Yesterday Tom Mashberg reported in the NY Times that the Met would be returning this Greek krater to Italy. The Met has returned many objects to Italy in recent years, because they have been looted from tombs and archaeological sites before being smuggled abroad.
The interesting aspect of the story here appears to be the very slow response on the part of the Met to questions presented by Tsirogiannis. Tsirogiannis told the NY Times that the evidence: “[S]uggested that the item was disinterred from a grave site in southern Italy by looters,” before it passed on to Medici.
Medici was an antiquities dealer, convicted of trafficking in illicit cultural objects, and many objects which passed through his gallery/collection/storehouse have been deemed illicit. Reached by Mashberg for the story, Medici said:
[H]e had no recollection of having handled the vase in question. “Absolutely not,” he said. He said he had been released from house arrest last year after serving half of an eight-year sentence that was shortened by time off for good behavior and a two-year amnesty provision granted to all Italian prisoners.
“I am a free man,” Mr. Medici said. “I went on trial, it lasted years, I was convicted for some of the objects” that Italian prosecutors believed had been looted, “and now I have nothing more to do with the justice system. The story is finished.”
Police in Greece have announced the arrest of 26 individuals in connection with an antiquities looting network that had been operating for 10 years. The announcement showed the recovery of more than 2,000 objects, including coins, jewelry, and other objects. Two individuals were arrested last Sunday at the Greek-Bulgarian border with an astounding 1,000 coins and small portable objects hidden in the bumper of their car.
Police also confiscated metal detectors, guns, currency, and materials used to counterfeit currency.
The arrests on Sunday were the culmination of a 14-month investigation which may have involved as many as 50 people.
The IAL blog has a terrific preview of an upcoming interview with Kathryn Morgan, a PhD candidate and archaeologist who has dug at the ancient site of Gordion in Central Turkey. Nina Nieuhaus asked Morgan what can be done, from an archaeologist’s perspective to stem looting of sites. Here’s a brief excerpt:
Education and economic incentives are probably the two most effective anti-looting “measures,” if they can be called measures. Education, because if people value the past for itself and think that it’s important, they don’t want to loot; and economic incentives, because if they are reliably prosperous without relying on looting, they don’t have to. Alternatively, you can try to foster the idea that an excavation itself and/or the tourism that it brings is a more sustainable long-term alternative source of income than a quick loot-and-sell operation. As far as I understand it, looting often isn’t that profitable a business for the looter: he’s giving whatever he finds to a middle man, who may be giving it to someone else, and him to someone else, until it finds a legitimate seller and a legitimate buyer who hasn’t dirtied his hands with any of the illegal activity. So, for the little guy, it’s dangerous – because looting is of course illegal – and he’s not making that much money off of it; he’s not going to do it unless he has to. If you can foster a good relationship with locals – providing them with employment opportunities, buying food for the project from within the village, some projects get students to teach English or organize pick-up soccer games with the workmen – those personal relationships are key to the long-term success of your project. But that’s kind of a warm and fuzzy answer that doesn’t deal with all of the complicated motivations that real people have in the real world.
Realistically, what do we do? What can we do? The Gordion project employs a site guard year round who checks on the site. We give a map of the area to the local Jandarma, the police force, of the “most sensitive” areas archaeologically, that they need to keep an eye on. Also, in Turkey, sites that are looted or in danger of looting can be eligible for special “salvage excavation” permits. Near Gordion, several tunnels were dug into a large tumulus, looking for the burial chamber, over the past few winters. Last year, the Turkish authorities decided to excavate the tomb themselves, in a careful, scientific fashion with conservators on call – rather than allowing looters to make another attempt. The Gordion project was invited to contribute to the effort, which we did gladly. So, sometimes pre-emptive excavation is a necessary solution.
And there are other interesting insights, so I look forward to reading the whole exchange. Practical change is slow in coming to the antiquities trade.
There has been a renewed series of reports in recent weeks connecting the looting of antiquities to terrorism. This recent Guardian article quotes an unnamed intelligence official stating that ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) has partially funded its activities through looting antiquities from ancient sites, though it surely gained far more by commandeering oilfields. Also this piece by Heather Pringle for National Geographic does a good job profiling the work of the Trafficking Culture group at the University of Glasgow, but it cannot resist the big headline. The Nat. Geo. piece makes mention of some of the tenuous connections between insurgents, terrorists, and antiquities looters. I’m uncomfortable calling every insurgent a terrorist, and the connections which are made point to antiquities looting as being a very minor, if inconsequential aspect of the activities of these groups. Matthew Bogdanos, the Marine and prosecutor, has also publicly stated that terrorists loot as well though I’m not aware of specifics he can point to.
The root for these connections may be this 2005 Der Spiegel article which again cites an unnamed investigator, this time a member of Germany’s BKA, as claiming that Mohammed Atta may have tried to use looted antiquities to finance the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This report, which contains little concrete information has had a longer shelf-life than it deserves, and has been used by a number of less-rigorous researchers, notably this piece authored by Noah Charney and two others which appears on the FBI website and breathlessly exclaims “[f]undamentalist terrorist groups rely on looted antiquities as a major funding source”. The data simply is not there to make this kind of connection, no matter how many clicks, headlines, or book sales it might generate. And making the connection is unhelpful.
What’s the harm in connecting antiquities looting to the activities of terrorists, ISIS, and other unsavory groups? For one, it diminishes the importance of antiquities looting as an issue. These reporters and some in law enforcement make the claim because many politicians and officials who make decisions about prosecutions and allocation of resources do not make policing antiquities a priority. As many have pointed out, too many law enforcement agencies still treat art theft and looting of sites as a property crime. The efforts to connect antiquities looting to terrorism then is a way to bootstrap this issue on to other crimes which receive more attention. Chasing the looting/terror connection means that some heritage advocates can even attempt to lump collectors and museums into funding terror. This is an unfortunate trend, and one which I think does the heritage community a disservice and lessens the level of intelligent discourse. Imagine a terrorist network is apprehended and we know it received funding by looting sites. If the network is “dismantled” by prosecution or drone strike, the site is still there, still unprotected, and still not a priority.
I suspect many terrorist and insurgent groups probably do engage in antiquities looting to some extent. But they engage in lots of other more lucrative criminal activity too. Just because hijackers may have visited strip clubs, played video games, or taken flying lessons does not make those activities “terrorism”. They are correlations without meaningful connections. Terrorists are the worst kind of criminal, and should be pursued and prosecuted as such. Likewise, archaeological looting is a serious and tragic crime which robs us of our collective cultural heritage. To attempt to make cheap connections between looting and terrorism undermines the cause and seriousness of the theft and looting. There are far more direct links between armed conflict and the looting and destruction of sites, we should perhaps focus our energy there. If we want our politicians and law enforcement agencies to take heritage crime seriously, we need to work harder to make them pay attention with real facts, losses, and data and avoid chasing tenuous links which are dramatic but have little chance of producing sound long-term cultural policy. The links may exist, but those interested in preserving antiquities should dial back linking the looting of sites with terrorism.
Qualitative empirical studies of the illicit antiquities trade have tended to focus either on the supply end, through interviews with looters, or on the demand end, through interviews with dealers, museums and collectors. Trafficking of artefacts across borders from source to market has until now been something of an evidential black hole. Here, we present the first empirical study of a statue trafficking network, using oral history interviews conducted during ethnographic criminology fieldwork in Cambodia and Thailand. The data begin to answer many of the pressing but unresolved questions in academic studies of this particular criminal market, such as whether organized crime is involved in antiquities looting and trafficking (yes), whether the traffic in looted artefacts overlaps with the insertion of fakes into the market (yes) and how many stages there are between looting at source and the placing of objects for public sale in internationally respected venues (surprisingly few).
Since Clemency Coggins criticized the looting of Maya sites in an influential 1969 article, there is a rich tradition of young archaeologists criticizing looting and destruction of sites. PRI continues its excellent reporting of looting in areas in the Middle East by speaking with Emma Cunliffe, an archaeologist who has been tracking the destruction and looting of sites in Syria using facebook feeds and Youtube videos. We don’t just hear anecdotal stories of looting anymore, often times if someone has a phone or suitable camera, we can see video as well.
Every day she goes online, sometimes for a few hours, to monitor the Facebook feeds of local Syrian groups for word about damaged sites. She’ll scroll past horrific photos of dead children till she comes across mention of a new archaeological site that was shelled or plundered. She says it’s incredible just how much you can find out from these posts. “It’s a new world online now,” she says. “The prevalence of social networking sites like Facebook, ease of access to YouTube, and the way that most people’s mobile phones can take video, means that, all those people who are desperate to share information have a real easy way to upload it and make it accessible.” Cunliffe did her Ph.D research on monitoring Syrian archaeological sites with satellite imagery. When fighting turned fierce in Syria, she began to consult imagery much closer to the ground – videos and photos posted by concerned Syrian citizens. Sites were being damaged and also looted.
PRI embedded videos of looting in Syria. This video Cunliffe found shows looting in a necropolis in Northern Syria:
Clemency Coggins, Illicit traffic of Pre-Columbian antiquities, 29 Art J. 94–114 (1969).
Daniel Estrin, Why One Researcher is Documenting the Damage to Syria’s Archaeological SitesPRI’s The World (2012), http://www.theworld.org/2012/12/syria-archaeological-treasures/ (last visited Dec 13, 2012).
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After the revolution and the theft of 50 objects from the Cairo Museum in Egypt last year, the New York Times reports that looting continues in a systemic way. Of the stolen objects from the Cairo museum, 29 objects have been recovered, but many of the sites in the rest of Egypt are at risk to looters.
The number of illegal excavations and thefts has worsened to the point that groups are organizing heavy machinery to carry out extensive digs. “This wasn’t just someone taking their shovels and digging holes in the sand,” said Deborah Lehr, chairman of the Capitol Archaeological Institute at George Washington University, who has been charged with helping the Egyptian government protect its antiquities. “These were bulldozers, and gangs of men over a period of time.”