Monday, 13 June 2016

What is Wrong with National Geographic's 6th June "Blood antiquities: Report?

Perhaps after the "Nazi War Diggers" fiasco, it would be expecting too much of the USA's "National Geographic" in its current configuration to produce work of the standard it once upon a time represented, but their slick production on "Blood Antiquities " broadcast on June 6th initially seemed likely to have potential to make good on that promise. Until you start looking carefully.

1. The producers can be forgiven for the dramatic introduction  (00:00 to 01:43 of the 44 minutes of the programme). The tense bathroom scene with which it opens is later revealed to be in the west End of London on the way to visit a dealer in a not-very-sinister popular antiques mall. The dynamic intercut scenes of ISIL mayhem which the viewer is expected to link with ISIL rule in Palmyra are not all depicting what the voice-over suggests, some is Iraq for example (and as somebody who has been through the ISIL propaganda videos, I suspect some of it is inserted from another context too). This material is intended to arrest attention and does, but it suggests that what it is we are about to watch is over-dramatised show rather than true investigative reporting. The material gathered follows the traditional paths.

The music and repeated asides are intended to generate an atmosphere of fear, the presenter introduces a few personal comments (like the stomach problems and never fails to repeat how nervous he is) these 'human touches' are presumably intended to draw the viewer into the narrative.

2. The filming starts off (02:16), traditionally, in Gaziantepe where the journalist meets Amr Al Azm (03:13-08:34) who as we know is in fact the main source of almost all journalists' information about what is happening in Syria just a few kilometres to the south.  Al Azm introduces Gilmore to some Syrian "monuments men" (at least one of whom I think we've seen in earlier films from the region). His role in setting up some of the other meetings portrayed throughout the film is unclear. What Al-Azm and these men are doing is not really revealed (it clearly involves cell-phones), three of them work in ISIL-held territory, the others in areas held by other rebels (portrayed as "more moderate").

In this segment of the film, we are shown a sequence (05:32-05:53) which it seems is of ISIL agents looting a site. This film is said to be unique, but readers will remember the story of Mike Giglio, 'Exclusive Video Shows Illicit Archaeological Dig In ISIS Stronghold', Buzzfeed Aug. 3, 2015 which I discussed earlier PACHI Tuesday, 4 August 2015, 'The "ISIL Excavation Videos". Who took this film and why (and of course where)? Some young men in colourful clothing are shown working in a hole, one wall of which is vertical and straight. Are they scrabbling in an old excavation trench? As in the earlier 'Giglio' film, there is no attempt to remove the spoil, there are no spoil heaps around where they are working, in the second part a young man handles some fallen stones, these look like weathered collapse and not freshly-excavated material. I think there is a good chance that this film is 'posed'.

3. The journalist then gets to meet an 'activist' who talks of the fall of Palmyra and shows him some antiquities on his phone, two are Palmyra grave slabs (genuine?) the third items is a statue I have seen before (the Giglio photo hoard which is archived in my other computer???). But we bear in mind what we learnt from Giglio's reports last year of opportunists wandering around with photos on their cell phones of objects they themselves do not have. 

4. Then we have the de rigeur sequence with some shady middlemen who show him stuff they have for sale - including a freshly-excavated mosaic. Of the loose artefacts we see, the Hittite head, while it is hard to see (16:26) I am not really convinced by what is shown (Mark Altaweel later in the film says [36:33] it is genuine, or "if a fake a very good fake"). The coin (17:22) looks for all the world like a cast modern tourist fake (modelled on a coin from Rhodes rather than Syria?).  These middlemen mention at the journalist's prompting a route "through Bulgaria". Who are these people?

5. There is then a shift in action to Bulgaria, to the Shuman garage find discussed earlier in this blog (PACHI Sunday, 29 March 2015, 'Bulgarian Artefact Bust - Shumen'; PACHI Sunday, 16 August 2015 'Bulgarian Antiquities Bust in news Again - Not ISIL Loot'). Readers might recall that I was very sceptical about the authenticity of many of the objects, this new record reinforces my scepticism. I think many of them are fakes. Furthermore, it has already been stressed (see my second post) that many of the sculptures are of types that would be more likely to have been found in Anatolia rather than Syria, even so, Gilmore stubbornly uses them as "evidence" of ISIL looting.

The flow of illicit goods through Bulgaria is controlled by criminal networks as he stresses (its where many antiquities on the market have been coming from). The Shumen garage find was discovered in March 2015 as the result of a tip-off . A number of ancient sculptures were found hidden under rugs in a garage and a Turkish national was arrested for antiquities trafficking (20:25). He claimed that he was an antiquities collector who'd bought the objects while on holiday in a market near Izmir (at this point the film shows a metal detectorist stressing the link between metal detecting and the illicit antiquities market). Working with a highly personable Bulgarian journalist Nadya Plamenova (20:49) he visits the museum basement with curators Zhenya Zhekova (numismatist and sigillographer)  and Stanmir Stoychev (head curator, Archaeology of Antiquity Department) who show him some objects from the seizure (22:01 - 12:56) "Some have suggested that these are forgeries:" ventures the journalist, Stoychev says that others disagree, but the film depicts him as not really convinced. I am pretty sure Gilmore knows these are fakes.

6. we get into the territory of weird when Gilmore contacts Shumen police. He'd tried (he says) to phone them from Gaziantepe (19:19- 19:38) but reports they "of course gave me the bloody runaround". Then he is shown warning the cameramen off (24:09- 24:20), "it will blow our access if they see cameras, they are very nervous" (and how does he know that?) But then why does he not use the same pinhole camera technique as he twice used in dealing with the Gaziantepe and london dealers? 

The Shumen police suggest he goes to look for the owner of the garage, "The Turk" who lives in the Grivitsa area, they tell him that he reports for parole every day. After some more suspense-building ploys, they are shown finding out that charges against him had been dropped and the man had earlier  returned to Turkey (30:29). They are contacted by somebody who initially wanted to talk about corruption in the town (28:43) but later changed his mind.

The film depicts the behaviour of the police as somehow suspicious and seem to be hinting that they are in some way in collusion with the antiquity traders (26:14). While that is not necessarily in itself implausible, I think this is taking the facts which they present too far. That one police department does not know what the other is doing is not just a Bulgarian speciality. That charges were dropped indicates that Bulgarian antiquities law applies to antiquities from Bulgarian soil, this "Turk" was let off because the law (like that of most countries) has a gaping loophole.

7. On 27th Feb 2016 he's back in Gaziantepe, the "monuments men" have been withdrawn (33:10). A film is shown of antiquities - pottery lamps and bowls - on sale, allegedly by ISIL guys (33:40-34:10) and then of a mosaic being excavated (34:12- 35:06).

8. Gilmore returns to London (35:30) and a meeting with Mark Altaweel (35:53-39:83) Altaweel says it is irrelevant that fakes are sold to raise money which goes to militant groups. They then go to see a lintel (37:44- 40:11) which is identified as from an ancient house in Nava, Syria located off the Golan Heights, near the Israeli border, on sale in central London (this lintel was discussed on my blog earlier PACHI Saturday, 16 April 2016, 'Syrian Artefacts in London?'). When he gets to the shop, the seller denies having such an object (39:40) and Gilmore wonders if it has been sold. He tries to report it to the British police:
14:24 (London) "I'm calling to report a crime"
The [British] police don't want to talk, but maybe I can report the crime to someone else...
What on earth? The police do not want to react to a report on looted and smuggled antiquities on the British market? How is this in any way different from the situation depicted in Bulgaria? Tasoula Hadjtofi (London) claims she reported the lintel from a Grays antique centre dealer was reported to Scotland Yard (42:42) and "it has been taken care of" (but the would-be seller was shown in the film, so is not in jail). It is unclear who in fact reported it. The problem is however that this item has no known connection with ISIL.

All in all, it is an interesting video, but has relatively low value as evidence of ISIL looting and the passage of the antiquities onto the markets. In fact the manner in which it relatively uncritically regurgitates previously-known material suggests that such evidence is extremely sparse.

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