Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Glasgow University Team gets £1m grant to study illicit antiquities trade

A looted archaeological site in Iraq from the air in 2003. Copyright: Italian Carabinieri
In case you somehow haven't heard or just aren't paying attention, researchers at Glasgow University were recently awarded a £1 million grant from the European Research Council to study the illicit trade in antiquities. For those of you who are new to studying these issues, this is what is what the more arcane academics like to call "a big freaking deal." Over the next four years, a team led by archaeologist Dr. Neil Brodie and criminologist Dr. Simon Mackenzie will gather and analyze data on the movements and motives of traffickers, the activities involved (such as illegal excavation/looting), and pricing structures. The goal of this grant, as described by the Guardian, is to "develop new approaches to regulate the international trade of cultural goods and help policymakers better define laws to fight criminal activities."

This is incredible for a number of reasons. First, to my knowledge there has never been such a generous amount of funding directed towards the study of the illicit antiquities trade until now. So much of what we know about illegal artifact trafficking is cobbled together from various international busts and trials, some hard-won insider information, investigative journalism on very particular controversies, and years of accumulated blog posts chronicling the changing nature of collecting. It is often incredibly difficult to get solid statistics from those kinds of patchwork sources. This study will be the first of its kind on the illicit antiquities trade, and will undoubtedly be groundbreaking in deepening our understanding of how illegal artifact trafficking operates. Second, Dr. Brodie and Dr. Mackenzie are already well-known in this field for their groundbreaking research on the illicit antiquities trade. Considering what they have already achieved on what one can assume is a fairly average budget, it is astonishing to think what they will accomplish with such a large sum over a relatively short amount of time. Third, can you imagine the kind of research opportunities this one study will inevitably open up to our generation of academics? This is the perfect time for ambitious grad students and bold undergrads to make a good case for focusing on the illegal antiquities trade and demand funding for its study. The findings from this research will undoubtedly give us twice as many questions as they will answers, and here's hoping those questions will require more studies that young, lively bloggers like me may soon be a part of.

For more information, here's a rather brilliant piece on Prof. Mackenzie contrasting his work with Indiana Jones' tomb robbing. (When will that stereotype die, already?)

Congratulations to Dr. Brodie, Dr. Mackenzie and their team at Glasgow University!


  1. Used alot of Prof. MacKenzie and Italian Carabinieri case studies for my dissertation on the looted Iraqi antiquities.
    Also if you get a chance have a look at the work done by Matthew Bogdanos

  2. This grant is great news! I hope it will mean that cultural objects will be valued for the things we can learn from them, rather than just how much money people can make.

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