Monday 20 July 2015

Abu Sayyaf Stash: The State Department Elucidates

My tracking software shows that somebody in the US Department of State is a surprisingly avid and focussed reader of this blog. Over the past few days particular attention was paid to what was written here about the Abu Sayyaf stash. I was one of several people who got a personal message this afternoon through Twitter, alerting us to a new page on the subject ('ISIL Leader’s Loot', 20th July 2015) on the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs website. This details the objects and fragments which were seized on the 15th May 2015 and turned over to officials at the Iraq National Museum on July 15 by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. There is a very helpful gallery of photos of groups of objects as well as individual items. As the BECA suggests:
The cache represents significant primary evidence of looting at archaeological sites in Syria and Iraq, theft from regional museums, and the stockpiling of these spoils for likely sale on the international market. It also corroborates evidence of looting previously documented by the Department of State and the American Schools of Oriental Research.
Note the careful phrasing as regards what this stash (they call it a cache) actually represents.  The BECA gives an overall description of the group, before detailing several of the groups of items and their significance. It seems very likely that these descriptions are based, not on the actual artefacts themselves, but the photos of the components of the stash:
The cache is comprised of an assortment of archaeological artifacts and fragments, historical objects, modern/contemporary items, and replica or faked antiquities. More than half the items are coins made of gold, silver, and bronze. There are also items of pottery, glass, ivory, stone, and leather including jewelry, figurines, bowls, and manuscripts. While some items were clearly property of Mosul Museum, all are now in the hands of Iraqi experts, who are working to determine the likely provenance of each object.
The four categories selected for individual discussion include the coins of gold, silver, and bronze which they say form the majority of the objects seized. These coins are (and in light of what is being spread about by irresponsible elements in the collecting world) stated to be:
of various eras. There are bronze Roman provincial coins likely minted in Antioch-on-the-Orontes [near the modern city of Antakya PMB], Byzantine folloi, Umayyad silver dirhams, and gold dinars of later Islamic dynasties.
They then add: "Coins of all eras are reportedly targeted by looters wielding metal detectors in Syria and Iraq" and how damaging to archaeological sites digging them out of the ground is. While I am personally not so sure about the first statement, the second I think we can all agree with.

The second category of artefacts mentioned are the three manuscripts in the cache. One is detailed, "a bound leather antimension, perhaps written in a form of Aramaic and depicting Christian imagery of Jesus' birth, life, and death [...] which remains to be dated definitively".

Not only was the next item missed by all of us commenting on the video, but so was its significance, its a fragmented ivory furniture plaque, most likely dating to the 9th century B.C., decorated with three registers in low relief of a procession of Assyrian officials and foreign tributaries.
The plaque was excavated at the ancient Assyrian capital of Nimrud by a team from the British Museum in 1989, after which it was stored in the Mosul Museum (Iraq). [...] The plaque’s presence in the Abu Sayyef cache provides concrete proof that ISIL not only destroyed ancient statues in the Mosul Museum galleries for public propaganda purposes, but also plundered the collections of the museum for likely financial gain.
The gallery shows items bearing the numbering of the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad.

The text then goes on to discuss the 'Fakes and Forgeries' (sic) and makes an interesting point, missed in previous discussions:
A handful of the items are fakes or forgeries. Some of these may derive from the storerooms of Iraqi museums, which keep fakes seized by law enforcement. Whatever the origin of these particular items, it is common to see fakes mixed with caches of real looted archaeological material.
The crucible is referred to in the caption to the gallery as a "concrete spouted bowl [sic]". The photo shows a modern crucible of refractory clay.

Although not all questions raised about the stash have been answered, the webpage and gallery are a useful contribution to our knowledge, and it is good to see this group documented in more detail than hitherto.

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