The AC Digs Into: Libyan Cultural Heritage

Dr. Susan Kane is a Professor Emerita of Classical Archaeology at Oberlin College, the Director of the Cyrenaica Archaeological Project (Libya) and Sangro Valley Project (Italy), and an expert on the archaeology of Libya. Dr. Kane’s interest in Libya is not limited to archaeological research, but also includes capacity building work for the preservation and protection of Libya’s cultural heritage. Since 2005, with the help of grants from the U.S. Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation and working closely with the Libyan Department of Antiquities, Dr. Kane has helped to train Libyan archaeologists and police in how to protect and preserve their heritage in the midst of crisis and civil war. In 2013, she was awarded a Society for American Archaeology Presidential Award for her efforts in the preservation of Libyan heritage during NATO’s Operation Unified Protector.

How has the conflict in Libya since the Arab Spring affected the cultural heritage in Libya?

Since the February 2011 revolution that ousted Gaddafi, Libya has been struggling with the challenge of building a new country. The current perilous condition of the Libyan state now endangers a remarkable and varied range of cultural heritage dating from the prehistoric, Graeco-Roman, and Islamic periods, including five UNESCO World Heritage sites, all currently placed on the UNESCO World Heritage in Danger list. Three of these are Greco-Roman archaeological sites located on the Mediterranean coast—Cyrene in the east; Sabratha and Leptis Magna in the west. Another is further inland, nearly 500 km to the southwest of Tripoli, the Islamic desert trading city of Ghadamès with its distinctive vernacular architecture, and in the far southwest of the country is the Tadrart Acacus, a massif that contains thousands of prehistoric rock-art sites, some dating as early as 9,000 B.C.

The over-riding concern in Libya these days is security. Army and police forces have yet to be formed into effective, coherent organizations. Independent and heavily armed militias still abound. Religious extremist groups are asserting their control over areas of the country. Two rival governments at opposite ends of the country – the Tripolitania and Cyrenaica – are claiming authority over Libya’s resources in a de facto civil war. The oil-based economy remains fragile as production is intermittent. Water, electric, and communications infrastructures are unreliable; outages are not uncommon. There is a constitution still to be approved and a legal system to be reconstructed.

Cultural sites were largely spared during the 2011 Revolution. NATO’s Operation Unified Protector successfully protected Libya’s most important sites with their “no-strikes” list and the Blue Shield’s post-revolution assessment reported very little damage to the sites from either air strikes or ground combat.

Now, Libya’s cultural heritage is being damaged, not only from the chaos and lawlessness of the ongoing civil war, but also from deliberate destruction wrought by vandals and religious extremists. Over the past two years, Sufi tombs and mosques have been seriously damaged or completely destroyed throughout the country. In the city of Tripoli there has been both pillaging and the outright destruction of a number of important Islamic shrines. Prehistoric rock art at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Tadrart Acacus is being vandalized. Museums remain closed country-wide due to security concerns. Public sculptures of the Italian colonial era have been destroyed by extremists in both Tripoli and Derna and are currently being threatened in Sirte. There have been credible threats that the country’s museums will be attacked so artworks have been moved to safer sites and other protective measures taken by the Department of Antiquities staff to secure their buildings. Since Department of Antiquities archaeologists remain hesitant to do site inspections in areas deemed unsafe, there has been a notable increase in illicit trafficking of cultural materials in the past two years. UNESCO continues to issue urgent calls for the greater protection of Libya’s cultural heritage.

The lawless state of the country is also encouraging widespread, unregulated development that is destroying cultural heritage which has remained unscathed for centuries. With no constitution, no clearly operating legal system, no defined property rights, and no organized police force, a major land-grab is underway that pays little heed to archaeological remains. The exploding population of Libya needs new housing, especially after Gaddafi put a moratorium on building in the latter years of his regime and there is little respect for historical remains that might impede new construction.

In your work at Cyrene, has your work been affected by looting and trafficking?

American archaeologists have been working at the archaeological site of Cyrene in eastern Libya since the early 20th century. Richard Norton, with the support of the Archaeological Institute of America, began excavating in 1910, but he abandoned his project in 1911 following the murder of a staff member by local assailants. American teams from the Universities of Michigan and Pennsylvania respectively resumed archaeological research in the mid-1960s but all activity was halted in 1981 when relations ceased between the USA and Libya after the Gulf of Sidra incident.

Following resumption of diplomatic ties between the United States and Libya in January 2004, the American Archaeological Mission, under my direction, returned to Cyrenaica after a hiatus of twenty-three years. On our return to Cyrene in 2005, we found the infrastructure of the Libyan Department of Antiquities in Shahat was badly decayed. During the period we were unable to work in Cyrene, a number of sculptures excavated by the American Mission between 1969 – 1981 were taken from the departmental storerooms, probably sometime in late 1999 or 2000. Some of these pieces have subsequently been traced to sales in auction houses in New York, London, Paris, and Geneva, but only two have been recovered. Other thefts of sculptures from Cyrene also occurred during this period.

Asked by our old colleagues at the Department of Antiquities in Cyrene for assistance, the American Mission began a series of collaborative projects—generously supported by the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli and the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation—that focused on capacity building, including the introduction of modern information technologies, courses on site documentation and mapping, and the inventory of storerooms.

Temple of Zeus, Cyrene, Libya.
Temple of Zeus, Cyrene, Libya.

What makes the artifacts from Cyrene stand out from other areas? Where do you see these types of artifacts appearing after they are looted?

Cyrene’s funerary sculptures – portraits of the deceased and a unique, often aniconic or veiled, female bust of a funerary goddess – are unique to the region. These funerary sculptures are now appearing on the art market in Europe and the United States with alarming frequency, especially in the chaos of the post-Revolution. One highly publicized case involved a statue of a funerary goddess from Cyrene that was seized in London in 2013. The work was being shipped from the UAE Sharjah purportedly as a statue from Turkey, but its distinctive iconography was proved to the British Court that it was a looted statue from the Cyrenaica.

Urban encroachment, along with a growth of illicit digging in the extensive necropoleis that ring the city of Cyrene, are uncovering antiquities that are appearing more and more frequently on the international art market. Portable antiquities are seen as a form of booty by many local inhabitants, who now have the opportunity, especially through Egypt, to smuggle antiquities abroad for sale.

In light of Libya’s political crisis, what do you see as the role of heritage? Does it serve to unify or divide opposing parties?

Libya’s need to deal with its past, both political and cultural, is critical. During the Gaddafi regime, Libya’s pre-Islamic cultural heritage was not a priority. Archaeology was of scant importance and support for the institutions responsible for it were minimal. Virtually all of Libya’s heritage sites suffered from lack of maintenance, inadequate security, and few public programs existed to raise awareness of their centrality to Libyan culture. It is unclear how Libya will find a way to deal with its past, and to talk about its cultural heritage in the future.

Given 42 years of Gaddafi era neglect, it is not surprising that cultural heritage struggles for recognition and support from both the current governments and general populace. Libya is in transition and it is difficult to confront issues of cultural preservation when greater concerns dominate the Government’s agenda.

Can you tell us about your work training Libyan experts on the ground and how it is aiding in protection? 

Just after the Revolution, hopes were high that cultural heritage in Libya would receive a new national priority. In October 2011 UNESCO convened an international meeting of experts on Libya heritage. The group expressed concern about the fragility of Libyan cultural heritage and evaluated risks in the aftermath of the conflict and the transition to a new government. Their recommendations focused on securing heritage sites and collections, strengthening the legal and institutional framework for heritage, and increasing the awareness of and support for heritage by the national and local publics within Libya. Also recommended were a moratorium on excavations. Instead, foreign missions were encouraged to assist Libya with the protection, assessment, documentation, and management of cultural heritage, to be realized through a focus on training and capacity building.

Since that meeting in 2011, UNESCO, other international NGOs, and foreign missions have presented a variety of short-term workshops and longer-term training courses, organized with the cooperation of the Department of Antiquities. But now, given the current security concerns, no foreign missions can work safely in Libya, so any projects and workshops for capacity building must be held outside the country.

Our training activities have spanned the Gaddafi era (2005 – 2011), the Revolution (2011-2012), and the post Revolution period (2014 -). Since 2014, our training activities are being conducted outside of Libya, mainly in Tunisia. Our capacity building initiatives are based on a simple principle: “train the trainers.” Through a series of linked courses and workshops, the American Mission has sought to create a continuous and progressive training program. The idea is to work as often as possible with specific individuals who move forward in a series of increasingly advanced courses with the aim that these individuals will be able to take on the responsibility of training others in other courses offered within Libya. As new persons are trained by these trainers, they can be added to new advanced courses. This system builds a larger group step by step.

In 2016, we held two workshops on cultural heritage resource protection (29 February – 02 March 2016 in Rome and 17-22 October 2016 in Tunis). Instruction was provided by representatives of the FBI Art Crime Team, the US National Parks Service, and the Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale. The recommendations from the Rome workshop included a request on the part of the Department of Antiquities to develop multi-disciplinary teams of law enforcement personnel and archaeologists who could work together to combat illicit looting and trafficking within Libya.

The October 2016 workshop in Tunis brought together 8 Libyan law enforcement personnel (Tourist Police and Customs officials) and 8 archaeologists (from both Tripolitania and Cyrenaica) to work with instructors from the US FBI Art Crime Team, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Italian Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale to learn basic principles of crime scene investigation through a series of practical exercises. A Libyan lawyer and judge provided a discussion of Libyan antiquities law and information on court procedures. This was the first time that these two groups had been brought together to work on the problem of illicit trafficking and looting.

Since October 2016, four follow up workshops have been held within Libya, all conducted by participants from the last workshop. From these workshops, 23 police have been selected to attend an advanced course in Tunis in March 2018. It is hoped that these police will eventually form the basis for a specialized art crime police force in Libya.

United States And Libya Strengthen Joint Fight Against Cultural Racketeering And Terrorist Financing

United States and Libya Sign MOU Shutting U.S. Borders to Illicit Trade In Libyan Antiquities, Which Is Funding Daesh (ISIS) and Other Violent Extremist Organizations

Washington, DC (February 23, 2018) — The Antiquities Coalition commends the United States and Libya’s unity government for taking a major step to increase diplomatic ties and counterterrorism cooperation.

Today in the State Department’s Treaty Room, both countries signed a bilateral agreement to stop the black market trade in “blood antiquities” and other stolen art, which is financing Daesh (ISIS), armed insurgents, and organized criminals throughout North Africa and the Middle East. This memorandum of understanding (MOU) restricts the U.S. import of Libyan archaeological and ethnological material, while increasing responsible cultural exchange between the two countries. It reinforces emergency import restrictions put in place by the State Department in December 2017.

“Today’s agreement demonstrates the U.S. commitment to helping secure Libya’s future, in this case by protecting its rich past,” said Deborah Lehr, Chairman and Founder of the Antiquities Coalition. “It also sends a strong message to Daesh: culture does not divide us, it unites us.”

This is only the second such MOU between Washington and an Arab state, following Egypt, which signed a similar agreement in November 2016 after three years of negotiations. Libya’s request was negotiated in as many months, demonstrating the seriousness with which both governments are treating the terrorist financing risk from cultural racketeering. It was signed on behalf of the United States by Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, I. Steven Goldstein, and on behalf of Libya by Libyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs Under Secretary for Political Affairs, Lufti Almughrabi.

Due to Libya’s location on the crossroads of so many civilizations, the country is home to a significant cultural patrimony, such as the archaeological sites of Cyrene, Leptis Magna, and Sabratha. However, since the 2011 Civil War, this rich history has fallen victim to thieves and traffickers who are seeking to feed the world’s billion dollar demand for ancient art. For example, in June of 2017, the Libyan National Army seized artifacts from the Benghazi museum storeroom in a Daesh stronghold. Libyan forces were able to quickly make an arrest, just days later, of a Daesh-connected suspect involved in the trafficking of these artifacts.

The Italian government has also confirmed crime syndicates have been trading arms for antiquities with Libyan terrorists groups, raising fears that cultural racketeering could help to prolong the armed conflict in North Africa, while fueling organized crime in Europe.

With today’s agreement, the United States now has cultural memoranda of understanding with 17 countries, and has imposed emergency actions with similar terms for Iraq and Syria. These MOUs are a proven tool in discouraging the illicit trade in antiquities and benefit all parties, and we at the Antiquities Coalition have long advocated for their signings. The restriction of imports of illicit cultural goods to the United States significantly constrains the global black market, given the U.S. position as a leading market for art and antiquities. From the U.S. perspective, MOUs also serve the U.S. interest in decreasing international criminal activity, while strengthening relationships with its allies.

About the Antiquities Coalition 
The Antiquities Coalition unites a diverse group of experts in the fight against cultural racketeering: the illicit trade in antiquities by organized criminals and terrorist organizations. This plunder for profit funds crime and conflict around the world—erasing our past and threatening our future. The Coalition’s innovative and practical solutions tackle crimes against heritage head on, empowering communities and countries in crisis. Learn more at Follow us on Twitter @CombatLooting.

Media Contact:
202.798.5245 (T)

Threat Of Cultural Racketeering Highlighted At Global Special Operations Forces Symposium

Chairman and Founder of the Antiquities Coalition, Deborah Lehr, addresses cultural racketeering at the Global SOF Symposium

Cultural destruction is taking place on a scale not seen since WWII. This plunder is funding terrorism and organized crime around the world. The intentional destruction of heritage is a crime, and should be treated as such. Daesh (ISIS) and other violent extremist organizations have been using this in their campaign of terror in the Middle East, but there are now linkages to terrorist attacks in Europe. And in the past years, seizures have been made of illicit antiquities in the most reputable auction houses as well as from the homes and offices of some of America’s wealthiest families.

The U.S. Special Forces played a critical role in exposing the direct link between antiquities looting and trafficking, and the financing of Daesh. These topics, and ways to address the situation, were discussed in remarks delivered by Chairman and Founder of the Antiquities Coalition, Deborah Lehr, to the Global SOF Symposium in Tampa Bay. The Symposium is an international conference hosted by the Global Special Operations Forces Foundation, a non-profit organization that looks to create a colloquia of collaborators in military, education, and other sectors to combat global threats. Over 450 people from 30 countries attended this year’s Symposium to see talks given by active and retired military personnel, academics, and NGO representatives, among others.

The Importance Of Cultural Heritage For Post Conflict Stabilization And Reconciliation

Amr Al Azm, The Day After

post conflict stabilization and reconciliation
Damage from the January 2nd, 2018 airstrike to the Ma’arra Museum in Syria – Photo credit: The Day After

Since March 2011 Syria has gone through a traumatic and destabilizing process that has strained the ethnic, sectarian, and social fabric of the country beyond the breaking point. Much of the country lies in ruins today, and its cultural heritage has been a deliberate casualty of the conflict from its earliest days. At stake is the future of Syria as a unified country whose people have a shared history, goals, and aspirations.

Any successful transition process that brings Syrians together to work toward ending the bloodshed and rebuilding their shattered country must identify common ground  among the opposing sides and provide mechanisms facilitate  consensus. The question of national identity is a subject of common interest, and by identifying challenges and establishing common goals it may be possible to begin a process of cohesion. Syria has a resilient identity based on shared citizenship around a common history, supported by a long and rich cultural heritage. Cultural heritage has a critical role in rebuilding and enhancing Syrian identity and helping to clear a path towards post conflict stabilization and reconciliation. Syrians’ shared cultural heritage transcends ethnic, sectarian or tribal differences and therefore presents an attractive and effective  method for unifying the Syrian people and ensuring the future stability of their state.

Once the current violence ends, the people of Syria will need to find ways to reconnect with the symbols that once united them across religious and political lines. Museums, ancient sites and monuments effectively become the vehicle for identity creation, community outreach and cohesion.  These cultural sites can provide legitimizing spaces in which different ethnicities can be recognized, where all Syrians can reconnect with the ancient symbols that represent the rich cultural identity of this nation state. Protecting and preserving Syria’s history and cultural heritage will safeguard its future.

Amr Al Azm is an associate professor of Middle East history and anthropology at Shawnee State University. While working in Syria, Al Azm was a first-hand observer and sometimes a participant of the reform processes instigated by Bashar Al-Assad. This experience gave him unique insight into how these reforms are enacted and why, more often than not, they fail. Al Azm is an active member of the Syrian opposition and serves on the executive committee of The Day After.

The AC Digs Into: The Day After Project

Amr Al Azm is an associate professor of Middle East history and anthropology at Shawnee State University in Ohio. While working in Syria, Al Azm was a first-hand observer and sometimes a participant of the reform processes instigated by Bashar Al-Assad. This experience gave him unique insight into how these reforms are enacted and why, more often than not, they fail. Al Azm is an active member of the Syrian opposition and serves on the executive committee of The Day After. For more information about TDA, please visit


Could you tell us about what The Day After project does and what your goals for protecting Syrian cultural heritage are?  

The Day After project brought together a group of 45 Syrians representing a large spectrum of the Syrian opposition to participate in an independent transition planning process. In 2012, this group, supported by international experts in transition planning, convened six times to develop a shared vision of Syria’s democratic future and to prepare a transition planning document. The TDA report, “The Day After: Supporting a Democratic Transition in Syria”, provides a detailed framework of principles, goals and recommendations for addressing challenges in six key fields: rule of law; transitional justice; security sector reform; constitutional design; electoral system design; and post-conflict social and economic reconstruction. TDA has since transformed into an NGO, run by an all-Syrian Board of eight members, which aims to implement the recommendations presented in the TDA report. The Day After is an independent, Syrian-led civil society organization working to support a democratic transition in Syria. In addition to TDA’s six staff members in the Istanbul office, TDA has 24 staff members working in seven provinces inside Syria.

How did heritage become part of TDA’s efforts?

Recognising the importance of protecting Syria’s cultural heritage sites and collections from harm and the importance of preserving them as part of the efforts to help enhance a Syrian national identity and steer Syria on its path towards post conflict stabilization and reconciliation, TDA established the Heritage Protection Initiative (TDA-HPI) to help protect this cultural heritage as part of its portfolio of its activities.

What do you hope to accomplish with the Heritage Protection Initiative?

TDA-HPI has the ability to reach a network of heritage professionals and civil society activists who are in areas outside of the control of the Assad regime and working in desperate conditions to protect museums, cultural heritage sites, and collections. TDA-HPI provides an organizational framework for addressing emergency preservation concerns among heritage professionals and activists inside Syria, providing 

training and supplies for emergency stabilization, collecting verified documentation on deliberate acts of cultural destruction for human rights groups, and advocating for heritage protection among the international community. TDA-HPI produces regular reports on the state of cultural heritage sites and monuments including rapid assessment and damage reports due to bombing, looting and other violations.

Could you talk a little bit more about the new TDA-HPI Site Monitors Project?

TDA-HPI established the Site Monitors Project in spring of 2015, a network of local archaeologists, museum curators and activists who act as site monitors. It supports the site monitors by providing training and technical expertise through its contacts with professionals and institutions. The Site Monitors work to:

  • Document violations and looting of cultural heritage sites outside areas of regime control. This includes sites controlled by ISIS (Daish).
  • Document war damage caused by the ongoing conflict.
  • Track the sale and transport of looted antiquities.
  • Implement small-scale intervention/preservation projects.

What kind of partners are helping TDA-HPI achieve its goals?

TDA-HPI Works with technical experts and representatives of institutions with the goal of enhancing the protection of Syria’s cultural heritage in large measure by empowering local Syrian communities. TDA-HPI is currently collaborating with ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives project. We share our reports with the ASOR initiative and has been implementing small scale mitigation projects with their support since 2016. TDA-HPI also works closely with the Syrian Heritage Centre, which is based in Syria in the province of Idlib and made up of local archaeologists and museum staff. TDA has collaborated in the past with the Penn Cultural Heritage Centre, and the Smithsonian. TDA-HPI has received Financial and technical support from ASOR, Antiquities Coalition, Prince Klaus Fund, the Smithsonian Museum and UNESCO. 

For more information about TDA-HPI please visit

K-9 Artifact Finders Program: Training Dogs To Stop The Illicit Trade Of Antiquities

Mosaic Panel with Seated Dog, Byzantine, Syria, 5th/6th century, Art Institute of Chicago, Anonymous loan.
Mosaic Panel with Seated Dog, Byzantine, Syria, 5th/6th century, Art Institute of Chicago, Anonymous loan.

Dogs have been part of the archaeological record since ancient times. Now, thanks to the K-9 Artifact Finders Program, dogs will have the opportunity to play a role in protecting that record.

It is commonplace to see trained dogs in tandem with law enforcement officers working to keep airports safe, find missing persons, or track down illicit substances. However, if this new and unprecedented program, run by researchers at Red Arch Cultural Heritage Law and Policy Research, in partnership with Penn Vet Working Dog Center, is successful, trained dogs will also be able to sniff out looted and illicitly traded artifacts.

The K-9 Artifact Finder Program, emerged from research presented by the Red Arch Research team at the 2015 Culture Under Threat Conference in Cairo, Egypt. The team was looking for possible solutions for stopping the illicit trade of antiquities coming out of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Region, and it was clear that there needed to be a better way to stop these artifacts from crossing the American border. The K-9 Artifact Finders Program was their answer.

“The program launched by Red Arch Research has never been tried before,” said Ricardo St. Hilaire, Executive Director of Red Arch Research. It is being carried out systematically in three phases by Penn Vet who, St. Hilaire explains, “was chosen for its expertise training working dogs to see if it is possible train dogs to sniff out smuggled cultural heritage artifacts.”

The first phase of the program will be testing just that: seeing if the dogs are able to detect the antiquities. Phase two will consist of on-the-ground testing to see if the dogs can pinpoint artifacts from the MENA region outside of the lab. If the first two phases go well, then the third-and-final phase will consist of constructing a program to demonstrate the capacity of these dogs to customs officers, so that this program can be implemented on a national, and possibly international, level. It is important to note, that for the training, Penn Vet is protecting the artifacts by training the dogs to sniff out cotton balls that have been imprinted with their scents, rather than using the objects themselves.

“If the research proves successful, then customs officers may have a new law enforcement partner to catch smugglers,” said St. Hilaire. The trained dogs would expedite cargo inspection processes by sniffing out suspicious containers, saving time for the officers who would otherwise be sifting through them. Once detected, the officers would then prompt an investigation into the possible illicit imports. This would speed up the process and allow officials to fully focus on cargo with suspicious contents, rather than having to unpack, inspect, and reseal hundreds of containers themselves.  

I can think of several scenarios where an antiquities canine would greatly enhance the reach of a customs officer’s capabilities,” said Domenic DiGiovanni, a retired U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officer. From having these dogs at the port of entry or sea cargo facility, to having them in an airport where they can sniff luggage without disrupting passengers, DiGiovanni, who is also a consultant for the K-9 project, is convinced this program will have numerous advantages from a customs’ perspective.

The K-9 Artifact Finders Program is an innovative route to take to attempt to stop traffickers in their tracks, and a feasible stretch for a well-trained dog. “Smugglers must be detected and arrested so that we can disrupt the illegal trade that is looting our history and culture and lining criminals’ pockets with illegal cash,” said St. Hilaire, and the K-9 Artifact Finders Program just might be a solution.