History in Ruins: Cultural Heritage Destruction around the World

History in Ruins: Cultural Heritage Destruction around the World

Rachel Van Bokkem, April 2017

On January 20, Syrian authorities revealed that Daesh (also known as ISIS) militants had destroyed part of the Roman amphitheater in the ancient city of Palmyra in late December 2016. This was just the latest incidence of the terrorist group’s deliberate destruction of cultural heritage sites throughout the Middle East and North Africa. According to the Antiquities Coalition—a US-based organization that fights against the illicit global trade in antiquities—Daesh destroyed over 150 sites between 2011 and 2015. In a recent interview with CNBC, UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova confirmed that all of Syria’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites have been either damaged or destroyed since the country’s civil war began over six years ago.

Daesh, however, is not the first to destroy cultural heritage. Destruction of physical or intangible artifacts that embody the ideas, beliefs, and characteristics of past societies is a well-tested means of control and power. In 70 CE, the Roman Army plundered and destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem during the First Jewish-Roman War. During Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, thousands of Chinese historical sites were destroyed to rid the country of capitalist and traditionalist influences. In 2001, the Taliban destroyed the two Buddhas of Bamiyan, declaring that the massive statues were false idols. Physical destruction of culturally significant artifacts grants perpetrators the power to reject them as unimportant and to limit how well they can be known to future generations. In Daesh’s case, militants are erasing traces of civilizations that do not align with their ideology, performing, in effect, a form of “cultural cleansing,” as Bokova calls it.

Yet not all loss of historical evidence is the result of malicious acts. At a roundtable titled “Destroying History: Threats to Cultural Heritage around the Globe” at the 2017 AHA Annuaannual meeting in Denver, Katherine French (Univ. of Michigan) noted that “war and politics are not the only enemies of the past . . . economic development, poverty, lack of training, and lack of resources also threaten to destroy historical artifacts.” The multidisciplinary roundtable, comprising six scholars—French, Senta German (Montclair State Univ.), Robert E. Murowchick (Boston Univ.), Thomas F. X. Noble (Univ. of Notre Dame), Ingrid Rowland (Univ. of Notre Dame, Rome Global Gateway), and Sylvia Sellers-Garcia (Boston Coll.)—revolved around the difficult question the discipline of history must confront in the face of multiple forms of source destruction: How will future historians accurately represent the past?

Contextualizing the discussion, Noble, a specialist in Mediterranean medieval and religious history, discussed the emergence of iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire. Emperor Leo III, believing that God was punishing his empire for its veneration of icons, banned religious images. As a result, until the middle of the ninth century, a cultural battle raged between those who sought to destroy and those who restored religious images. “We have almost no evidence” from this period, Noble said. “Countless works of art depicting Christ, Mary, various saints, and gospel scenes were either destroyed or painted over. For almost a century or more, Byzantine art fell victim to religious fanatics.” Historians who seek to understand the Iconoclast period of the Byzantine Empire have few original visual sources to rely on—instead, they are forced to construct their narratives from secondhand accounts.

But damage to historical artifacts and cultural heritage is not always malicious; sometimes preservation can act as a form of destruction. In colonial Spanish Guatemala, for example, “the greatest loss of documentary material occur closest to the moment of creation when archivists . . . decide[d] what to keep and what to save,” said Sellers-­Garcia, a historian specializing in colonial Latin America. Those who assisted in the archive’s construction selected documents they believed would be useful for the Spanish Empire, discarding others. An entire world of legal paperwork and private documents from the colonial period, thus, are lost to modern-day historians who seek to understand the Spanish colonial period in Guatemala’s history.

Destruction can also arise from neglect, as with the Guatemalan Police Archive in Guatemala City. Discovered by chance in 2005 in a downtown warehouse by the Institution of the Procurator for Human Rights, the archive contains almost 80 million pages about murders, tortures, arrests, and kidnappings during the Guatemalan Civil War (1960–96). Documents were found strewn across the floor, stuffed in garbage bags, damaged by water, and violated by vermin. Archivists are still struggling to acquire proper resources to preserve these papers from further damage. “In some ways,” Sellers-Garcia noted, “this lack of resources becomes a legacy . . . that shapes the nature of the archive into the present.” A lack of archival assets can ultimately have withering effects on the amount of research conducted in a field.

Destruction through neglect, while not malicious, can occur on much larger scales as well. In Italy, city modernization projects in Rome have taken precedence over preservation of the ancient Roman and medieval ruins that stand throughout the city. The Tor de’ Schiavi (“tower of the slaves”) was once a popular tourist attraction but is now encircled by new residential apartments. Rowland, an expert in classical antiquity and architecture, explained, “The real problem facing Roman antiquities now is development without education.” City leaders, who have little historical understanding of Rome’s various cultural heritage sites, are choosing money-making schemes, such as building a new subway system connecting the suburbs to downtown Rome (coming dangerously close to the Coliseum) and parking garages where ancient Roman villas were recently uncovered.

Cultural heritage can also suffer from too much exposure. In China, serial novels focusing on the exploits of tomb robbers have become increasingly popular with children. Murowchick, an anthropologist specializing in China and Southeast Asia, said, “It’s very exciting for kids to read, but it is also inspiring lots of them to see this as a career opportunity. There’s a saying that says, ‘If you want to become rich overnight, go rob a tomb.’” Now, people interested in robbing artifacts are able to connect with one another through the Internet. Instructions for making and using dynamite, ground-penetrating radar, and other necessary tools are accessible on an unprecedented scale. This has encouraged a growing trade in antiquities in China. Murowchick estimates that “a quarter million tombs have been raided in China since 1990” to satisfy both the domestic and the international demand for artifacts.

This rush to pillage in China highlights the growing demand for antiquities worldwide. Daesh is fueling this demand by physically destroying sites and by looting museums, galleries, and archives for antiquities that can be sold outside of Syria and Iraq. German, an expert in Aegean, Greek, and ancient Near Eastern archaeology and a former board member of Saving Antiquities for Everyone (SAFE), noted, “The Islamic State’s occupation of much of Syria has incentivized another reason for the looting: their taxation, or more accurately, ‘shake-down,’ of any and all commercial activities.” According to the Antiquities Coalition, Diwan al-Rikaz, the Office of Resources for Daesh, issues permits to potential looters authorizing the plundering of sites within its territory. Daesh then receives between 20 and 80 percent of profits made from selling the artifacts. In one Syrian army raid, soldiers found spreadsheets showing that taxes derived from selling antiquities were an important form of side revenue for Daesh. In fact, between 2014 and 2015, this Daesh-imposed tax netted over $200,000 for the terrorist group from dealers selling stolen artifacts. One sale alone supplied the organization with $140,000.

These Daesh-taxed antiquities have flooded the black markets and galleries of Europe, Asia, and North America, where they are purchased by enthusiastic wealthy buyers. While the United States has taken precautionary measures and banned the import of ancient Syrian art and artifacts, the carnage continues. As the annual meeting roundtable shows, this destruction of cultural heritage is not isolated; instead, it is expansive and transcends both time and geopolitical boundaries. Even when unintentional, the damage nevertheless influences researchers in how they analyze the past and the sources they use to do so. The roundtable, French said, recognized the importance of calling the attention of AHA members to this issue: “By historicizing it and listing different contexts for the destruction of history,” historians would understand how it affects their fields—no matter how diverse.

Rachel Van Bokkem is a history MA student at American University in Washington, DC, specializing in Holocaust and genocide studies.

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Ancient Artifacts in London Returned to Cambodia

Ancient Artifacts in London Returned to Cambodia


The Culture Ministry received 10 Angkorian gold jewelry pieces in a ceremony in London on Friday after they were handed over by a private collector, in a case that exemplifies the murky international trade in ancient Khmer artifacts.

According to a statement released by the ministry the same day, representatives from the U.K. gallery Jonathan Tucker Antonia Tozer Asian Art, which listed the items for sale, presented the pieces to officials from the Cambodian Embassy in London.

Ancient Khmer jewelry returned to Cambodia on Friday as depicted on the cover of a 2008 book, left, and in a statement released by the Ministry of Culture, right.

Ministry spokesman Thai Norak Sathya said the government could not find “anything to compare with our happiness” after the return of the artifacts, which were originally used to beautify statues and are made from gold mixed with other metals.

But details remain unclear regarding how the artifacts left Cambodia in the first place, the identity of the private collector who owned them and the motivation behind their return.

Jonathan Tucker, co-owner of the gallery, seemed unaware that the artifacts had been returned when contacted on Sunday.

“I offered these pieces on behalf of a collector who had owned them for many years,” he wrote in an email. “I subsequently returned them to the collector’s representative. I was not involved in their return to Cambodia but am pleased to hear that the matter has now been satisfactorily resolved.”

Culture Minister Phoeung Sakona said she did not know the identity of the private collector who had offered the items for sale through the London-based gallery.

But she said art experts in Europe had alerted her after the gallery publicized its sale of the items in November, leading the ministry to send Cambodian and regional experts to examine the artifacts.

“First, we asked the company to stop putting these antiques up for sale,” she said. “Then we negotiated with the company selling the items. The seller had their own lawyer, but they were also happy when we showed them evidence that these antiques belong to Khmer arts with Khmer artistic styles.”

Ms. Sakona said she did not know how the items had left Cambodia, but explained that they were an indelible part of the country’s artistic legacy.

“This artistic style is Khmer—there are no other countries that made items like this,” she said.

Mr. Norak Sathya, the ministry spokesman, was also unsure about when the artifacts had left Cambodia. He cited decades of wartime looting, but said that international and local law required that the artifacts be returned.

Art experts and antiquities traders have bickered over laws governing the removal of Cambodia’s cultural patrimony, which dots galleries, museums and private collections across the world.

Legal scholar and antiquities expert Tess Davis has cited French protectorate laws from as early as 1900 forbidding the removal of the artifacts, while auction houses maintain the removal of items from the country as late as 1999 abides by relevant regulations.

Mr. Tucker, whose eponymous gallery’s website hosts at least half a dozen other items labeled as Khmer artifacts, maintained that he took necessary precautions to avoid selling looted items.

“I take extensive precautions about provenance,” he said on Sunday.

The gallery owner declined to elaborate on the identity of the jewelry collector or the involvement of Neil F. Perry, whom the ministry statement identified as a restorer for the gallery who aided in the items’ return.

U.K. business registry records list a company under the name of “Neil F. Perry,” incorporated in March 2014 by Neil Perry and Ian Norman Perry, both of whose occupations are listed as restorer.

Neil Perry-Smith, a London-based restorer, has been cited by Indian authorities as having worked on behalf of New York-based art dealer Subhash Kapoor during the time that Mr. Kapoor allegedly looted and resold about $100 million worth of Indian artifacts. Mr. Perry-Smith has denied any involvement.

The Times of India has reported that Neil Perry-Smith also goes by Neil Perry, while the U.K. companies registry lists two restorers, Neil Perry and Neil Frederick Perry-Smith, both born on December 6, 1962. However, it could not be confirmed last night whether the names in fact refer to the same person.

Some of the jewelry returned on Friday appears on the cover and in the pages of “Khmer Gold: Gifts for the Gods,” a 2008 book co-authored by Bangkok-based art collector Douglas Latchford and Emma C. Bunker, a U.S.-based expert on Khmer antiquities.

In two separate court cases, U.S. authorities appeared to link Mr. Latchford and Ms. Bunker with involvement in illicit antiquities trafficking, although neither has been charged with any crimes nor named outright in the complaints.

Anne LeMaistre, Unesco’s representative to Cambodia, told The New York Times in a 2012 interview that one of Mr. Latchford and Ms. Bunker’s books amounted to roughly “the inventory of the missing cultural patrimony of Cambodia.”

Mr. Latchford did not respond to a request for comment, and Ms. Bunker could not be reached.

Mr. Norak Sathya, the ministry spokesman, said it remained unclear when the jewelry pieces would be shipped to Cambodia or where they would be stored.

But when Mr. Latchford donated two sets of gold Angkorian regalia to the National Museum in 2008, he expressed hope that more pieces would wind up there.

“I have been collecting gold for a number of years and I felt that it would be a good thing—a nice thing—if the museum had some gold which it could display,” he said at the time.

paviour@cambodiadaily.com, sony@cambodiadaily.com

© 2017, The Cambodia Daily. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in print, electronically, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without written permission.

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International Federation for Peace and Sustainable Development Names Dr. Zahi Hawass as New Ambassador for Cultural Heritage

International Federation for Peace and Sustainable Development Names Dr. Zahi Hawass as New Ambassador for Cultural Heritage

Egyptologist Dr. Zahi Hawass has been chosen by the International Federation for Peace and Sustainable Development (IFPSD), an affiliate organization of the United Nations, as its official “Ambassador for Cultural Heritage.” The International Federation for Peace and Sustainable Development (IFPSD) will be honoring Dr. Hawass as Ambassador for Cultural Heritage at a special ceremony on April 19, 2017.

Dr. Zahi Hawass is a world-renowned archaeologist and Egypt’s former Minister of Antiquities. He has directed excavations at some of Egypt’s most famous archaeological sites including Giza, Saqqara, Bahariya Oasis, and the Valley of the Kings. His new role as with the IFPSD is a recognition of his long and distinguished contribution to the field of archaeology, as well as his strong commitment to preserving cultural heritage. His work in protecting cultural heritage extends far beyond Egypt, in 2010 Dr. Hawass held the first meeting of the International Cooperation for the Protection and Repatriation of Cultural Heritage, where 22 attending countries worked together to share their experiences in repatriating their nations’ antiquities.

Dr. Hawass has served as an example of the importance of raising awareness for the protection of cultural heritage in Egypt and around the world. The Antiquities Coalition is honored to have Dr. Hawass bring his decades of distinguished work in the preservation of cultural heritage to join the fight against cultural racketeering as the Honorary Chairman of the Antiquities Coalition Advisory Council.

As the new Ambassador for Cultural Heritage of the IFPSD, Dr. Hawass will be honored at an event hosted by the International Federation for Peace and Sustainable Development that will be held at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York. The event will be attended by ambassadors of the United Nations, along with world experts and contributors in the fields of culture, museums, and archaeology.

To learn more, visit Here and Here.