Saturday, January 29, 2011

So many accolades! Disaster in Egypt!

First, two incredibly big thank yous to Sam Hardy and Paul Barford for talking up this blog on their blogs! I am so thrilled by their encouragement and recognition. I was fairly nervous about throwing my own little digital contribution in to the big wide blogosphere and I never imagined such a warm welcome! Thank you for both the kind words and the resulting page views!

It figures that the one weekend I'm gallivanting in New York City and sharing one ethernet cable with four other people, sh*t gets real in Egypt. I've seen from just about all the blogs that protestors have raided the Cairo Museum and destroyed two pharaonic mummies. What a freaking way to spend the afterlife. Human bodies that have lasted thousands of years, only to be unnecessarily destroyed by their descendants for who knows what reason. This is very discouraging, particularly because, as Larry Rothfield pointed out, it appears that Zahi Hawass did not make arrangements to prevent these kind of shenanigans.

Communication here will be pretty light over the next week, but stay tuned for fun stories about meeting Cindy Ho, commander in chief of SAFE, and an awesome piece about the difference between amateur and professional archaeologists. Huzzah!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Antiquity Looted by U.S. Military Up for Auction

How embarrassing. Thanks to Paul Barford for blogging about it first: Gallery 63 is auctioning off a 4,000 year old Shang Dynasty sword that was apparently "acquired" by a member of the U.S. military from one of Saddam Hussein's palaces. Unfortunately, incidences of U.S. military members looting and selling antiquities are not unheard of; Larry Rothfield wrote briefly about antiquities being sold on military bases in The Rape of Mesopotamia. However, considering there is now a whole government initiative to make amends for severely messing up with that whole ransacking of the Iraq National Museum thing (the Iraq Cultural Heritage Initiative), you would think U.S. military troops would be more savvy about leaving things where they find them. Please and thank you, current troops.

Monday, January 24, 2011

More Info for Your Rock Art Vandalism Obsession

Past Horizons recently posted this illuminating article on vandalism in the Deer Rock Art Center in Arizona, which has the largest concentration of Native American petroglyphs in the Phoenix Valley, dating between 500 to 7000 years ago. Not only are historical sites in the area suffering defacement, but looters are hacking out chunks of rock art and "dislodging anything they can carry away". There will be a free panel discussion Saturday, February 5, at the Deer Valley Rock Art Center to talk about how the sites can be protected by teaching the public to value them. If you're in the area, you should seriously consider going.

The article also provides this Flickr site of rock art vandalism. Horrifying and enlightening.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Frischer vs. The World: A Summary

In December, Bernard Frischer, a professor of archaeology and classics and the director of the Virtual World Heritage Laboratory atthe University of Virginia, published an op-ed piece in the New York Times. He proposed a solution to the lucrative trade of looting and dealing illicit antiquities: have museums fund excavations and borrow the finds from origin countries for exhibitions.

I found his proposal interesting because it's at least trying to find a solution in a public arena to a worldwide issue instead of just complaining that it exists and leaving it up to slow-moving governments or badly funded academics. I think there are parts of it that could solve some issues and that it's important to not let this idea die once the bloggers have finished responding. Excavations that could help save antiquities and valuable information are too few and too badly funded to have much impact in putting a dent in the market. Finding a solution to this should be a bigger priority for more educational institutions.

However, Frischer's proposal is admittedly riddled with a hopeful naivete and a lack of consideration for the minute details that would be involved in its execution. Since its publication, there have been a few responses to Frischer's proposal that make some apt, realistic points but don't altogether tear down the concept. Paul Barford, British archaeologist and blogger (with a dry wit that cuts and burns with awesome ferocity) and Larry Rothfield (that's right, the same Lawrence Rothfield who wrote The Rape of Mesopotamia) both responded on their blogs to Frischer's proposal. Because you are all probably too busy getting back into the academic swing of things to have heard about such things, here's a recap:

Frischer's main thesis is that if museums sponsored excavations, it would "put looters and smugglers out of business". He suggests that museums could sponsor excavations in origin countries and in exchange, origin countries would loan the finds for the museums' exhibitions. To keep collectors happy (the same collectors who usually donate to museums and buy looted artifacts), he offers them the opportunity to invest in the project and have objects loaned to them. And where he does he want to start excavating? Already well-known locations and World Heritage Sites.

Both Barford and Rothfield point out Frischer's teensiest lack of consideration as to the funding and performing of these digs: who is going to dig, catalog, analyze, store, and publish the findings from these projects? Furthermore, both authors express concern over the possibility of the museum's sponsorship dictating the kind of items that should be found: Barford criticizes Frischer's focus on "spectacular goodies", while Rothfield is concerned that curators would be driven to find the most dazzling artifacts instead of the most educational.

However, Barford focuses on US museum's inability to deal with the collections they already house (or house in other countries) and Frischer's, frankly, bad choice of already well-protected World Heritage sites for excavations. (World Heritage sites? Really? How about the whole of Guatemala or maybe the seriously threatened Middle East?) Frischer talks about museum collections as if they've run out of pieces to show and are simply recycling a well-known batch of masterpieces. Barford points out that they actually have so many objects that they can't even ship them back to the museum. Not to mention that anyone who's familiar with how museums work (and Frischer should) would know that the biggest of them have HUGE collections of artifacts that they have never exhibited. So it's not like we're running out of pretty things to look at and we need to plough the earth for more.

On the other hand, Rothfield cites the huge political hurdles that would be involved in museums persuading origin countries to loan pieces for exhibition. With so many origin countries already asking for pieces back and unable to protect their own heritage from plunder, would they really be open to willfully loaning what would probably be the finest pieces from an excavation to Western museums?

Both authors cannot agree with Frischer's grand idea to loan pieces to collectors. Rothfield notes the political toxicity of such a move; Barford wonders why it hasn't happened before "if this is such a jolly spiffing idea". In the end, Barford and Rothfield both scoff at Frischer's belief that this scenario could bring the market for looted objects to a standstill. Frischer seems to have forgotten that even if museums stop buying looted antiquities, private collectors will always keep the market going.

What's important to note is that both authors did not totally deny the principle of the proposal. This kind of scenario has the possibility to succeed, but I would like to point out that in order for this proposal to work, it would take a very special type of museum to make it happen. I'm not an expert on museum programs, but in my limited experience most major museums in the US (and some in Europe) have alienated themselves to origin countries by stubbornly refusing to return antiquities and begrudgingly handing them back after prolonged press coverage and court cases. It may be near impossible for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to do any excavations in Italy, and incredibly hard for the Met to do anything in Turkey. And just forget about the Getty doing anything anywhere. The only institution I can think of that not only has the people, the storage, the money, and the decent relationships with origin countries is the Smithsonian Institution. In fact, this kind of idea could actually do amazingly well in the kind of environment that the Smithsonian could offer. They already have a number of very successful educational programs; they support a great amount of scientific and cultural research; and I can vouch for their dedication to a quality educational experience, not just a pretty one.

I have to agree with Barford and Rothfield but I see the merit in Frischer's proposal. Since we young people are the Future and whatnot, what are your thoughts? Do you think this kind of scenario could work? Who would you want to see accomplishing it? And what other hurdles, political, monetary, or otherwise, do you foresee in the execution of such an idea?

Boy George, Righter of Wrongs

According to this BBC News article, Boy George recently returned a looted icon from Cyprus that he had bought in 1985. He was unaware of the origin of the piece and actually assumed it was Russian. The repatriation was apparently a goodwill gesture after a bishop saw the piece in an interview with Boy George in his home. He said in the audio interview that he wasn't surprised to hear it had been looted because of the quality of the piece. He enthusiastically returned the piece to it's original home in a Cyprus church and received a smaller icon as a thank you.

Let this be a lesson to you occasional collectors: double check the origins of all your pieces, don't buy it if it's been looted, and don't assume things are Russian.

Cyprus has been a particular target for looting and black market antiquities since Turkey invaded in 1974. You can read about more about their plundered heritage here.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

10 Easy Ways To Be Involved In Cultural Heritage Activism

I wish I could tell you that being a cultural heritage activist is almost as easy as being an environmentalist. If I had only known back in my days as a green club president that those months of going to rallies, persuading the school to recycle as part of a national contest, and handing out donuts to public transportation-riders would be some of the easiest activism I would ever participate in. For the rest of us with issues that have not already been picked up by a large majority of the country, times are tougher and work is harder. Being involved in cultural heritage issues, particularly issues of the illicit antiquities trade, can seem ever so slightly overwhelming, particularly because the starting place is fuzzy and the work seems like it’s an all-or-nothing, out-there-in-the-fields-chasing-looters-off-bad-ass-style situation. I’m here to assure you that there are all kinds of options and starting points available to you. Including chasing looters off like a bad-ass, if that’s what you’re into. Here are ten ways you can start getting involved:

1. Write a paper about this stuff

If you’re in a class that’s cool with proposing your own research topics, take the opportunity and write about an aspect of cultural heritage issues that get to you. It will a) finally give you the excuse to read some of the many books/blogs/articles out there that you’ve been meaning to read, b) give you a real leg up on building a scholarly familiarity with the issues, c) expose your professor to them also, and d) probably earn you big points for originality.

2. Volunteer for an organization. Like SAFE.

Cultural heritage non-profits ALWAYS need volunteers to keep their ship afloat. Some, like SAFE and ARCA, offer digital volunteering opportunities that make it easy for you to make time and allow you to help save the world while wearing pajamas and eating microwaveable burritos. You could also take a more physically active approach and volunteer for a museum, historical society, the National Park Service, etc.

3. Use those summer internships wisely

There are a few choice organizations and institutions doing good work for the cultural heritage scene that offer internships for all you rising stars. From the Smithsonian Center for Folklike and Cultural Heritage to your local historical society or archaeological society, there are plenty of opportunities for simultaneously being a good human being and making your resume look snazzy.

4. Ask your museums to be honest about their acquisitions policies and their collecting history

Museums may be a great place with great intentions for great learning, but it doesn’t mean they haven’t collected looted antiquities in the past. Objects without context are objects without meaning, which defeats the purpose of them being in the museum in the first place. Organize campus support to demand honesty from your local (or not so local) museums and make some noise about the importance of preserving history and preventing shady collecting habits.

5. Get involved in excavations
Excavations these days basically run on volunteers because there’s no money for history. Help a reliable organization/institution get to the artifacts before a looter does and know you’ll be directly saving history. Even if that just means grunt work.

6.Consider your career options
Cultural heritage issues are, unfortunately for the world, quite numerous but, fortunately for you, offer a plethora of career opportunities. I would need a flow chart to accurately demonstrate just how many and how important each one is. Ranging from archaeological fieldwork to the State Department/FBI to UNESCO to cultural heritage organizations to the Smithsonian to law enforcement to cultural heritage law to museums and keeping them honest from the inside out. You have options in too many areas to count on two hands. Consider them all wisely.

7. Blog about it.
This may be the only blog I know of that focuses on the illicit antiquities trade/other cultural heritage issues from an explicitly collegiate point of view for other collegiate points of view. Please tell me if I’m wrong. The point being there can always be more blogs by smart youngish people about these issues.

8. Join the up-coming SAFE On Campus campaign to spread awareness about the illicit antiquities trade on college campuses.
There will be activism kits, online academic/social resources, and maybe cool-beans stencils you can spray on stuff middle-school style. It’s going to be very exciting and cutting edge, but more on that later

9. Rant about it.

People are interested in people who get passionate about things. Did you know some people collect ancient human bodies? And that looters use bulldozers and backhoes to tear up ancient sites to get to the good stuff? And that collectors who knowingly buy looted antiquities can donate their collections to museums for a huge tax break? These things make me angry and I usually end up ranting about it to someone close or not so close to me. Someone ends up learning something they didn’t know before and that these things make other people react strongly. Then they start reading and they start ranting and it’s a big happy circle of awareness by rant.

10. Share this blog with your friends, professors, employers, colleagues, girlfriends, boyfriends, friends with benefits, frenemies, BFFs, and acquaintances.

I’ll talk the talk if you just copy and paste.

Stupidity Hurts Us All

Though not as tragic or blatantly disrespectful/destructive/douche-baggy as this recent desecration of ancient rock art, the National Park Service (and SAFE) recently reported another incidence of vandalism in Arizona. The genius in question, Trenton Gainey, decided it would be "cool" to scratch his name onto the surface of the "Descending Sheep" panel at Glen Canyon Dam. He's been charged with a felony violation of the Archaeological Resource Protection Act and will be ponying up $10,000 to repair the panel, as well as the sentence he'll be given later this year.

What a winner.

Of course, this is not entirely Trent's fault. It's also the fault of the U.S. government and Trent's family for not providing the kind of education that emphasizes the value of cultural heritage and the importance of its preservation. Incidences involving rock art desecration and looting of historical sites have risen in the American Southwest, brought on by sheer stupidity and the bad economy. What's worse is that the effort to preserve these sites is crippled by the incredibly small number of individuals assigned to protect and enforce the law in these huge, unpopulated areas. Trent had to learn the hard way that although rock art may not be anything to him except a convenient place to mark his "coolness", it does mean something to other people. People with the power to make him pay through the nose for being so "cool". Unfortunately, justice has not been so easily served to other looters and graffiti artists who are steadily damaging and erasing the little information that we have left on the cultures that inhabited this region before it was invaded and colonized by Europeans. It is more important than ever to be aggressive about preserving historical sites and demanding that these issues be brought into the educational system. Tell your teachers, yo.

If you see any evidence of archaeological damage or suspicious activity at a ruin, please report it by calling the Federal Law Enforcement Communications Center at 800-637-9152.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Where To Start: Beginner's Book List

The internet and blogosphere cannot possibly begin to tell you everything you need to know about the illicit antiquities trade, art crime, and other art/cultural heritage issues. This is a humble list of books that I found particularly relevant and not boring at all in my sprightly quest to learn everything. At least, these are the ones I was able to get my hands onto through my county and school libraries. There are, of course, many more, and as soon as I have access to WorldCat again more shall be reviewed for your convenience.

Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership: The Ethical Crisis in Archaeology (Duckworth Debates in Archaeology)
by Lord Colin Refrew
The grandfather of all authoritative texts on archaeological context and the destruction inherent in looting. Lord Colin is kind of my hero. Start with this slim read for a highly informative and trustworthy introduction to an issue that too often gets the Indiana Jones treatment.
Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World
by Roger Atwood
I actually just finished this a few weeks ago on the recommendation of Cindy Ho at SAFE. This is definitely the most compelling, informative, and ballsy texts I've read so far on this issue. Atwood actually goes to Peru to observe looters looting and selling so he can write about it with the fullest possible authority. I just reread that sentence and I don't think you got the full effect. Ok: for a portion of the book, Atwood spends a few weeks with young Peruvian looters and goes with them to watch them obtain their "merchandise", which they do by pushing metal rods into the earth until they hit bone or pottery or both. They then dig huge holes, pull the gold, textiles, or particularly good pottery off the dead, and leave their trash and cigarette butts among the naked, mummified remains of their ancestors strewn around the site. The same day, they sell their "merchandise", still smelling of tombs, to dealers. Atwood risked arrest and swallowed his own moral indignation so that we wouldn't have to. Dude is ferociously good at his job. For an extra layer of awesome added to your reading experience, listen to the podcast of his interview with SAFE. What a sexy voice.

Loot: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World
by Sharon Waxman
This was the first book I ever read about the antiquities trade, the first book that ripped the wool off my eyes about my beloved museums and their corrupt collecting history. It's a well-written and thorough journalistic account with one eye on the history of looting since Napoleon, and the other eye on the current battle for repatriation of antiquities looted decades ago. A great book to get information on the highest profile cases of specific countries' repatriation crusades, such as Greece with the Elgin Marbles and Turkey with the Lydian Hoard.

The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum
by Lawrence Rothfield
This is a great source for a thorough and impassioned account of the looting of the Iraq National Museum and the Bush administration's failure to consider or secure the historical cultural objects of Iraq.

The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War
by Lynn H. Nicholas
This is a very serious and seriously astounding book on the Third Reich's mass looting of Europe, the sacrifices made by the guardians of Europe's art and cultural heritage (did you know the curators in Russia died of starvation and cold in their own museums from protecting their collections?), and the efforts made by the Allied troops to preserve and restore Europe's art and history during and following the war. If you have Netflix, there is also the documentary based on this book in Watch Instantly. Warning: it will make you cry and you will never see Nike of Samothrace the same way again. She will always be even more beautiful than you believed possible.

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History
by Robert M. Edsel
I'm sorry, but I love these WWII tomes. This is a super work on the the Monuments Man, a small group of American and British soldiers that were assigned by the Allied governments to save and preserve Europe's artistic and cultural treasures with no real budget and no particularly defined orders. I don't usually get all gooey and patriotic about the government, but these dudes are under-appreciated American heroes.
Art and Crime: Exploring the Dark Side of the Art World
edited by Noah Charney
ARCA, the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, published this neat little anthology of various articles on various aspects of art crime. It's a great book to have around to get some reliable statistics and straightforward, factual information on the issues.

P.S. If you buy any of these books, click on the links I provide to do so and your favorite little blogger/poor-as-hell college student will get a cut of the profits from Amazon. Help a sista out, eh?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

On the Purpose of This Blog

Every year, the illicit antiquities trade decimates historical sites, robs objects of their archaeological and historical context, literally uproots the dead, and destroys any possibility of preserving cultures whose language is dead or dying and whose histories lie solely in the artifacts and bodies they left behind. In turbulent and economically depressed countries such as Peru or Iraq, looting antiquities is often one of the only ways small towns and villages are able to support themselves financially. Looters are driven to dig up their own ancestors and rip the textiles off their bones and the gold from their faces. Dealers pay these looters pennies for their “merchandise”. Collectors pay the dealers thousands to millions for mute objects that they hoard (and stingily provide access to groveling scholars) or end up donating to museums for a healthy tax deduction. Museums then display these objects without provenance and we, the privileged Western population, view them with only vague explanations of their origin and purpose. What we end up with are institutions full of cultural objects they can’t explain, wealthy collectors amassing fragmented histories, and huge losses to any future understanding of our collective history. 
Until now, there has been no discernible widespread effort by college students to promote awareness or incite activism to curb a trade that is inextricably connected to our own lives, from the museums we visit to the terrorism we hear or experience every day. There are unique opportunities for college students to become specially involved in curbing the illicit antiquities trade through campus activism, volunteering, internships, our vote, and our future careers. This blog seeks to fill the huge gap in the existing blogosphere and informational sources in order to enable college students to find the information they need to help prevent making our history and archaeology degrees totally irrelevant. 
This blog will largely feature commentary by myself on various media having to do with antiquities, archaeology, and certain cultural heritage issues; information on specialized college degree programs and internship opportunities specifically in the area of cultural heritage; and for the next fifteen weeks, will act as a supplement to my internship with Saving Antiquities For Everyone/SAFE, where I will be designing and launching a campaign for awareness of the illicit antiquities trade on college campuses. Though this is a blog, not a forum, I do encourage polite yet impassioned discussion by anyone and everyone, especially college students, on how to more effectively and efficiently promote awareness of these issues and get some real, discernible effects to save our common histories. 
Though looting has been practiced worldwide throughout history, whether in the form of grave robbing or war looting, I do not believe it has to continue. Reasons for looting have changed drastically since the 19th century, and the argument that it has always existed is a brittle one in the newer, more economic, and drastically more destructive face of looting that exists today. I believe my generation has the tools, ambition, and opportunities to do some serious damage to the illicit antiquities trade and to purify the integrity of our museum collections and educational resources.