Profile of Syrian Preservation Group

“A human life doesn’t have much value without culture to go with it” says Markus Hilgert, director of the Pergamon Museum. He’s interviewed in a CNN profile of Heritage for Peace, a group working to document the destruction taking place there. The group walks a delicate line, trying not to take a stand in the dispute. The group has limited funding and works with a number of volunteers with founder Isber Sabrine:

A 29-year-old archaeologist from a village near the Mediterranean coast in western Syria, Sabrine is using modern technology to trace and document the looting and destruction of his country’s ancient heritage.

Working from Berlin, he runs a network in Syria of around 150 volunteers — archaeologists, architects, students and simply concerned citizens — who often pose as antiquities buyers to see what has been stolen in the course of Syria’s now more than four-year uprising. He communicates with them via Skype when the Internet in Syria is working, which isn’t often.

“They go to the locals and they say look, we are interested. They cannot buy, but at least they make photos and they send us photos,” says Sabrine. “Like this we have a list of looted materials from Syria.”

That list is shared with law enforcement, auction houses and collectors. CNN asked if we could publish some of those photographs — we saw statues, mosaics and coins — but Sabrine declined for fear the photos might expose the volunteers.

After years of chaos, the market for stolen antiquities is flooded, and dealers are holding back some of their most valuable items. “We know that the most important objects don’t go to market now,” says Sabrine. “The big dealers are waiting, maybe two, three or four years, and then when the opportunity is right, they will sell.”

  1. Ben Wedeman, Syria’s Struggle to Save the Past – CNN.com, CNN.

Antiquities Looting and ISIS

Interior of Crac des Chevaliers
Interior of Crac des Chevaliers
And a photo of the same section taken during the Spring of 2014 showing considerable damage
And a photo of the same section taken during the Spring of 2014 showing considerable damage

How much has antiquities looting contributed to funding ISIS? There are a lot of speculative reports out there, but due to the nature of the illicit antiquities trade, and the dearth of first hand reporting the situation remains murky. There seems to be a good opportunity given what we know about the unscrupulous portions of the trade.

Michael Danti in an interview with Rachel Martin for All Things Considered summarizes the second and third hand accounts he’s heard:

MARTIN: Obviously this is part of the world that has a long history with cultural looting and the illegal excavation of antiquities, the sale of those treasures on the black market. How is what’s happening now different than other chapters of this kind of theft and destruction?

DANTI: Well, we’re used to, unfortunately, accustomed to seeing cultural heritage crimes in Iraq. What’s different with Syria is this scale of built heritage in Syria; old city neighborhood in Aleppo, Damascus, Homs and Hamas – neighborhoods that date back 4, 5, 600 years. The number of standing Hellenistic Roman and Byzantine architectural remains there are throughout the country; there’s so much that’s exposed to collateral or intentional damage through combat. There’s damage from vandalism. There are archaeological looters moving in and excavating into the sites. And then there’s just the inevitable destruction that’s caused by neglect because preservation specialists can’t come in and work at the sites and maintain them.

The sliver of good news that I see is the different tone coming from the State Department with respect to heritage issues. Last week Secretary of State John Kerry announced the State Department would partner with the American Schools of Orient Research to document threats to cultural heritage sites in Iraq and Syria.

From Kerry’s remarks at the Met last week:

ISIL is not only beheading individuals; it is tearing at the fabric of whole civilizations. It has no respect for life. It has no respect for religion. And it has no respect for culture, which for millions is actually the foundation of life. Far from hiding their destruction of churches and mosques, they broadcast these, purposefully and with pride, for all the world to see their act of depravity and for all of us to be intimidated and to perhaps back off from our values. For the proud people of Iraq and Syria – ancient civilizations, civilizations of great beauty, great accomplishment, of extraordinary history and intellectual achievement – the destruction of their heritage is a purposeful final insult, and another example of ISIL’s implacable evil. ISIL is stealing lives, yes, but it’s also stealing the soul of millions.

How shocking and historically shameful it would be if we did nothing while the forces of chaos rob the very cradle of our civilization. So many different traditions trace their roots back to this part of the world, as we all know. This is the first thing many of us learned in school. The looting of Apamea and Dura Europos, the devastation caused by fighting in the ancient UNESCO heritage city of Aleppo, the destruction of the Tomb of Jonah – these appalling acts aren’t just a tragedy for the Syrian and the Iraqi people. These acts of vandalism are a tragedy for all civilized people, and the civilized world must take a stand.

Continue reading “Antiquities Looting and ISIS”

Victoria Reed on Monuments Woman Ardelia Hall

Ardelia Ripley Hall at a ceremony returning a Rubens to Germany
Ardelia Ripley Hall at a ceremony returning a Rubens to Germany

Victoria Reed (Sadler Curator for Provenance at the MFA Boston) has a republished piece in the International Journal of Cultural Property titled: “Ardelia Hall: From Museum of Fine Arts to Monuments Woman“. From the abstract:

Ardelia Ripley Hall (1899–1979) served from 1946 until 1962 as the Fine Arts and Monuments Adviser to the U.S. Department of State. In this role she oversaw the recovery and restitution of movable cultural property that had been displaced during the Second World War. In spite of her vast accomplishments, almost nothing has been written on Ardelia Hall, and little is known about her life. She began her career at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, but personal circumstances led to her resignation in 1941. During the war, she was employed by the Office of Strategic Services. The expertise she established as an art historian working with the Roberts Commission at this time led to her appointment at the State Department in 1946. This essay traces for the first time Hall’s remarkable journey from curatorial researcher to adviser on international art restitution.

 

  1. Victoria Reed, Ardelia Hall: From Museum of Fine Arts to Monuments Woman, FirstView International Journal of Cultural Property 1–15 (2014).

Conflict and Syrian Heritage

As Congress debates whether to authorize military action in Syria in the wake of reported chemical weapons attacks, NBC’s science blog discusses the current state of looting and destruction during Syria’s ongoing Civil war:

Over thousands of years, a large mound, or tell, forms with layers of each civilization piled atop one another, said Jesse Casana, an archaeologist at the University of Arkansas and the chairman of the American Schools of Oriental Research’s Damascus Committee.

. . . Continue reading “Conflict and Syrian Heritage”

Looting at Ebla in Syria

On Saturday CJ Chivers reported on looting in Syria, in particular at the ancient site of Ebla:

For decades Ebla has been celebrated for the insights it offers into early Syrian civilization. The scenes here today offer something else: a prime example of a peculiar phenomenon of Syria’s civil war — scores, if not hundreds, of archaeological sites, often built and inhabited millenniums ago because of their military value, now at risk as they are put to military use once more. Seen from afar, Ebla is a mound rising above the Idlib plain. It was first settled more than 5,000 years ago. It eventually became a fortified walled city whose residents worshiped multiple gods, and traded olive oil and beer across Mesopotamia. The city was destroyed around 2200 B.C., flourished anew several centuries later and then was destroyed again. The latest disruption came after war began in 2011. Once rebels pushed the army back and into nearby garrisons, the outcropping upon which Ebla rests presented a modern martial utility: it was ideal for spotting passing government military planes.

The piece also has a very good video report, showing the site: http://nyti.ms/XkR4EY

  1. C. J. Chivers, Syrian War Devastates Ancient Sites, The New York Times, April 6, 2013.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Documenting Destruction in Syria from Afar

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:

  1. Clemency Coggins, Illicit traffic of Pre-Columbian antiquities, 29 Art J. 94–114 (1969).
  2. Daniel Estrin, Why One Researcher is Documenting the Damage to Syria’s Archaeological Sites PRI’s The World (2012), http://www.theworld.org/2012/12/syria-archaeological-treasures/ (last visited Dec 13, 2012).

 

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

More Reports of Damaged Heritage in Syria

Aleppo’s Souk in Better Days
The Souk on fire Saturday

There are more and more reports emerging from Syria which tell of destruction, looted museums, and smuggling salable objects. On Saturday Aleppo’s souk was caught in the middle of fighting between rebels and government forces and the souk burned. The old city of Aleppo, where the souk is located is a UNESCO world heritage site. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova criticized the destruction over the weekend:

The human suffering caused by this situation is already extreme. That the fighting is now destroying cultural heritage that bears witness to the country’s millenary history – valued and admired the world over – makes it even more tragic. The Aleppo souks have been a thriving part of Syria’s economic and social life since the city’s beginnings. They stand as testimony to Aleppo’s importance as a cultural crossroads since the second millennium B.C.

The souk is situated underneath Aleppo’s 13th century citadel. There are reports that government forces have taken up positions in the ancient building. Rodrigo Martin, an expert on Syrian sites said the Souk “was a unique example of medieval commercial architecture” because it offered a progression of hundreds of years of architectural periods, and had been well-preserved.

There have also been reports that items from the National Museum of Aleppo have been moved into the central bank in Damascus for safekeeping. But there have also been reports in Time that museums elsewhere in the country are being looted and arms are being traded for antiquities at the Syria/Lebanon border. In Cairo there will be an emergency meeting to discuss possible efforts the international community can take in response to the damage and looting according to a report in ahram.

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

Raising Awareness With Playing Cards

At the annual ARCA conference this summer in Amelia, a reporter based in Rome, Nancy Greenleese, was able to interview Laurie Rush and Joris Kila on efforts to protect culture during armed conflict, of which these cards are an excellent example.

Archeological playing cards created by US Army archeologist Dr. Laurie Rush and academic colleaguesSoldiers often enter conflict zones with limited knowledge of local cultural and historical nuances. Archaeologist Laurie Rush recognized that their ignorance can make conflicts worse. So she helped create a deck of playing cards that displays photos and messages about cultural heritage in Iraq, Afghanistan and Egypt. The Ishtar Gate of ancient Babylon Troops see pictures of Buddhist statues and tablets when playing poker and other games with the cards. They may discover that buying and selling antiquities is illegal or be reminded to look before digging. And Rush’s concept has caught on: Soldiers from the US and other countries have snapped up more than 165,000 decks. The US invasion of Iraq offered examples of what troubled Rush about soldiers’ cultural knowledge. When American and Polish forces were building a camp in the ancient Iraqi city of Babylon in 2003, they inadvertently crushed ancient brick pavement and marred dragon decorations on the Ishtar Gate. “It immediately occurred to me that a better educated force would not have made those kinds of mistakes,” Rush told DW.

 Though I write about cultural heritage law, I spend most of my time teaching law students. It can sometimes be hard to explain to my colleagues just what it is that I write about, apart from the broad “art law”. So when I was fortunate enough to get my hands on one of the decks of cards which are increasingly being given to troops who enter conflict zones abroad, I thought at once of framing them.

  1. Nancy Greenleese, It’s all in the cards, Inside Europe (2012), http://bit.ly/O29VOY.
  2. Nancy Greenleese, Archeologist saves cultural treasures with cards Deutsche Welle (2012), (last visited Aug 27, 2012).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Examining the Wartime Looting of Art with Art

I have been alerted to a very interesting project conceived by Rob van Leijsen, Art Handling in Oblivion. It is a catalogue of five different instances of wartime looting. As issues of theft and looting become more widely understood I think more and more artists will decide to take up these issues in their own work. From the description:

The catalogue does not pursue to answer questions of restitution, but evokes discussion by contextualizing the objectives and procedures of wartime art looting. The glued catalogues are cut open on a predefined spot on the table. The central part of the display is designed for consultation and reading, and on the other end envelopes with copies addressed to the concerned museums are placed. This project was conceived by Rob van Leijsen as a graduation project at the Master Design Spaces & Communication at Head Genève (Haute École d’Art et de Design). 185 x 260 mm, 368 pages, laserprint on 70 gr. Edixion Offset, 20 copies (first edition).

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