Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Allah's Greedy Culture Thieves

Berliner Zeitung

Martina Doering ('Allahs gierige Räuber', Berliner Zeitung 0.10.2014 IS) suggests that the ISIL jihadists are financed from looting and the illegal antiquities trade. Buyers are collectors in Europe, now also in China and, more recently, in the Gulf States. She discusses looting in sites like Palmyra, Ebla, Apamea, Carchemish and Rakka.
Dort sind seit Monaten Raubgräber am Werk, die den Boden nach antiken Objekten durchwühlen, zum Teil mit hochmodernem Gerät. In den Tempelanlagen und Resten assyrischer, babylonischer und byzantinischer Herrscher werden Stücke aus Wandfriesen herausgebrochen, Statuen die Köpfe abgeschlagen, Mosaiken großflächig aus dem Boden geschnitten.[...] Es gibt also reichlich Material zum Plündern, was denn auch in großem Maßstab und mit System stattfindet: In den Gebieten, die die Terrormiliz Islamischer Staat in Syrien und im Irak kontrolliert, wird das Kulturerbe systematisch geplündert.[...] Daraus ging hervor, dass der IS (noch unter anderem Namen und eine von vielen Rebellengruppen) seit Ausbruch des syrischen Bürgerkrieges im März 2011 im Antikenschmuggel tätig ist.
Most objects are smuggled across the Turkish or Lebanese borders. From there, they go further by boat, on a plane by diplomatic bag or across the country. Many of these objects are probably in Europe, perhaps stockpiled in warehouses. Some appear in auction houses with a vague or false statement of origin as "privately owned" or "Mesopotamia" or "Middle East". At the end of the piece the archaeologist and art theft expert, Michael Müller-Karpe is quoted as saying that we should not try to regulate trade by law. He says "the trade must be banned altogether". Only if there are buyers, there is the incentive to dig for objects.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Film: "Plundered Heritage"

Das italienische Kommando TPC (Comando carabinieri per la tutela del patrimonio culturale) während einer Bestandsaufnahme einer geplünderten Grabungsstätte im Irak.
Das italienische Kommando TPC
(Comando carabinieri per la tutela del
patrimonio culturale) während einer
Bestandsaufnahme einer geplünderten
Grabungsstätte im Irak.

Volkmar Kabisch, Esther Saoub and Andreas Wolter have made a film that every collector of antiquities and anyone "passionately interested in the past" should see and reflect upon.  As the name suggests, "Das geplünderte Erbe - Terrorfinanzierung durch deutsche Auktionshäusere" is a hard-hitting account of the place of European dealers in financing conflict in the Middle East. The name ISIS (and the label "terrorism") appear regularly as a leitmotif, and though this may verge on the sensationalist, the points made are general ones, and need to be addressed.

It would be useful if somebody could produce a full transcript in English, not all UK and US collectors will be able to follow the German. Three dealers figure prominently as do the Dubai freeport and an export company down there. A couple of German experts comment on hos futile it is trying to combat this problem with the laws in the state they currently are. Michel van Rijn holds forth and produces a rather odd map of how he thinks the antiquities reach foreign markets. As always, it would be interesting to know on what this is based.

New "Nazi War Diggers" Allegations

ThePipeLine suggests that the amateur metal detectorists involved in the controversial TV series “Nazi War Diggers” were involved in the handling of potentially lethal unexploded munitions ('New "Nazi War Diggers" Allegations', October 1 2014). The evidence they adduce is not exactly convincing and I'm not really sure what point they are making. I guess the word "battlefield" is a new term for them...

America isn't doing much to stop a booming trade in looted Syrian art

Erin Thompson, a professor of art crime at John Jay College and author of the forthcoming book "To Own the Past: How Collectors Reveal, Shape, and Destroy History," argues that the US should restrict imports of Syrian antiquities to reduce looting that’s funding ISIS.T.J. Raphael.
"America isn't doing much to stop a booming trade in looted Syrian art" The Takeaway October 19, 2014

Sunday, 19 October 2014

The "Loot to Save" Argument Again

"The interests of preserving these monuments
to human genius and scholarly study are served otherwise
Bruce Leimsidor 

In the context of the discussion in the New York Times of Zainab Bahrani's brief text about looting and its possible connections with armed conflict, Professor Bruce Leimsidor Università Ca' Foscari Venezia, Dipartimento di Filosofia e Beni Culturali, in Venice, Italy considers that the way to "save antiquities" (objects) is to "allow their sale, and convincing the warring parties that they are valuable". Archaeological artefacts ("great works of art" - sic) "belong to humanity, not just to a country or an ethnic group".
Sure, it's preferable that they can be seen and enjoyed where they were originally made, but that advantage is not worth putting them in grave danger. Especially given the role of Islamic extremists in Syria, who may very well consider many of Syria's treasures as idolatrous, better that they be sold on the international art market, where some may wind up in museums, than meet the fate of the Buddhas of Bamiyan.
First of all, most of the things dug up by looters on archaeological sites are utilitarian items such as pots, vessels, clay tablets, metal ornaments to something else, coins and other such everyday minutiae, not "great works of art". Secondly I am not at all clear how the "saving them from being smashed by the ignorant brown-skinned guys" applies to looting. This does not apply to archaeological objects which are buried and so therefore invisible to iconoclasts and anyone else until they are dug up and hoiked out of the archaeological sites which they are an integral part of. They are dug up because somebody will buy some of them, not in order to smash them all.

The writer (much admired by collector and coiney John Hooker - "softcore terrorists and other bottom-feeders") apparently dismisses the idea that preserving the integrity of archaeological sites as a source of knowledge has any merit:
this is nonsense. The Greek, Roman, and Egyptian antiquities in the museums of Paris, London, Berlin, and New York are hardly without historical interest. [...] Art historians understand enough about style and techniques of production to be able to date and place an object pretty exactly. Moreover, archival photos and drawings exist showing many later looted objects in their original place.
The latter is an utter fallacy in the case of those buried deep in sites like Archar (Ratiaria), Bulgaria, Wanborough, Surrey, Icklingham, Suffolk, Apamea, Syria and Dura Europos until dug out by artefact hunters. Prof. Leimsidor  suggests that by hoiking out artefacts buried in sites like this:
these monuments (sic), which belong to all of humanity, would have been lost if left in place because of war, or even more frequently, simply gross neglect or religious fanaticism. Even if monuments (sic) are sold to private collectors, there is still a better chance that they will be preserved, and even, in time, appear for all of us to see in museums. [...] They are not only better preserved, but also more easily studied when removed from the Syrian desert, the jungles of Cambodia, or the mountains of Tibet
Studied by whom? Syrian, Cambodian and Chinese archaeologists and cultural heritage professionals? What about the Italian archaeological heritage, objects looted from Etruscan cemeteries hoiked out and smuggled to US museums where they can be "more easily studied and better preserved' than the Italians can mange if they are left in the ground?  I think Prof. Leimsidor really has not understood the essence of the discussion over looting when he writes that the real reason for "bemoaning the removal of art objects from their original location" is that leaving them buried deep below the ground in their archaeological context in some way "serves the interests of the tourism industry and nationalism, which has been a major cause of war in the first place". So Prof. Leimsidor would have us believe that digging artefacts up and allowing their sale, "convincing the warring parties that they are valuable" and can be sold to raise funds for their activities, is a way to prevent military conflict? I really do not follow the logic of this argument in the context of the current discussion.

Heritage Preservationists and Democracy

A measure of the degree that artefact collectors across the sea are unconcerned about the effects of the no-questions-asked market for antiquities may be had from the text one of them has produced. Take a look at what John Hooker, 'Soft core terrorists and bottom-feeders' (Past Times and Present Tensions Thursday, 16 October 2014) writes. He considers it some kind of revelation that - as opposed to the narrow object-centric vie of the collector - those involved in the broader discussion of the damaging looting of archaeological sites as a source of collectable items are concerned with site preservation. He alleges that neither the preservationists "or their unthinking followers" (sic) are concerned with "the preservation of objects":
This means nothing to any of the[m] [...]  Always, it is the destruction of sites that is mostly criticized.
("Always/mostly"?) Yep, the collector has got it at last. The artefacts are important, but the sites they came from are more so. This is because they obviously provide far more information than the decontextualised objects alone. In the same way as those that admire toilet seats made of rare tropical hardwoods ("but just look at the pattern of those growth rings") would probably be puzzled by the fact that anyone would want to be concerned with the preservation of forests - the forests they came from through illegal and destructive logging. They'd no doubt argue analogously to the collectors, why can the conservationists not be happy the rare woods have been "saved' to be admired in the consumer's home?

Actually, I'd stand by the position that what is "unthinking" here is the person which puts the personal interests of a few in having trophy items to brag about (see Mr Hooker's own discussion of items in his own personal 'connoisseur' collection throughout his blog as a prime example of that) above attempts to effect better preservation of a vanishing and finite resource. Labelling those concerned about conservation as merely "unthinking" and easily led is simply insulting. It is those collectors who refuse to think through the consequences of their actions (and in particular  the no-questions-asked market which Mr Hooker is not averse to patronising) who are far more deserving of such a label.

But when it comes to labels, Mr Hooker goes further. In fact rather too far. Right at the bottom of his post, Hooker himself suggests that "we": "really should be doing much more to lessen our dependency on fossil fuels for political as well as environmental reasons", but then incongruously then has a go at those concerned about doing something about collection-driven exploitation of the historical environment. He does so using a very dubious name-calling approach (though one typical for the antiquity-collecting milieu):  
They are at it again. As soon as there is any armed-conflict, revolution, or terrorist activity anywhere in the world, the nationalist "cultural-property" terrorists and bottom-feeders, smelling flowers and hearing bird-song are all too eager to jump on the same band-wagon. "Illicit Trade Funds Terrorists" says the New York Times headline. The hard core terrorists kill and destroy property, while the soft core terrorists ride on their backs. They are working in unison. The real purpose of terrorism is to create dissent, hatred against certain groups or just general fear among the population. [...] This round revolves around ISIS whose iconoclasm seems somewhat at odds with the claims that they are profiting by removing artifacts from the danger zone into western collections where they will be preserved.
Can you imagine anything more moronic than collectors like these? First of all, let us note the slanted definition of the (already poorly-defined) concept of "terrorism" utilised by Mr Hooker to make the accusation. As a label the word "terrorism" is not very effective as an analytical tool. Hooker seems to apply it in the broad brush schematic manner of thinking prevalent in the North American continent. Without going into detail, I think anyway that unqualified and used alone, it is not an effective way to analyse what has been happening in Iraq and Syria.

That aside (for the moment maybe), I agree that there is some coarse (and US -sponsored) anti-ISIL propaganda going on, with selective reporting and alarmist highlighting of certain events at the expense of others (and I am among those questioning the degree they are involved in the looting which it is clear reached catastrophe scale before the group existed). That however does not for a moment make everyone (indeed, anyone) involved in awakening public awareness about heritage issues a "soft core terrorist". What tosh.

I presume Hooker means us to understand that those he labels as  "soft-core (nationalist "cultural-property" [his scare quotes]) terrorists and bottom-feeders" have as their purpose to "create dissent, hatred against certain groups or just general fear among the population". This definition falls flat when we consider that the tools of these alleged "terrorists' are words. Just words. Well, yes, words are used to create debate (and dissent from the fluffy bunny propaganda picture promoted by the supporters of collecting). Yes, let rhetoric and reasoned argument combat rhetoric and whatever arguments the collectors and artefact hunters apply.  But that is not "terrorism" Mr Hooker, it is the normal (but sometimes messy) public debate which underlies democracy. Don't complain about the everyday democratic process when it affects you and call it "terrorism". That just totally debases the term and renders it even more meaningless than it already is. I would say the purpose of the preservationists among us is to create concern (rather than "fear") among the population, and if the latter  come to "hate" no-questions-asking collectors and unreflexive and unconcerned artefact hunters as a result, well, that's their look-out.  But that is public opinion, not "terrorism". Neither is it "inciting hate" to point out that there are many cases and observations that may be made which suggest that many, perhaps most, collectors are far from the ideals which their own propaganda represents them as upholding and representing. It is not "inciting hate" to point out that the pro-collecting propaganda machine is presenting a totally false picture.

Collectors can organize themselves to fight those who raise concerns. They do so by forming groups (such as DIG, NCMD, ACCG, PNG, IAPN, ANA, ACDAEA) or they can carry out the fight as best they can as individuals (for example Tompa, Howland, Stout, Baines, Warre and all the rest of the anti-archaeological hate bloggers). The problem is that, instead of reasoned argument and presentation of a coherent and verifiable alternative view, most of these groups and individuals attempt to fight their corner using smear tactics and unverifiable claims cocooning a core of vehement denial of the existence of any issues at all worth discussion. I do not see why they do not get on with the job of producing the reasoned arguments based on case studies and observable facts which support their own positions. The demands of democratic decision making about the heritage require nothing else from them. Simply ignoring the issues and concerns and trying to discourage discussion by name calling is not going to make the problem go away.

Vignette: Trophy hardwood toilet seats or forests? Your choice.

UPDATE 20th Oct. 2014
It will be observed that true to form, John Hooker responds to this post merely by name calling and derision ("If Paul Barford did not exist we would have to invent him" - whatever that is supposed to mean). If Mr Hooker is afraid that what he calls "jargon" (a North American misuse of the term) then let him present his arguments in language which is as objective and neutral as he considers mine is loaded. "Nationalist "cultural-property" terrorists and bottom-feeders, smelling flowers and hearing bird-song are all too eager to jump on the same band-wagon" is self-evidently not that language.

Iraq and Syria: Artefact Hunter Accuses

Over on the anti-intellectual blog of collector and coiney John Hooker, a British would-be heritage commentator and metal detector owner affirms outright:
archaeologists are indeed, heavily involved in the illicit acquisition of artifacts (sic) clandestinely hoiked from heritage sites in Syria and Iraq.
Unlike his native Britain, standing up for the heritage in the regions he discusses involves very real risks, and the people that do deserve our highest respect. It is not only from this point of view that this comment is highly provocative. Its author does not present any evidence to support his affirmation. Certainly you do not need a degree - or even to have finished school - to be an artefact hunter or antiquities collector. The tells and abandoned cities of antiquity of Syria and Iraq are pretty difficult to miss, and easy for artefact hunters to "research" (locate).

This comment is more a reflection of a hatred of archaeologists among some anti-establishment British artefact hunters than any real desire (or ability) of anyone "passinitly intrested in th' 'istry" to take part in the heritage debate and discussions about how the effect better preservation of archaeological sites. 

TAKE A GOOD LOOK at this behaviour, for these are precisely the sort of people the PAS wants to grab more and more millions of public quid to make into the "partners" of the British Museum, archaeological heritage professionals and to whom they want us all to entrust the exploitation of the archaeological record. Take a good look and decide what you think about that as a "policy".  

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