Wednesday 16 July 2008

„Stuff happens”: portable antiquity collectors disagree

Donald Rumsfeld made light of the looting taking place during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As civil order collapsed and the occupying forces were insufficient in number to re-establish it, unsecured public buildings including the National Museum in Baghdad were emptied. As is well-known, Rumsfeld apparently unconcerned about the occupier's responsibilities under international law, merely quipped to journalists “stuff happens”.

The news was suddenly full of reports on destruction in and looting of Iraqi museums, libraries, archives, and then the continued attention paid to the looting of archaeological sites in post-invasion Iraq, together with the reports of seizures of numerous Mesopotamian archaeological artefacts bound for foreign markets. There is no doubt that this became yet another stick for opponents of the war to hit the warmongers with. Nevertheless the facts are undeniable. Stuff happened in 2003 that could have been predicted, stuff happened that could have been prevented, stuff happened that should not have happened. Another blow to US prestige. Not to mention Iraq’s assets, heritage and identity.

But there was another casualty, the portable artefact collector in the western world. Despite their care in their creation of a beneficial public image, things were not going well in the years following 2003. A number of high profile investigations and trials were in progress in the US, and now this. Iraq and looted artefacts. Suddenly looted artefacts were daily fare in the newspapers. Lots of people were talking about looted artefacts, this was unwelcome public scrutiny of some issues some would like to keep out of the public view.

Collectors and dealers were gratified to find that there had been some hasty journalism going on, some of the early reports of the looting of the Baghdad Museum quoted figures which were soon found out to have been exaggerated and downright wrong. This gave them some wiggle room. I remember being set upon at the time by a British artefact hunter hiding for mentioning Iraqi looting in a discussion on artefact hunting on the Portable Antiquities Scheme Forum. Its all lies, he stressed. Fortunately the PAS is based in the British Museum who had just sent a mission out there, and a post on the Forum set the situation straight. Still the mistaken figure of “170 000 objects” (gossip obtained by a journalist from a woman met in the museum grounds and later repeated without verification) is still being dragged out as an example of the alleged “lies” of the conservation lobby – lies of course which (in some grand conspiracy) are allegedly aimed at the collectors and dealers, rather than the occupying forces.

These allegations of a conservation-motivated conspiracy to deceive are still being bandied about in the collecting world. Collector of ancient Greek coins Peter Tompa, president of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild, has a blog called “Cultural Property Observer”, and in it he posted something he claimed was ‘breaking news’ about a forthcoming BBC report disproving exaggerated looting claims. He writes that this news item suggests "that the story of the looting of the museum was exaggerated. Just recently (and as reported on this blog), the Art Newspaper also suggested that stories about looting of archaeological sites were also exaggerated. Does anyone see a pattern here?”

This prompted a rather crushing reply from David Gill. Gill pointed out that by the time he posted this Tompa had been informed that the ‘news item’ was a trailer for a forthcoming TV programme …. from 2003 and not fresh news from 2008!!

The “un-looted sites” discussion prompted by a 1st June 2008 Arts Newspaper (guess whose side they are on) article by Martin Bailey is rather weird. Basically it concerns a mission by a group of specialists (Dr John Curtis, Professor Elizabeth Stone, Dr Margarete van Ess, Dr Paul Collins , Qais Hussein Raheed, Mehsin Ali and Abdulamir al-Hamdani) accompanied by high ranking army officers who were invited by the Cultural Heritage Initiative (organised by the British Museum and the British Army), to examine eight selected sites: Ur, Ubaid, Eridu, Warka, Larsa, Tell el-Ouelli, Lagash and Tell el-Lahm in the former British-administered zone of Iraq. Its not entirely clear from the report who selected the sites and to what ends. The report goes on to stress that the sites they were shown had little evidence of damage from looting after 2003. Can anyone see a pattern HERE? The occupying coalition has come under much criticism in the British press and public opinion because of not, it was alleged, halting this destruction. It seems reasonable to assume that one possible motive for this series of site visits could have been the desire of the British Army to deflect such criticism by showing with the aid of assorted credible specialists that at least eight of the sites under their care in the region of Basra were relatively undamaged. Undamaged that is apart from the machine-dug looter holes at Larsa and smaller holes in Tell el-Ouelli, Tell el-Lahm and Lagash (so, four out of eight) which had probably been dug in 2003 as the US-led coalition swept north to Baghdad.

The story was picked up on June 15th by Melik Kaylan writing for the Wall Street Journal (in the past a carrier of articles on the investment opportunities offered by the antiquities trade) who offers the opinion “So Much for the 'Looted Sites'” based on these eight sites. This post too was duly reported by “Cultural Property Observer” the author pre-emptively claiming victimisation (“Ad hominem attacks meant to divert attention from this central issue will hopefully fail in the long run”).

What will, hopefully, fail in the long run is this type of uncritical “newsfeed trawling” with the sole aim of mounting a defence of “bazaar archaeoloqy”, collecting and dealing from scrutiny.

I really think we should wait for the final report of the Cultural heritage Initiative to appear rather than building too much on the isolated pieces of information gathered by Martin Bailey of the Arts Newspaper, and trust that the CHI will not be tardy in releasing it, together with a full presentation of why those eight sites were chosen and what the aims of the mission were in each case.

I also think that collectors of coins, cylinder seals, cuneiform tablet fragments and the suchlike should note that when the looting took place (whether 2003, 2004, 2005 or later) is more or less immaterial, the evidence is indisputable, many hundreds of cubic metres of archaeological deposits have certainly been disrupted and destroyed, archaeological artefacts were ripped out of context and left lying scattered around the site or carted off to one dealer's storeroom or other. Whether they were dug up in 2003 or 2008 should make absolutely no difference to the US' policies about their import to a market which in any case the same collectors deny exists in the US.

Just a few weeks ago the journal Antiquity published an analysis by Elizabeth Stone (the same one as in the Cultural Heritage Initiative’s borrowed Merlin helicopter) about patterns of looting in southern Iraq (the same southern Iraq that Kaylan, Tompa and all the rest claim were “not looted”). The photos look pretty realistic, the dots on the maps of looted sites suggestive, the analysis of the distribution patterns and chronology seem perfectly sound to me. But the collectors claim these are all lies, because the Arts Newspaper and Wall Street Journal say so. The collectors and dealers (especially in the US) argue for their own obvious reasons that looting did not take place on any scale in Iraq's museums and sites as a result of the Coalition's policies towards that country, I wonder if Cultural Property Observer has taken the trouble to read the “Antiquity” article (it is available online) before making his pronunciations about a “credibility gap”. It seems to me clear where the real credibility gap lies, and it is gaping wide open.

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