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September 10, 2003

Posted by Teresa at 01:07 AM *

Claude Muncey has very kindly referred me to Anders Bell’s Phluzein, a weblog devoted to archaeology. If you’re me, everything in it is interesting.

If you don’t particularly fancy archaeology, or you’re feeling lightminded this afternoon, try his inquiry into why Hollywood uses Aramaic for arcane inscriptions, or his piece on sexual innuendo in Sumerian poetry, and its follow-up post about Hittites and their horses. More seriously, Bell also links to things like Dr. Francis Deblauwe’s site on The 2003 Iraq War & Archaeology, a sort of scholarly weblog that’s tracking the status of Iraqi antiquities and the way that story is being reported. This is from the site’s sidebar:
My best guess of the Losses & Damage at the National Museum (very approximate numbers based on all available info, my evaluation of the quality of same info, and lots of extrapolation and common sense; updated whenever new info changes the picture)
• 100 artifacts in public galleries: 30% missing, 21% damaged • 485,174 artifacts in storage inside Museum: 3% missing, 4% damaged
• 7,360 artifacts in storage in Central Bank: 0% missing, 3% damaged
• 8,366 artifacts in storage elsewhere outside the Museum: 0% missing, 4% damaged
501,000 artifacts in total, of which 3% (13,166) missing and 4% (17,633) damaged

• contrary to press and initial US military reports, the 39,453 manuscripts and scrolls found in a bomb shelter in western Baghdad were the Saddam House of Manuscripts (now renamed Iraqi House of Manuscripts) collection and thus not a part of the Museum holdings

• the frequently mentioned total figure of 170,000 reflects the inventory numbers; however, lots of individual inventory numbers cover large groups of artifacts

If you’re American, appeal to your US Representative.

To support H.R. 2009, the Iraq Cultural Heritage Protection Act, click here.
Below that in his sidebar is Deblauwe’s “Running tally of sites looted in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq War.” The site has also been collecting relevant pictures that’ve made their way out of Iraq. They won’t make your day happier, but you should get a look at them.

(Do you know, I still occasionally get nasty little notes from freepers in the comment threads of my old posts about the looting of Baghdad’s museums? If they’re not hooting about how only a few dozen artifacts went missing—a contemptible lie at this point, given how thoroughly that piece of disinformation has been exploded—they’re posting junk like “You are so gay.” I just delete them. Life is too short to deal with people who have that little respect for their own intelligence.)

In the same piece in which it links to Deblauwe’s site, Phluzein also links to’s Stolen Artifacts site, which consists of a single long page of links to “Stolen archaeological, ethnographic, or ancient materials: Listings & notices of stolen artefacts sorted by culture area.” I’ve followed my websurfing nose through sites like these before, but haven’t written about them becauses I find them too distressing. I know that’s wimpy, but this stuff gets to me.

Wandering off the subject of Phluzein —

This whole matter of artifact theft has given me a new appreciation of forgery. If all people want is a nice-looking unprovenanced object that’s indistinguishable from a real pre-Columbian pot or Roman mosaic or canopic jar, and they just want to set it on a shelf in their living room and feel cultured, why not give it to them? Or rather, why not charge them through the nose for it?

All kinds of fraudulent bric-a-brac gets sold in the Antiquities section of eBay. At first I was inclined to think poorly of the practice, but now it’s occurred to me that every sucker on eBay who’s paying inflated prices for fake Clovis points and Roman oil lamps is someone who’s not going to spend that money buying genuine illicit antiquities. They’ll like them just as well as they’d like the real thing—it’s more the idea of the object, rather than the thing itself—and it’ll do world civilization much less harm.

I like forgers a lot more than I like the American Council for Cultural Policy (ACCP). They’re a bunch of high-end big-money bad guys, antiquities collectors and dealers and arts lawyers, who talk about the “retentionist” policies of “source countries”, by which they mean “laws against paying desperately poor locals a pittance to loot major artifacts from inadequately protected archaeological sites.” Archaeological scholars view them with suspicion and dismay, and cherish well-founded beliefs that they exist primarily to lobby for the dismantling of pesky laws forbidding pot-hunting, looting, and the international trade in stolen antiquities. Here, now:
In the aftermath of these two devastating attacks on culture, attention has focused on the activities of the American Council for Cultural Policy. Even the British press that works under some of the toughest libel laws in the world has been willing to suggest that the ACCP may have influenced US government policy on Iraqi cultural artifacts.
The ACCP was formed in 2001 by a group of wealthy art collectors to lobby against the Cultural Property Implementation Act, which attempts to regulate the art market and stop the flow of stolen goods into the US. It has defended New York art dealer Frederick Schultz, who was convicted under the National Stolen Property Act, and opposes the use of the 1977 US v. McClain decision as a legal precedent in cases concerning the handling of stolen art objects.

In the McClain case a US judge accepted that all pre-Columbian art or jewellery brought into the US without the express consent of the Mexican government was stolen property. Mexican law regards all archaeological artifacts as state property and bans their export. Mexico is one of a number of countries that has such legislation.
The McClain decision can be made to sound unreasonable. It isn’t. It addresses the issue of the ownership of Mexico’s rich and varied archaeological heritage. Everyday property laws were never intended to deal with ancient artifacts whose owners and their heirs vanished centuries ago.

With a piece of modern art or jewelry, it’s simple: you either own it, or you have it in keeping for its owner under some well-defined arrangement, or you’ve taken unlawful possession of it. Normal laws can deal with all those things. But who’s the rightful owner of an artifact from a rifled tomb? That’s a lot trickier, especially if there’s no documentation saying which rifled tomb it came from—which of course there isn’t. This leaves you with two alternatives. If you assume that all such artifacts are legally held unless it can be proven that they were stolen, there’ll be no stopping the looting. You might as well expedite processing at Customs by setting up a separate lane for thieves.

The other alternative is to assume that any undocumented artifact is stolen property—which, by the way, it almost certainly is. If the person trying to get it across the border didn’t steal it personally, they bought it from someone who bought it from someone who did.

The market creates the theft. Dirt-poor campesinos wouldn’t spend their time pothunting if rich Norteamericanos weren’t there to buy their finds—for a pittance, too, compared to the prices they’ll bring in a showroom. Mexico, like Iraq, has a lot of cool stuff lurking in widely scattered archaeological sites. It’s impossible to guard all the sites. Interdicting undocumented artifacts is the only real solution. Unscrupulous international dealers hate those laws. Tough noogies. They’re the reason those laws exist.
Ashton Hawkins, a leading art lawyer and founder of the ACCP, regards such legislation as “retentionist”. He has condemned the archaeologically rich “source” countries for attempting to protect their archaeological sites and museums by such measures, and has argued that under the Clinton administration such “retentionist” policies came to dominate US government policy.
Hawkins is talking in code. “Retentionism” isn’t a policy, and it doesn’t stem from the Clinton or any other administration. “Retentionism” is what in first-world countries is known as “wanting to keep your stuff and not have it stolen.”

I’ll give you an analogy. Britain is full of churches: big ones, little ones, sumptuous ones, weird little old ones, et cetera and so forth. Some of them aren’t much used these days. And unless they’re in the middle of a built-up area, most of them don’t lock their doors.

Those churches are full of cool stuff accumulated over the centuries—mortuary monuments, stained glass, brass effigies, queer folkloric woodcarvings, ornamental romanesque figures chasing each other around the tops of stone pillars, old regimental battle flags hung up in the rafters—just all kinds of nifty stuff to make glad the heart of an antiquities dealer. With a little work, most of it could be had with a hammer and chisel.

Suppose economic conditions in Britain got really grim, adults dressed in rags, children starving, all that sort of thing. And suppose I set myself up in business in some hungry but architecturally rich area, saying “No questions asked, of course, but I’m a great admirer of fourteenth-century memorial brasses. And those seventeenth-century memento mori stone monuments? Simply irresistible. But of course, I’m interested in anything really special that happens along. Top prices paid.”

Under those conditions, it wouldn’t be surprising if unnamed malfeasants started gouging hunks out of the fabric of local churches. At that point I could claim, as the ACCP does, that the antiquities trade is the only way to preserve all this great old material that’s clearly in danger of being destroyed. And if the British government, noting a growing problem with vandalized churches, passed a law prohibiting the export of such artifacts, I could send out press releases, and complain to Georgie Boy and his cronies, calling Britain a “source country” and accusing its government of practicing “retentionism.”

Here’s the nub of the matter: Why are there all these nifty archaeological sites available for plunder? Because before the international antiquities trade got started, nobody bothered to plunder them, except maybe for building stone, plus the occasional chance-found tchotchke. Anatolian goat herders and Yucatecan campesinos don’t suffer from an inexplicable compulsion to dig up old sites. You can’t eat potsherds. The vandalism the antiquities dealers cite as justification for their trade happens because they’re there to buy the results.
Hawkins has his sights set on the great Middle Eastern museums. He has called for the Egyptian antiquities that are held in the Cairo Museum to be dispersed. “I would like to propose,” he said, “that the Cairo Museum offer museums around the world the opportunity to acquire up to 50 objects for their collections. In return, the museums would make a very substantial contribution for the construction of the new museum under the Giza plateau-$1 million each, for example.”
The ACCP’s inaugural meeting took place at the Fifth Avenue apartment of Guido Goldman, a collector of Uzbek textiles. Among those present were Arthur Houghton, the former curator of the Getty Museum at Malibu in California, which is notorious for displaying works of suspicious provenance. Hawkins himself retired in 2000 as vice president of the trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, an institution that, according to its own former director, Thomas Hoving, holds many artifacts looted from Etruscan tombs.

Before the war began, the ACCP met with Pentagon officials, declaring their great concern for Iraqi antiquities. What that concern means is evident from the remarks of William Pearlstein, the group’s treasurer, who also describes Iraqi laws on antiquities as “retentionist”. The ACCP deny that they want Iraqi laws changed, but the looting of the museum and library will effectively circumvent that problem if US law on stolen art objects and archaeological material can be changed.

Professor John Merryman of Stanford Law School and a member of the ACCP has called for a “selective international enforcement of export controls” in US courts. In other words, it should be perfectly legitimate to import the objects looted from Baghdad if a US court chooses not to recognise Iraqi legislation.

Merryman set out the organisation’s principles in a 1998 paper in which he argued that the fact that an art object had been stolen did not in itself bar it from lawful importation into the US.
In the interest of remaining fair and balanced, you could read this article from The Art Newspaper, which thinks the ACCP is just ducky. But then, they would; the professional art world likes to see objects bought and sold. No matter who buys them or who sells them, they do the brokering and take their cut. You could also have a look here, where the subject got thrashed out with some vigor. But in my opinion the best place to go is The Threat to World Heritage in Iraq:
The original aim of this website, in February-March 2003, was to warn of the dangers to cultural heritage during and after a war in Iraq. In the event, the disaster was far worse, and happened far faster, than we ever imagined. …
In spite of their shock and despair, they’ve put together an excellent site. The only problem is the news it carries.
Comments on Phluzein:
#1 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: September 10, 2003, 01:48 AM:

I like your imaginary scenario in Britain, but I wonder how imaginary it is. Here in the East Village, back 10 or 20 years ago when there were many abandoned buildings, you saw many fine old bits and pieces of architecture that were removed illegally from buildings, to be incorporated in new ones. Nothing of astounding historic importance, but a lot of cool stuff. Does this sort of thing go on in obscure locations in England? Who knows?
Of course, if England were treated the way Mexico has been, there would be Uzi-toting robbers attacking Westminster Abbey with chainsaws...

#2 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: September 10, 2003, 02:56 AM:

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has an enormous double hall filled with amazing copies of famous art and architecture. Copies used to be quite respectable to have about the place; we should reinvigorate that.


#3 ::: chris ::: (view all by) ::: September 10, 2003, 03:29 AM:

Robert - Sadly, you're right. It's not just a scenario. So far church looting is on a fairly small scale (most robbers are still more interested in the lead off the roofs), but fewer and fewer churches are left unlocked.

A lot of the stuff you see around will come from stately homes which were pulled down in the middle of the 20th century when the families that owned them were couldn't afford them and there was no market for that kind of property. Literally hundreds of houses were demolished over about 50 years and the contents, including architectural features, disposed of on the open market.

It's hard to find too much sympathy for the incompetent old aristocrats who inherited fortunes they'd never done anything to earn and then couln't even manage them, but it's a shame about the houses, even so.

#4 ::: Jon Hansen ::: (view all by) ::: September 10, 2003, 08:46 AM:

I still occasionally get nasty little notes from freepers in the comment threads of my old posts about the looting of Baghdad92s museums

I saw this in my local paper the other day, and your remark reminded of it:

Bill Simon, the editor of, the Republican Web site, has shut down his anonymous discussion board. Too much internecine name calling. "I forgot one little thing. Republicans, when given the option of anonymous debate, can only resort to childish games and posts that do nothing but annoy grown-ups," he wrote.
Not that freepers are necessarily Republicans or all Republicans are freepers, but there's a bit of an overlap there, I'd say.
#5 ::: Richard Brandt ::: (view all by) ::: September 10, 2003, 02:56 PM:

Perhaps the freepers could simply be directed to this item from today's news:

WASHINGTON (AP) - Investigators have recovered more than 3,000 antiquities taken from Iraq's collection but still don't know exactly what else might have been pillaged during the war, the Pentagon said Wednesday.

...and asked how that could possibly be true if only a dozen or so items were missing in the first place.

#6 ::: Steven desJardins ::: (view all by) ::: September 10, 2003, 03:46 PM:

Another analogy would be to scrap metal dealers, who set up shop in poor areas and pay a few dollars for things like copper pipe and wire. This produces an incentive for drug addicts and the unscrupulous poor to rip up empty buildings and gut them of any metal they can find. Once this happens, of course, those empty buildings will remain empty, since it would often cost more to make the building inhabitable again than to just knock it down and build a new one.

There aren't any (adequately enforceable) laws against giving money to badly dressed people with poor hygiene in exchange for a load of copper piping, even though there's no plausible source for the copper other than theft. But it's still evil, and a major reason why poor areas spiral down into greater poverty and remain stuck there.

#7 ::: marty ::: (view all by) ::: September 10, 2003, 04:11 PM:

I have a beautiful jade mask from Mexico. About 2 inches across. Obviously new, but as my mother said "someone made it". I think good reproductions should be made available to everyone. British shops sell gargoyle magnets, etc. No pretense of ancient.

Reproductions of MidEast stuff would be a great industry.

#8 ::: Eloise Mason ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2003, 10:11 AM:

Reproductions of MidEast stuff would be a great industry.

And you could even corner the upmarket end of the market by going, 'Made by hand in the traditional ways by actual Iraqis!' and whatnot. Of course, some easy way to tell the repros from the REAL THING would be essential (i.e. for pottery, something stuck in the middle of the object before firing that will show up quite obviously on an x-ray - a die-cut metal shape, something like that). Like the Dr. Who episode where he wrote on the canvasses in permanent marker before DaVinci painted fifteen extra Mona Lisas. :->

#9 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2003, 01:19 PM:

I'm still trying to figure out what, in particular, people believe they are accomplishing when they post things like "You're so gay."

I mean, first, the implication there is that calling someone gay is an insult. Okay, fair enough; some people would think so. But only some people. Wouldn't you want to reserve the insult for someone who was actually likely to be offended by it?

And second...

Wait. Why am I trying to find logic here? Next thing you know, I'll start trying to find intelligent life in the Oval Office.

#10 ::: Terry ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2003, 01:23 PM:

Isn't Phluzein a prostitute cleaning product?

#11 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2003, 01:46 PM:

Eloise -- if the repros were on canvas, that would be obvious enough.

The original Mona Lisa is on a wood panel (pine, IIRC).

(And if da Vinci painted them himself, aren't they originals too? My grandmother dealt in lithos, engravings etc; definitely considered original art these days, and often commanding Big Bucks [not that my little Durer from her is worth lots on the open market, but I am damn proud to own it]).


#12 ::: Janice Morningstar ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2003, 05:59 PM:

Consider that some years hence the whole issue of reproductions may become largely moot, if development of nanotechnology makes it possible to duplicate original artifacts all the way down to the molecular level. Then it might be possible (though maybe not cost-effective) for every museum, or avid collector, to actually possess an "original" artifact. Then, museums and other owners will have to decide whether or not to allow their artifacts to be "authentically" replicated. Maybe owners will start filing patents, or some other rights, on the molecular arrangements of the artifacts they own.

#13 ::: stephanie ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2003, 11:06 AM:

At my university (Cambridge, U.K.) we have a research group trying to put an end to antiquities theft. Perhaps you or your readers might like to have a look at the website [] where news and legal information are posted, as well as other resources.

#14 ::: Eloise Mason ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2003, 02:19 PM:

Eloise -- if the repros were on canvas, that would be obvious enough.

The original Mona Lisa is on a wood panel (pine, IIRC).

Argh! I did know that. And the episode got it right, I think. At least, they meant to. :->

(And if da Vinci painted them himself, aren't they originals too? ...).

Well, obviously so. However, given the time-travelling nature of the episode, and how the bad guy planned to make craploads of money selling 'the real Mona Lisa' to everyone after stealing the original, and also the fact that Everyone Knows Nowadays that there's only one Mona Lisa, the good Doctor decided that marking all but one of them 'obvious fakes under proper analysis' was the best solution.

#15 ::: Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2003, 09:14 PM:

Tina: I'm still trying to figure out what, in particular, people believe they are accomplishing when they post things like "You're so gay."

I mean, first, the implication there is that calling someone gay is an insult. Okay, fair enough; some people would think so. But only some people. Wouldn't you want to reserve the insult for someone who was actually likely to be offended by it?

For good or ill, describing someone or something as "gay" meaning pathetic, lame, or otherwise despicable, seems to be part of contemporary American youth slang, semidetached from it's gay-as-in-GLBT sense. It's a bit the use of "gypped" to mean "cheated in a commercial transaction" by people who aren't aware that it is a slur against Rom.

#16 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2003, 12:46 AM:

Alan, I have encountered that usage. Other examples include 'jew down', meaning 'haggle' (though that one actually comes from 'jaw' meaning 'talk excessively') and worse than either, 'nigger' to mean 'lazy, useless person'.

They're common. We don't have to tolerate them.

I have successfully argued some of the more thoughtful youth of my equaintance out of using the term. One of them actually said that he'd never thought about how it might make gay people feel.

As a technique, I suggest the use of the speaker's ethnicity, or hair color, or grade in school (sophomores have already lost this battle), or any adjective pertaining to them that you can come up with. "He made a complete fool of himself in front of that girl...he was trying to be real cool, and he wound up being totally trumpet player." Or whatever. They'll get the point.

#17 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2003, 12:49 AM:

Um, with insulting strangers on the net, it's just best to assume that anyone who uses the term is a total jerk, and will remain one however you respond. Treat it as part and parcel of their general obnoxiousness.

#18 ::: Anne ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2003, 02:58 PM:

Xopher, speaking as an ex-clarinet player, that's a more accurate insult than you know! Although trombone players are usually weirder.

(Today's Band Geek Stereotypes brought to you by the letter "B" and the accidental "flat.")

#19 ::: Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2003, 12:04 PM:

Xopher: I wasn't defending the practice, mind you; I was trying to make more understandable its use in the flames Teresa receives. (Without this knowledge, an email stating "You're so gay!" is bizarre and incomprehensible. Knowing it, though, the email collapses into familiar territory.)

#20 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2003, 12:23 PM:

Alan, I didn't actually think you were defending it, but it's good to have that reassurance. My comment was more of a tirade; sorry about the confusion.

Anne, I know. The two elegant tuxedoed gentlemen drinking white wine: "What kind of rosin do you use?" Two guys swilling beer: "What kind of valve oil do you use?" Two bums in the gutter: "What kind of sticks do you use?"

I, in case it's not evident, am a drummer. Though I rarely use sticks.

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