Saturday 14 September 2013

Arms for Antiquities: Syrian Artifact Smuggling Bleeds Sites Dry

On August 31, the Directorate General for Antiquities in Lebanon returned 18 mosaics seized a year and a half ago to its Syrian counterpart. Al-Akhbar has the exclusive story of the events surrounding this (Joanne Bajjaly, 'Arms for Antiquities: Syrian Artifact Smuggling Bleeds Sites Dry', AlAkhbar Tuesday, September 3, 2013).
The raging war in Syria is killing civilians, wrecking institutions and the economy, and destroying the country. It is also eliminating its heritage, history, and antiquities. But discussing this issue is not a luxury we can postpone. The issue is not random at all. Theft of archaeological sites in Syria has become systematic. Those implicated in the operations, thieves and smugglers, are not reluctant to justify their reprehensible and illegal actions.
In the conditions created by the current war,
"Archaeological digs have become open grounds and everyone can find something there. Some of them justify this by the supremacy of their cause and others by their need. Fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) acknowledged in several media reports that some combatants are charged with digging for antiquities that could be exchanged with weapons," [Lieutenant Colonel Nicolas Saad, from the Office of International Thefts]  explained. "This is confirmed by archaeologists monitoring the market closely. One of them, who asked to remain anonymous, goes even further, saying that trading 'arms for artifacts' is currently taking place, but it is concentrated in Turkey, not Lebanon. The roads leading to Lebanon are now inside the battlefields in more than one location. Yet the borders with Turkey are wide open and the traders can move with great ease. [...]  Smuggling methods are many and complicated. 
The looting is difficult to quantify, there are no official figures on how extensive the thefts are in Syria. Aerial photographs could be the only evidence the shocking evidence from Apamea of the scale of hole-digging between 2011 and 2012 sare now well-publicised.
Archaeologists fear that the fate of the eastern Dura-Europos and Mari sites could even be worse. According to former director of archaeological excavation in Syria Michel Makdissi, "We received news of [non-combatant] armed groups around these two sites, protecting workers spread around the two areas, who are digging non stop." 
The article discusses the development of the smuggling networks which began to develop during the war in Iraq and the related smuggling. This utilised Syria and Lebanon as transit countries, which increased the strength of the sector in Syria.
Mafias dealing with archaeological artifacts are the busiest when wars erupt in antiquities exporting countries. The traders arrive and put their hands on the borders, sending their agents into the country. During the first days of the fighting, huge sums of money are paid for common archaeological pieces. This is the bait that catches those looking for money, until the prices begin decreasing and the country is bled of its antiquities. Collaborators in the smuggling operation are many. They could begin with the peasant looking for artifacts in his land to sell in the market. Then there is the dealer who buys the piece and takes it to the local merchant, who gives it to another merchant connected with the smuggling network. The network smuggles the merchandise across the borders to a major merchant in a neighboring country, who is contact with an international broker. Then it is delivered to an even bigger merchant in a major capital, who is usually very well connected socially and politically. The latter purchases the piece to sell to museums, collectors (usually regular clients)....
The article finishes with a discussion of how to put a stop to this, agencies like UNESCO can do nothing except protest:
 For the real protection of antiquities, these organizations should be able to impose strict laws prohibiting trade in antiquities. The bleeding cannot be stopped from the source, but in the market. The power of this market should be checked and this type of trade should become illegal, not merely in UNESCO charters, but through painful penalties against traders and dealers in the importing countries as well.
Vignette: Palmyra.

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