May-June 2008


The Sofia News Agency reported on June 12 that treasure hunters attacked an archaeological excavation at the Roman fortress of Trimamium after a 15 cm tall bronze statute of Venus had been found there. It is not known whether they discovered anything.
The Black Swan
“Black Swan” is the codename given by Odyssey Marine Exploration to a shipwreck it is excavating in international waters west of Portugal. Odyssey first announced its project in May 2007 as the “world’s largest shipwreck coin recovery”, revealing that it had recovered more than 500,000 silver coins, weighing more than 17 tons, and hundreds more gold coins. At the time it claimed to be uncertain as to the wreck’s true identity (“Odyssey’s latest shipwreck find yields over 500,000 silver and gold coins”, Odyssey Press Release, May 18, 2007). Spain suspects the coins come from a sunken Spanish galleon and in January 2008 the US District Court in Tampa ruled that Odyssey should share with Spain what information it had about the identity of the ship. At a Madrid press conference on May 8 the Spanish government announced it believed the wreck to be that of the Spanish warship Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, which was sunk by the British navy in 1804. Spain claimed ownership of the wreck site and stated that it should be considered an underwater cemetery. It is thought that 200 people drowned when the ship sunk (L. Abend, “Spain claims sunken treasure”, Time, May 8). Odyssey replied that the evidence is not strong enough to prove the wreck was that of Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, and that in any case at the present time it has not located the actual wreck, only its cargo. If Spain is found to have a legitimate claim on the wreck Odyssey would be prepared to enter into a commercial relationship with Spain for the recovery of the cargo (“Odyssey Marine Exploration responds to recent media reports following the Spanish government’s ‘Black Swan’ press conference”, Odyssey Press Release, May 8, 2008).
On June 30, Egypt recovered a 2,500-year-old limestone relief (“Egypt retrieves a 2,500-year-old relief from Bonhams auction house in London”, Associated Press, June 30). The piece had been offered for auction by Bonhams of London but it was recognized by staff of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to have been taken from a tomb in Luxor.
In the spring issue of TAARII Newsletter (the newsletter of the American Research Institute in Iraq), Carrie Hritz presents a diachronic analysis of archaeological looting at the site of Isin, using satellite images ranging in date from 1967 to 2006 (“Remote sensing of cultural heritage in Iraq: a case study of Isin”). There was no visible evidence of looting in 1967 or in the early 1990s, but by 2003 looters’ pits covered about 19 percent of the 193 hectare site. By 2006, the damaged area had increased to cover 36 percent. Previous eye-witness accounts of Isin have described just how damaging these pits can be. Margarete van Ess, for example, has reported that the pits might go down as much as 4 m and be joined by interconnecting tunnels (N. Brodie, 2005, “A Future for our Past: International Symposium for Redefining the Concept of Cultural Heritage”, International Journal of Cultural Property 12: 491-7). Hritz’s study also identified 98 known and previously unknown sites within a 13 km radius of Isin. 53 appeared to be untouched. The remaining 45 showed evidence of minor looting in 2003 that had become more widespread by 2006. (See also Elizabeth Stone’s work in this area).
Looted artifacts are now being returned to Iraq. In May, Syria returned 700 pieces ranging in date from the Islamic period to the Bronze Age. It is not clear whether they had been dug out of sites or stolen from museums. Two days before the Syrian return an Iraqi national had handed in to the National Museum 643 illegally-excavated artifacts. In June, nearly 2,500 artifacts were returned by Jordan. Negotiations are ongoing for the return of seized material currently being held in Saudi Arabia, Italy, Germany and the UAE (A. Hauslohner, “Resurrecting the Baghdad Museum”, Time, May 7; S. McElroy, “Looted antiquities returned to Iraq”, New York Times, June 23).
Over the course of 2008 Italian police have recovered 2000 looted artifacts and a further 1500 fragments during investigations in Rome. The fragments include one thought to be part of the red-figured cup signed by Euphronios that was returned to Italy by the J. Paul Getty Museum in 1999 (“Italian police recover 3,500 looted artifacts”, Associated Press, June 6).
Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) officers recovered dozens of artifacts during a raid in Haifa in May. The finds included three ancient anchors believed to have come from underwater shipwrecks. Amir Ganor, director of the antiquities theft prevention unit of the IAA, announced that removing artifacts from sunken ships is illegal (J. Khoury, “Police recover Roman-era figurine, meter-high pottery in home raid”, Haaretz, May 28).
The Times of India reported on thefts from temples in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu (K.P. Kumar, “Idol thieves target Tamil Nadu temples”, June 27). A Tamil Nadu police spokesperson stated that security guards have been killed during thefts. Thieves might get $250-350 for pieces that sell on the international market for $100,000-250,000. The police have recovered many pieces through undercover operations.
Palestinian Authority
The winter 2008 issue of the Jerusalem Quarterly (no. 33) carries several papers concerning Palestinian archaeological and cultural heritage.
Adel Yahya, who is director of the Palestinian Association for Cultural Exchange, presents an overview of the threats that are currently facing the archaeological heritage of the West Bank (“Looting and ‘salvaging’: How the wall, illegal digging and the antiquities trade are ravaging Palestinian cultural heritage”, 39-55). Illegal digging, or what Yahya terms subsistence looting, is clearly a serious problem. It usually takes place at night, by teams of four to ten people equipped with picks, shovels and the like, but they can also have metal detectors and tractors. Anything found is sold to middlemen, who sell on to dealers in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. The incidence of digging seems to be connected with unemployment, and increased markedly after the start of the al-Aqsa Intifada in October 2000. Many of the diggers have learned their skills through employment on official archaeological excavations. Digging is facilitated by Israel’s antiquities law, which applies only to Israel itself, not to the West Bank. It forbids unofficial excavation, while at the same time allowing a legal antiquities market. The result is the widespread exploitation of West Bank sites to feed the Israeli market. The main consumers of the looted artifacts seem to be foreign collectors, often tourists.
            According to the Palestinian Department of Antiquities, the construction of the West Bank barrier by Israel has damaged or destroyed 800 sites, and about 1,500 more (out of a total number of west bank sites of 12,216) will be trapped between the barrier and the official border, the so-called Green Line set by the Israel-Jordan armistice of 1949. Yahya also charges that in some cases the existence of an archaeological site has been used as a justification for moving the barrier further to the east. These sites fall under the jurisdiction of the Israeli Civil Administration Department of Archaeology, an organization separate from the Israel Antiquities Authority, which is only responsible for sites in Israel.
            On a happier note, concerns that Israelis withdrawing from Gaza might have taken cultural artifacts with them, notably a mosaic from a sixth-century AD church discovered in 1999, have proven to be groundless.
While there is clearly a political context to most of the problems Yahya discusses, Morag Kersel (Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto) looks at how the problems are exacerbated through compromised and inadequately enforced legislation (“The trade in Palestinian antiquities”, 21-38). The Palestinian Authority banned the antiquities trade in areas under its jurisdiction in 1996, and Kersel also discusses present moves within the Authority to legalize it.
Gish Amit (Ph.D. student at Ben Gurion University) draws to our attention the fate of thousands of books left behind by Palestinian Arabs when they were forced to evacuate west Jerusalem and other areas of Israel in 1948-9 (“Ownerless objects? The story of the books Palestinians left behind in 1948”, 7-20). All told about 70,000 books and other items of printed or written material were recovered by the Israeli National Library and the Custodian of Absentee Property. Many of the books were later resold to Arab schools, though in 1957 about 26,000 were sold off as waste because of their possibly subversive content. The remainder is stored in the National Library, and Amit focuses on the National Library’s collection of something like 30,000 books from west Jerusalem. At the time of their acquisition, the library’s staff claimed to be rescuing the books and establishing guardianship until such time as the books could be returned to their rightful owners. From the evidence of recently declassified Israeli documents, however, Amit argues that the librarians might have been more concerned with expanding the library’s holdings than with restitution. Once in the National Library, in the 1950s, whenever possible, the books were marked with the names of their absentee owners. In the 1960s, however, this policy was changed, and the books were henceforth catalogued as “AP” (Abandoned Property). Finally, Amit appends a list of some of the books’ original owners as reported in 1949.
Legal advisor Leila Hilal offers an appropriate follow-on to Amit’s paper when she discusses the issue of compensation or restitution for Palestinians who lost property in 1948-9 (“Reparation for lost Palestinian property inside Israel: A review of international developments”, 56-64). She concludes that in national and international law there are now many precedents for adjudicating and satisfying such claims, though she believes the issue is only likely to be addressed as part of an overall peace agreement.
Precolumbian seizures and returns
On April 30, police in Munich seized 1,200 antiquities belonging to Leonard Patterson (J. Precedo, “Intervenidas en Múnich mil obras únicas precolombinas”, El País, April 30). The collection had been stored in a removal company warehouse in the Spanish city of Santiago since its display there in 1997. Under Spanish law, after remaining on Spanish territory for ten years, the collection had become national heritage and could not be exported without a license. The provenance of the collection is controversial. In 2007, 31 pieces thought to have been looted from the Mochica pyramid Cerro de la Mina were returned to Peru. Peru is claiming ownership of more material, and similar claims are being made by Mexico and Guatemala.
Just under a week later, on May 6, Spanish police seized more than 700 artifacts along with documents and a computer from a warehouse in La Rioja and arrested two people on charges of smuggling (“Recuperadas en La Rioja más de 700 piezas precolombinas”, El País, May 6). It is thought that the artifacts had been looted from archaeological sites in Peru and Ecuador and obtained in Colombia. It seems the couple were able to smuggle the material into Spain in suitcases, destined for sale in France. The investigation (Operation Chavin) involved the cooperation of Interpol in Colombia, Peru and Ecuador and is ongoing
In June, US authorities returned 929 artifacts to Mexico that had been recovered in the US and Canada. The director of Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia reported that Mexico had recovered more than 19,000 stolen artifacts from the US over the last five years (A. Olson, “Mexico recovers 929 pre-Columbian pieces”, Associated Press, June 20).
It was reported in the Santa Fe New Mexican (A. Constable, “Ancient artifacts returned to owner”, May 30) that the New Mexico museum Palace of the Governors had returned a collection of Precolumbian artifacts to its owner John Bourne. The collection had been on display at the museum since 1998. The collection was the subject of an FBI investigation in 1998 on account of four pieces suspected to have been stolen from the archaeological site of Sipán, in Peru. The case collapsed when experts could not agree where the pieces had been originally been found (R. Atwood, Stealing History, New York: St Martin’s, 188-209).
New AAMD guidelines on museum acquisitions
On June 4 the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) announced new guidelines for art museum acquisitions of archaeological materials (“New report on acquisition of archaeological materials and ancient art issued by Association of Art Museum Directors”, AAMD press release). The AAMD now “recognizes the 1970 UNESCO Convention as providing the most pertinent threshold date for the application of more rigorous standards to the acquisition of archaeological material and ancient art.” It recommends that “AAMD members normally should not acquire a work unless research substantiates that the work was outside its country of probable modern discovery before 1970 or was legally exported from its probable country of modern discovery after 1970”. As part of its new policy, the AAMD has established on its website the Object Registry, developed by the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which is intended to provide an on-line searchable database where member institutions can list any post-June 4 2008 acquisitions with an incomplete post-1970 provenance. It is hoped that by making such information publicly available gaps in provenances might be filled.
            The AAMD had been criticized for the “rolling ten-year rule” its previous acquisition guidelines had advised on June 4, 2004, which recommended that it would be acceptable to acquire an object with an incomplete provenance if it could be demonstrated that the object had been out of its probable country of origin for at least ten years. The new AAMD guidelines bring it into line with some of its member institutions that had already adopted a 1970 threshold, and with other museum organizations such as the United Kingdom’s Museum Association that adopted the 1970 guideline following the recommendation of a sponsored report in 2000.
            Writing in the International Herald Tribune, Souren Melikian offered his opinion about the new guideline that “… it is a heavy blow dealt to the antiquities trade because it makes it that much less tempting to museums and wealthy donors alike to acquire objects of ill-defined provenance” and hailed it as “a turning point in the safeguard of our world’s cultural history” (“A wake-up call for the antiquities market”, June 12). He also suggested that the new policy had placed a greater premium on provenanced antiquities at the June 2008 auction sales.
Fake crystal skulls
Jane MacLaran Walsh has reported on her research into the Precolumbian rock crystal skulls that are to be found in several museums around the world (“Legend of the crystal skulls”, Archaeology, May/June). They appeared at different times from the 1850s to the 1960s. None of them have any documented excavation context though they are all said to be Mesoamerican in origin, but Walsh thinks that iconographically they have little in common with genuine Mesoamerican depictions of skulls. In collaboration with Margaret Sax of the British Museum, she has now examined two of these skulls and shown them to have been carved with modern equipment of a type that would not have been available to a Mesoamerican lapidary. She suspects the other skulls must be forgeries too. Why, she asks “do some museums continue to exhibit them, despite their lack of archaeological context and obvious iconographic, stylistic, and technical problems?” Because, she thinks, “these macabre objects are reliable crowd pleasers”. (For a thoroughgoing consideration of the extent to which fakes might have infiltrated museum collections of unprovenanced artifacts, see: O.W. Muscarella, 2000, The Lie Became Great, Groningen: Styx).
Sheikh Saud Al Thani
Sheikh Saud Al Thani of Qatar is back! Last heard of in 2005 under house arrest, he appeared at Sotheby’s London May 14 auction of “Masterpieces of Chinese Precious Metalwork: Early Gold and Silver”. The sale was of a collection of mainly Tang and Song metalwork formed by the Swedish industrialist Johan Kempe in the middle years of the twentieth century and being sold by a Singapore-based consortium. Sheikh Saud bought 90 percent of the pieces on offer and the sale realized £9.3 million ($18.3 million), four times the pre-sale estimate. Sheikh Saud was acting independently, not buying on behalf of the Qatari state (G. Adam, “Sheikh Saud al-Thani of Qatar buys nearly all lots at Chinese art sale”, Art Newspaper no. 192, 4; S. Melikian, “Whiff of mystery hangs over sale of China objects”, International Herald Tribune, May 23).
            One month earlier, the Qatari Museum of Islamic Art had itself been active on the London auction market. One object the museum seemed not interested in was an Abbasid key to the Kaaba in Mecca, which was sold at Sotheby’s for £9.2 million to London dealer Robin Start. The Art Newspaper, however, reported that some doubts had been expressed about the authenticity of the key, and of some other artifacts that had appeared for sale (L. Harris, “Qatar’s relentless drive to build museum collection sustains Islamic market”, no. 191, 59, 66).
Objects stolen from three Istanbul mosques and recovered in London were returned to Turkey’s London embassy on April 9. Decorated doors stolen from the Amasya Mehmet Pasha Mosque in June 2002 had been offered for sale and recognized at Sotheby’s April 27, 2005 Islamic sale. Two tile panels stolen from the Yeni Mosque were offered and recognized at Sotheby’s April 18, 2007 sale. A set of decorated tiles from the Cezeri Kasim Pasha Mosque on August 26, 2003 were later handed over to the police by a London dealer (M. Bailey, “Stolen mosque artefacts returned to Turkey”, Art Newspaper no. 191, 66).     
A court case in Yemen has highlighted the need for more public awareness of laws protecting archaeological heritage (F. Anam, “Frenchman accused of smuggling Yemeni antiquities acquitted”, Yemen Observer, June 14). A French national and employee of the Amec Spie Hawk construction company was arrested in early May at Sana’a airport and charged with illegal possession of artifacts. Charges against him were dropped in court on June 10 when it was discovered that the artifacts were in fact forgeries. The Frenchman asked that companies operating in Yemen should do more to inform their employees of relevant Yemeni legislation.
It was also reported from Yemen that several artifacts had been stolen from the al-Awon museum and smuggled out of the country, including a bronze figure known as the “Dancer Woman”. A customs official revealed that 51 artifacts were seized during the first half of 2007 at Sana’a airport, with 19 people of various nationalities arrested. The breakdown was: 6 Italians, 4 Germans, 1 Czech, 2 Slovaks, 1 French, 1 Tunisian, 1 Belgian and 3 Yemenis (F. Anam, “Sana’a Interpol on the case of the stolen Yemeni antiquities”, Yemen Observer, June 14).