Special Heritage issue of Near Eastern Archaeology

NEA78-3_cover-1The Journal of Near Eastern Archaeology has a special issue covering the “Cultural Heritage in the Middle East”. There are ten contributions covering Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya, and Afghanistan. All of the contributions are available on JSTOR. From the contents:

Continue reading “Special Heritage issue of Near Eastern Archaeology”

Footnotes

The Bost Arch in 1970

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Archaeologists Warn of Danger to Sites in Afghanistan

AFP reports on damage to cultural heritage in Afghanistan today.  We heard a lot about damage done in Iraq, but as Larry Rothfield and others have pointed out, Afghanistan is a chance to correct the mistakes that were made in Iraq.  It looks like it might be a failed opportunity.  It is a familiar story of a flawed market, economic instability, and little enforcement. 

KABUL — A senior Western archaeologist in Afghanistan says he is struggling to protect a vast wealth of cultural treasures from being stolen and smuggled to wealthier countries, or worse, destroyed altogether.
“I think there is absolutely no site in this country which is unaffected,” Philippe Marquis, the director of a team of French government-funded archaeologists operating in Afghanistan, told AFP in a recent interview.
“The illegal trade in antiquities is very significant, and is related to all the illegal activities which are going on in Afghanistan,” he added.
Afghanistan’s position on the ancient Silk Road that linked east with west has left the country with a rich cultural heritage.
But decades of war have hampered efforts to conduct proper archaeological investigations, while a lack of regulation means that priceless treasures are being smuggled out of the country at an alarming rate.
The looting is often carried out by poor villagers who are paid by middlemen often based elsewhere in the region — a problem the French have gone some way to addressing by paying the looters to work on their digs instead.
But Marquis believes much of the blame lies elsewhere. It is illegal to take object more than 100 years old out of Afghanistan, but enforcement of the law is weak, and most stolen antiquities are smuggled to wealthier countries.
The United Nations recently sought the advice of the French archaeologists after it discovered a large number of Afghan antiquities in the shipment of a departing staff member.
“People are often not even aware of the importance, they just think, well this would be nice on a shelf in my house in France or the UK,” says Marquis.

  1. Claire Cozens, AFP: Archaeologists seek protection for Afghan treasures (2010), http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5jf-EWqmhK3CiG7XGyGyVtOsNWZ8g (last visited Jun 22, 2010).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Looted Objects Returned to Afghanistan

The BBC reports on the return of 1,500 objects which were seized by customs agents at Heathrow airport.  A great deal of attention was given to the looting of the Baghdad Museum and other sites in Iraq.  But are we ignoring the problems in Afghanistan?  This may be only a fraction of the objects which are escaping its borders. 

A 900-year-old bronze bird.

More than 1,500 artefacts were recovered in an 11-day operation. Many are priceless objects of Islamic art looted in illegal excavations.


They include a magnificent tall bronze bird. Nine-hundred years ago, its owner would have burned incense in the drawer that slots into its puffed chest.


“We are really happy to have our objects back,” says Mohammad Fahim Rahimi, who has been preparing descriptions of the recovered treasures in the Dari language for the display cabinets.


There are prehistoric tools – up to 6,000 years old – and ancient coins, as well as more recent Islamic tiles, inscribed basins and bronze candlesticks.


“We wish all the countries around the world – if they have our collections – would transfer them back to our country too,” Mr Rahimi says.


During Afghanistan’s civil war, Kabul museum was on the front line. Used as a base by the Mujahedin, the building was badly damaged. But most devastating of all – 70% of its rich collection was systematically looted and smuggled abroad.


Much of what survived was then smashed to bits by the Taliban.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Applying Lessons Learned in Afghanistan?

Last week National Geographic reported that 1,500 antiquities were returned by Great Britain to Afghanistan.  The objects had been confiscated over the last six years at Heathrow Airport. 

On February 17, a Red Cross freighter plane touched down at the Kabul Airport, carrying the looted treasure back to its homeland. The artifacts are now at the National Museum. Returning the enormous shipment took more than a year to organize, and involved the cooperation of participants from around the globe.

The Heathrow collection includes more than 1,500 objects spanning thousands of years of Afghan culture: a 3,000-year-old carved stone head from the Iron Age and hand-cast axe heads, cut rock crystal goblets, and delicate animal carvings from the Bactrian era, another thousand years earlier. The oldest artifacts in the collection include a marble figure of an animal showing similarities to artifacts dating to the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, dating as far back as 8,000 years.

That would seem to be very good news, but  Larry Rothfield asks an important question, what is being done now?  This would seem particularly pressing with the reports that President Obama may escalate the conflict in Afghanistan, to protect Afghan sites.  Particularly compelling is his argument that: 

Afghanistan offers an opportunity for all those who did far too little to protect Iraq’s sites — the military, the State Department, UNESCO, cultural heritage NGOs, collectors, dealers, and the museum community — to develop a coherent, focused, and cost-effective set of initiatives. . . .   But surely a task force given modest resources could come up with some measures that could make a real difference. Is anyone working on this problem?
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Afghanistan Exhibit, Pros and Cons


I just listened to a very interesting story on Marketplace, discussing the pre-Islamic Afghani objects which are currently touring the United States. Two points. First, Afghanistan still is badly in need of funds and resources to protect sites; and second though the tour raises Afghanistan’s international profile and has a number of important benefits, it may also raise the desire of collectors to buy similar objects. This puts pressure on the limited enforcement mechanisms. Of course one possible solution is to dissuade collectors from buying these items, or we might even encourage source nations to consider marketing some of their surplus antiquities (a wildly controversial solution to be sure).

More on this travelling exhibition here. There has been concern in the past that Afghanistan didn’t quite get a fair deal out of this tour, though I think the piece speaks to this point. When Egyptian antiquities tour, the public associates Egypt with ancient civilizations. What does the American public currently think about when they think about Afghanistan? As the Afghan official pointed out, defining success for this Afghan tour is far different.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Afghanistan’s Lost Treasures

The traveling exhibition “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures From the National Museum, Kabul” opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC yesterday. On display are objects mostly excavated between 1930 and 1980. Many objects have been destroyed or stolen during the Soviet invasion in 1979, Taliban rule, or during the recent US invasion. The exhibition brings together a number of objects which had been feared lost or destroyed.

Here’s how Neely Tucker of the Washington Post describes the exhibition:

“This is probably our best picture of how the Silk Road actually worked,” Hiebert is saying, giving a walk-through of the exhibit. He gets enthusiastic, pointing to a series of decorative plaques. They are flat and rectangular and carved of ivory. They depict women in various poses, sitting, standing, reclining. All these were part of an elaborate chair or throne, the rest of which is missing. On the adjacent wall, a flat-screen monitor shows a rotating three-dimensional re-creation of how all the pieces would have been placed together on the throne. “This is the first time in 2,000 years anyone has seen that throne,” Hiebert says.

Last year, there was criticism that this show was a bad deal for Afghanistan, and many of these objects were on previous display in Paris. Hopefully, the traveling exhibition will produce some excellent benefits for Afghanistan, as its position on the Silk Road made it one of the most interesting places in the ancient world. These kind of loans are of course often used as examples as potential solutions to ameliorate the illicit trade in antiquities.

Photo Gallery.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Is culture a basic need?

Dheera Sujan, presenter of Earthbeat on Radio Netherlands has an interesting account of something called a Cultural Emergency Response, sponsored by the Prince Claus Fund. You can listen to the show here.

It’s an international aid organization which both attempts to rescue and preserve culture during times of conflict, when “culture is the first to go and often the last thing on anyone’s mind.” The organization aims to prevent acts of destruction such as the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the Serb bombing the library of Sarajevo, and indeed the loss to Iraq’s heritage when the US the UK, and the other coalition countries invaded Iraq in 2003.

Aid organizations often don’t focus on cultural loss, they are tasked with other matters such as humanitarian and other assistance; the CER attempts to fill t;his gap. Els van der Plas, director of the Prince Claus Fund says “We feel that culture is a basic need and we think that rescuing culture can give people a sense of hope and direction.”

When a disaster or armed conflict occurs, an application can be submitted for up to 35,000 euros for a project, so long as it is completed within six months. The CER has sponsored a number of projects. In Nablus it helped stabilize the foundations of historic houses which were being damaged by the widening of roads used by the Israeli army; in Morocco, it funded the rebuilding of a mosque destroyed by an earthquake. In Afghanistan, it restored a synagogue in Heart which had been damaged by flood in conjunction with the Aga Khan Trust. As the radio piece argues, “the Jewish community is long gone from Afghanistan but the beauty of the building is undeniable. It’s also a beautiful metaphor for tolerance: a Western and a Muslim [organization] collaborating with primarily Muslim workers together to rebuild a Jewish synagogue in a Muslim country where the Jews are gone – so that their history may remain.”

These kinds of rebuilding efforts are symbolic and a powerful symbol. One wonders if the US and other coalition forces would have had a better result in Iraq and Afghanistan had they spent more time and effort on this kind of cultural aid, rather than what one Iraqi predicted for his nation after the invasion “Democracy! Whiskey! Sexy!“.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Catching Up

Apologies for the light posting the last couple of weeks. I’ve returned from the US and the AALS hiring conference. It seemed to go well, and I was pleased with the response I got from the handful of interviews I had. I am cautiously optimistic about my chances of further interest from the schools I spoke with, but I’m also glad to be back here so I can concentrate on finishing up my thesis.

Enough about me, there was a lot of exciting news while I was away, including:

  • This Morning’s news that a private investigator has been charged in the theft and recovery of da Vinci’s Madonna of the Yarnwinder. That brings the total to five now.
  • Iran’s Cultural Heritage News Agency reports on last Thursday’s auction of the Achaeminid limestone relief from the city of Persepolis, in present-day Iran. It’s a slanted view of the dispute, which ignores Iran’s difficult legal footing. But the unpleasant outcome is the acquisition by an anonymous buyer for $1.2 million USD.
  • Three paintings worth an estimated $100,000 were stolen from a San Antonio gallery on Sunday.
  • Germany has finally returned 100 objects to Greece, many of which date back 8,000 years. The objects were stolen in 1985, and recovered in a raid last year. They were seemingly forgotten until a German court ruled in August that they should be returned.
  • A number of news outlets have coverage of the antiquities playing cards now issued to US soldiers in the middle east, urging them to take care of the archaeological heritage there.
  • And most importantly, Princeton has reached a repatriation agreement with Italy. The deal is similar to those reached with the Getty, the Met, and the MFA Boston.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Cultural Property Internationalism: A Raw Deal for Afghanistan? (UPDATE)


Cultural property internationalism is the idea that cultural objects have a value for all mankind. Unfortunately, sometimes taking that position can produce unsatisfactory results for source nations.

Robin Pogrebin has an interesting article in today’s New York Times on the traveling exhibition of Afghanistan’s Bactrian Gold. The National Geographic Society has reached a deal which pays $1million to Afghanistan for display of the hoard, plus 40% of all profits. Sounds like a great deal for Afghanistan to generate revenue and engender some international appreciation for its heritage.

That’s not the case apparently:

Lynne Munson, the former deputy chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which helped finance the cataloging of the Afghan treasures, said the arrangement would leave Afghanistan with “40 percent of absolutely nothing,” because expenses would be significant.

“This is a travesty,” she said in a telephone interview from Washington. “The Bactrian hoard is simply the most valuable possession of the poorest people on earth. To ask them to lend it and give so little in return is unconscionable.”

She said she had ceased working for the endowment in 2005 because of internal conflicts within the agency over arrangements for the show.

The protocol accord signed over the weekend says that the exhibition revenue going to the Afghans will be derived from the fees paid by the museums as hosts of the show and from corporate sponsorships. It does not guarantee them proceeds from ticket, catalog or merchandise sales.

A similar exhibition by the Egyptians in 1994 earned that country over $10 million in every city visited. Some of the pieces were displayed in Paris and Turin, but the details of that exhibition were not made known.

I don’t know very much about how much a source nation like Afghanistan should expect to clear in an exhibition like this. Thomas Hoving and Lynne Munson certainly feel Afghanistan got slighted.

Though the Egyptian exhibitions seem to indicate that Afghanistan should have held out for more money, this may also serve a very important cultural mission for Afghans. Many foreigners view that nation as a hostile place with mountains and terrorists, or the source for much of the heroin trade. In reality it was once a very important stop on the silk road and the home to some very advanced ancient civilizations. Everyone knows that Egypt has a great archaeological heritage, perhaps this exhibitions will change the perception of Afghanistan and allow other exhibitions in the future to garner more funds for Afghanistan in the future.

UPDATE:

I missed Lee Rosenbaum’s excellent criticism of the Pogrebin article. I’ve come to increasingly rely on RSS feeds, and that site doesn’t have one. Here’s an excerpt:

There are so many problematic aspects surrounding Robin Pogrebin‘s story in yesterday’s NY Times about the allegedly “unconscionable” financial arrangements between the National Geographic Society and the government of Afghanistan, for a proposed tour of that country’s Bactrian hoard, that it’s hard to know where to begin. Critics cited in the article charge that Afghanistan is being shortchanged in the deal although, from the Times account, it’s difficult to ascertain exactly what the financial parameters of the arrangement are.


Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com