Wednesday, 15 July 2015

ISIL Antiquities: Looking at that "Smoking Gun"

[UPDATE: This post needs to be read in the light of a later one, which modifies some of the conclusions I drew at the time the news first surfaced].

US assassination squad in action?
"Smoking gun" is what they are calling the latest batch of antiquities to go back to the Middle East. These to Iraq. They were on display today at the Baghdad National Museum ("in a war zone" the dealers say - maybe that's why the museum staff look so unhappy). Note that this is another batch sent back by the US to Iraq just over a week from the last one.  The difference is that it took 12 years for some of last week's stuff to go back. The new stuff was picked up 66 days ago - in Syria, yet is going back post-haste to Iraq. Last week's lot was said to have been lost due to the US-led invasion (boo), this lot has been heroically saved by the Americans (hooray).

Here we go with some more churnalism:
Reuters (Saif Hameed ) 'U.S. delivers Iraqi antiquities seized in raid on Islamic State' Reuters Wed Jul 15, 2015 11:07am EDT [with a video]  followed by 'US Returns Antiquities Seized in Raid on ISIS' - 4 hours ago, followed by  Daily Beast 'U.S. Returns Antiquities Taken by ISIS' [with ICE stock photo] and lots more of the same ilk. I expect there will be more tomorrow. Then a second variant: 'Iraq Receives Artifacts Found by US Special Forces in Syria', Associated Press [in New York Times for example] July 15th 2015, 8:50 A.M. E.D.T.

What's the story? I refer you back to my blog post of Sunday, 24 May 2015 'Antiquities Seized in Abu Sayyaf raid' - stirring 'Ripping Yarn/Captain America/ stuff. A top secret boots-on-the-ground raid by U.S. special operations troops on the 16th of May 2015 behind enemy lines south-east of the city of Deir al-Zor, assassinates a suspected ISIL leader at point blank range. So helicopter(s), perhaps some flares, a bit of shooting. Wake-the-neighbours, dogs-barking type of attack. Yet after blowing a hole in somebody they are calling Abu Sayyaf (which might not have been his real name and nobody really is sure who he was or what he did but he was probably an enemy of America, right?...) they calmly searched through his cupboards and found... a trove of antiquities. Oh yes, and a Bible. I noted at the time:
Is it not a little convenient for the US-propagated "antiquities fund terrorism" narrative? What, actually, was found? What "Bible"? What kind of coins? Where were they found in a rushed raid in the middle of ISIL territory, lying laid out on a sideboard by the TV guide in the sitting room?
Anyway, these antiquities seized in the mysterious 'raid' (where is the proof it happened?)  are what has just gone back to Iraq. That's what the US Government says.

(c) Thaier al-Sudani, Reuters, 15th July 2015
Now lets just get this straight, there is a massive great Black Hawk (or other) helicopter parked, rotors turning, engines running, outside an ISIL officer's house, there's  strangely dressed folk with laser sights running around outside, there's been shooting. At that moment several jeeps loaded up with ISIL fighters are (could be) on their way to intercept them, and these guys are going through the house picking up... cruddy bits of pot (as well as looking for the memory sticks, papers etc)? When you see the video with them all laid out on the table, this is not something you can gather up - even if it IS all in one place - in a minute. This lot will take a bit of time to pick up, pack roughly into a bodybag or whatever.... (and note how few seem broken). The news reports say there are 500 artefacts here. Some of the pretty small, difficult to pick up one would have thought with an automatic cradled in your elbow.

That's the first problem with the story. Now the legal bits.

Now I may have got this wrong, but if a US soldier takes something from a war zone, even if he blows the head of the owner off first, it still is not his to give anyone. By what law did the US authorities claim ownership of artefacts seized from a private citizen (or person) in Syria? Has there been a forfeit procedure to attain ownership? Without it, this is stealing, it is stealing of cultural property which is a war crime. What is the name of the commanding officer of this raid?

In order to end up in America, these objects were taken out of Syria. How? Is there a Syrian export licence?  If not, the Americans were handling smuggled goods, and have handed them over to a third party without sorting out the legal issues.

And then (all?) the artefacts nicked from Abu Sayyaf's place went back, not to Syria, but Iraq. Why? Presumably there will be some kind of expert report on the material stating that the material that was returned was for one reason or another, more likely / certainly / probably of Iraqi rather than |Syrian origin. Can we see it? Looking at the objects seized (stolen) I cannot see how they can possibly say that.

The third problem is what was put on display.

(c) Thaier al-Sudani, Reuters, 15th July 2015
The reports of the handover are pretty revealing. The Reuters one: 'U.S. delivers Iraqi antiquities seized in raid on Islamic State'  has photos, rather small, but which say enough. A disparate load of crap on a table. Most of the photos are fuzzy. Not fuzzy enough to obscure the fact that over on the far right is a dirtied up miniature fake bust of Nefertiti.

The three objects at the back are those Old Babylonian terracotta plaques, but the straightness of the edges suggests to me that these are plaster casts. The object behind Nefertiti looks for all the world like a modern crucible - form, wall thickness and as far as one can tell from the photo, fabric. There is what looks like a brown 'flint' flake on the left, how can US experts tell a brown Iraqi stone  flake from a Syrian brown stone flake? I'd love to know. What the little doggie is at the back I could not say. Anyone?

(c) Thaier al-Sudani, Reuters, 15th July 2015

The video (for example as published on Yahoo) raises as many questions. We cannot see all the objects in detail. On the left are what seem to be papers laid out, no explanation is offered about what they are (the German video gives the information that on them are mounted old museum labels in arabic). Then we have two blue trays of bracelets. Then a blue tray of 'something' (these could be the coins).

Then three long red trays with stone beads, stone rings and cylinder seals (the one with the visible carving... is it real?). The news reports say there is somewhere in this lot a group of glass sherds from what appeared to be a coloured vase, but they are not visible in the video. Then the triangular blue sheet with assorted ceramic objects, a battered animal figure [the only figurative art in the group apart from the seals and plaques), a complete lamp (David?), a battered foundation cone and two pieces of pottery that I'd guessuggest (though no expert on Mesoptamian/Levantine pottery) are not ancient. [UPDATE David Knell, on his own blog takes up the subject of that lamp: "It appears to be authentic and is a Syro-Palestinian type of the 3rd - 4th centuries AD. In other words, the lamp which was seized in Syria is likely to have been made and found in Syria"  'US "returns" Syrian lamp to ... Iraq', Ancient Heritage Thursday, 16 July 2015 ].

Then the area containing the Crucible and Nefertiti. It is not clear what, if anything was on the table to the right of them.  Have the two most dubious objects been deliberately placed by the museum staff at the far end of the table, to be discretely separated from the rest when the US ambassador has gone home?

The Ambassador looks like Peter Tompa, but more rubbery around the jowls. He is on the Yahoo film (40s) and quoted by the newspapers saying "the haul was proof the militants were funding their war by smuggling ancient treasures." The quote appears in several forms, in one "indisputable evidence", in another:
"This is the first tangible evidence that Daesh are selling artefacts to fund their activities," U.S. ambassador Stuart Jones, said, referring to Islamic State by its Arabic acronym."Their goal is to sell these antiquities on the global black market," he told reporters at Baghdad's national museum where the items were handed over.[...] "The list of Daesh atrocities and crimes is long, and it includes the theft and smuggling of your heritage and culture," U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Stuart Jones said, using the Arabic acronym for the extremist group. "Daesh is stealing your antiquities, and we are giving them back to you."

1 comment:

David Knell said...

Yup, you were right to query the presence of that lamp. I've dashed together a couple of paragraphs about it.

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