Wednesday 3 September 2014

ISIL Looting: In war, the first casualty...?

"The Heritage Task Force will provide 
a structure for protecting heritage sites in the areas under
the control of groups opposing the Assad regime".

Sam Hardy ('Islamic State cultural racketeering: looting, smuggling, taxation of excavation and export?') has been looking at the New York Times piece by Amr Al-Azm, Salam al-Kuntar and  Brian Daniels ('ISIS’ antiquities sideline') and has a number of observations which independently coincide or supplement mine ('Khums, Heavy Machines and Licenced Looting in Syria') and he has a number of significant other ones. This comes right on top of his previous article ('Are ‘unheard of numbers’ of cultural goods from Syria and Iraq making their way into auction houses in the UK?' 31st August 2014). While many other journalists and bloggers (and activists) are repeating the claims being made, and collectors and their lobbyists just as summarily ignoring them, Sam and I seem to be the only people trying to analyse these claims in any detail - and that goes for the journalists reporting them.

We both seem to be in agreement that the main problem here is paucity of information, how some unevidenced claims are in danger of becoming received wisdom, and that in effect much of what we are being told comes from the same people. Sam points out that they are now contradicting themselves, and producing 'information' which it is very difficult to see how it would work on the ground (Sam takes a hard economic view of why diggers would dig where which really raises some important questions).  I am getting a bit disturbed by this whole topic and the way it is being dealt with.
- Readers will remember the Guardian claim, on the basis of an unnamed 'British intelligence source' that ISIL had made 36 million dollars from dugup antiquity sales from al-Nabuk alone, which really does not look like anything that could be achieved in a few months in the real world ('unimaginable' as Sam puts it). So either somebody made that up, or misunderstood. Indeed, a Guardian report the following day made clear that the sum was not from antiquities alone (see here).
- Then there was the UNESCO lady who is cited as the source of a false accustation that Bonhams handled an ISIL-generated object. Despite enquiries of the person quoted and the journalists, we are no nearer still knowing whether somebody was making it up, or really was misquoted and the Sunday Times reporters have treated her shabbily for not apologising and correcting their mistake). Again, either somebody made this up, or there was a misunderstanding.
- Now we have some hearsay stories surfacing from the same informants about antiquities taxes, mafia gangs with earthmoving equipment etc. which have been mutating every time they are repeated. What actually is their basis, what have those reporting them done to verify them? Their main source for this information is Dr Amr Al Azm, associate professor of Middle East history and anthropology at Shawnee State University in Ohio (see below).
- Sheera Frenkel's text "How ISIS became the richest terrorist group in the world" quotes rather vaguely an unnamed  "British archaeologist, who works as part of a team that tries to verify whether antiquities reaching London are legally sourced" saying “We are also seeing unheard of numbers of stolen goods making their way into auction houses which are considered reputable.” As Sam Hardy points out, that is simply not true, and the only example ever shown was a mistaken identification. Either somebody's been making this up, or there has been a misunderstanding. 
And it just goes on. I'm left wondering what part the US-backed 'National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces' (optimistically calling themselves the 'interim government') is playing in all this story-telling. In June this year they created a 'Heritage Task Force' and look who heads it: Dr Amr Al Azm (PACHI Wednesday, 25 June 2014, 'National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces Establishes 'Heritage Task Force'...' .
The stated aim of the Heritage Task Force is to "help protect Syrian cultural heritage in the present crisis" and will coordinate the work of "internationally recognized Syrian technical experts" coordinating its efforts with UNESCO and other international heritage organizations, such as ICOMOS, ICCROM, and ICOM. [...] In the coming months, it will work in conjunction with a new project to be undertaken by the University of Pennsylvania Museum, the Smithsonian Institution, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) that will track intentional damage and destruction to cultural heritage sites in Syria.
UNESCO? The same organization which was the source of the "Bonhams" accusations? The same. And to coincide with the launch of this initiative, the US State Department obligingly pulled out (June 18th 2014) of the hundreds of thousands of surveillance photos they have on Syria (presumably showing dozens of heavily-looted sites) a spanking new series to show looting... (no evidence there either of machine use). Coincidence? Or are we seeing some kind of US soft-power initiative which is perhaps using so-called 'cultural diplomacy' as a cover for something else entirely? Just what is it that US-based archaeologists are getting involved in? I am sure there is lots of money and kudos in this for someone, but what actually is behind it?

Is it in some way in the interest of this 'Coalition' and its 'Task force' to generate public outrage at home against a group or groups precisely using a politicised cultural heritage in the tried and trusted way? If so, do they see any need for all the horror stories to be factual and verifiable? For political ends, made-up and misunderstood information - if believed - is as effective a political tool as the truth.  That goes for US cultural politics as much as for anything else. But of course to deal with a problem, you have to understand it. There are people researching the antiquities trade and artefact hunting but the prevalence of made-up stories, wilful misunderstandings, simplifications and spin are extremely unhelpful in that process.
Vignette: questions

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