Why China’s MoU request should be renewed: its undiscovered ancient past
On our Facebook group yesterday, attention was brought to a mysterious stone animal uncovered this past January at an excavation site in Sichuan, China. Weighing 8.5 tons, and at 10ft 10in long, 3ft 11in wide and 5ft 7in tall, what else do we know about it besides its vastness?
What animal is it?
Media reports have called it a horse, a lion, or a panda, a cow, a pig. The latest “conclusion” is that the animal is a mythical rhinoceros, or a hippopotamus.
How old is it?
While most Chinese reports have the statue dating to the Qin Han dynasties 221 B.C.–A.D. 220, other reports speculate that it could have come from the Tang dynasty 618–907, or even Ming Qing 368—1840.
Perhaps most important, what was its purpose?
Archaeologists are reportedly baffled. At this writing, we have not found the discovery in Kaogu, or Archaeology journal, published by Institute of Archaeology, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. On China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage web site, there is one report from Sichuan Daily mentioning a possible connection to calming floodwaters. What we do know is that the statue has ow become a symbol of good luck during the Lunar New Year, and lovingly nicknamed “史上最萌石兽” or “the most adorable stone animal in history.”
It will take some time for archaeologists to decipher the markings found on the statue’s surfaces, study the skeletal remains of other animals in its vicinity and make sense of the many other artifacts also discovered, including pots and reportedly ceremonial objects. For now, we have to contend with speculations, and hope that the site had not been looted, and will remain intact.
Stone horse and tiger narrowly escaped looters
In 2008, four other stone animals in Guangxi province narrowly escaped being dug up and carted away by looters, thanks to reports from the villagers. Although not as big as the Sichuan animal, these statues appear equally difficult to steal, and equally mysterious. As mentioned in our earlier post about a looted 27-ton stone coffin measuring 4 meters long, 2 meters wide and 2 meters high, when it comes to looting for profit, size no longer matters.
The public hearing to review a five-year renewal of the 2009 Memorandum of Understanding that restricts certain categories of antiquities from importation into the US takes place today at the Department of State. For SAFE, the most important reason for the Cultural Property Advisory Committee to recommend the renewal to the President is this Most of China’s vast ancient history remains undiscovered. There is much more mystery than there is knowledge about a civilization that spans more than 7,000 years. And the decision must be based on this: Do we want to know more?
We do, because China’s ancient cultural heritage is our shared cultural heritage. As Donny George said, cultural heritage is a human right. We all deserve to know more about our own humanity, knowledge is our right. As such, we must do everything we can to stop the plunder of cultural heritage. The UNESCO 1970 has its flaws, import restrictions alone will not end looting and the illicit antiquities trade that feeds it. But until a better alternative is recommended and implemented, the US must do what it can to safeguard our cultural heritage—not only for China—but for all of us. Anything else is just an excuse.
Marsha Fulton of The Extreme History Project remembers
I first encountered SAFE and Cindy Ho while I was teaching Art History at SUNY New Paltz. As all of us, I was stunned at the horrific losses at the Baghdad Museum after the invasion of Iraq. I wanted to get involved in some way. I phoned Cindy and we had a lengthy conversation that ended with my commitment to supporting and contributing to SAFE in any way I could. Through those early years, I met several times with SAFE supporters and hosted the first SAFE Board retreat at my home in Saugerties, NY. We laid the foundations for what SAFE would become over those few days in my dining room. When SAFE began commemorating the anniversary of the looting with a Candlelight Vigil, I created an annual program at SUNY New Paltz which included a presentation on the looting of the Baghdad Museum and a screening of the film The Giant Buddhas, a powerful documentary detailing the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Taliban.
SAFE’s first Board meeting
Cindy and I shared a passion for world heritage protection and we bonded over long discussions concerning looting, collecting and preserving cultural heritage. Our commitment was solidified when we drove from New York to Washington, D. C. in 2005 where we spoke before the Cultural Property Advisory Committee to support a US / Italy Bilateral Agreement restricting imports of antiquities. The car ride home was spent brainstorming ways to promote public awareness of cultural heritage preservation and finding a bridge between the collecting and archaeological communities for a common cause. Cindy’s commitment and energy were inspiring and I still reflect on those influential conversations in my current work.
Today I am Co-founder and Co-Director of The Extreme History Project. We are a public history, non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the relevance of cultural heritage to community, policy and society. We believe in giving voice to the voiceless of the past and in the importance of the roll of history in forming individual and community identities. We are based in Livingston, Montana and work closely with indigenous communities in facilitating historical research surrounding the Native American reservation period of the west. Our work includes not only primary document archiving, but also the recording of Native American oral histories. The work that we do has real relevance for Indigenous communities here in Montana by helping recreate community identity through restoring a denied history and, as such, has application to many other indigenous communities around the world, battling the legacy of colonialism.
I credit much of the grounding of The Extreme History Project to those early conversations with Cindy about SAFE and preserving cultural heritage. I am honored and proud of my relationship to Cindy and to SAFE for its tireless contribution to the protection of our shared heritage. Our history contributes to our identity and without the knowledge and materials of history, we lose that identity and a part of ourselves. The fight for our world heritage must always continue and I thank Cindy and SAFE for staying on the frontline!
Thoughts on the Tragedy of Iraqi Cultural Heritage, and Three Inspired Responses to it: SAFE, Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, and Dr. Saad Eskander of the Iraq National Library and Archive
The 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq by the US and its allies has prompted many reflections. They bring to my mind the Bad Faith to which the Iraqi people have been subjected ever since the victorious powers betrayed their Arab allies at Versailles after WWI. “Bomber” Harris, who presided over the destruction of German cities from the air in WWII, practiced on rebellious Iraqi villages in the 1920s. There was no organic connection between the royal Hashemite line imposed by the British on the Iraqi people, laying the grounds for nationalist coups to come, and the seemingly ineluctable descent into Saddam Hussein’s despotism. The extraordinarily destructive invasion (in its acts and consequences) was but one of the more recent such betrayals, although in that instance the American and British people were also victims, though less grievously so.
Saddam’s dictatorship betrayed the Iraqi people in countless ways, including the gross distortions of culture and corruption of institutions that benefited the narrow interests of the dictator and his regime. Unimaginable damage was wreaked by the war with Iran. The human losses in their most concrete terms were terrible, but those to culture were similarly bad, from the devastation of Basra to the ecocide that destroyed the Marsh Arabs’ way of life after the 1991 Gulf War, which was precipitated by Saddam’s desire to rid himself of the debts incurred by the previous one. The exorbitant costs of these wars resulted in the pervasive underfunding of culture and education throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, and the sad fact that the Iraq Museum was kept shut for twenty years before the American invasion, opened only for VIP events. That it remains closed despite much effort to rehabilitate it is evidence for the bad faith of venal and incompetent successor governments.
Starting in April 2003, I devoted my attention to the plight of Iraqi libraries and archives, resulting in two lengthy reports alongside other work that recounts much of that sorry tale*1
These two images, one general and one specific, of the first of three exhibits at the Cambridge Arts Council’s gallery representing the first of three exhibits of Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here-related artwork. They are principally artist books (85 of them in the vitrines), with some of the broadsides on the walls. A second exhibit of 82 books is now up, with a third to follow.
Cambridge Arts Council
It is through this work that I became acquainted with SAFE and the indefatigable Cindy Ho. It is generally the case that any successful voluntary enterprise requires one inspired leader to get it going and, often, to sustain it, even though other committed individuals may contribute to its depth and breadth. Cindy is that person, and one of those others whom she inspired to participate, Irina Tarsis, enlisted my participation in three symposia sponsored or co-sponsored by SAFE, the most salient being my paper, “Contested Patrimony: The Fate of the Iraqi Jewish Archive,” presented at Homeward Bound: Returning Displaced Books and Manuscripts.
It is heartening that SAFE has expanded its activities beyond Iraqi antiquities to those of other nations, and has considered those aspects of cultural heritage and national patrimony of more direct concern to those such as myself. Its activities and website benefit the whole world. Another person who, like Cindy Ho, was moved to initiate a project addressing threatened Iraqi culture, is Beau Beausoleil, poet and bookseller of San Francisco, who founded Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here following the catastrophic bombing of the street of the booksellers in Baghdad on 5 March 2007. He has stated that he kept waiting for someone to do something in response to such a terrible affront to all that is good and decent, but nobody did, so he acted, first locally and then globally. This has resulted in an arguably unprecedented imaginative response: the creation of much poetry and other writing,*2 scores of broadsides, and about 360 artist books that reveal an extraordinary range of visual, literary and technical creativity. They have been on exhibit in many places, and a complete set of will eventually arrive at the Iraq National Library and Archive (a set of the broadsides has already reached the INLA).•3
I was asked to provide a meaningful context for the eponymous event at one of the occasions associated with the six-month exhibit in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That follows here.
“Framing the Bombing of Al-Mutanabbi Street: How We Might Think about what Led to it”
Jeff Spurr, 25 February 2013
“Locating Al-Mutanabbi Street”
Cambridge Arts Council Gallery
We Americans tend to be navel gazers, deeply involved in our own problems, and oblivious to the consequences of our projection of power abroad. Few have any conception of — or concern for — the cumulative suffering born by the Iraqi people, and the derangements to Iraqi society caused by our contribution to it.
A long, dark road led to the bomb blast at Al-Mutanabbi Street on March 5th, 2007. The moral and symbolic implications of that horrendous event have been broadly addressed, thanks in particular to this wonderful initiative, Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, rich evidence of which we see around us.
This evening I will briefly try to provide some context. In my view, five principal conditions frame that terrible act. They are (1) the nature of Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian regime, (2) the crippling sanctions against Iraq after the Gulf War of 1990-1991, (3) the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, (4) the disastrous policies of the Coalition Provisional Authority under L. Paul Bremer, and (5) the existence of a mobile radical Islamic movement associated with al-Qaeda, whose peculiar nature supports a terrifying cultural nihilism.
(1) Despotic regimes not only make the welfare of the tyrant and few others the measure of what is good and right for a whole nation, but their corrupt and absolutist ways suppress any normal civil society, and preclude the development of mature political views, mechanisms, and behavior, in the process injecting slow-working poisons into the body politic that remain long after these regimes are gone. The resulting political immaturity, unfamiliarity with democratic ways, and dearth of practical initiative (due, that is, to the top-down character of all decision-making in such police states), have dire implications for what comes after.
(2) The sanctions regime of the 1990s had no serious effect on Saddam, his family and cronies, whose control over the state remained unabated; however, it immiserated much of the Iraqi middle class, and made the lives of the poor much less bearable, adding new distress to a population that had already endured the terrible ravages of the Iran-Iraq war, ignominious defeat in the Gulf War, and the savage suppression of the subsequent Shi’ite rebellion in Central and Southern Iraq.
(3) The criminally reckless American invasion was essentially undertaken without a plan beyond tactical questions concerning the inevitable military victory, which is to say the easy part. General Shinseki was fired for speaking the truth regarding management of the aftermath, and magical thinking reigned in the White House. The invasion began with the revolting spectacle of “Shock and Awe,” destruction from the skies targeting infrastructure and ministries whose principal consequence would be to dramatically diminish the capacity of successor governments to run the country. Even worse, no provision was made to impose a new authority after the totalitarian regime was overthrown: the lid was taken off the pressure cooker and not replaced. Chaos was the inevitable result. As history has shown, opportunists will always take advantage of the absence of authority, but the terrifying result under these especially bad circumstances was massive looting of nearly every institution in the country outside of Iraqi Kurdistan — whether cultural, educational, or governmental — from which Iraq will never fully recover.
Two images of the INLA (Iraq National Library and Archive). The ‘before’ image is actually after the arson but before restoration of an interior space (you can discern the stairs), while the ‘after’ is of the same space (though a larger view), after Dr. Eskander’s restoration.
(4) Then came the misrule of Paul Bremer, America’s satrap at the CPA, and arch-privatizer. A combination of arrogance, ignorance and ideology scarcely matched by his boss led to the cashiering of the whole Iraqi army, an act of folly that removed a potential stabilizing force (Republican Guard excepted), and threw a couple hundred thousand men out of work. Since the army of occupation had failed to secure ammo dumps across Iraq, arms were readily available. Bremer also closed all state-owned enterprises, consigning countless others to unemployment and disaffection. The mass firing of members of the Baath Party had similar results. Idle hands make for the Devil’s work, after all, and the inability to mobilize for employment and sustain anything resembling normal functioning, plus an endless series of other unfortunate decisions, led inevitably to resistance — further exacerbated by blunt force behavior by the occupying forces.
Indeed, resistance led to extreme reaction. Whereas it was said of the Vietnam War, “we had to destroy the village in order to save it,” things graduated in Iraq to “we destroyed the city to save it,” notably in the cases of Fallujah and Ramadi. What leverage might have been gained from overthrowing the widely-hated Saddam was quickly squandered.
It is virtually axiomatic that a system of repression such as existed under Saddam leaves people little choice but to identify with more elementary structures of society: the family, the tribe, and, particularly among the less secularized Iraqi lower classes, religion. This is where social fault lines develop when all else disintegrates.
Violent Sunni resistance led ineluctably to two things: the emergence of the much more radical al-Qaeda in Iraq, not invested in the preservation of any people or place, and largely consisting of foreign Arab elements coming from Jordan and through Syria, mirrored by the embrace of violence by Shi’ite groups, most conspicuously the Sadr Brigades, lumpen elements supporting that firebrand Shi’ite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr. This combustible situation led to an all-out civil war conducted by these radicalized elements, precipitated in its aggravated form when al-Qaeda blew up the Shi’ite Al-Askari Mosque and Shrine at Samarra in February 2006. Al-Qaeda elements have been employing a slogan, “taqsir wa tafjir,” which, translated into English, signifies something like “denounce and detonate” or, according to a friend, effectively “blow them all up.”
It was in the context of this explosion of hate and strife, when upwards of four million largely middle class Iraqis (proportionately equivalent to about 42 million Americans), were forced to flee their homes, unlikely to return, that Al-Mutanabbi Street was devastated. When tens of thousands are being murdered, when many parties are behaving in wanton ways, and when forces that consider humanism and enlightenment to be the enemy are unleashed on the land, it comes as no great surprise that this terrible crime occurred, much as we may lament it.
[modified and expanded for SAFE:]
As a coda, I would like to add that one man has shown what is possible in Iraq despite the conditions I have just described. That person is Dr. Saad Eskander, who took charge of a devastated Iraq National Library and Archive (INLA) in the fall of 2003 at a very dark hour for that institution and Iraq. There his performance has been exemplary under the most trying of circumstances.
Dr. Eskander not only succeeded in restoring a structure that had been declared a dead loss, but took a corrupt, moribund staff of 95 and turned it into a thriving, productive one of over 300, shepherding it through the dark years of civil war and difficult times since, initiating an enlightened administration in which the staffs of departments elect their representatives to the institution’s council; encouraging a women’s group that began a canteen and child care onsite. He reached out to the world, for which reason he received critical donations of equipment and materials of every sort from many countries and institutions, plus advanced training for his staff on several fronts. Despite having to repeatedly cope with retrograde elements in the Ministry of Culture and elsewhere in government, he has sustained the integrity of his institution and arranged for the building of a new National Archives building and a Generations Library for children and youth. A new building for digital projects is underway. Dr. Eskander has also spearheaded the effort to repatriate various classes of seized Iraqi documents on US soil or in American hands. Much of this is described in detail in my 2007 and 2010 reports. Despite the grievous losses due to arson and deliberate flooding in April 2003, Saad Eskander continues his labors in the service of Iraqi culture and heritage. His work provides not only a model for best practices in the administration of a cultural institution in Iraq, but for the world. We owe him our admiration and support.
*1 July 2005 report:
July 2007 report:
A substantial update that focuses on controversies concerning various classes of seized Iraqi documents still under American control may be found in
“Report on Iraqi Libraries and Archives, 2010,” MELA Notes, no. 83 (2010), pp. 14-38
at which point one must click on:
MELA Notes number 83 (2010)
*2 Beausoleil, Beau and Deema Shehabi, eds., Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here: Poets and Writers Respond to the March 5th, 2007, Bombing of Baghdad’s “Street of the Booksellers”, PM Press, Oakland, CA, 2012
NB: the big hole in the ground mentioned in this article is not the new Archives building, which has already been built, although not as yet fully furnished; it is the foundation for the Digital Library building, Dr. Eskander having long ago initiated a comprehensive plan for digitization in the service of transparency and access for Iraqis to their history and heritage.
China’s “other” looting problem
One might rejoice at today’s news about the Christie’s owner François Pinault’s offer to return two bronze animal heads to China, a “cause célèbre for Chinese nationalists” has garnered start-studded attention from Ai Weiwei to Jackie Chan, Yves Saint Laurent, Nicolas Sarkozy, the Dalia Lama and now the head of the PPR, maker of luxury fashion goods, husband of movie start Salma Hayek. Or, one might ask if this is really a cause for celebration.
Since our 2009 post on the subject stating that since the objects were taken before current laws were in place, China’s “only recourse so far has been to purchase these antiquities back whenever they surface on the antiquities market,” Pinault has found another way. Purchasing the bronzes then “donating” them back to China, “their rightful home”, Pinault has found another solution, and a way to improve business and diplomatic relations with a nation that boasts an impressive purchasing power by showing respect for its cultural heritage. The sculptures are of two animals in the Chinese zodiac, and were part of Beijing’s Yuanmingyuan 圓明園 (Imperial Summer Palace), sacked by French and British troops in the 19th century. China’s mission to track down the many other artifacts looted at that time has been widely published and sometimes criticized.
We will never know if Pinault’s act of generosity would take place if China had not emerged as PPR’s “fastest-growing market for its luxury goods” and if the celebrities had not shown their keen interest. What we do know, is that the return of these sculptures is the right thing to do, even if—and perhaps particularly—when the case of the animal heads is not a legal but a moral issue. For this, we applaud Pinault.
Yet, on the eve of the decision whether to renew restrictions on the importation of certain categories of Chinese antiquities into the US, SAFE believes it is time to focus on China’s “other” looting problem, and we think, the most important problem: the plunder of its numerous ancient sites yet to be excavated. In her testimony in support of China’s request for a bilateral agreement that calls for import restrictions, SAFE Founder Cindy Ho said in 2005:
One of the biggest archaeological mysteries in China is the joint tomb of China’s only Empress Wu Zetian, and her husband Emperor Li Zhi. Called Qianling, it is the only tomb in China that holds two emperors and the only Tang tomb that has not been looted. It has yet to be excavated because for half a century, the proper time to excavate Qianling has been heavily debated. While the Chinese government is concerned about security and looting, archaeologists are eager to study the buried artifacts, which are tantamount to completing our knowledge of the Tang Dynasty. Attempted robberies—although presumably thwarted—have made everyone uneasy.
What is buried in Qianling will remain forever unknown if the pillage in China continues. We will never know what the ancient bamboo tablets with ancient inscriptions had to tell us just as the stories of daily life are lost when cylinder seals from Ancient Mesopotamia are looted. Nor will we ever understand the history of the ancient Northern People, the Chu Culture, much like the Vicús people of Peru, whose culture we know little about because of the illicit antiquities trade.
Nearly 10 years later, the official word is: no excavation of Qianling is considered for at least another 50 years, citing “preservation of the integrity of the tomb site and maintaining the environment of surrounding areas” as the top concern.
Authentic pieces of Yuanmingyuan may not resurface on the auction block any time soon, given the recent notoriety of the case of the animal heads and China’s continued rise as a formidable negotiator in the global arena. But the kind of plunder in the case of Yuanmingyuan is quite different from the kind of looting SAFE is most concerned about: the destruction of intact evidence of our undiscovered past, humanity’s most precious non-renewable resource.
Since January 2009, the US has decided to join with the international response to curbing looting and the illicit antiquities trade by granting China’s request for help in preserving its cultural heritage, our cultural heritage by signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). As long as knowledge about our past cannot be revealed because of the threat of looting to feed the antiquities trade, SAFE supports import restrictions as an effective deterrent to looting. As long as another alternative to the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970 (UNESCO) and the Cultural Property Implementation Act has yet to emerge, we urge the Department of State and the Cultural Property Advisory Committee to recommend to the President to continue to abide by the US obligations as a member state of UNESCO and reaffirm its commitment to shared global cultural heritage by renewal the MoU for another five years.
This is why until media pressure focuses on the “other” looting problem: the plunder of sites to feed the black market trade of antiquities, we could celebrate the repatriation of the the rabbit and the rat only with cautious optimism and hope that the US would also do the right thing, as Pinault has.
Archaeological Looting is an Environmental Issue
The supporters of the indiscriminate market in dug-up ancient relics are fixated on representing the fundamental issues at stake as those of “ownership”, whether by a state (by their use of labels such as “retentionist”, “Nationalist”) or private individuals (accompanied by a lot of “cold dead hands”-type fighting talk). What lobbyists of this persuasion strenuously fight shy of is admitting that the current pace of depletion of the finite and fragile archaeological record by looting is a non-sustainable misuse of a precious resource. Looting is not an ownership issue, but an environmental issue.
The attempts to deflect the attention of the public and policy makers from the environmental aspects of the issues is of course a cynical manipulation. Lobbyists know they will get no sympathy from presenting the activity they are engaged in as the destroyer of a finite resource. That is why they will always play down the role of the indiscriminate market in the erosion. This is why they play on alarmist notions that “the enemy” wants to take away private property, and they are fighting the good fight to protect property rights. (Somehow they miss out the step of the argument which explains how they “got” the rights over the dismembered bits of the archaeological heritage taken clandestinely from the citizens of other countries.)
Archaeological organizations should be promoting a more accurate picture of the real issue at stake, the erosion and destruction of the archaeological resource by looting. On my blog, I suggest that perhaps there is a need for a World Archaeological Resource Awareness Day (WARAD?) that could in some way focus attention on the issue of the nature and importance of the archaeological record and how prone to damage it is. While we can do little against such threats as dessication, soil erosion, coastal erosion and some other natural causes of damage to archaeological sites, there are some forms of damage which arguably are avoidable. Looting is one of them. Public attention should be brought to the fact that current modes of indiscriminate collecting are shielding the looters from scrutiny and giving them a market. A worldwide awareness day – perhaps in some way linked to Earth Day at the end of April – may well be a useful tool in the process of public education about the damage caused by looting and indiscriminate and irresponsible collecting of archaeological artefacts.
Originally posted on March 28, 2010
The "other" non-renewable resource
Objects uncovered in their original contexts, properly interpreted, provide insight into the way our ancestors lived, their societies and their environments. They complete our view of ancient life and enrich our understanding on many levels. As such, antiquities comprise an essential part of our global cultural heritage.
This Earth Day, let’s also consider the other non-renewable resource: our shared cultural heritage. Once an artifact is ripped from the ground, most of the knowledge it contained is lost – forever.
Originally posted on April 22, 2010
Why the looting of the National Museum of Iraq still matters
Like those Americans of my parents’ generation who can remember where they were when they heard that President Kennedy had been shot, or of my generation who can remember their reaction to the breaking news of the September 11th attacks, the looting of the National Museum of Iraq remains, ten years later, a watershed moment for the global archaeological community and those of us who work to document and mitigate the illicit antiquities trade. The scale of the plunder, and its seemingly preventable nature, shocked everyone who witnessed it or viewed the frantic efforts of those tasked with dealing with the aftermath. For me, it was troubling enough to hear, and then have confirmed, that the United States was once again going to war in the Middle East, and for reasons that many suspected were false even at the time they were being announced. Given that I was about to graduate with my Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology from the University of Arizona at the time, I routinely spent each day immersed in archaeological theory, method, and site data from around the world, including the numerous civilizations that flourished in today’s Iraq; the Mesopotamia of the ancient world. Thus, knowing that not only was a war of uncertain parameters and unknown duration already underway (with the inevitable loss of military and civilian life), but that priceless cultural institutions would also be under threat, made watching events unfold all the more troubling.
Interviews with Donny George and other museum officials during and after the fact really drove home how tragic this loss was. Coupled with the sacking and burning of much of the National Library, this tragedy was propelled to unbelievable proportions. Although I don’t think it will ever be known to what extent US troops were ordered to guard the museum, or whether or not their neglecting of this order made the looting easier, it has long been understood (since colonial days, really) that the risk of looting increases in times of armed conflict. For my cohort and I, all archaeologists in training just beginning to accrue field and museum curation experience, we could at least intuitively grasp how damaging the event was. Later professional and life experiences would just confirm this.
One positive outcome of this tragedy was, of course, the founding of SAFE; the only nonprofit with an expressed goal to raise public awareness of new developments and new research pertaining to the illicit antiquities trade. SAFE was founded in 2003; however it did not exist as a nonprofit until 2005. Although the looting of the Iraq Museum served as the impetus to found SAFE as a direct response of this event in 2003, I didn’t hear about its existence until my dawning realization of the scope of looting itself My archaeological “formative period” came about in the Southwestern United States (at the University of Arizona) where, for three years, I was fortunate enough to participate in excavations in settings as diverse as the Sonoran desert near Tucson to the Pacific Islands. Both of these locations do also suffer from looting and site vandalism (which I’d later observe), but the wide open spaces make encountering looting a rare occurrence unless you look for it. I had enough on my plate just learning the archaeological ropes!
By 2006, I had completed my Bachelor’s, as well as a Master’s degree at the Australian National University, and my focus had shifted to Vietnam, Southeast Asia, and bioarchaeology (the investigation of daily life, behavior, and human-environmental interaction from data contained in the skeleton, in the context of burial practices). The more I studied and worked in the field, the more I appreciated how much is lost when burials are dug up in the hunt for rare artifacts to sell. Burials uniquely represent one-off events; snapshots of the life and death of an individual and community. Perhaps more than any other category of archaeological site, burials are truly irreplaceable. Attending the 2006 Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association conference in Manila, Philippines, first exposed me to how severe looting had become in Southeast Asia.
Having already seen examples of the open sale of artifacts accidentally surfaced while farmers ploughed fields in Vietnam, causing me to wonder how many more sites similar to the c. 3,800 BP cemetery site I was currently helping to excavate were out there, I had an inkling of things to come. Presentations given by the Director and staff of Heritage Watch (a Cambodia based NGO specifically focused on the antiquities trade) truly opened my eyes. Seeing slide after slide of sites reduced to moonscapes and incredibly rare burial objects openly sold due to international greed and weak laws, despite the best efforts of local and Western archaeologists, broke my heart and made me unwaveringly determined to help in efforts to expose and combat this threat, in Cambodia and beyond. By 2010, after returning to Vietnam and Cambodia to excavate and learn more, working at numerous sites around Arizona (and seeing vandalism and pot-hunting first hand), and finally returning to Australia in 2008 to commence doctoral studies, I felt I had learned and seen enough to be able to meaningfully contribute. In 2010, I began to guest blog for SAFE, as well as begin my own blog to discuss cases, galleries, legal issues and the ‘demand’ side of the market in southern hemisphere countries such as Australia. My own current research, conducted with colleagues at the Institute of Criminology, University of Sydney, seeks to clarify the dimensions of this market, especially concerning South and Southeast Asian antiquities, to a degree not attempted before.
Although objects from the Iraq Museum remain unaccounted for and the museum remains only occasionally open to the public, events such as the scramble by civilians, museum and military personnel to remove and safely store thousands of priceless manuscripts from libraries and mosques in Timbuktu, Mali, during the ongoing conflict there do suggest that the global community is much less willing to be silent in the face of conflict-driven heritage destruction. In time, the collective efforts of INTERPOL, private investigators, journalists and governments in cooperation could recover even more objects stolen on that fateful April 10th, but to me the larger point is that the looting of the National Museum of Iraq is symptomatic of the economic disparities between supply and demand countries, and the greed of those who fuel the no-questions-asked antiquities trade, that will continue to reduce countless sites to rubble before they can be excavated, let alone published and curated to share with the world.
Having just come from the latest (78th annual) meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, in which thousands of delegates (myself included) presented the results of our latest research, I can safely attest that global research output is very vigorous. However, except for the occasional passing reference or resigned statement, there is still nowhere near enough acknowledgement of what the antiquities trade is doing to the world’s remaining archaeological record, despite the pervasiveness of looting and illicit dealing worldwide and the archaeological questions rendered moot because of it. Of course, the effects of looting also include hampering the efforts of many nations to establish museums with fully up-to-date acquisition and curation policies, and then to effectively safeguard those priceless pieces of cultural and national patrimony that they contain. The severe damage inflicted to the collections of the Iraq National Museum is just one poignant example.
As cutting edge research to document and mitigate the antiquities trade, excavate or salvage new sites, and create more context-driven and secure museums continues, let us all take a moment to remember not just what was lost when the Iraq Museum was looted, but what good has come from recovery efforts. Without the noble front-line fight of Donny George and his staff, much more would have been destroyed. Without the help of Iraqi religious leaders and governmental authorities, much more would be unaccounted for. The real challenge facing all of us is to stop the illicit antiquities trade before it starts, tighten the net around those who seek to profit from it, and provide enough training to troops on both sides of future, inevitable, conflicts that sites of cultural heritage are greater than any one conflict. Only by doing this can we ensure that the tide will continue to turn in favor of the preservation of the material remains of humanity’s shared past.
On the other side of this equation, it is vital for those who investigate the illicit antiquities trade from legal or criminological perspectives to seek out and maintain dialogues with archaeologists (both foreign and local) in all areas of the world where looting still occurs. As my own research continues to demonstrate to me, effective legal reform and prosecutions must rely on documentation of artifact authenticity, illegality of export, and likely archaeological context together. The clear explanation of what knowledge is lost, and how it fits into the bigger picture, when an object is ripped from the ground (or separated from its records when stolen from a museum) is something only archaeologists who have excavated intact sites and seen looting face to face can provide. Organizations like SAFE that continue to work to bridge these gaps are still sorely needed.
Dr. Damien Huffer
Institute of Criminology
Faculty of Law
University of Sydney
Darlinghurst, NSW, 2006, Australia
Long Walks in the Museum
I met Cindy Ho when she was getting SAFE off the ground 10 years ago. At that time I was involved in the advertising industry as a creative technician, and beginning to question its ethical environment. It was exciting to volunteer for SAFE. One of the reasons SAFE was (and is) exciting is its explicit use of rhetorical technique to initiate conversations around shared cultural concerns.
As an artist whose concerns lie in the social environment, I am interested in the present moment. However, it is in few places more clear that the present moment is linked to historical circumstance than in a museum. How are we personally connected, or not connected to cultural lineage on display? What are the quotidian conversations associated with exceptional objects? And how are they affected by the architecture that houses them, the other people that share the space?
This weekend I am organizing a public project called Long Walks in the Museum that positions people in relation to art. It is a sequence of scheduled one-on-one walks that pass through galleries designated “Egyptian”, “American”, “Medieval”, “European”, “African/Oceanic/American”, and “Greek” in one of the preeminent cultural institutions of New York City.
This is the third in a series of one-on-one walks that ask two strangers to navigate interpersonal and real space together, done is association with the Flux Factory and the Walk Exchange. Several appointments are still open, and can be arranged by calling 917-300-9521.
SAFE kickstarts global awareness campaign with appreciation
Beginning today, on the 10th anniversary of the looting of the Iraq Museum, SAFE will observe The Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage with a three-month global awareness campaign “10 YEARS AFTER” which focuses on our core mission: to raise public awareness about the irreversible damage that results from looting, smuggling and trading illicit antiquities.
Until July 1, we will highlight the following on our web site and social media outlets:
• the efforts of institutions and individuals dedicated to global heritage preservation;
• the global concern of looting and the illicit antiquities trade;
• how public awareness can contribute to the solution;
and apropos to the theme of 10th anniversary…
• the many ways you participated in our Global Candlelight Vigil around the world, which began in 2007 with Dr. Donny George Youkhanna’s call to action.
Click to light a candle
Ten years after the event that precipitated the founding of our organization, we wish to pay tribute to all those who supported us and worked with us; and most of all, those who continue to do so. Taking this opportunity to honor your work is how SAFE wishes to celebrate our own 10th anniversary, and look to the future. And the future of our past.
This is why we designed this special 10th anniversary Global Candlelight Vigil to invite your thoughts and reflections. Initial responses to our invitation have already come in, they are posted here and here, and on Facebook beginning today. Please read Howard Spiegler’s reminder not to forget the efforts to recover artworks looted by the Nazis; René Teijgeler’s concern about the situation in Syria as it parallels Iraq’s; Dean Snyder’s personal tribute to Dr. Youkhanna; Abdulamir Hamdani’s summary of a report on the current situation in Iraq, to be delivered at a seminar in conjunction with the exhibition CATASTROPHE! TEN YEARS LATER: THE LOOTING AND DESTRUCTION OF IRAQ’S PAST; Steven George’s expression of appreciation; Senta German’s observation on the impact of the looting of the Iraq museum on raising public awareness. Thank you for your participation, we look for your upcoming contributions.
SAFE announces Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage
Marking the 10th anniversary of the looting of the Iraq Museum, SAFE launches The Donny George Candlelight Vigil for Global Heritage and invites all citizens to light a candle and share their remembrances and thoughts in any language on the current situation, contemplate the future, and take the opportunity to announce their related projects and programs in preserving the future of our past.
Click to light a candle
These comments and reflections will be posted on SAFE’s web site beginning April 10 and also the Vigil page on Facebook, and other social media outlets. Furthering our commitment to raising public awareness about the global concern of looting and the illicit antiquities trade, SAFE aims to gather these reflections in a commemorative booklet as a public statement of concern, and as a tribute to all those who safeguard the future of our past.
SAFE initiated the Global Candlelight Vigil for the Iraq Museum with Dr. Donny George Youkhanna in 2007 to commemorate the looting of the Museum which became the impetus for the founding of the organization. Institutions and individuals from around the world hosted and attended lectures and candle-lighting ceremonies. A video of these events was compiled to mark the 5th anniversary. In 2011, the Vigil was renamed to honor the memory of Dr. Youkhanna.