Five scholars discuss how the looting of antiquities puts our cultural heritage in peril, and what to do about it.
The market for looted antiquities has long posed a threat to cultural heritage and historical knowledge. Heightened instability in the Middle East, however, has increased the dimensions and stakes of the problem as terrorist organizations like the Islamic State group sell looted goods to fund their operations. Because the illicit antiquities market is international, crossing legal jurisdictions, it is tricky to detect, prosecute, and combat.
This spring the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society held the capstone conference of the three-year project the Past for Sale: New Approaches to the Study of Archaeological Looting. The project brought together archaeologists, legal scholars, economists, sociologists, and other experts to examine a problem that crosses borders both geographical and scholarly, and to explore policy solutions.
In a conversation excerpted here, the Magazine spoke to five of those experts: UChicago’s Lawrence Rothfield, associate professor in the Department of English Language and Literature, and Gil L. Stein, senior advisor to the provost for cultural heritage and professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations; DePaul University’s Patty Gerstenblith, distinguished research professor of law, and Morag Kersel, associate professor in the Department of Anthropology; and Fiona Greenland, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia. The conversation has been condensed and edited.
What is so intractable and so urgent about this problem?
Gil Stein: It’s appropriate to think of this as the perfect storm. Cultural heritage has to be looked at as a nonrenewable resource that’s the history of world civilization. It’s the physical evidence of who we are. You can think of it as like the fossil record of human evolution, of our cultural development. And it’s being destroyed now at a faster rate than ever before in history.
This intractable problem of looting flourishes during conditions of a breakdown of security and warfare. And right now, we’re seeing a massive crisis across the Middle East with wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Morag Kersel: I predominantly work in Jordan, Israel, and Palestine. So perhaps not the places we would first think of as where their cultural heritage is in jeopardy. But looting and the destruction of cultural heritage is a big problem in all three states. From an archaeological perspective, that impacts what we know about the past. I work at an early Bronze Age site, a cemetery that people have decimated in the quest of pots for sale, legally available now in the market in Israel. Because there’s demand, there is looting. Ultimately it skews our understanding of past mortuary practices at an early Bronze Age site.
Patty Gerstenblith: As long as there’s demand, there will be a desire to fill that demand. The end destination markets, particularly in Western Europe and North America, mean that the incentive to loot is at its core an economic incentive that will continue. The law has tried to reduce that incentive, but it’s very difficult for a number of reasons.
When you look at an antiquity by itself, you can’t tell whether it’s a recently looted one or one that might have been looted 100 years ago. From an archaeological perspective, that may not make much difference. But if we’re trying to reduce current market demand, then it does matter because somebody who buys a recently looted piece is feeding that international network with more money.
The other problem is that these objects pass through many different jurisdictions. The laws in those countries are different. The laws even at the point of origin may be different over time. Whether we would characterize a particular pot as illegal will vary depending on when it came out of the ground. It’s very difficult to interdict the piece—usually through forfeiture—and return it.
We need more criminal prosecutions of those involved. That’s very difficult because you have to show that they knew the piece was illegal, and you need the government to make this a high enough priority that they’re willing to invest the resources in building a criminal case.
Lawrence Rothfield: It’s one thing to try to stop the movement of already looted material across borders and into markets, but it’s an equally difficult issue to provide the resources to help countries that are struggling to protect their own patrimony by securing their sites—to find the resources to police and to make it easier and possible for customs officials to interdict items before they leave the country.
What do you know now that you didn’t know at the beginning of the project?
Fiona Greenland: I now know that artifacts take on very different values as they move through the international market. I was trained as a Roman archaeologist and I thought that I understood what an artifact is as a piece of knowledge—as one piece of a puzzle that could help us to tell a broader story about history. But through this project I learned how an artifact becomes an antiquity. The antiquity becomes a container for different values, ideas, projections, fantasies about the past, fantasies about the present, status. I’m a sociologist now, and so those are the questions that really interest me.
People have strong ideas about what constitutes looting. There are people who think it’s good to bring objects out of the ground and then collect them so that they’re saved. That’s a really difficult conversation to have with an archaeologist who says, “No, the important thing is to have proper recording of stratigraphy.”
So I’ve come to understand something about the strong claims on artifacts from very different points of view that might be explained by where people sit with respect to the market—whether they’re collectors or dealers or work in a museum or a university collection, or are local people who also have something to say about artifacts and what heritage means to them.
What about the role of terrorist groups?
PG: It’s not a totally new phenomenon, but by using satellite documentation, satellite imagery, and seeing when different patterns of looting emerged, we could see that all the different armed conflict groups in Syria have engaged in looting of archaeological sites. It’s not unique to the Islamic State.
But we have been able, at sites like Mari or Dura Europos in eastern Syria, to track that after they came under ISIL control, the rate of looting increased pretty dramatically.
A lot of really large numbers of how much money ISIL has made have been thrown around in the media. Those large numbers are almost certainly wrong, but it’s very difficult to come up with a more accurate number. The study that Fiona is operating through the MANTIS [Modeling the Antiquities Trade in Iraq and Syria] project is trying to do that.
The fact that ISIL is making any money while they are destroying the past is something that policy and lawmakers became very interested in—in Congress, the State Department, even to some extent the Department of Defense. So this is the first time that we have been able to mobilize the community that is worried about security and terrorism on the one hand, with the archaeological and heritage community on the other, to see that we have a common interest to try to stop that looting and to stop, or at least reduce, the market demand.
FG: The MANTIS project tries to estimate the market value of objects pulled out of archaeological sites. One question we’re investigating is, can we use different forms of data to make a better estimate? What we’re seeing is that the nine- and 10-figure numbers that have been occupying headlines are probably not substantiated by available evidence. But the project has drawn our attention to other aspects of terrorist exploitation of cultural heritage and antiquities. One is the fact that the terrorists are able to leverage rural manpower on a broad scale. Satellite images, for example, document eight to 10 hours a day worth of digging by hundreds of men.
Also, antiquities seem to be moving through more than one pathway, so there’s probably a cooperative network, which suggests a fair amount of strategic thinking.
LR: The focus on terrorism has had a very important impact insofar as it’s gotten people to think about the antiquities market as an industry that needs to be analyzed in the same way as banking or other regulated industries that are already under much scrutiny in terms of terrorist financing. We now have people who don’t normally think about antiquities looking at that market and saying, there’s no regulation here, and trying to ask, how would you regulate the antiquities industry? What are the mechanisms that you would put in place?
GS: The terrorist connection is going to help fight this more than any kind of cultural arguments we could make. But we can’t characterize this connection between terrorism and antiquities looting as the same across the world. There are huge differences even between Syria and Iraq, and certainly Afghanistan. The planning of 9/11 was carried out in Afghanistan, and the training for it took place there. The attackers were actually looting sites in Afghanistan and using the money to finance flying lessons.
The connection between ISIL and looting is strongest in Syria. In Afghanistan the Taliban are no longer focused on antiquities smuggling because they’re making so much more money from opium. That’s the real growth industry for them. So you have what you could almost think of as market responsiveness.
MK: The project has allowed this kind of thinking, to make these connections, but ultimately ending with demand. Speaking to the variety of people who have come through the Neubauer project has allowed me to understand that [for instance] demand for wildlife is similar to demand for antiquities, and the policies that we come up with for those things are similar.
GS: This issue of demand gets us into a realm of psychology and applied anthropology. How do you get people to recognize that they should not be buying these kinds of antiquities? We have the example from wildlife smuggling, we have the example of ivory, we have the example of blood diamonds from West Africa. How do you get people to change the whole way of thinking to, no, this is morally wrong and ethically wrong?
This is a new frontier. This combination of actual enforcement of our laws to make real penalties for people who knowingly buy illegal antiquities, combined with a real effort to educate, or almost applied marketing projects, would be something to explore a lot further.
LR: One thing that came out in the last year of the project was other ways of thinking about demand in addition to the stick approach—like bringing in an economist who thinks of demand in a neutral way and says, if you’re looking at a market and you want to reduce demand, or you want to reduce the harm that’s done by the activity, how can you do that without simply telling people that they ought not to do this, and/or punishing them with criminal penalties? Can you make the activity itself more costly so that people will choose not to do it? Putting a tax on the sale or purchase of antiquities may have the effect of reducing demand in the same way that putting a tax on dirty coal will reduce its production. And if it doesn’t, at least it will provide funding that will help to mitigate the harm that’s done.
Another possible approach is to try to encourage people to shift their demand to artifacts we are relatively certain were not looted. That can be done by instituting loan programs of artifacts that might come out of museum storerooms.
FG: I think it’s important to say a word about demand and what we mean by demand. Most of us sit back and say, I’m not part of the demand problem. But there’s a collective responsibility. That demand is also me finding something online for $100, $150 maybe, a nice coin, and thinking it must be OK to buy, somebody’s vetted it. Or I’m going on vacation to Israel, to Italy, there’s a nice little pot, I can fit it in my backpack, it’s $50, and they can give me a certificate.
So demand isn’t just wealthy collectors buying an enormous sarcophagus or a nine-foot-tall marble statue. There are thousands of little objects for sale right now online that may have come from Syria or Iraq and shouldn’t be bought and sold, but they’re there.
MK: But it’s also institutional demand, right? Because there are undiscriminating museums and other institutions who buy things that may have iffy backgrounds or incomplete backgrounds. It’s not just individuals.
PG: In the United States, a donor to a museum will receive a tax deduction. Our museums are mostly private institutions and are supported at least indirectly through the ability to deduct from your taxes the value of the donation. Yet the IRS does not look at the question of whether an antiquity being donated has proper legal title. That makes the United States a great place to launder these objects.
What’s the next step for each of you? Is there anything readers can do to help?
LR: There is going to be some effort to pursue a few of the policy ideas that got raised, such as developing a market for leasing of antiquities. We’re going to try to explore that further, I’m hoping.
MK: I’m going off to the Middle East where I will interview more people about what they’re buying in the marketplace and why they’re buying it so that I can continue looking into the demand side of the equation.
GS: I’m continuing to work in Afghanistan on aspects of documenting collections that are in museums and archaeological sites that are at risk for looting. One of the ways that we can be proactive in fighting the antiquities trade is to help build up the local infrastructures in these countries where looting is going on, or that are at risk for the kinds of conditions that would lead to another outbreak of looting.
FG: I would encourage people to ask questions of their museums, especially, where do artifacts come from? Have conversations with the curators and department directors. Make clear that you care about legally sourced artifacts.
PG: I’m in the middle of a project analyzing the level of provenance information that museums use when they’re trying to decide whether to acquire an object. Museums have developed a lot of policies about what to acquire and what not to acquire but it’s unknown whether they actually follow their own policies.
From a broader public perspective, there are a number of initiatives that are beginning. We are approaching the US International Trade Commission to change the ways in which antiquities entering the United States are declared. That will, we hope, both bring better statistical data as well as greater transparency to the import side.
Also, in the past year, we got Congress to enact a law dealing with importation of cultural materials from Syria. We would like to try to broaden that to apply to other countries as well in a more effective and efficient manner.