"they forgot about culture"

David Glenn, who is doing some very good writing on the antiquities trade for the Chronichle of Higher Education has a Q & A with Larry Rothfield discussing the invasion of Iraq and the looting of sites and museums there ($) (cross-posted at Safe-Corner).  Here is an excerpt:

Q. Why did the United States do such a bad job of protecting the museum in 2003?
Before the war, nobody except archaeologists was worried about civilians looting the archaeological sites and the museum. And that includes the Iraqi exiles who were advising the State Department’s Future of Iraq Project, which was supposed to develop plans for the postwar period. They set up working groups on all sectors of society — but they forgot about culture.

Q. But would it have made a difference if the Future of Iraq Project had paid attention to culture?

No, it wouldn’t have made any difference at all, given that the military threw all of their plans in the garbage can anyway.

Now, the military itself was very interested in doing its job in terms of protecting cultural sites and museums. But under international law, its job is defined as not destroying or looting cultural sites itself — not as preventing civilians from destroying sites.

So before the war, they reached out to archaeologists, and they did a perfect job of identifying sites to put on a no-strike list. None of those sites was destroyed in active combat operations.

Unfortunately, they ignored warnings from the same archaeologists they were working with that the museums and sites might be looted by Iraqis. The Pentagon should have known about that issue. Nine museums were looted after the 1991 Gulf War. The military did not learn its lesson from that experience.

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

Damage to Heritage in Gaza

Lauren Gelfond Feldinger has a report in the Art Newspaper to damage to Gaza’s cultural sites:

JERUSALEM. After a 3,500-year history of invasions, the latest war on the beleaguered coastal strip of Gaza has once again put historic sites at risk.

The fragile ceasefire in force at the time of writing has allowed some information to emerge about the fate of Gaza’s cultural heritage. Gaza’s only museum, a private antiquities museum run by Gazan contractor and collector Jawdat Khoudary, was badly damaged during Israel’s 22 days of air and land strikes. The glass doors and windows have been shattered and the roof and walls have been damaged. Roman and Byzantine pottery, Islamic bronze objects and many amphorae have been destroyed, initially during shooting 20m to 200m away, and later because of nearby shelling, with one direct hit to the museum’s conference hall, Mr Khoudary said. Amphorae, clay and ceramic vessels with two looped handles, were created in Gaza and the region during the fourth to seventh centuries for holding wine, olive oil and food and trading perishable commodities.

Meanwhile, anxieties are growing about the fate of the city’s antiquities. “I am very concerned: the entire Gaza Strip is an archaeological site,” Palestinian archaeologist Professor Moain Sadeq said.

Professor Sadeq founded the Palestinian Antiquities Department of Gaza in 1994, and is currently a visiting lecturer at the University of Toronto while in contact daily with Gaza. “Historical sites and buildings in Gaza are adjacent to urban areas, so any location that was hit as a target also put the nearby historical sites and buildings in danger,” he said. Major sites where damage is expected because of heavy fighting in adjacent areas include: Tell es-Sakan, an early Bronze Age settlement that is the largest and oldest walled Canaanite city in the local region, and the oldest Egyptian fortified site outside of Egypt; Tel el-Ajull, an important middle and late Bronze period city that was an important trade hub between ancient Egypt and the Levant; and the remains of Anthedon, a Hellenist port. The Byzantine church of Jabalya was also near heavy fighting, and was the site of partial damage by Israeli tanks during an incursion in 2005. Al-Zeitoun residential quarter in Gaza’s Old City, a medieval historic district, has also been largely destroyed, Professor Sadeq added.

Archaeologists are expecting assessment of all of Gaza’s historical sites to be slow. As humanitarian assistance is the urgent priority, serious archaeological surveys of historic sites will be delayed. “I hope that Israel and the Palestinians will work to restore the sites. I am worried about Gaza sites that were excavated and are above the ground because I am sure during the military activity that some sites have been damaged,” Dr Yigal Yisrael, of the Israel Antiquities Authority Ashkelon region and Western Negev said.

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

A History of Spoliation

Wayne Sandholtz has written a historical account of plunder and the norms which aim to prevent it over the last 200 years, Prohibiting Plunder. I have not had a chance to read it, but it looks promising. Here’s the description:

For much of history, the rules of war decreed that “to the victor go the spoils.” The winners in warfare routinely seized for themselves the artistic and cultural treasures of the defeated; plunder constituted a marker of triumph. By the twentieth century, international norms declared the opposite, that cultural monuments should be shielded from destruction or seizure. Prohibiting Plunder traces and explains the emergence of international rules against wartime looting of cultural treasures, and explores how anti-plunder norms have developed over the past 200 years. The book covers highly topical events including the looting of thousands of antiquities from the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad, and the return of “Holocaust Art” by prominent museums, including the highly publicized return of five Klimt paintings from the Austrian Gallery to a Holocaust survivor.

The historical narrative includes first-hand reports, official documents, and archival records. Equally important, the book uncovers the debates and negotiations that produced increasingly clear and well-defined anti-plunder norms. The historical accounts in Prohibiting Plunder serve as confirming examples of an important dynamic of international norm change. Rules evolve in cycles; in each cycle, specific actions trigger arguments about the meaning and application of rules, and those arguments in turn modify the rules. International norms evolve through a succession of such cycles, each one drawing on previous developments and each one reshaping the normative context for subsequent actions and disputes. Prohibiting Plunder shows how historical episodes interlinked to produce modern, treaty-based rules against wartime plunder of cultural treasures.

Ingo Venzke has a review in 19 European Journal of International Law 866 (2008).

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

United States Senate Finally Ratifies the 1954 Hague Convention



On September 25th, the Senate gave its advice and consent and ratified the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. The treaty was submitted to the Senate by President Clinton in 1999. You can read the statement submitted by the Lawyers Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation, and other heritage advocacy groups here.

Pictured here is a “Blue Shield” in Austria I pulled from Flickr. The text reads:

“Protected by the convention of The Hague, dated 14 May 1954, for the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict. (BGBI. No. 58 3rd April 1964).”

I’m a bit surprised the ratification has not made any papers yet. Though a Presidential election and a world banking collapse certainly are taking their share of headlines; part of the reason may be that the Hague Convention was designed to prevent the kind of theft and widescale destruction which took place in World War II, as Larry Rothfield correctly points out.

As Rothfield notes:

A new and quite distinct danger has emerged in the half-century since the 1954 Convention, however. It comes not from military action, but from military inaction in the face of looting by civilians, fueled by the global market for antiquities that has boomed over the last few decades. While Hague leads the military to [focus] on avoiding harm, it imposes no requirement to actively protect cultural sites against the harm that comes from the breakdown in law and order and the concomitant surge in market-driven looting. The obligations it imposes on occupying powers, in fact, seem designed to limit the responsibility of occupiers for securing cultural property, with such responsibility applying only to “cultural property situated in occupied territory and damaged by military operations,” only when national authorities are unable to protect it, and even then only so far as possible. Since looting by civilians is not damage inflicted by military operations, Iraq’s archaeological sites are fair game and no necessary concern of the US military, which may in fact point to Hague as putting it off the hook for whatever goes wrong.



That succinctly points out the main flaws in the Hague framework. However Rothfield notes, and I wholeheartedly agree that the flaws in the Hague Convention certainly do not make ratification meaningless.

It officially adopts what had up to now been customary international law, and may help to aid and support the efforts of organizations like Blue Shield and others. Ultimately, the difficulty international treaties and lawmakers have had in regulating the rules of conflict to prevent the looting and destruction of sites may indicate how difficult it is to regulate armed conflict — and may perhaps be a powerful reason to avoid the use of force at all cost. As the Hague Testimony endorsed by heritage advocacy groups notes, adoption of the Convention is a crucial step toward improving our foreign relations by sending a strong signal to all nations that the United States values their cultural heritage.”


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

On the State of Cultural Heritage Sites in Georgia

Kudos to Tom Flynn for anticipating the potential cultural heritage destruction in Georgia and South Ossetia today:

…the draft of a preliminary report prepared by ICOMOS Georgia for Mr. Dinu Bumbaru, Secretary General of ICOMOS, states that, “On 7 August, ICOMOS Georgia professionals were at the village Ateni (near the town Gori) working on the 6th-century Ateni Sioni Church when shelling of the village had started. Fortunately, all the team had managed to leave the village together with other civilians without losses. Regretfully, there are casualties among our colleagues and their families working in the field of heritage preservation of Georgia.”

There are around 345 registered historical monuments and archaeological sites within the main conflict zones (Gori District, Java District, Akhalgori District, Kareli District), 53 of which are in the city of Gori itself. These include the cave city of Uplistsikhe (dating from the 1st millennium BC up to the late Middle Ages) ; the Church of Ateni Sioni (7th century architecture, 11th century murals), and Ikorta Church (12th century).

I’ve been following the media reports of the conflict there with some interest, and Flynn is the first blogger or reporter to recognize the legitimate threat to heritage in this region. Hopefully it has survived relatively-intact.

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