The Heritage Landscape: Key Players and Current Issues (Notes on the Past for Sale Conference, 2015: Part 2)

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crisis in syria

This is the second installment of a review of the symposium Archaeological Looting: Realities and Possibilities for New Policy Approaches conference, held at the University of Chicago, in February 2015. It focuses on the keynote speech given by Dr. Neil Brodie, as well as on further proceedings of the second and final panel of day two. Read the first installment of the review, originally published July 24, 2015, here.

The Keynote Address

For his keynote address, Dr. Brodie discussed the provocative questions of how and why cultural property protection policy has failed in Syria. Through a sharing of his own personal experiences with EU policy making and its shortcomings, Brodie was able to thoroughly contextualize current problems and possible solutions to the cultural heritage crisis in the region.

Readers familiar with SAFE and its blog are, no doubt, familiar with the primary UN conventions (e.g., the 1954 Hague Convention; UNESCO 1970 and UNIDROIT 1995) that together are meant to control the global illicit trade in antiquities, especially sites from vulnerable conflict zones. What Brodie wished to discuss, however, were four specific reasons he identifies for why current cultural property policy and legislation has failed in Syria. In general, they include: one, protection at source; two, recovery and restitution; three, “neoliberal” deregulations; and four, a pervasive “market of destruction.”

In terms of a failure to protect cultural heritage at the source, the startling fact is that there are approximately 10,000 known sites in Syria but–due to the current conflict–there may be no more than one guard for every five sites. While much attention has been given to looting in Southern Iraq post-2003 and the role of clerical announcements in enticing thieves to return artifacts looted from museums especially, Brodie questioned how much this has actually impacted the situation on the ground.

The most pertinent question now is whether it is too little, too late for Iraq? As Brodie warned, if all relevant policy reactions continue to remain country specific, yet collectors, dealers, and auction houses will also stay aware of “cross-border loopholes.” Indeed, in certain locations with high market demand, such as London, law enforcement is hampered because they do not know which country’s laws and UN resolutions to enforce!

In regards to recovery and restitution, Brodie also asked the audience to consider the utility of one-off repatriations when context is lost (especially for antiquities) and when not enough attention is being paid to dismantling the criminal networks behind the trade. In considering how art crime scholars can best “chase the market,” Brodie also questioned whether this endeavour would be easier under criminal laws (such as the UK’s Proceeds of Crime Act). Brodie himself advocates the abandonment of out-of-date 1960s policies in favour of ones that replace reactivity with proactivity in market reduction and which are sustainable, global in nature, and focused on removing criminals from the market. Doing so relies upon good law enforcement, of course, something easier said than done in some jurisdictions. That said, archaeological “civilians” must continue to actively inform relevant police forces and be good “subject matter experts.”

As Brodie stressed, much work needs to be done related to “who is monitoring the market?” Numerous examples have been given by Brodie and others documenting antiquities damage worldwide although without anyone monitoring the shifts of the market in response to policy decisions. He mentioned, for example, recent actions taken by the Israeli Antiquities Authority from 2002-2012 to choke off the use of Dubai as a transit point for legally or illegally exported Near-Eastern antiquities—which (as Brodie suggested) unintentionally may have moved transit of those items to Singapore.

The closing remarks of his keynote were a call to arms, asking the cultural heritage community to move from single-country damage enforcement to much broader collaborations for market reduction. He also emphasized that we must not confuse humanitarian crisis response with cultural property protection. Given the number of active conflicts that exist in the Near East today, Brodie ended with a renewed plea for the international community to pay much more attention to Jordan, Libya, or Yemen (the talk of Dr. Nagel in Part 1 notwithstanding). Where are the UN Security Council Resolutions? The Memoranda of Understanding? Questions from the audience touched upon the role of the “common man” in outreach initiatives, the need in Iraq and Syria for more law enforcement, but more flexible enforcement, and the still contentious issue of academic publishing of translation or interpretations of looted material.

The Final Session

Continuing the flow of discussion and topical focus within the conference as from “micro” to “macro,” from source to market, the last panel focused on policy and technological responses to looting worldwide. The first speaker was Deborah Lehr, of the Antiquities Coalition. Speaking on the topic of “Egyptian Antiquities: Strategies for protection in policy and practice,” Lehr focused first on developing a strategy to fight “cultural racketeering,” especially in light of the Arab Spring revolutions and the numerous situations in which antiquities have become another source of profit in armed conflicts.

The question was how to engage different stakeholders in the fight to stem the trade, using the case of Egypt to illustrate her point. The remainder of her talk gave specific examples of how the Antiquities Coalition has been doing just that; changing the debate to engage with officials, NGOs, law enforcement and the general public. In light of the proposed MoU with Egypt, this is especially important. The question of a Middle East regional MoU was then raised; a topic worth more consideration. Lehr concluded her talk with a reminder for all in the audience to work to align government and stakeholder interests around a common purpose, the use of “quiet diplomacy” and a top down/bottom up approach can work, as it is beginning to for Egypt.

Remaining within the Near East, Morag Kersel gave the next presentation regarding the looting situation in Jordan and her numerous years of ethnographic and archaeological field work conducted to understand it. How do all those involved understand the holes left behind from looting around archaeological landscapes such as Bab-edh-Dhra and Fifa (sites crucial to our understanding of the Early Bronze Age rise of urbanism in the region), or even the act and repercussions of looting itself?

The Follow the Pots Project, with which Kersel is affiliated, has worked tirelessly to learn from looters and the holes left behind; about how the past and its material record holds different values to different stakeholders; archaeologists, local villagers, middlemen, collectors, and museum staff, among others. These are perspectives often overlooked in projects designed to curb looting worldwide. Furthermore, her direction of the Youth Engagement Petra Program since 2013 has empowered several groups of 12-17 year old girls to not only assist with data collection and interviews of key players in local looting network, but in doing so, to take further pride in their heritage.

This last session also had a wide global focus. Turning to Cambodia, Tess Davis then spoke about the results of recent research into the illicit trade in Khmer antiquities, conducted by herself and Prof. Simon Mackenzie, under the auspices of the Trafficking Culture project. Reviewing the long tradition of archaeological survey (but minimal excavation) during French colonial times, Davis discussed Cambodia’s looting problem by first showing where it currently happens; at Iron Age cemetery sites primarily in the northwest.

While temple sites were not actively targeted pre-1970, during and after the Khmer Rouge period, countless sites were decimated. Nowadays, Davis reported, the “good money” is in illegal timber, with the result that certain key players in the two separate trafficking networks operating in the 1980s and 1990s (here and here) were willing to come forward. These figures included such notorious kingpins as Ta Mok (“the butcher”). In conclusion, Davis reminded us all that there were many players in this complex trade, with heavy repercussions for the legality or legitimacy of today’s still-active demand for Khmer statuary by the wealthiest of collectors and museums.

The final talk of the panel and conference was presented by Erin Thompson, an assistant professor of Art Crime at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Thompson focused on the relatively unique angle of social network formation and friendships among collectors as motivating factors for their beginning to collect—including their ability to “convert” others to the merits of collecting–and the use of informal conversations to help new members of collecting circles circumvent laws. Several examples, especially of WWII-era collectors of Classical antiquities, were provided to discuss the duality in which the original theft of an object (such as cylinder seals) is not denied, but collection is legitimized because “they” (the collectors themselves) did not steal it.

Fundamentally, Thompson convincingly argues that, for many collectors, connections between in-group members and a desire to ‘protect’ each other will directly conflict with a purported love for the past, thus thwarting many attempts at behavior-changing educational outreach.

Final Remarks

Thompson herself ended her talk, and the conference, by asking us all to reconsider the need for greater social networking activity and engagement by archaeologists targeted towards collecting communities. The lessons are vital and important ones. Greater awareness of who is fuelling this antiquities trade, what is lost from looting, and what is gained from excavation will ensure the archaeological record has a future, for all of us.

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Damien Huffer is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum Conservation Institute and department of Anthropology. He earned MA and PhD degrees in archaeology and physical anthropology from the Australian National University and has active research interests in human osteology, bio-archaeology, the Southeast Asian and global antiquities trade, and the online trade in human remains, and new methods of archeological outreach.

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