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.