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:

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Footnotes

The Bost Arch in 1970

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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).
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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.

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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?
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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.

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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.

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