iraqi National Bank. Other key parts of the museum's collection, including tens of thousands of Greek and Roman gold and silver coins, have been found in strongrooms in the Baghdad museum itself. Staff there now say that only 33 major items and around 2,000 minor works have gone.

'The treasure was never lost,' Salman Faleh, the governor of the central bank, said yesterday. 'We knew all along that they were there. It just took a bit of time to get at them because of the flooding.'

US customs agents who helped with the recovery of the treasure said that when they first entered the vaults they found bodies of looters killed in shoot-outs with rival gangs. But the seals on the crates of treasure proved to be intact.

The truth about what happened at the museum will be revealed in a documentary, to be broadcast tonight on BBC2, by Dan Cruickshank, the architectural historian. Cruickshank, who visited Iraq shortly before the war, returned in the aftermath of the conflict. 'It is simply not true that the people of Baghdad looted their own museum,' Cruickshank told The Observer last week. 'They have far too much respect for their own heritage to do that.'

Instead, Cruickshank said the only buildings ransacked were the administration offices of the museum. Most of the senior officials running the museum were, as throughout all of Saddam Hussein's system of government, members of the Baath Party, Saddam's political vehicle. The museum itself was seen by many locals as part of the structure of the regime and attacked as a result.

But though damage was done to files and research work, most of the museum's collection escaped unscathed, Cruickshank said. The empty shelves in the museum's galleries were thought by the first journalists on the scene to have been stripped by looters. In fact, the collection had been carefully stored according to a plan drawn up d uring the Iran-Iraq war. Thousands of pieces were hidden in five secure rooms around the museum, in vaults in the central bank and in bunkers around Baghdad.

There is evidence of possible collusion between museum officials and thieves in the run-up to the war. 'The museum staff all say they locked up the museum and fled on 8 April and all deny having the keys to the strongrooms around the building where much of the most precious stuff was being stored,' said Cruickshank. 'But it is clear that at least one of the five storerooms was unlocked at some stage. Of course, no one admits opening it.' There are also suspicions that some of the best artifacts that are missing had been stolen and sold several years ago. Senior figures in the Baath Party regime, such as Saddam's eldest son Uday, are known to have made millions from the international trade in antiquities. Some American and European specialists believe that most of the 33 missing items were taken in the first few hours of the collapse of Saddam's regime and were stolen 'to order'.

Professor McGuire Gibson, an Oriental specialist from Chicago University and a member of the Unesco team investigating the thefts, said he had received reports that the 'top five' items among the 33 had been smuggled to Tehran and Paris within days of their removal.

The misplaced focus on the supposed looting of the Baghdad museum has meant that problems in much of the rest of the country are being ignored. Cruickshank spent two weeks in Iraq and found US soldiers and officials are focusing on restoring law, order and basic utilities in Iraq and have little resources to spare to protect archaeological sites.

Dan Cruickshank and the Raiders of the Lost Art is on BBC2 this evening at 9pm
Guardian Unlimited © Copyright Guardian Newspapers 2008Published: 7/11/2008

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Saving Antiquities for Everyone: Grassroots or Astro Turf?

Saving Antiquities for Everyone (SAFE) has a very professional looking website known for it provocative coverage of museums, collectors and dealers in historical artifacts.

Recently, SAFE has decided to take on the coin trade and collectors of ancient coins. In particular, it has spent much time and effort critiquing the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG), a group with which I am affiliated. That, naturally, has prompted me to think more about SAFE and what it really represents.

While the name "Saving Antiquities for Everyone" may suggest a broad based effort, a look at its membership suggests otherwise. The vast number of members are young academics in the fields of archaeology or anthropology. For more see: Certainly, its advisers are virtually all senior members of the archaeological establishment, many of whom are well known for their "hardline" positions against collecting. See:

SAFE has claimed ACCG's efforts are motivated solely by profit, a proposition with which I disagree. In any event, that claim begs the question about SAFE's own motivations. Certainly, while SAFE is highly critical of collectors, dealers and museums, particularly concerning the collection of unprovenanced antiquities, SAFE is strangely silent about state sanctioned collecting practices in source countries and, indeed, poor source country stewardship of archaeological resources in general.

Why? Is this a mere oversight? Or, could it possibly be that SAFE is wary of offending the very same countries that control access to sites for archaeological research? What else could explain SAFE's failure to criticise the collecting habits of "connected" private museums like the Poly Art Museum in Beijing or the Bank of Cyprus Cultural Foundation? And what about a SAFE members' kudos for China's treatment of Tibet's cultural heritage at the CPAC hearing on the Chinese request for import restrictions? Or, just recently, how else can one explain the unwavering support on the SafeCorner blog for Iraqi Government control over Jewish holy books, even though successive Iraqi governments have campaigned to destroy all vestiges of that country's ancient Jewish culture?

There may be another factor at work, one mentioned to me by another academic. Let's face it. Getting a job in academia is very difficult. Under the circumstances, what better way to become "noticed" than to become an "activist." Don't get me wrong. I don't doubt the sincerity of the views of SAFE members. I just wonder sometimes if they go too far to make a point, because the need to "stand out" is on their minds.

SAFE's modus operandi raises some other questions. The first relates to finances. SAFE has criticised ACCG because coin dealers are major contributors. But where exactly does SAFE get its funding from? It would certainly be interesting to learn about SAFE funding sources. One would particularly like to learn the extent to which SAFE has received government funding or in-kind assistance or if SAFE has received any any funding or in-kind assistance from abroad.

Finally, given the provocative nature of SAFE's website along with its links to the archaeological establishment through its advisers, one cannot help but think SAFE in effect acts as a "cat's paw" for "hardline" elements within the AIA. Certainly, I suspect many in the AIA would be uncomfortable with the tone and content of much of what is on the SAFE website. However, both groups do share common goals.

In sum, SAFE may paint itself as a "grassroots advocacy group," but I have come to consider it as little more than an "AstroTurf" or phony grassroots organization that operates as the "cat's paw" of hardline elements within the archaeological establishment.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Strangely Silent on Provenance of Artifacts in Chinese Museums

The New York Times recently reported on China's museum boom:

Overall, this is a very good thing, particularly when one compares China today with China of the Cultural Revolution, when government sponsored mobs smashed cultural relics with abandon.

On the other hand, I find it interesting that while archaeologists are vociferous in their demands that US Museums establish the good provenance of the pieces they accession beyond a reasonable doubt, they are dead silent on provenance requirements for public and private museums in source countries like China. Certainly, entities like the Poly Art Museum (a museum associated with the Poly Group, the former commercial arm of the People's Liberation Army) don't seem to care one bit about an artifact's provenance. Yet, one never hears criticisms from the archaeological community about such museums.

It seems that all the high minded talk about the need to only purchase artifacts with a good provenance to protect the archaeological record gives way when a source country museum (whether private or public) is involved.

One thus has to wonder if all this high minded talk really is just a cover for supporting the nationalistic claims of the source countries which offer excavation permits to archaeologists. If not, why is there no consistency in the archaeological community's views on provenance requirements?

Latest On ACCG, IAPN and PNG FOIA Lawsuit

Here is the latest information on the ACCG, IAPN and PNG Freedom of Information Act Lawsuit against the US State Department:

As the report indicates, it has been almost a year since the controversial decision to impose import restrictions on Cypriot type. Yet, the little information the State Department has released raises more questions than it has answered.

Hopefully, any reports James Glassman and Goli Ameri receive about this litigation will prompt hard questions about ECA's transparency of process.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Peru Officials Find Pre-Hispanic Textiles on Sale in Lima Tourist Market

This article posted on the Museum Security Network List piqued my interest:

Peru officials find pre-Hispanic textiles on sale in Lima tourist market

The Associated Press
Saturday, July 5, 2008

LIMA, Peru: Shoppers at a tourist market in Peru's capital could have netted greater bargains than they thought -- rare, pre-Hispanic textiles costing little more than a Machu Picchu magnet. Police and archaeologists raiding the block-long, outdoor Indian Market June 27 found swatches of centuries-old cloth -- mainly from the Chancay culture -- nestled among itchy llama sweaters and other mass-produced Peruvian handicrafts. The textiles, likely scraps from looted archaeological sites, were pasted atop decorative boxes and sewn into dolls that sold for as little as US$6.50, said Blanca Alva, chief of the Historic Patrimony Defense Department for the government's National Cultural Institute. Some dated as far back as the 13 th century. Alva didn't say why the material sold so cheaply, but she said the vendors knew exactly what they were selling. Some of the boxes decorated with ancient textiles sold for $50. "We saw with our own eyes a saleswoman hiding a box with swatches of the textiles in another stand, trying to get rid of the evidence," Alva said. According to Peruvian law, the destruction, alteration or sale of pre-Hispanic cultural artifacts can carry a prison sentence of three to eight years. Peru's famed pre-Inca art is featured around the world, especially the colorful weavings of ancient civilizations that thrived along the Andean nation's coast. But Peruvian officials are trying to crackdown on "huaqueros," or looters, who illegally traffic the artifacts, Alva said. The government has seized about 620 objects made with ancient textiles in three raids, one of them in the Duty Free shop of Lima's Jorge Chavez International Airport.

I obviously don't think its a good thing to cut up ancient textiles to decorated tourist trinkets. Also, Peruvian police have the right and obligation to enforce Peru's own laws aimed at stopping the looting of archaeological sites. At the same time, the fact that such artifacts were sold openly at a tourist market and even a duty free shop at the airport points to the fact that "the situation on the ground" can be quite different from what we hear from members of the archaeological community. Also, I suspect at least some members of the indigenous populations that make up the "looters" question the rights of the government to keep them from making a living off of artifacts left by their ancestors. I guess this is where "community archaeology" mentioned in a prior post should come in.

Perhaps, Peru should also create a licit market for such materials. Certainly, the Peruvian government does not have the funds to properly study, display and store all the artifacts from the ancient civilizations located within the bounds of the modern day nation state. A licit export market of more mundane material could help spread interest in Peru's ancient cultures, help stimulate tourism, help preserve artifacts, help fund Peruvian archaeology, and help poor indigenous populations put food on the table.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

More on Torah from Mosul

Here is another story on the Torah found by the US Military in Mosul:

I referenced another story about this episode on the IraqCrisis list (and linked in a prior post on this blog), noting that the removal of the artifact from Iraq appeared to have official sanction. A number of participants on that list immediately jumped on that statement, claiming that the Torah "must have been looted" and illegally imported into the US. The above story again suggests otherwise, though I suppose some will object to Rabbi Youlus paying "fees" to Iraqi government officials to allow for its removal from the country. But then again, after reading Alex Joffe's IraqCrisis post (again linked below), what would one expect to save the Torah?

All in all, too many participants on archaeological discussion lists (most of whom are archaeologists) are all too willing to jump to the worst possible conclusions. In the process, they risk defaming individuals who apparently acted in good faith, like the US Special Forces soldier mentioned in this article. The actual story is seldom as "black and white" as they may think.

Interestingly, Chuck Jones posted this story on the IraqCrisis list back in 2007:

For whatever reason, it apparently elicited little interest at that time.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Joffe Critiques Justifications for Iraqi Rights to Holy Books of Persecuted Jews

Alex Joffe made the following observations on the IraqCrisis List in a recent thread touching on the removal of Torahs from Iraq. Joffe critiques the cultural property concepts used to justify the rights of a government that has historically persecuted Jews to Jewish artifacts found in its territory. Joffe posits that a concept from refugee law, "non-refoulment," may have some application. This concept would prevent the return of artifacts to a nation state where they would only be endangered.

Joffe has written critically about both archaeologists and collectors. His article, "Museum Madness," in the Middle East Quarterly was the first publication to expose the unsavory ties between Saddam Hussein's regime and members of the Western archaeological community. See:

I quote Joffe in full. Not surprisingly, his powerful post elicited only silence from those who vehemently defended Iraqi Government rights to Jewish holy books:

The exchange on Iraqi Jewish heritage is fascinating, if distressing, and usefully exposes the difficulties inherent in current thinking about 'cultural property.'

Given that the Iraqi Jewish community was 1) threatened and attacked, 2) systematically disenfranchised and then robbed by the Iraqi state, and then 3) effectively expelled by the state, to whom does the remaining cultural property belong? The Iraqi state made its desire to see the Jews - whose presence long predated that of Arabs, Muslims or Christians - removed, and in short order this was accomplished. The facts of this dispossession, from approximately 1934 through 1951 and beyond, are perhaps not as well-known as they should be.

In the modern Iraqi state this began process with the dismissal of Jewish officials in 1934 and 1936. This was unofficially complemented by the bombings of Jewish establishments in 1936 and 1938, and culminated with the farhud of June 1941. The official process intensified with the criminalization of Zionism in 1948 (Amendment to Article 5 of the 1938 Criminal Code) and the imposition of martial law in 1948. Already in early 1949 Nuri Said described a plan to Sir Alex Kirkbride to expel Iraq's Jews, which he echoed on many occasions that year to foreigners. The draft bill on denaturalization of 1950, which confiscated the property of Jews who emigrated, and the bombing of Masuda Shemtob synagogue in January 1951 were the climax. By March 1951 120,000 Jews had left Iraq, taking with them 50 pounds sterling per adult and 20 per child. In 1952 remaining Jews were forbidden from emigrating. In 1963 Jews were forbidden to sell property and after 1967 the few remaining Jews were dismissed from jobs, their property confiscated, bank accounts frozen, and telephones disconnected. Jews were hanged in 1968 and 1969, and by the 1970s the few remaining Jews were permitted to leave after being pressured to turn over title to property. With the coming of the Americans in 2003 perhaps only two or three dozen Jews remained.

The erasure of Jews from Iraq extended to archaeology. Magnusson and Baram have documented the instrumental use of archaeology by 20th century Iraqi nationalism, and Jews do not appear to figure except as enemies. I remember vividly being told by an archaeologist who had worked on the Hamrin excavations during the 1980s that when a site was found to contain Jewish remains - and how this was determined was not specified - the site was allowed to be flooded, or was bulldozed. Perhaps this is exaggerated or incorrect, but one wonders then where in the extensive documentation of Iraqi archaeology of the past decades, or century, one finds evidence of the 2500 year Jewish presence, aside from incantation bowls and personal names in ancient texts.

To suggest that the Jewish heritage of Iraq had any place at all in modern Iraqi culture seems utter nonsense. There is a peculiar revisionism among both some Arabs and Jews alike that rewrites the above history to propound a romantic syncretism, in particular the facile 'Arab Jew' literature from certain Israeli scholars, but again, it flies in the face of obvious facts. The reality is Iraq, through its duly constituted governments, expunged its Jews both physically and from its history. The Iraqi claim to Jewish antiquities is therefore paradoxical. Analogous, although obviously more extreme, are claims by post-Holocaust successor states to Jewish property. Conversely, Israeli claims to be the effective successor state for destroyed Jewish communities seems more a unique Westphalian gloss on the millet system or the minorities treaties.

None of this, however, justifies smuggling antiquities out of Iraq or anywhere else, nor does it justify individuals taking matters into heir own hands in contravention of international conventions. And it obviously does not endorse the destruction of cultural institutions, nor any particular view regarding the war itself. But legalistic appeals to laws written by imperial powers and then successive illiberal and dictatorial regimes (and of course lowest common denominator of international conventions) must also be seen for what they are, ex post facto claims to 'heritage' that was until recently unwanted and in large part denied. This belated interest is very much in keeping with a larger pattern of vocal concern for the integrity of Iraqi heritage, expressed with a highly original vehemence against American occupiers rather than the Baathists whom they destroyed. It is ironic to see bitter critics of the American war against Saddam, whose opposition is based on innumerable grounds not least of which the 'export of democracy', demanding the return of items in a manner that presupposes that a liberal society, capable of embracing its multicultural past, has been created.

Jeff Spurr's objections regarding the Iraq Memory Foundation, Baath party archives, and the Hoover Institution, are similarly vehement. One wonders, however, about what sort of access scholars might have had to those archives had the Saddam regime not been destroyed. Perhaps a latter day Hanna Batatu would indeed have been granted access, in due course. But the lustration procedures so painfully and inadequately implemented in Germany with respect to Stasi files, and not at all in places like Romania, seem unlikely in the present Iraqi political climate, and wholly impossible in the previous one. Here historical comparisons are plentiful, if ambiguous, at least from a strict legal point of view.

Are scholars obliged to avoid all materials that have been removed illegally from their countries of origin? Certainly this has been a topic among cuneiform scholars. But what of situations where vital data would have been forever buried or destroyed? To whom did the Smolensk archive, captured by the Germans from the Soviets and then by the US, belong? Should Merle Fainsod have refrained from studying this archive for his essential book Smolensk under Soviet Rule? Did the victorious powers have the right to exploit captured German files for war crimes trials? Did they have the right to exploit them for technical information? Had the Western powers rushed to reestablish Germany (even faster than they did), and returned the vast archives sooner, what kind of access and historical understanding of National Socialism would we have today? Should the Mitrokhin archive, purported KGB documents copied and smuggled out of Russia by a long-time KGB archivist - in obvious contravention of local law - been published and studied? What about the manuscript of Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago?

To whom, then, does the cultural property of dispersed or destroyed communities belong, and what to do about unwanted or 'illegally obtained' property? Who has standing to speak for these types of cultural property? Universalist appeals to humanity are de facto vague, national claims by states that did the displacing or destroying are (or should be) suspect, and communal claims fall somewhere in the middle. This final ground, however, is certainly where at least some repatriation arguments lie with respect to tribal entities. But the universalist stance too has merit, certainly with respect to data that shed light on closed societies. Given the horrors expressed by so many scholars against the past being used for nationalist purposes it is also ironic to see so many hold up the nation-state as the inevitable custodian of cultural property.

Finally, in the absence of a liberal democratic society, with open institutions and an equally open mindset - or in the demonstrable presence of its antithesis - what is the obligation to return cultural property? International law is a malleable and often slippery thing. But it is important to note that in international refugee law there is a concept called non-refoulment, where refugees cannot be returned to a place where their lives or freedoms would be threatened. Perhaps something analogous has been discussed in cultural heritage law, but it certainly seems applicable in the case of Iraqi Jewish patrimony and Baath party archives.

Alex Joffe

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Belated Headline: Iraqi Archaeological Sites not Looted After All!

This should be of interest, particularly since looting of archaeological sites in Iraq has been deemed a major casus belli against collectors and museums: First it became clear that the looting of the Iraq Museum was grossly exaggerated. Some years later, it became apparent that few looted Iraqi antiquities were arriving on our shores. Now, it has become evident that stories about looting of Iraqi archaeological sites have also been grossly exaggerated.

This misinformation was used to help prompt the UN to recommend that its members impose stringent restrictions on artifacts of potential Iraqi origin. In the US, this misinformation was used to justify wide ranging import restrictions on artifacts of potential Iraqi origin without the usual CPAC review and opportunity for public comment. Hopefully, before there is any decision to renew these restrictions when they lapse next year, decision makers will apply considerable scrutiny to any similar claims.