Samstag, 19. September 2015

"It is more important to remove the dealers from the market" - EAA session concerning the failure of the international cultural heritage protection

Facing destruction, looting, and ongoing offers of illegal excavated items, traded on eBay and at auction houses, the situation of the international cultural heritage protection looks more than depressing. In principle, the previous efforts have failed!

Session at the EAA in Glasgow

One of the sessions at the meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists (EAA) in Glasgow on 02.09.2015 dealt with the topic "Culture Trafficking: Research into the global traffic in cultural objects at the University of Glasgow".  The session provided interesting insights into the darkfield of illicit trafficking in cultural goods. It was organised and formed by the Glasgow project Culture Trafficking, financed with ERC funds for the years 2012-16.

Example Cambodia

Koh Ker, Prasat Thom
Tempel von Koh Ker
(Foto: Arian Zwegers [CC BY 2.0] via flickr)
Very revealing, for example, is the research into the role of cultural goods for the Guerrilla movement of the Red Khmer in Cambodia, that was presented by Tess Davies. In the period from 1975 until its dissolution in 1998, it changed from a propagandistic appropriation towards a commercial exploitation by sacrilege and illegal excavations. With the destruction of Buddhist temples, Christian churches and Islamic mosques, an iconoclastic ideology is visible. These were directed less against antiquities that served the formation of their own tradition of the Khmer Rouge. If the trade in cultural goods by the Red Khmer in the beginning was simply taxed - in principle like common in Western states - later commanders of the Khmer Rouge were personally engaged in the trade. The Glasgow researches show the smuggling routes from Cambodia via middlemen into the border region towards reputable dealers in Bangkok, from where the “white washed “goods reached the West. A large share of the profit remains with these dealers as sort of a compensation for the assumption of the risk of laundering antiquities.  Meanwhile, there is not a single temple in Cambodia that has been spared from the robbery in recent decades. Many of them can be found in western museums and auction houses (comp. The Secret of Cambodia’s Mythic Koh Ker Warrior: Archaeological Insight. [1.3.2012]; Archaeologik 26.10.2012). Now graves are being looted in an increasing number. In many cases, Tess Davies was able to demonstrate parallels to the current developments within Daesh  / IS.
  • S. Mackenzie / T. Davis, Temple Looting in Cambodia: Anatomy of a statue Trafficking Network. British Journal of Criminology 54 (5), 2014, 722-740 - doi: 10.1093 / BJC / azu038

On-site protection is unrealistic!

Calakmul, Mexiko:
This Maya stela was "thinned" by looters seeking to sell the carved face of the piece on the international illicit antiquities market. Many of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Calakmul's famous monuments have suffered such a fate.(Foto: Donna Yates [CC BY NC SA 4.0]
via WikimediaCommons)
Donna Yates' contribution to Bolivia and Belize lead into two Latin American regions that are rich in archaeological finds. She pointed out, that international agreements never meet the needs of the local reality. The obligations of States to protect their treasures are unrealistic, for example, if there is no electricity for an alarm system available, if in these villages the population consists of just some old people and if neither police nor prosecutors are present on-site. Protective measures on site – propagated by the art-dealers as a solution to the problem and with whom they want to get rid of their responsibility – can’t stop the looting locally. Also, bilateral agreements, like the United States as MoU also with Belize and Bolivia (despite rather tense diplomatic relations), are no useful tools: Similar to the Middle East, illegally excavated goods are provided with provenances that go beyond the boundaries of modern States. The cultural space of the Maya now includes Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and also Belize.
  • D. Yates, Church Theft, Insecurity, and Community Justice: The Reality of Source-End Regulation of the Market for Illicit Bolivian Cultural Objects’. European Journal on Criminal Policy Research 20(4), 2014, 445–457. - doi 10.1007/s10610-014-9232-z (see Trafficking Culture)

The path of the objects

Further contributions to this session showed how even nowadays archaeologists benefit from illicit excavations: There are still thick academic monographs, in which finds from the arts- and antiquities trade have been published uncritically, particularly cuneiform texts. The necessary scientifically source-critical elucidation of dubious provenances is missing. In the discussion, the opinion, that archaeologists should publish findings from illegal excavations at any rate, was repeatedly represented - tough only with a critical documentation and a clear description of the dubious provenances. This creates opportunities for a market monitoring, whose significance was revealed in the contribution of Christos Tsirogiannis. By comparison of current auction catalogs with pictures from different publications, it was possible to keep track of some objects in the market, and to contribute to understand the role of individual dealers and large auction houses within this business. Concretely could be shown that objects, which already have been confiscated by the police in context of the Medici case in 1995, now turn up again in the art-dealing trade with encrypted provenances.

Failure in a broader field

Especially Neill Brodies lecture brought a comprehensive problem analysis and therefore some concrete recommendations for the politics - which must be applied especially in the German laws amendment. The policy pursued by their actions to date two objectives: Firstly, the protection of the sites locally and on the other a return of looted assets to the countries of origin. For Brodie, the Cultural Heritage politics of recent decades has failed, because the goals neither can’t be achieved nor are rational. Specifically, he identified four reasons:

1. On-site protection
2. Reactive politics
3. Country- and situation-specific sanctions
4. Importance of safe-guarding and repatriation of illegally excavated objects.

For protection on-site, there are too many different sites to consider, especially poorer countries can’t ensure adequate protection measures. On- site protection basically operates only in peace-times, but not in crisis and wartimes, during which it is especially needed. Regarding the current on-site threats, there is a response – but with mayor delays and often rather improvised measures. Brodie referred to the outbreak of civil war in Syria in 2011 and the issue of an embargo for Syrian Antiquities only recently in spring 2015.

Since such measures are country- and situation-specific, they are easily avoided by using the usual dubious proveniences. Nowadays, Daesh benefits from this unfortunate politic, which doesn’t prevent the trade in any way.

A seizure and repatriation of illegally excavated antiquities is not archived hereby - and as a political objective it is unreasonable, because the objects in question have long since lost their find-context and the related historical value, on-site the historical find-spots have long since been destroyed. Aiming at returning the illegally excavated objects, mostly their exact paths are not being tracked and investigated, it can’t be determined which modern state could claim them. If this for once is successful, dealers simply escape further investigations and prosecutions simply by giving up property claims and permitting repatriation, so they can be celebrated for their "responsible" dealing with cultural goods.

Key Elements of a future politics

From this problematic situation, Brodie suggests the following recommendations for action:

Future politics for cultural heritage management must
1. Fight the market at the end of the chain!
2. be proactive and sustainable
3. Global - not focused on individual states only
4. Pursue criminal dealers.

In the final discussion the Glasgow group emphasized, that instead of fixed-term projects, long-lasting efforts are necessary to constantly watch the market. This could be handled only by a long-term working institution. A perspective for this is currently lacking. Such can only be done through an international cooperation, it was irritating, moreover, that the German approach with ILLICID has not been noticed within this group (also, hardly any German participants were in this session). It also became clear, that the research funding institutions - explicitly the DFG – do not feel responsible for it.  Even within criminology, the topic hardly found acceptance. (Post S. Mackenzie).

The programm of the EAA session at Glasgow, September 3rd, 2015

Chair: Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis
Organiser (s): Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis, Prof. Simon Mackenzie, Dr. Neil Brodie, Dr. Donna Yates, Ms. Terressa Davis

  • 1330 - 1340 Introduction
  • 1340 - 1400 The interface between criminology and archaeology: trafficking culture, S. Mackenzie (University of Glasgow)
  • 1400 - 1420 Cultural property protection policy failure in Syria, N. Brodie (University of Glasgow)
  • 1420 - 1440 Preventing protection: On-the-ground barriers to effective cultural property policy in Bolivia and Belize, D. Yates (University of Glasgow)
  • 1440 - 1530 Discussion
  • Coffee break
  • 1600 - 1620 Lessons in Cultural Heritage Preservation: Learning About the Illicit Antiquities Trade from the Cambodian Civil War, T. Davis (Antiquities Coalition)
  • 1620 - 1640 Inside Job: The Effects of Archaeological Involvement on the Illicit Antiquities Trade, M. Lambert (University of Glasgow)
  • 1640 - 1700 An evidence-driven approach to mapping illicit antiquities networks, C. Tsirogiannis (University of Glasgow)
  • 1700 - 1800 Discussion


The original German blogpost can be found here.

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