Thursday 16 October 2014

Archaeologists Involved in Syria Looting?

David Kohn ('ISIS’s Looting Campaign' The New Yorker October 14, 2014) discusses the artefact hunting which has been feeding the no-questions-asked antiquities trade. In Syria, it appears (Al-Azm quoted here)
 that the organization [ISIS] often brings in contractors who use bulldozers to dig up sites as efficiently as possible. According to Daniels [Brian Daniels the director of research at the Penn Cultural Heritage Center, at the University of Pennsylvania Museum - PMB], much of the work in Syria is being done by Iraqi groups who have experience digging up sites in their own country. He suspects that archaeologists may be involved; judging from the photos, the excavations, as destructive as they are, have a professional, organized qualityISIS is not the only group involved in this grab. Daniels has seen items from sites controlled by the Assad regime for sale on the black market in Turkey. And he said that many tribal emirs, who are often given local authority by ISIS, also take part in looting. “I think everybody’s got their fingers in this thing,” he said. 
Well, well. This is where all that talk of "partnership"  with artefact hunters and "an acceptable stance" on collecting gets us. Perhaps the idea is that by joining in with the digging in Syria, the archaeologists can (PAS-like) "record" some of the finds before they go onto the market. This is the postulate of the antiquities dealers [see here - points by Tompa and Wetterstrom] put into action, the extension of the PAS-archaeological-artefact-hunter-partnership to other countries.

I am sorry to say if Dr Daniels reckons that what we see on the photos looks "professional and organized", I am glad I've never worked on any of his excavations. It seems to me that the diggers who are making the holes we see in the satellite photos (particularly at Dura Europos) are adept at locating the tops of walls and avoiding digging through them (a skill which not only professional archaeologists have, but locals temporarily employed on excavations also can pick up). I think this is crucial evidence that the photos do indeed show collection driven exploitation (looting- looking for artefacts) rather than reflecting, as one US dealer in denial put it to me, "some other agenda".

Vignette: A real rogue archaeologist - Johnny Thunder

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