Monday, July 11, 2011

Death to Looters!

That at least is the implication of Professor Rothfield's suggestion that armed guards police archaeological sites and museums in places like Egypt and Iraq. See

While our own museums like the National Gallery of Art have some armed guards, I agree with Dorothy King that this particular proposal may lead to unnecessary deaths. See Most "looters" in places like Egypt, Iraq and Peru are "subsistence diggers" who remove treasures from the graves of their ancestors in order to put food on the table. Do we really want to encourage them being killed in the name of archaeology? As for the armed gangs of archaeological lore, to the extent they exist at all, wouldn't they likely be better armed than the guards?

Of course, every country is free to address this issue in its own way, but I also suspect that Professor Rothfield wants Western countries to fund these armed guards.

And let's not forget. Shoot the looter was the practice in Saddam's Iraq. Is this really who we want to emulate?


Larry Rothfield said...

Hmm, where to begin? First off, no one is encouraging guards to shoot subsistence diggers. In the normal course of affairs, the antiquities police (who do carry guns) deter these folks. Site and museum guards could be trained to do the same thing -- and indeed, many do carry weapons already.

The real issue though is what to do when the folks who usually do carry weapons and who deal with the industrial, mafia-like-organized looting gangs -- the antiquities police -- melt away, and those guards who don't have guns are left to the mercy of those armed gangs. They are already in danger -- they have been beaten and shot at by armed gangs in both Iraq and Egypt -- but those gangs would be much less likely to attack if they knew the guards were armed and that the guards could call for help. I know from Wathiq Hindo, a security specialist who visited Iraq just before the 2003 invasion and bought an AK-47 himself for a site guard, that that guard did manage to ward off would-be looters when the government collapsed. And Donny George along with a few other brave souls carrying nothing more than steel pipes, managed to keep guys who were driving by the museum brandishing guns from attacking it a second time. It is that sort of situation, not the everyday one involving scavengers, that needs to be prepared for with contingency plans. Those plans should involve arming guards, as well as mobilizing local citizens' groups to come out to help as well, as the protestors did in front of the museum.

Of course, there is always the alternative of simply not protecting the sites or museums at all, especially if armed gangs are simply a myth, and there is only "looting" rather than massive destruction of thousands of sites and break-ins at storehouses. But of course, to believe that armed gangs of looters don't exist would fly in the face of a massive amount of evidence to the contrary. Subsistence looting has been overtaken by industrial looting anywhere where artifacts worth big money on the antiquities market are waiting to be dug.

Lastly, I am not sure that "shoot the looter" was the practice in Saddam's Iraq -- my understanding is that looters were arrested, convicted, and sentenced to jail time, and that later on the sentencing became Draconian. That's not the same thing though as simply shooting the looter. In any case, just because Saddam was a moral monster in some ways does not mean that every single thing his regime did was evil -- if that were the case, the Bush administration would not have been planning originally to keep in place the ministry of culture and State Board of Antiquities along with other government agencies, would it?

But if you don't like my idea, I would like to hear what you suggest should be done to keep museums, archaeological sites, and storehouses safe during times when the normal policing power of the state disappears. Or is your only suggestion, "Power to the looters!"?

Cultural Property Observer said...

Larry- Thank you for your clarification. I'm glad deterrence is your goal and not shooting subsitence diggers.

Pehaps modern methods of site security, like monitoring with cameras might be tried-- you can even have students in Chicago do the monitoring no doubt!

If there is a total break down in authority, then you really need to get the army involved-- this needs to be arranged beforehand though, no?

As to the Department of Antiquities in Iraq, I suspect it was retained due to lobbying by yourself and your fellow archaeologists, but feel free to correct me if I'm wrong.

In any case, I'm glad you agree that Saddam was a moral monster, but I am disturbed that there seems to be a distinct lack of interest in bringing up uncomfortable truths as to how Saddam treated Jews, particularly when that means that there is knee jerk support for the return of the Jewish archive to Iraq.

Larry Rothfield said...

You are wrong about the State Board of Antiquities being retained because of lobbying by archaeologists. It was just part of the whole governmental apparatus which the Bush administration envisaged originally would just stay in place.

I'm all in favor of modern methods of site security, as you know, but as you also know, satellite monitoring costs a lot of money (you have to purchase satellite imagery), money that archaeologists do not have, but that collectors do. It would be a fantastically useful gesture on the part of collectors for one or more of them to set up a fund to pay for site monitoring. That alone would create a huge wave of goodwill that could be ridden a long way towards some of the changes that collectors want (notice how much the museums have been able to get as a result of deciding to return some of the items demanded).