Wednesday, June 22, 2011

SAFE's Cindy Ho curates show of Naxi art!

Congratulations to SAFE founder and president Cindy Ho on her exhibition "Quentin Roosevelt's China: Ancestral Realms of the Naxi", now showing at the Rubin Museum of Art! You can read all about the show in the New York Observer's review, and get all the details on seeing the show at the Rubin's website. It has been going on since May and will continue until September, so if you're in or around New York City this summer, you should definitely go support Cindy and learn about the Naxi! Congratulations, Cindy!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Looting in Afghanistan: A Photo-Essay

(I wrote this post before I realized the articles were actually written in 2009. Ha. How behind am I today. It's never too late to be critical.) Time Magazine featured this photo-essay (which accompanies this essay), shot by Adam Ferguson, of recent excavations and looting in the Balkh Province, Afghanistan. Some sites in the area are currently being excavated by French archaeologists as part of Delegation Archeologique Francaise en Afghanistan. The essay highlights the history of pillaging in Afghanistan and the role of poverty in driving poor Afghans to looting. While the images are quite nice and it's very exciting to have the issue being covered in such a major magazine, I did take issue with some of the text.

First, the eleventh slide mentions that the artifacts excavated will be shipped to Kabul, "where they will be analyzed and placed in a historical context, enabling archeologists to reconstruct what life once looked like." The details of this "historical context" are not described. Second, the twelfth slide states, "Many experts say Afghanistan compares to Egypt in terms of the historical value of its archeological sites." Dear Time, I believe what you mean to say is, "Afghanistan compares to Egypt in terms of the grandness and beauty of the finds in its archaeological sites." Historical value is not determined solely by the grandiosity and aesthetic appeal of archaeological finds; Egypt does not contain more "historical value" than, say, Skara Brae, simply because the culture was enormous and the climate more conducive to preserving it. The value of every place's history is equal; the experts who are concerned about stopping the illicit antiquities trade are not just concerned about the grandest sites, but every site.

However, I do think that overall the photographs and their accompanying text very successfully illustrate the overwhelming loss of history through looting. It is heartbreaking to see the repetition of looters holes in a bleak landscape that was once home to some of the largest civilizations in the history of the world.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Things You Can't Take Back is now on Tumblr. Mostly because I'm still mystified as to what exactly Tumblr is for and it seems like the kind of thing you have to use to understand. I'm a hip twenty-something so I should be into this, right? If you're on Tumblr, follow me!

Amateur archaeologist = Defined

Six months ago, roughly around the time I started this blog, NPR published a story by Micah Schweizer about the artifacts of the Hopewell culture from Indiana, many of which had recently been displayed in the Indiana State Museum. The article cited Charlie Lacer, who drew attention to the prehistoric culture through his early collecting:

“Amateur archaeologist Charlie Lacer began walking the Mann fields in the 1950s, collecting what he found along the way.

"You could find stuff that you could not find [on] any other site around here," Lacer says. "I mean, there [were] just tons of materials there. You couldn't pick up everything you saw — you had to be kind of selective, particularly if you were carrying this stuff in your pockets."

Lacer managed to stuff a lot into his pockets — 40,000 artifacts that he donated to the Indiana State Museum two years ago. Four hundred of those pieces are now on display in nearby Evansville for the first time ever.”

This description of an “amateur archaeologist” who somehow came into possession of 40,000 American Indian artifacts just by field walking immediately brought the words “mad sketch” to mind. However, some actual research revealed that Charles Lacer Jr. began collecting when he befriended Paul Mann Sr., the farmer whose land Lacer walked; he would pick up the artifacts that were plowed up in Mann’s fields. As he grew older, Lacer actually became a well regarded avocational archaeologist whose avid record keeping gave order to the artifacts he kept and later helped the archaeologists at the Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology at Indiana University’s Bloomington campus. Lacer noted in the article hyperlinked that he could have sold his collection, but preferred preservation over profit.

These key details are totally lost on me through Schweizer’s phrasing on NPR.

I had planned on blogging about this when the article was actually published, but I got busy. Now, I have another excuse because it seems the BBC made a similar mistake when they recently referred to metal detectorists as amateur archaeologists, and credited them with helping to preserve Britain’s history. Metal detectorists are a very touchy issue in the UK; archaeologists like Paul Barford believe they are actually destroying Britain’s history by obliterating the archaeological context of artifacts for their own personal enjoyment or profit. Consequently, the term “amateur archaeologist” is super inappropriate. However, a quick Google search proves that the term “amateur archaeologist” is in fact so ambiguous and lacking official definition that misuse of the term is all too easy to accomplish. Way back in January, I asked Prof. Maxine Oland (whose intro to archaeology course I took at Williams College this past term - Hi, Prof. Oland!) if she could elaborate on the specifics of what exactly it means to be an amateur archaeologist. She directed me to a definition provided by Dr. Siobhan Hart:

“Avocationals are archaeologists in that they see sites as resources requiring documentation and protection, and not as a source of artifacts for profit or prestige, as characteristic of private collectors, pothunters, and looters. Yet avocationals are distinct from professionals in that they have not received the extensive training in fieldwork, laboratory analysis, methods, and theory that professionals obtain, though they often have a significant amount of informal training and accumulated knowledge. Unlike professionals, avocationals do not make their living off of archaeology, but like professionals, many adhere to a code of standards prescribed by the archaeological organizations to which they belong at local, regional, and national levels (e.g., Archaeological Institute of America, Eastern States Archaeological Federation, or state societies like the Massachusetts Archaeological Society). These codes set standards for documentation of surface collecting and excavation similar to the basic standards that most professionals adhere to and require observance of all applicable federal, state, and local laws and regulations governing access to public and private lands and the removal of materials. With imminent threats to archaeological sites in the face of rapid development, avocationals play a crucial role in the documentation, preservation, and stewardship of sites. They self-identify as stakeholders in many archaeological projects that take place in their communities.” (Hart, Siobhan M., "High stakes: A poly-communal archaeology of the Pocumtuck Fort, Deerfield, Massachusetts" (2009). Open Access Dissertations. Paper 11.

So, just to clear this up, amateur or avocational archaeologists are defined by their adherence to laws and codes of archaeology and their personal investment in the preservation of the history they interact with. Now we all know!

To the aspiring art thieves reading this blog

I was just taking a gander at my stats, took a peak at the search keywords that have led some lone views to this little corner of the internet, and saw one keyword was "artcrime beginners tips".

That's a little disheartening.

Whoever you are, I hope your mind was changed by all the evidence stacked up here that stealing is wrong and you shouldn't do it. Ethics aside, you'll probably get caught anyway since I don't think most art thieves turn to Google for pointers. You might as well give up now. For your reform and convenience, dear wayward reader, here are a couple articles detailing the grim consequences of stealing art:

Monday, June 13, 2011

Return rant!

It’s been three months since my last post, approximately the length of time it takes for spring term at Bennington to chew one up and spit one out; luckily, I’m still alive and the illicit antiquities trade is still my life, so I’m back, at least for the time being! I hope the hiatus was only a one-time necessity; Bennington is the kind of school that demands not only your attention but basically your entire soul if you want to do well. However, the majority of my coursework for my last two undergraduate terms (EVER!) will be very connected to cultural heritage and the illicit antiquities trade, so after this summer I’m sure that I will still be able to post sporadically throughout the fall and spring.

The most exciting and applicable connection will be my senior project: I will be exploring the rift between museums and the archaeological community that has developed over the meaning of ancient artifacts, how artifacts come into the possession of museums, and how they are ultimately displayed. (!!!) To illustrate this rift and how damaging its consequences can be, I’m focusing on the current controversy at the Smithsonian Institution over the exhibition, “Shipwrecked: Tang Treasures and Monsoon Winds”, which will display the contents of the Belitung shipwreck. It is scheduled to be installed at the Freer and Sackler Galleries in spring 2012. Much of the scholarly community, including the Archaeological Institute of America, has denounced the Smithsonian’s decision to exhibit the collection, which was excavated unscientifically by a commercial treasure hunter off the coast of Indonesia. Technically, the excavation was legal and sanctioned by the country of Indonesia, which did not want the shipwreck to remain at risk for real looting. However, legality is not enough to persuade the archaeological community that the shipwreck artifacts can still express viable information and that this exhibition is actually an opportunity: I think this exhibition could be an amazing chance for the Smithsonian to address multiple sides of complicated ethical issues and highlight the threat to historical sites from looting, treasure hunting, and the construction of the developing world.

After two internships at the Smithsonian - both of which showed me only passionate, intelligent people who just want to do right by history and culture - I want to believe the institution as a whole will do right by this exhibition as well and use it as an opportunity to be the first institution in this country (that I know of) to consciously address issues of provenance. If that doesn’t end up being the case, I will be very disappointed. But, until we can know for sure next spring, all you haters might do better to realize opportunity when you see it, and encourage your colleagues at the Smithsonian to use this exhibition for good rather than evil.

(The following is a rant, the logic of which might be suffering from my already mushy summer brain) From what I understand, the position being suggested by some scholars (too mushy to get specific) is that museums should only ever display artifacts that have been scientifically excavated; so that when museums don’t discuss the role of provenance in their exhibitions, it’s ok for us to not think about it because we already know it’s legit? Like how Dunkin Donuts coffee is all Fair Trade but there isn’t a Fair Trade logo on the cups? Wouldn’t it be better (and less idealistic) to quit nitpicking about collections with known origins and instead make a bigger effort encourage institutions to just be up front with the source of all their products? Isn’t it more honest for the Smithsonian to exhibit a commercially salvaged shipwreck than for the Met to exhibit a donated collection with faked provenance documents? As a consumer of both history and coffee, I would appreciate not having to research the product to know there were no farmers or looters harmed in the process of it getting to me. Just tell me straight up on the packaging. In the same way I wish Dunkin Donuts would feature a Fair Trade logo somewhere on their coffee products so that other people know it’s Fair Trade, I wish museums would just do the honest thing and acknowledge that they don’t have any information about the object other than what the dealer or donator told them. In the case of the Smithsonian, we do know where the Belitung shipwreck came from and how it’s contents got here. We know why it is significant archaeologically, and while I know we all wish that there had been the time and money for professionals to do a long and thorough excavation, the reality is that the Indonesian government made a choice and what we have now is a remarkably intact collection with a known origin that can still convey a lot of information about the people and places that made it. I sincerely believe denouncing the Smithsonian for choosing this exhibition is doing more harm than it might if the archaeological community encouraged the Smithsonian to put the show on in an ethical and educational way. My sentiments are echoed in the New York Times article by James P. Delgado, the director of maritime heritage at the United States Department of Commerce National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (Rant concluded, don’t judge.)

Writing about the illicit antiquities trade as an undergraduate with no real experience in the field can frequently put one at a disadvantage, but it can also be a great place for perspective. I have been interested in these issues since I read Sharon Waxman's Loot not too long after it's release in 2008 and for a while, my sympathies lied solely with the archaeological side of the debate. However, after spending this past year immersing myself in the issues and officially incorporating the subject into my college concentration, I am now comfortably wedged in the middle, swaying between sides as necessary. I think the Belitung shipwreck (like every single artifact that has ever needed to be removed from the ground) should have been archaeologically excavated, if it needed to be excavated at all; however, I also think it is important to realize that ancient artifacts are not entirely devoid of meaning if they are excavated illegally. There is still information to be gleaned, and while it is certainly not the kind of information we could have gotten in an actual excavation, it’s all we have and we need to figure out how not to lose it over the bigger issues we’re battling with.