Egypt’s History Is Being Lost to Criminals

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Egypt’s History Is Being Lost to Criminals

By: Tess Davis and Blythe Bowman

Posted: 04/30/2014 2:41 pm EDT Updated: 06/30/2014 5:59 am EDT


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A 12th century proverb warns, “Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids.” That may have been true before the Arab Spring, but today, not even the pyramids are sacred. Egypt’s rich archaeological heritage is falling victim to looters, thieves, and smugglers and it is not alone. The illicit trade in antiquities — “cultural racketeering” or “trafficking culture” — spans the globe.

Egypt’s government is making headlines with its pleas for assistance in combatting this plunder, branding it the work of potentially dangerous and organized syndicates. The United States is a primary destination for the so called “blood” antiquities now flooding from there, Libya, Syria, and Tunisia. What does this mean in practical Research (SCCJR). Pillaging ruins may seem a romantic pursuit — see Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider — but it is first and foremost a crime.

In one of the art world’s great contradictions, while most countries have a thriving legal market for artifacts, few have any legal source. And it is more crucial to remember antiquities trafficking is not a victimless or even white collar crime. While auction houses, galleries, and museums boast a culture of respectability and sophistication, when digging beyond this veneer, we often find they are not far removed from brutality and violence. One just need read the headlines to see how many top collectors are tangibly connected by their beautiful objects to the Holocaust, the Cambodian Killing Fields, and the Egyptian bloodshed.

Unfortunately many questions still surround the illicit antiquities trade’s mechanics and scale. Official data are scarce as cultural property thefts often go unreported, and national crime statistics are usually recorded according to theft circumstances, not type of object stolen. Moreover, the antiquities market is largely fed by the clandestine looting of archaeological sites, both known and yet undiscovered. This means that, when estimating the size and nature of the illicit trade, the only true assessment is: we don’t know.

If we wait to answer such questions before taking action, however, there will not be a past left to protect. Research paints a grim picture of the scope and frequency of looting around the world. A 2008 survey asked archaeologists to share their personal experiences. Of the nearly 2,500 participants, working in over 100 countries, 79 percent responded they had had personal experiences with looting while in the field. What’s more, a quarter reported encountering on-site looting in progress, and nearly half that those experiences were not isolated. The data clearly indicate that looting — which again feeds antiquities trafficking — is globally pervasive, commonplace, and iterative.

Yet all this knowledge has not prompted change. The “source” countries home to sought after antiquities — the Egypts, Cambodias, and Perus — lack the means to stop the trade. The “demand” countries like the U.S. lack the will. The great work being done by Homeland Security Investigations, which Egypt just announced will return eight recovered artifacts to Cairo next month, is sadly the exception not the rule.

There is clearly more that needs to be done. This month at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, during a roundtable organized by the nonprofit Antiquities Coalition, the Minister of Antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim urged academia, governments, and the media to give this issue its due. He is right: we need more — and better — research, policy, and coverage, that recognizes antiquities trafficking is not just a matter of preservation, but one of economics and even security.

In the meantime, it seems more tax dollars go to funding this transnational crime than fighting it. For example, the National Gallery of Australia spent $5 million on a single looted Indian artifact, purchased from the infamous smuggler Subhash Kapoor in 2008. If the museum had donated that money to the Antiquities Coalition for advocacy, SCCJR for research, or Egypt’s government for site protection — how much good could have been accomplished?

So what is the solution? We could elaborate on law and policy, but the best answer is the simplest. To borrow a phrase from WildAid’s landmark anti-ivory campaign, “when the buying stops,” the looting will too. Those who purchase antiquities must ensure these objects are not products of theft, civil unrest, or outright war. If one can afford a masterpiece, one can afford this due diligence. And for the rest of us? We must at least demand such responsibility from our publically funded institutions like museums.

If we don’t, Egypt’s great past may go from one of the world’s wonders, to one of its great cultural tragedies.

Tess Davis is an attorney and affiliate researcher in the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow. She previously served as the executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation and is working with Cambodia to combat the illicit trade in the kingdom’s antiquities.

Blythe A. Bowman is an assistant professor of Criminal Justice in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government & Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University. She has researched and written extensively on archaeological site looting and the illicit antiquities trade.

PDF of article here

AC Efforts to Support Egypt Cited in New York Times

The New York Times documents Egypt’s request for the United States to impose emergency restrictions on the importing of Egyptian antiquities. The article cites the AC’s efforts to support Egypt’s request.

A wide-ranging group of experts who support Egypt’s bid for restrictions, among them historians, archaeologists, cultural heritage lawyers and security consultants, met with Dr. Ali at his embassy on Wednesday to discuss Egypt’s plight. Several of them, members of the Antiquities Coalition, a research group, said there was no question that stolen Egyptian relics are appearing for sale on websites and in dealers’ catalogs in the United States.

Read the full article here.

Cultural Terrorism Has Swept the Middle East: The systematic destruction of artifacts and treasures should be of concern to all of us.

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Cultural Terrorism Has Swept the Middle East: The systematic destruction of artifacts and treasures should be of concern to all of us.

By Deborah Lehr and Eric Cline | Feb. 21, 2014, at 6:10 p.m.

Truly fighting cultural terrorism requires a coordinated, multilateral strategy. (ADEL HANA/AP)
Truly fighting cultural terrorism requires a coordinated, multilateral strategy.

A bombing in Egypt last week that destroyed the century-old Museum of Islamic Art and many of its priceless treasures was a tragedy, not just for the heartbreaking destruction, but because it could have been prevented. 

A campaign of cultural terrorism is sweeping the Middle East. Taking advantage of political uncertainty and economic hardship, this campaign in the cradle of civilization is slowly eradicating our common heritage.

Unfortunately, however, the institutions specifically designed to protect our heritage, such as UNESCO, have yet to develop a strategy and act to prevent this destruction. Nor has the United States government learned from the lessons in Afghanistan and Iraq that protecting culture means much more than merely safekeeping dusty relics of a past civilization. It is critical to a people’s very identity, not to mention their countries’ economic well-being.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

Cultural terrorism has risen sharply over the past decade in countries in crisis. Thieves raided the treasures of the Iraq museum during the chaos of battle between the U.S. military and Saddam Hussein’s forces; 7,000 years of history disappeared in a flash. More recently, Syria’s opposition openly admits to creating “archaeological teams” to loot sites for treasure to sell and finance arms purchases; there are reports of losses estimated as high as $2 billion in stolen antiquities since the crisis broke out three years ago. 

Egypt offers prime examples as well. Bandits have struck every major archaeological site, including the Giza Plateau, home of the pyramids and Sphinx, and Luxor, site of the Valley of the Kings and the boy pharaoh, King Tut. Its major museums have suffered. And government storerooms have been raided. Our organization estimates that as much as $5 billion in artifacts may have been looted in Egypt alone since the 2011 revolution.

There are bright spots. When the Cairo museum was broken into in January 2011, ordinary people formed a human chain to protect it. Local organizations like the Egyptian Heritage Rescue are stepping up to help.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

But small groups and individuals can’t succeed alone against coordinated, organized and armed attacks or against the sad reality that plenty of people and organizations are willing to purchase these artifacts once they make it into circulation internationally without close scrutiny of their provenance.

The systematic destruction of cultural properties and practices, with the intent to either profit from it or eradicate a culture, should be of concern to all of us. Once these artifacts are removed from their context, we all lose the chance to understand our history.

The governments in the region have the will, but not the resources, to fight cultural terrorism. Understandably, during times of political and economic uncertainty, these governments must focus on their people first. But there are a range of actors who should seize the opportunity to come together to protect these treasures and help local governments who cannot do so alone. They include those institutions that care about heritage, those who photograph them for profit and who buy and sell artifacts, professionals in the field and other governments.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

All must do what we can, no matter how limited our resources. For instance, it is possible to develop emergency preparedness plans for heritage. Our organization has negotiated a public-private partnership with the Egyptian government to do just that.

Other very simple initiatives also can make a difference. Creating an inventory of all archaeological finds in a museum, excavation site or storeroom can protect against theft or assist with an item’s recovery. Capacity-building training for enforcement authorities will better protect archaeological sites as well as raise awareness with border authorities. Aerial mapping to track looting patterns can bring better understanding of the problem’s extent. Enforcement authorities need to crack down on illicit excavations. And vesting local communities in protecting the sites through education and job opportunities will act as a deterrent.

These actions alone, however, are not enough.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

Truly fighting cultural terrorism requires a coordinated, multilateral strategy. Some organizations have joined the fight, including EBay which, for the first time in its history, recently removed from its website Egyptian antiquities known to be looted. And many NGOs are ready and willing to help. But the sheer scope of the challenge requires leadership at the top. We appeal to the United States government to take the lead in this fight as it has done against terrorism globally. It is an opportunity for the United States to play a leadership role, and to rebuild its reputation with the people of the Middle East. UNESCO, corporations such as National Geographic, NGOs and academic communities also have an important role to play in times of such crisis.

There are many willing foot soldiers at home and abroad. By working together, we can create new bonds over our common shared history. Time is of the essence.

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PDF of article here

CAI Chairman Interviewed for AnthroNotes

Deborah Lehr, Chairman of the Capitol Archaeological Institute (CAI) at George Washington University, and Dr. Eric Cline, Director of the CAI, joined AnthroNotes for an interview on the CAI’s efforts to fight cultural racketeering.

After seeing the Egyptian people stand up to protect the Cairo Museum against the looters, we believed our Institute, whose mission is to view archaeology as a tool of diplomacy, needed to take action. – Deborah Lehr

Read the full interview here.