Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Syrian Treasure Houses: Hype vs. Reality

Not surprisingly given efforts to get the Senate to take up HR 1493, a bill that takes advantage of the ongoing tragedy in Syria to create a new State Department bureaucracy to coordinate enforcement efforts and impose what amounts to permanent restrictions on Syrian cultural goods, both the State Department and the archaeological lobby are heavily promoting news about the repatriation of  items seized from Abu Sayaff , a terrorist financier, as proof such legislation is needed.

As a State Department press release indicates,

On May 15, 2015, U.S. Special Operations Forces recovered a cache of hundreds of archaeological and historical objects and fragments during a raid in al-Amr (eastern Syria) to capture ISIL leader Abu Sayyaf. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, Abu Sayyaf was involved in ISIL's military operations and helped direct the terrorist organization's illicit oil, gas, and financial operations. The cache represents significant primary evidence of looting at archaeological sites in Syria and Iraq, theft from regional museums, and the stockpiling of these spoils for likely sale on the international market. It also corroborates evidence of looting previously documented by the Department of State and the American Schools of Oriental Research. All objects and fragments were turned over to officials at the Iraq National Museum on July 15 by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. 

(Emphasis added.)  Well, that may be true in the narrow sense, but even so, the actual quantity, quality and value of what was found falls so far short of what we were led to expect that responsible parties in Congress and in the press should start asking some serious questions.

Let's not forget not so long ago, an ASOR State Department contractor was telling the press that "looted antiquities" were ISIS' second most important source of funding after "hot oil" and others were claiming that $36 million in stolen antiquities were taken from one area in Syria alone.  And,  of course, if such dubious claims were true, the Abu Sayaff cache would presumably look far more like how what one one foreign archaeo-blogger has imagined those fabled storehouses for stolen Syrian antiquities:

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. 

The reality, of course, now appears to be quite different and instead of the contents of a "Swiss freeport" we appear to have the equivalent of the small stock of a none too prosperous Middle Eastern antiquities dealer. So, perhaps, a reassessment is needed, not only about to what extent ISIS may be funded by antiquities sales, but in determining the real need for substantial departures from current law proposed both here and in Germany, which have almost entirely been justified by the ISIS threat.

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