Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Object Looted in ISIL territory on Global Antiquities Market?

The Antiquities Coalition are among those pushing the 'Archaeological Looting Funds Terrorism' narrative.  They are engaged in lobbying and in the social media and various types of writing. Here is a dramatic public-awareness video they released in April this year attempting to say how looted artefacts bought by careless buyers are funding terrorism in the west:

Published on You Tube byThe Antiquities Coalition 17 kwi 2018

Katie Paul of AC, together with Amr Al-Azam has just published a text in which they claim to have uncovered a previously unknown digital antiquities trafficking network involving ISIL-sourced artefacts which is being hailed as an important contribution to understanding transnational trafficking today ('The Middle East’s Other Facebook Revolution: Antiquities Trafficking in the Digital Age', World Politics Review Aug 13th 2018). In this text, the authors illustrate one artefact that they say is evidence of ISIL-sponsored looting for fundraising:
[...] on-the-ground intelligence gathered by The Day After Initiative, a Syrian-led civil society organization currently based in Istanbul, combined with our own online research, has allowed us to trace the journey of one especially rare, perhaps even one-of-a-kind item. The piece is carved from limestone with four outward-looking, intricately detailed carved faces. The object was probably an ornamental fitting. It was initially tracked by The Day After and documented by its affiliates in June 2015. It originated in territory once held by the Islamic State, most likely Raqqa or Manbij, both cities in Syria, before making its way to southern Turkey. Two years later, it appeared in a post on a Facebook page devoted to antiquities trafficking. We do not know what has become of the piece, as communications about it have been conducted in private. However, its quick journey to the online marketplace suggests that looters are not sitting on antiquities for extended periods
Just as a reminder, this is how Syria looked in June 2015 . The Day After Heritage Protection Initiative (DAHPI) through a 'network of archaeologists and volunteers' has for some time now attempted to collected evidence of trafficking of antiquities within Islamic State territory in Syria. Its co-ordinator is Amr al-Azm (who is on record as stating that through this work we now have ‘all the basic information about how ISIS operates with regards to cultural heritage’ - a claim I would be sceptical of myself).

It is interesting that this same piece has turned up again in the discussion. There are two other images of this item in the video presented above. The first (right) is obviously a mockup made of modelling clay, I would guess, for use in the film. But what about the other (below)? This seems to be the same glossy stone as the one featured in the article, though has a bit more earth (like the Palmyra statues also found by  DAHPI and discussed by Sam Hardy here)

The object was 'initially tracked by The Day After and documented by its affiliates in June 2015', but where, exactly? Was it documented like other small objects being claimed as ISIL looted  in Syria, or was it documented in Turkey ('before making its way to southern Turkey')? If the latter, why is it being ascribed an origin 'most likely Raqqa or Manbij'? Apparently 'two years later' (June 2017?), 'it appeared in a post on a Facebook page devoted to antiquities trafficking', presumably the ones the authors were tracking. The authors suggest that 'its quick journey to the online marketplace suggests that looters are not sitting on antiquities for extended periods' - except they have not produced proof of when the object was dug up, was this a product of looting after sanctions and the Iraq invasion that were stockpiled until found and released on the market by militants (any militants, not just ISIL ones) in their annexation of a territory?

But in fact was it dug up? The side view with those puffy cheeks and squiffy eyes in the WPR article would not induce me to buy that piece were I a collector, still less the frontal view seen in the video at 0.35. It looks to me personally like a highly dodgy piece, even if it is supposed to be 'one of a kind'. I hope the published paper includes much more detail affirming this is indeed an excavated artefact that ISIL profited from. 

If we reserve judgement on this piece, it should be noted, the case made by Paul and Al-Azm for the financing of ISIL through the sale of artefacts on Facebook collapses. Let us see the full publication before however passing judgement.

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