Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Parcak's Peru Project: What about the looters?

First things first. Sarah Parcak's project is awesome. So is Larry Coben's Sustainable Preservation Initiative. And the possibilities for Peru laid out in this TED talk are fantastic.

That said, I am still anxious about how the discovery of myriad previously unidentified unexcavated sites is going to be handled in a way that doesn't lead to massive looting. Statements like this one, meant to be reassuring, instead give me pause:
So many sites in Peru are threatened, but the great part is that all of this data is going to be shared with archaeologists on the front lines of protecting these sites. 
Okay, but how are archaeologists on the front lines going to deal with looters absent much more robust sustained funding to pay for all the site guards that are going to be needed to guard these sites as they are being excavated? I can see how once they are excavated SPI might take over, to some extent, winning hearts and minds of locals by giving them an economic incentive to protect sites, or at least those sites that generate tourist revenue. But that's going to happen later if at all. The major danger lies in the period after the discovery is made, before and during excavations, especially on massive sites where archaeologists will perforce be digging only on a tiny fraction.  

The "front lines" is not just a metaphor. Guys with guns are going to come, following the archaeologists (or perhaps hacking the crowd-sourced data, though I have been assured this is not going to be doable). Archaeologists doing the digging on the front lines are going to need help from people who know how to guard sites. How is the Peruvian government going to find the money to pay for guards and police to stop them? Does the TED prize provide funding for that? National Geographic? The archaeologists being given the data? Is the money going to be raised from the thousands of volunteers helping GlobalExplorer?

Financing of site security and archaeological policing is the missing piece of the puzzle. Without it, I worry that this project may end up inadvertently causing the destruction of much of what it discovers.

Friday, December 25, 2015

If Florence can lease its piazzas, why can't museums lease antiquities to raise $ to protect sites?

Florence is leasing the Palazzo Vecchio, the Ponte Vecchio, the Piazza d'Ognisannti, the Belvedere... the list goes on and on. A lot of desperately needed money is being raised, although the inconvenience to residents (and presumably, also to visitors barred from these public spaces for the duration of the lease) is real and not inconsequential, unless the lease is during hours when the building or bridge would not be in use or normally closed.

The temporary privatizing of cultural space is not a new phenomenon. As I learned while researching the Brooklyn Museum controversy over the Chris Ofili Madonna (see my intro to the edited volume Unsettling 'Sensation' here), museums have been renting out their great halls for corporate and individual soirĂ©es -- not just gala fundraisers for the museum, but private functions -- for decades now.

Which raises the question: If Florence can lease its piazzas and museums their exhibition spaces to raise money needed to preserve their heritage, why can't museums lease antiquities from their storerooms to raise money needed to preserve archaeological sites? 

Saturday, November 14, 2015

"Safe haven" self-justifies collector/curator/dealer in smuggling Pakistani artifacts

Antiquities dealer, who also is a collector and a curator of his own online "museum", cops a plea. Note the "safe haven" self-justification.

McNamara said he kept, rather than sold, most of the materials he imported from Pakistan, as his interest was mainly in the scientific value of the relics rather than the monetary value. He said he did not think initially that what he was doing was illegal and, in some ways, thought he was rescuing precious materials. 
But McNamara acknowledged that he realized that willful ignorance of the law was no excuse for his crime, and he did sell some of what he imported. He admitted that he and the others conspired to create fake documents indicating that their shipments had Pakistani government approval, and that he lied to U.S. Homeland Security investigators looking into the matter.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Imagine if Hobby Lobby had had to pay a Pigovian tax on the antiquities it purchased

The Green family has spent a reported $30 million amassing its collection, and have been under federal investigation for five years under suspicion of importing looted artifacts. One reason the investigation has gone so slowly, one must presume, is that the government doesn't have the resources to go faster.

Now imagine that the US put in place a tax on purchases of antiquities, say 10%, on the principle established long ago by economist Arthur Pigoux that the social costs that are the byproduct of some economic activities (i.e., air pollution) should be paid back by the industries involved in creating the harm. Spending $30 million in the antiquities market, whether the purchases are legitimate or not, causes social harm because the licit market is not clearly distinguishable from the illicit market and because high prices signal to looters that antiquities are desirable commodities.

10% of $30 million is $3 million, $3 million that might have helped pay for a much speedier investigation or for many other enforcement and deterrent efforts that are so sorely lacking. Without some such financing mechanism, it is chimerical to think that additional import restrictions or merely verbal commitments by governments to do more will make much of a difference. (HR 1493, I should note, is scored by the CBO as revenue neutral.)

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Antiquities Under Siege recommendation made 8 years ago now being taken up

This is one of the few ideas now in play that really could do some good in terms of protecting archaeological sites:

the task force proposed by Italy, which “is gaining traction at UNESCO”, should include archeologists, military forces specialized in the safeguard of cultural heritage, ONGs personnel and cataloguers. “They should be deployed in “grey” areas where there are tensions, but not wars”. It is something similar to the “culture peacekeepers”, as it was discussed recently, but “definitely, we are not talking about sending paratroopers to Palmyra”, clarified the minister. 
Italy thinks that peacekeeping missions should also include a cultural dimension, and Gentiloni made the longstanding experience acquired by Carabinieri available to the project.
In the appendix to Antiquities under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection after the Iraq War (Altamira, 2008), we put forth this recommendation, among others. The key difference from other "Monuments Men"-style task forces being advocated for by Blue Shield and other preservation/conservation-focused groups is that here there will also be some people who can protect the sites from gun-toting looters, a crucial need if the work of preserving and conserving is to be feasible.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Mushrooms and antiquities

Jedediah Purdy's review of Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World doesn't directly refer to the analogy between mushrooms and antiquities, but makes plenty of oblique references, i.e.:

An ethics of precarity is too close to taking art photographs of decay in a city we cannot save. Adam Smith, who was also interested in the naturalness of capitalism, once wrote that there is a lot of ruin in a country. The same goes for the world. It is too soon, and, more important, it surrenders too much, to make ruin our master-metaphor. The world still has a good deal of ruin in it, and, we can hope, plenty of fight as well. 

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Kurdish Museum buys looted artifacts

One of the lingering questions about the massive looting that occurred in Iraq in the years following the 2003 US invasion is where all the artifacts have gone and why it continued even after a worldwide ban on international trade in Iraqi materials was put in place, abating somewhat over time. Very little appeared on the open market and it is thought that much was simply stockpiled in warehouses, or bought privately by wealthy collectors around the world. 

But the looters and smugglers inside Iraq were being sustained as well by the council of ministers of Iraqi Kurdistan, directors of the Sulaymaniyah Museum, which
started an initiative to make deals with smugglers after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the subsequent looting of museums in the country, according to Ancient History Etc., a U.K. nonprofit online publication.
The museum bought a tablet -- one of a group of 80-90 being proffered -- containing 20 previously lost lines of "The Epic of Gilgamesh, for $800 off a smuggler in Iraq in 2011.
"They paid smugglers to ‘intercept’ archeological artifacts on their journey to other countries," according to the publication. "No questions were asked about who was selling the piece or where it came from." 
Stuart Gibson, director of the UNESCO Sulaymaniyah Museum Project -- an effort to assist the Kurdish government in running the museum -- praised the museum's decision as "courageous" because it ran counter to official policy against paying smugglers and looters for looted artifacts. That policy exists, of course, because paying these folks gives them an incentive to keep on looting and smuggling. Asking no questions makes this incentive even more attractive. 

The Huffington Post headline suggests that the question raised by the museum's practice of buying looted antiquities is : Should museums make deals with smugglers and looters in order to protect and preserve history? But that way of putting the question, while it is undoubtedly the way that museums interested in bringing material in think of what they are doing, begs the question. The deal described was not made in order to protect and preserve history. It was made in order to keep the artifact from leaving the country. Had the tablet gotten out of Kurdistan it would surely have been sold to someone anyway, someone who would have in turn protected and preserved it. The only effect here was to shorten the supply chain, reduce the cost of doing business for smugglers and looters, and thereby promoted more digging and more smuggling.