Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Too Much Information?

Archaeo-bloggers David Gill and Paul Barford have taken the Portable Antiquities Scheme to task for allowing archaeologists to post finds on the database that was designed to record non-Treasure finds by the public.  Of course, PAS is a voluntary scheme and while it is not mandatory for archaeologists to post finds, really what's wrong with them doing so?   In the end, shouldn't it be about creating the most complete record of significant finds possible?  As it is, without archaeologists reporting, there is a hole in the PAS record.  Sure, archaeologists should report details of their finds to the local Historic Environment office, but is such information as accessible as the PAS database for scholars and anyone else interested in learning more details about what is found?

Monday, December 29, 2014

The View from Assad's Damascus

The archaeological blogosphere has picked up on Franklin Lamb's all too familiar efforts to shift blame for the ongoing tragedy in Syria from the Assad Regime and onto others, including Western collectors.   No mention, of course, of the regime's part in the destruction of Syrian cultural sites or the apparent part the Syrian military has played in looting in places like Palmyra and Apamea.  And while Lamb singles out the terrorists of ISIS for blame, no mention is made of Lamb's own links with the terrorists of Hezbollah, who, after all, have allied themselves with the Assad regime.  Caveat emptor.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Movie Critics

Egypt's Culture Minister has cited "historical inaccuracies" as the reason for banning Ridley Scott's "Exodus" from movie theaters.  Cynics might think Egypt's generals were more concerned with depictions of  Jews winning freedom from their Egyptian military oppressors.  After all, the Egyptians themselves apparently believe that Joseph the Prophet struck coins.

Our State Department and its Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs supposedly stand up for both religious and artistic freedom.  So, will this move be protested in any fashion?  Or, will they just shrug and pretend Egypt is still a democracy, albeit an imperfect one, when Egypt's Culture Minister is feted as part of celebrations for a new MOU only cultural bureaucrats,  Egypt's dictators and the archaeological lobby will love.

Friday, December 26, 2014


Archaeo-blogger Sam Hardy has an interesting post about the Cypriot Department of Antiquities looking the other way while connected Cypriot collectors added looted material from both occupied and unoccupied Cyprus into their collections which were then "legalized."

While the Cypriot Antiquities Service would plead "extenuating circumstances," the information Hardy provides should cast the archaeological lobby's moralistic attacks on coin collectors for contesting import restrictions on "coins of Cypriot type" in a new light.

And what of Cyprus itself?  Wouldn't it be better to institute a program open to all  akin to the UK's Portable Antiquities Scheme and Treasure Act than one based on insider access to looted material?

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas

CPO wishes all its readers a Merry Christmas  and hopes we will all think about Christians and other religious minorities who are being persecuted in Syria and Iraq.  Cultural heritage is more than buildings and artifacts, its about the people who made them.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Egyptian Religious Bigotry Behind Pulling of Excavation Permit?

Archaeo-blogger Paul Barford has made the case that Egyptian cultural bureaucrats have pulled the excavation permit of American archaeologists from Brigham Young University because they disagree with the tenants of their Mormon faith and not because of some "misunderstanding" about the number of "mummies" they have found in a cemetery unearthed at the site of Fag El Gamous in Fayoum. 

While Barford approves of such intolerance, CPO does not. One's religious beliefs (or lack thereof) should never come into play in deciding whether to award excavation permits or not.

So, how will the US State Department, which supposedly promotes religious freedom as a core objective of American foreign policy, respond?

And will the International Coalition to Protect Egyptian Antiquities put even 1/10th the effort lobbying the Egyptian Government on behalf of the Brigham Young archaeologists and their religious freedom as it has lobbying the U.S. Government for "emergency import restrictions" on Egyptian cultural goods?

Or, will both just shrug, and celebrate the expected announcement of the pre-judged MOU with Egypt in early  2015 as if the country was still a democracy, albeit an imperfect one?

If there is any time to rethink a MOU with Egypt, its's now.  Any need for "emergency restrictions" has long since passed.  And, anyway, its no time to reward the generals for possible spying (presumably on behalf of the Chinese) or their continuing crackdown on dissent, which most recently included refusing entry to a prominent US scholar and democracy supporter.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Blurred Lines

Legendary TV journalist Richard C. Hottelet has passed away.

In his last lecture to journalism students, he emphasized the need to be objective:  "Play it straight, do not tell them what you think.  Do not tell them what you feel.  Just tell them what you know."

Unfortunately, all this seems to be lost on a peculiar brand of archaeo-blogger/activist/researcher/journalist who has sought fame (if not fortune) based on a hyped claim that the terrorists of ISIS made $36 million from looted antiquities in one area of Syria alone.

And when that claim fell apart?  Was it time issue a retraction and an apology to those who were attacked for questioning the claim?  Of course not.

Blogging is one thing, but we should all expect more from anyone who also purports to be a "researcher" and a "journalist' and the "news outlets" that publicized this false claim.

Friday, December 19, 2014


Is the only way to describe a proposal Monika Grütters, Germany's Commissioner for Culture, has made at the behest of archaeologists with an axe to grind against collectors and cultural bureaucrats of failed states and/or dictatorships like Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq and Syria. 

According to the report,

Ms. Grütters outlined plans for a new law that would require documented provenance for any object entering or leaving Germany, long among the laxest of regulators of the art market. Among other measures, dealers would be required to show a valid export permit from the source of the piece’s origins when entering Germany.

It's unclear how Grütters believes German dealers and collectors are going to come up with documentation that simply does not exist for artifacts that have been traded legally for generations without such paperwork.

Meanwhile, there was apparently no discussion about simple steps archaeologists can take that will discourage looting like hiring site guards and paying local diggers a living wage.    

Ethical archaeologists are already taking similar steps.  So why not make them a legal requirement for every archaeologist excavating abroad?  It's always better to tackle any problem at the source. 

And, if the point of Grütters' proposals is to ensure Germans appear ethical to the world, shouldn't that start with archaeologists, who after all, have direct contact with the people of source countries?

Thursday, December 18, 2014


In far off Poland, one archaeo-blogger fantasizes about vast treasure houses of looted material in the deserts of Iraq or Syria:

One possibility remains that the 2003+ looting in Iraq (documented on the ground and in satellite photos) resulted in stockpiles of antiquities, bought cheap at source and mothballed in a secure store as an investment, say a retirement nest-egg for some local wiseguy - intended to be sold piecemeal when the fuss dies down in a decade or so. We know holes were dug, stuff hoiked, US and European dealers tell us it never arrived on any market they know -  postulating such warehouses is therefore one (pretty good) way of explaining that evidence.  What's more nobody can say that there are not such warehouses.
Somewhere in Iraq, what's in this building?
If they exist, they could be veritable treasure houses, the buyer had the pick of a vast amount of numbers of objects from the tens of thousands of holes dug in 'productive' areas of productive sites. They could afford to buy the best of the best, sawn-up Assyrian friezes, glyptic  material, cunies, Sumerian statues, Akkadian jewellery, Seleucid bronzes, and coins, loads of coins. You can just imagine it. Rather like a Swiss freeport, just somewhere at the end of a dirt track in the Middle Eastern desert.

You can also imagine it when one day some armed thugs bust their way into the hoarder's house, thrust an AK in the face of his daughter and bawls out that he'll pull the trigger if he does not hand over the keys - and when he gets the keys anyway blows a hole in her head. And then his. They'd come with some guy who knows the trade - ISIL has access to specialists in many fields - who picks out the pieces that give more bucks per transport costs, load them up on some trucks and off they go with them to some market. They can come back for more with impunity until they empty the store of the best bits. Them they might use informants to tell them where the next one is. Plausible? You bet. Did it happen? Could have.

You can imagine too, can't you, the smiling Lebanese dealer shaking hands with the well-dressed man offering him some prime antiquities. The seller is an ISIL political officer, suave and well-groomed in a suit. The dealer is anticipating a good profit, he has some clients on his list (15000 people, you know) who he knows will be very interested in those Assyrian reliefs, no need to put them on open sale, he can sell directly. The coins he can shift too, to America - nobody there asks any difficult questions. Plausible? You bet. Did it happen? Could have.

And he goes further.  Not content to fantasize himself, he also fantasizes that a serious, knowledgeable commentator on the subject shares that same fantasy.  Yet, the fact that this archaeo-blogger does not link to what the commentator actually said, though it is available on the Internet, should raise yet another red flag.  Once again, caveat emptor.

Tackle the Problem at the Source

Jim McAndrew, a former senior special agent with Homeland Security, warns against assumptions that looted Syrian material is coming here in any quantity.  In so doing, he rightly concludes the best place to focus resources is on Syria's borders.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Cold Storage?

Now that claims that looting is "the most important funding source for ISIS after 'hot oil'" and "$36 million in looted antiquities were taken by ISIS from one area in Syria alone" have been thoroughly debunked, the archaeological blogosphere is desperately seeking an easy explanation for where all those stolen antiquities must have gone. 

That easy "answer?"  "Cold storage." 

But, once again, caveat emptor.  This red herring first appeared after the initial phase of the Second Gulf War in 2003-2004 to explain why a promised avalanche of  looted Iraqi antiquities never surfaced in the United States and other Western markets.  As of 2013, before the rise of ISIS, these stolen artifacts still had not appeared in quantity.

In any event, while it is true at least one such infamous storage space did exist for looted Italian artifacts back in 1980's Switzerland, is it reasonable to assume similar secret facilities exist in today's Iraq and Syria?  Or, is it more reasonable to believe that no rational middle man would create such "cold storage" in a "hot war zone" where one bomb or mortar shell could easily turn a treasure house into dust. 

But what of all those holes at Apamea (a site the archaeological lobby is also loath to admit is controlled by the Assad regime)?   CPO agrees satellite imagery appears to show looter's holes, but notes again reports out of Iraq after the Second Gulf War suggest all may not be what it seems.

Under the circumstances, isn't it at least possible most of holes at Apamea (and other sites like Dura Europos) were "dry," i.e., they produced little of value or that the excavations were actually for military purposes, i.e., "fox holes" for the troops of the warring factions?

Or, is this again yet another case where such obvious possibilities cannot be seriously considered because they would  further undermine the archaeological lobby's efforts to encourage government decision makers to impose the "devil's proof" on collectors of ancient artifacts?

Monday, December 15, 2014

They Shoot Looters, Don't They?

While the general public probably views looting as no worse than a traffic violation, incredibly they are actually debating in the archaeological blogosphere whether execution is an appropriate sanction for disturbing archaeological context for personal gain.   To be fair, the author is opposed to it and even has sympathy for subsistence diggers, but the fact that some in the archaeological lobby have supported the ultimate sanction in the past should give everyone pause.  The death penalty was imposed selectively in Saddam's Iraq; while those associated with the regime apparently looted with the Dictator's blessing, others without connections forfeited their lives if caught.  The same kind of selective  prosecution also  apparently lives on in today's Iraq, but at least no one is getting executed for looting in areas under government control.  And isn't that a good thing?

Caveat Emptor

The dramatic unraveling of the claim that $36 million in antiquities were looted under the authority of the terrorists of ISIS from one area in Syria alone should raise serious questions for mainstream media and government officials.  We know that archaeologists are smart, careful people, engaged in important scholarship and deeply caring about the exposure and investigation of history and culture.  We also know that most haven't the faintest idea of what goes on in the antiquities market -- indeed many choose a path of willful blindness, turning their eyes away from the trade in and collection of cultural material, whether licit or not.  Some of this may be motivated by the ideological view that all culture belongs to the states where it is found, and that collecting, even legitimate collecting, is nothing short of theft.  Many, we know, willfully and blindly accept the views of countries (many of which are dictatorships) that declare anything old state property, or, worse, forget their own commitment to science by seizing on and promoting truly ridiculous claims about looting and vastly inflated values of the traffic in stolen material, no matter what evidence may exist to the contrary. Caveat emptor. 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

More Debunking of the $36 million figure

Artnet news, citing German sources, has also debunked the claim that $36 million in antiquities were looted from one area in Syria.   Why is this so important?  - because the figure has been used to justify proposed changes in the law in both Germany and the United States that will impose the "devil's proof" on collectors of common artifacts which have been legally held for generations.

Friday, December 12, 2014

$36 million looting figure loses further credibility

Hopefully, anyone in the archaeological blogosphere still holding out hope that that $36 million figure for looted artifacts in one area alone has or will be "verified" or "corroborated"  will read this:

"So how much money is ISIL making from looted antiquities? Several media reports over the past two months put it at millions of dollars. One said ISIL had made $36m (Dh132m) alone from looting at one site in Syria. A spokesperson for Unesco’s Emergency Safeguarding of the Syrian Heritage Project also called the high figures being quoted grossly inaccurate. Desmarais [of ICOM] agrees: 'If someone gives you a number today, they are lying to you.'

Brodie also questions the financial figures put on looting and has called for proper verification. “I don’t believe these figures,” he says. “In 2013, Sotheby’s New York turned over $20m in antiquities sales from the entire Mediterranean and Middle East area, so ISIL would need to be making more than Sotheby’s from one site. For another perspective, assuming found antiquities in Syria are worth $50 each (which is an optimistic estimate), ISIL would need to have found and sold 720,000 antiquities.”

The article in question is far better than the usual propaganda the archaeological lobby has promoted in order to take advantage of the ongoing tragedy in Syria to clamp down further on collectors and even get a government payday.  Yet, it suffers from a problem common to most articles (and decision making) in the area-- while "experts" (mostly with an axe to grind) are consulted, collectors and small businesses who are expected to bare the brunt of any proposed "corrective regulation" are not.  No wonder government, academia and the press are held in such low regard these days.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

CCP Raises Concerns about HR 5703

The Committee for Cultural Policy has written responsible members of Congress expressing concerns about HR 5703, a bill that purports to protect and preserve international cultural property.

According to the letter,

Unfortunately HR 5703 as written is likely to make a bad situation even worse.  The bill assumes cultural property may be “saved” by repatriating it back to unstable, war torn nations without conditions. Blind application of these remedies may well lead to such miscarriages of justice as the seizure of Jewish and Christian religious artifacts from refugees and return of that property to the very instigators of their persecution.   The bill calls for a White House coordinator, but that coordinator will only consult with academics and foreign governments thereby ensuring even greater damage to the legitimate trade and, as a result, the American Public. The bill also provides the State Department permanent grant making authority without requiring any transparency or analysis of potential conflicts.  This is particularly troubling because many of the bill’s supporters stand to gain financially or professionally from such grants. The bill also bypasses the Cultural Property Advisory Committee and its recommendations based on the 1983 Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act which thoughtfully balances the needs for cultural property protection in situations precisely like those we face currently in Syria.  Finally the Bill does nothing to resolve the inherent conflict between DOJ’s selective application of untested foreign ownership laws against US parties and DOS’s sloppy administration of the CCPIA.  In fact, the bill makes this worse by setting an arbitrary date for determination of illegality and giving DOJ broad powers to question any and all objects already in the US without establishing any safe harbor for legitimately acquired objects.

The CCP has also analyzed the bill further here.    

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Spot On

Metal Detectorist and Commentator John Howland has posted this deconstruction of the anti-collector rants of archaeo-blogger Paul Barford on the Stout Standards blog.  It's spot on.

It's only too bad that others in the archaeological blogosphere who should know better link to Barford's ad hominem attacks giving them more credibility than they deserve.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Playing Gotcha

The Greek Reporter has a short  profile of  Dr. Christos Tsirogiannis, a Glasgow researcher, who uses police files procured "under the table" from the Greek authorities to play "gotcha" with auction houses and collectors.  CPO believes such behavior should not be celebrated but condemned.  The fair thing for Greek authorities to do would have been to share the materials with major auction houses so it can be reviewed as part of their due diligence process.  Instead, the Greeks (and presumably their Italian counterparts) use Tsirogiannis and his go-to blogger, David Gill, to publicly humiliate auction houses and prominent collectors with privileged information.  This gives the Greek and Italian cultural bureaucracies an easy "win" when the embarrassed collector and auction house surrender the artifact, and Tsirogiannis and Gill, two otherwise obscure academics, get some notoriety.   Perhaps all this helps divert attention away from the gross underfunding, bureaucratic incompetence and corruption that bedevils Greece's and Italy's poor stewardship of their own cultural patrimony, but it doesn't make it right.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Archaeology and Dictatorship: A Need to Examine the Archaeological Lobby's Links with Dictators and Terrorist Regimes?

Archaeo-blogger Paul Barford and his fellow-traveler, David Gill, have demanded that the EU Funded Glasgow Trafficking Culture group examine any links between paramilitary groups and the illicit antiquities trade. 

But what of the close and even more easily demonstrable links between the archaeological lobby and military dictatorships such as that in Egypt, Sectarian Governments like that in today's Iraq, or terrorist regimes like that of Assad's Syria or earlier, Saddam's Iraq?

Serious academic study could help illuminate how these links have buttressed State claims of ownership to anything and everything old, how this has only encouraged corruption, poor stewardship and even destruction and looting of artifacts in times of civil conflict or war.  It could also help illustrate how source countries can manipulate foreign archaeologists and other scholars by threatening denial of excavation or study permits, withholding sponsorship of excavations, and by other means well known to unscrupulous foreign government officials.

Now that would be an interesting study to read.