This has been sat in the drafts pile for a while. I’ve been writing and re-writing because I don’t want to have the post get lost in the rights or wrongs of the occupation of Iraq. I simply wanted to highlight a serious problem. I’ve moved it up because Cronaca notes the Guardian story that illicit excavation of antiquities may be helping fund terrorists in Iraq and suggests taking the story with a mountain of salt. I’m not so dismissive. The picture below shows just one site.
Umma, a Sumerian captial city, trashed. The smooth bits are the unexcavated patches. Photo from the WMF
The entire country of Iraq has been placed on the World Monument Watch 100 most endangered sites list. This follows continued lawlessness and wholesale looting of ancient sites in the country.
This isn’t anything new. SAFE records a ongoing failure to act to preserve Iraqi heritage. The problem continues. There are now large areas of the country where illicit excavators can operate. Control is now so weak that items can be stolen to order and shipped to Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. So far the loot appears to be stored but it should in time be possible to fence the goods on the antiquities market.
Now obviously I’d like to make clear to Christie’s, Sotheby’s and especially their lawyers that I’m not suggesting for one moment that they’d sell goods if an Islamic fundamentalist turned up on their doorstep with a sack of loot. However I’m not totally convinced that their checks are sufficient to stop them from unwittingly selling illicit material. I don’t make this charge lightly. Below is a diagram from Ian Stead’s book on the Salisbury Hoard. The Salisbury Hoard was illegally excavated in the UK and fenced through the London market. See how many names you recognise.
Diagram of trade of illicit material. From Ian Steads’s Salisbury Hoard
It’s hard to argue that something isn’t very wrong in the antiquities market, when illicit goods can be passed around like that. It’s amazing the British Museum was even able to spot something was amiss. It’s also worth noting that all the antiquities going overseas should have had export licences. I don’t know how many did. It must drive honest antiquities dealers mad with rage. I’m amazed you don’t hear the major auction houses demanding a crackdown on the people who bring their trade into disrepute.
It’s safe to assume that there is the demand and the means of supplying it once the material is out of Iraq.
Now all we have to do work out sort of person is able to work in the remote parts of Iraq where there’s a bunch armed vicious Islamic fundamentalists running amok. If we could also work out some sort of connection between the presumed first link in the antiquities chain, dealers in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and the foreign insurgents in Iraq. Badgerminor at Orbis Quintus has some idea where they might come from.
I don’t think you need a mountain of salt. The one ray of sunshine is the people who go and do this are the ones who get ripped off. Buy buying antiquities you could well be helping fund terrorists, but by far the larger amount of profit will be siphoned off into organised crime. So that’s alright.
Links you might be interested in:
SAFE: Saving Antiquities for Everyone
The Illicit Antiquities Research Centre