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Heritage Futures Seminar: Collection-driven exploitation of the Middle Eastern archaeological record: Conflict antiquities, myth, realities and evidence

Paul Barford will be exploring the issues relating to the acquisition of material that has its origins in Syria and other conflict zones. He will raise ethical issues relating to the formation of private collections.

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Abstract

Over the past five years or so, the press has been full of stories about the destruction of the heritage as a result of the ongoing conflict and rise of militant Islamism groups in places like Syria, Iraq and Libya. What we see is an echo of what happened two decades earlier in the aftermath of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, the Gulf War and invasion of Iraq, when museums and sites were looted and many antiquities were stolen to feed a voracious and expanding international antiquities market. During the social instability caused by external events, we can observe that whole sites have been utterly destroyed through artefact hunters digging deep and close-set looters’ pits across huge areas and pulling out what is saleable to collectors and leaving behind in a jumble what is not. Some of these decontextualised items are appearing on the no-questions-asked international market. Along with them are large numbers of the fakes (of varying degrees of deceptiveness) that the same market mechanisms allow to pass into the public domain masquerading as dug-up artefacts.

The shocking rate of destruction of the accessible parts of the fragile and finite archaeological record across a substantial portion of the broader Middle East region and its turning into a muddle of loose artefacts treated as a commodity for the private profit and entertainment of individuals in the market countries should be a matter of concern, as should the question of who is profiting from this trade.

In more recent years, the smuggling of the products of looted sites has been labelled a source of ‘terrorist’ funding that facilitates social conflict and violence. In particular, several factors have led to a focus on certain groups  (such as ISIL) being blamed for these problems.  There are obvious political gains to be had by promoting various aspects of this ‘fight for culture’. In addition, heritage activists see such claims as bolstering their call to take a closer look at the market for illicit antiquities and somehow curbing its activities. Several interest groups, especially those benefiting from the commerce in antiquities, and museum professionals, are therefore intent on representing the issue concerning the fate of illicit and ‘conflict’ antiquities from these areas in different ways. This means that the area is one where there is lively debate, but in which research on the topic is rendered extremely difficult, especially as those involved in the market itself has always been less-than-forthcoming about almost every aspect of the scale and mechanisms of the processes involved.

This presentation will focus on the issues surrounding the recent (1990 onwards) collection-driven exploitation (“looting”) of the archaeological record in Iraq and Syria. What can we say today about which sites are being exploited, what kind of material is sought, who is involved?  Where is the material obtained being taken to? Where and when will it ‘surface’ on the market, and what mechanisms will be used to obscure its true identity? To what extent can this material be considered ‘conflict antiquities’?

Another aspect of concern is the manner in which this issue has been ‘weaponised’, particularly by the United States administration. Damage caused to the cultural heritage becomes an element of dehumanising propaganda directed against groups that are presented as ‘enemies of civilization’. An ethical question is raised by the manner in which archaeologists have been caught up in promoting these messages. To what extent is the information presented to and by journalists in such a context a balanced, or even true picture? What can we learn from recent seizures of antiquities from ISIL contexts in Deir Ez-Zor, Palmyra and Mosul? Is some of this ‘evidence’ planted?