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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Outstanding report by VICE on antiquities looting in Egypt



Presenter Gianna Toboni, Image Courtesy of HBO
Presenter Gianna Toboni, Image Courtesy of HBO

Tonight at 11 EST on HBO, the VICE series takes on the problem of antiquities looting in the Middle East. A typical VICE episode combines two 15-minute reports with great camera work and a good investigative approach. As others have pointed out, the series does a terrific job showing us reports of what is happening in, say, Kashmir, or with human trafficking in China. It leaves to the audience to answer the question: what do we do about this?

In its 15 minutes running time the report on antiquities looting breaks new ground. It manages to take us from the site of the looting, starting with economic conditions, and finishing with the middle men who sell these objects all the way through to the customs warehouses and auction houses in New York. Its an ambitious arc to tackle, but the producers manage to give a complete picture of the many problems which lead to the looting of archaeological sites and the way segments of the trade skirt the rules. A middleman even gives us an estimate of how little the looters themselves make off an object which is smuggled abroad.

The primary focus is Egypt, and starts with the souvenir stalls at the Pyramids at Giza who are hungry for customers. Tourism we are told has all but ended in Egypt. It is the economic condition in the region, combined with the overstretched/inept/corrupt authorities inability to police sites that make it possible to loot. And the objects find willing buyers at auction houses and on the internet by using falsified histories. The program even manages to interview some looters, follow some down a massive (and dangerous) looters pit, and shows us the sad room where the antiquities ministry in Egypt is attempting to repatriate the huge volume of material which has left the country. Even Zahi Hawass makes an appearance doing what he does best, giving a great line to the camera, lit from below, in his favorite “Indiana Jones” hat, exclaiming how important it is to save all this material.

The camera work is stunning, showing us looting and the devastation it leaves behind so quickly that the viewer who is unfamiliar with the sites and locations will have a hard time keeping up. And maybe that is the point. As many of my colleagues look to tie terrorism and other nebulous evils to the antiquities trade, the VICE report does one better. Rather than make these cheap connections which are sure to evaporate with the advent of the next global threat; by showing us the daily lives of Egyptians and the incalculable loss to our collective human history; the people and history demand more attention, more resources, and better policy. Its well worth seeking out, and will bring a rare thing to the problem of antiquities looting, a well-reported and accurate picture of a troubling problem which is only getting worse.

The report is timely too, particularly as the Middle East Institute and the Antiquities Coalition are co-sponsoring a conference in Cairo from May 13-14 to discuss the economic and cultural impact of antiquities looting in the region.

Here’s a taste, a short interview with Monica Hanna at Abal Sir Al Malaq Cemetery, with a disturbing number of looted graves, with human remains and  burial shrouds laying out in the open where looters discarded them.


Antiquities Trafficking Discussion at the SAA San Francisco, April 18


I’ll be presenting a short paper on the Ka-Nefer-Nefer forfeiture case at the Society for American Archaeology Annual meeting this Saturday morning. Our panel is scheduled from 8-10.15 A.M. in the Golden Gate 4 room of the Hilton San Francisco Union Square.

Here are the other scheduled papers:

Antiquities, drugs, guns, diamonds, wildlife: toward a theory of transnational criminal markets in illicit goods
Simon Mackenzie*

The Kapoor Case: International collaboration on antiquities provenance research
Jason Felch

Alternative Strategies in Confronting Looting and Trafficking in Defense of Peruvian Portable Heritage
Alvaro Higueras

The Ka Nefer Nefer and Federal Intervention in the Illicit Antiquities Trade
Derek Fincham

Geospatial strategies for mapping large scale archaeological site destruction: The case from Egypt
Sarah Parcak

Bones of Contention: Further Investigation into the Online Trade in Archaeological and Ethnographic Human Remains
Duncan Chappell & Damien Huffer

The ruin of the Maya heartland: successes, failures, and consequences of four decades of antiquities trafficking regulation
Donna Yates

Syria: Cultural Property Protection Policy Failure?
Neil Brodie

Morag Kersel will also be presenting a paper on her project Follow the Pots

Explosion at the Islamic Art Museum in Cairo

On Friday in Cairo three explosive devices have killed a reported five people. One of those explosions was close to the Museum of Islamic Art in central Cairo. The facebook page titled ‘Egypt’s Heritage Task Force’ reports:

Unfortunately, the hanging ceiling at the museum collapsed due to the explosion while several of the objects such as those of glass and ceramics have been seriously damaged. The museum dates back to 1870 and as can be seen from the images, its front face has been seriously affected. In Dar el-kutub behind the museum, 8 manuscripts have been destroyed and several others damaged and are currently being transferred to a safe place.

The Islamic Art Museum in Cairo, picture via Egypt's Heritage Task Force
The Islamic Art Museum in Cairo, picture via Egypt’s Heritage Task Force

There may be more risks to museums in the coming days. January 25th marks the three-year anniversary of the Revolution of 2011 which ousted former Prime Minister Hosni Mubarak. It also led to increased looting of remote archaeological sites, and coincided with thefts at the Cairo Museum of Antiquity, along with other incidents of damage, looting and destruction. But there were also examples of Egyptians standing up and shielding their own heritage from destruction.

The Museum of Islamic Art was re-opened in 2010 after an eight-year renovation project.

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Have you seen Tutankhamun’s sister?

This Limestone figurine "A Daughter of the Pharaoh Akhenaten" was stolen in August 2013
This Limestone figurine “A Daughter of the Pharaoh Akhenaten” was stolen in August 2013

Egypt has issued an alert asking for the return of this statue of Tutankhamun’s sister. This and close to 1000 other objects were stolen from the Mallawi City Museum in Egypt in August. The publicity given to this object in particular is a very good idea, as it will likely drive down any possible licit market for this stolen object, and may perhaps compel its current possessors to return it and any other objects. There have been a reported 600 other objects returned, but there are many many other objects still missing. Egypt gave UNESCO a 300 page list in Arabic of objects which were taken.

In a piece describing the looting and the destruction in Egypt generally in the last 3 years, Richard Spencer offers accounts from those on the ground in Egypt during the Mallawi theft:

“We heard what had happened in Cairo and started to see the gangs gather,” said Jaihan Nessim, a curator at Mallawi Museum. It was clearly in a dangerous position, next to the city’s municipal offices and round the corner from the police station.

“Then there were big crowds, and they started firing into the air.”

Eventually the staff closed the museum and left it in the protection of the tourist police, but they were attacked and driven off. Within hours, the museum had been almost totally wrecked, with attempts to defend it beaten away. A ticket seller was among those killed in the unrest.

The looting was continuing when Miss Hanna arrived three days later.

Eventually, the provincial chief of tourist police, Col Abdulsamie Farghali, called members of his own family to stand guard while she and colleagues inspected the damage and took what could be salvaged to safe storage.

She said she asked two teenagers what they were doing. “They said, ‘The government is destroying their people, so we are destroying this because it belongs to the government’,” she said.

Of 1,089 exhibits, only 46 remained, items too heavy to carry off, and some of those were smashed and burned. Wooden sarcophagi simply split open. An Old Kingdom, 23rd Century BC statue of Pharaoh Pepi and his queen had parts of the faces broken off and its pedestal split.


Spencer, Richard. “Tutankhamun’s Sister Goes Missing.Telegraph, November 14, 2013.

Looting in Egypt at a level not seen since Baghdad in 2003

The AP reported last week that the Malawi Antiquities Museum in a city called Minya had been ransacked. There really is no other word for it. Stolen objects included a 3,500 year-old statue, jewelry, and an estimated 1,000 other artifacts.

Most disturbing of all: the thieves and looters ransacked the building “for days”. From the AP report:

Among the stolen antiquities was a statue of the daughter of Pharaoh Akhenaten, who ruled during the 18th dynasty. Archaeologist Monica Hanna described it as a “masterpiece.” Other looted items included gold and bronze Greco-Roman coins, pottery and bronze-detailed sculptures of animals sacred to Thoth, a deity often represented with the head of an ibis or a baboon.

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Challenges for Preservation in Dahshour, Egypt

This Pyramid at Dahshour is being threatened

In Egypt at the Dahshour necropolis, modern cemetery expansion and looting are putting the much older pharaonic necropolis at risk. The AP reports that the locals are building new tombs, police are unable to enforce regulations and secure the site. But worst of all the piece speculates that the new Islamist regime holds little respect for the ancient past. Here’s a flavor:

In the case of Dahshour, villagers say their cemeteries are full and authorities don’t give permits or land for new ones. So they took matters into their own hands and grabbed what they insist is empty desert to erect family tombs. “The dearest thing for us is burying our dead,” said Mohammed Abdel-Qader, a resident of nearby Manshiet Dahshour. “This land here is wide and flat, it’s a valley. Where are the antiquities they talk about? … We have no antiquities here.”
. . .
The cemetery expansion is the most dangerous encroachment yet because of how close it comes to the Dahshour monuments, which are on the UNESCO World Heritage site list, Younes said. Moreover, Dahshour is largely unexcavated, since the area was a closed military zone until 1996. What remains buried is believed to be a treasure trove shedding light on the largely unknown early dynasties. “When you build something over archaeological site, you change everything. We can’t dig in and know what is inside,” Younes told The Associated Press. “This is the only virgin site in all of Egypt.” 

 The story notes that the construction of new tombs, though illegal, may also be cover for looting. The piece paints a troubling picture. Consider the difficult time Egyptian officials must have had in protecting and preserving a site like this. They must weigh the concerns of angry local populations, be wary of the more dangerous antiquities looters, and also work to preserve the site.

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

An Update on Looting in Egypt

Human Remains Exposed to the Elements at El Hibeh

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.”

  1. Farah Halime, Revolution Brings Hard Times for Egypt’s Treasures, N.Y. Times, October 31, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/01/world/middleeast/revolution-brings-hard-times-for-egypts-treasures.html (last visited Nov 1, 2012).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Nemeth on strategic protection of cultural heritage

Does the citizen protection at the Cairo Museum
offer lessons for strategic protection of heritage?

Erik Nemeth makes an interesting point in a special contribution to the Chicago Tribune. Rather than just consider what museums or ‘source nations’ lose when objects are repatriated; why not consider the gain and strategic benefit returns can offer to the returning nation or museum. And what other benefits might occur during armed conflict if heritage sites are aggressively protected?

The political turbulence in Egypt, Libya and Bahrain has seen both looting of artifacts and destruction of monuments. Last year, citizens linked arms in front of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo with some success. This and other instances like it suggest potential for proactive protection of cultural artifacts, particularly in light of the U.S. ratification of the 1954 Hague Convention in 2009. Indeed, U.S. foreign policy can parlay risk to cultural property into diplomacy by insisting that military interventions, even when the U.S. is not engaged militarily, include a strategy for securing museums, monuments and sites of archaeological significance that along with tactical bombing avoids collateral damage. America might also assess objects that are likely targets for repatriation and consider offering their return as part of a strategy for relations with the nation of origin. If engaged in conflict — or even if not — an active interest in protecting the local cultural property would serve the purposes of garnering political goodwill and creating an opportunity for communication with the local government and potentially the insurgency.

  1. Erik Nemeth, Repatriating part of Saddam statue could promote diplomacy, Chicago Tribune, June 7, 2012, http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-06-07/news/ct-perspec-0607-artifacts-20120607_1_hiram-bingham-iii-artifacts-collateral-damage (last visited Jun 10, 2012).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Will US Attorneys Appeal after latest Ka Nefer Nefer setback?

A judge has dismissed the federal government’s request to reconsider an earlier ruling dismissing the government’s forfeiture request for the Ka Nefer Nefer mask currently on display at the St. Louis Art Museum. Rick St. Hilaire notes the U.S. Attorney must now make the decision whether to appeal the ruling on to the 8th Circuit. 

The problem with the government’s initial case—at least in the district court’s view—was the government failed to allege the particular circumstances under which a crime took place as the mask left Egypt. This problem can be examined by referencing recent case law broadening the principle that looted and smuggled objects are considered tainted when they leave their country of origin, even in the absence of direct evidence of wrongdoing. I’m thinking for example of the Barakat ruling in the English High Court which offered claimant nations a broader platform of potential laws with which a nation of origin can claim theft. 

But in this case the federal prosecutors had a difficult prospect as Egypt was unable to offer enough evidence establishing a crime had been committed. So despite the research the SLAM conducted when it acquired the mask in 1998, the government was unable to offer enough to convince a judge to forfeit the object and force SLAM to make its case. It is an open question whether the district court would have taken such rulings on board, likely not. But an appeals court is in a more favorable position to make broader inquiries in the law based on policy and foreign authority. 

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