Tiny Spanish Village Hopes to Profit From Antiquities Thief

ARANDA DE MONCAYOShould a town have the right to display looted antiquities stolen by one of its residents? According to an intriguing piece by Suzanne Daley in The New York Times this morning, the mayor of tiny Aranda de Moncayo, Spain, population 200, thinks they should. A 60-year-old village resident named Ricardo Granada unearthed some 4,000 antiquities using primitive implements, like a metal detector and a backhoe, from a 2,000 years old settlement called Aratikos near his home.

Granada was arrested in March after Spanish authorities were tipped off about two bronze helmets he tried to sell at an auction in Germany. The mayor of the village told The Times that she wanted to see a full archeological excavation of the site, followed by the construction of a small museum, which she believes would draw tourists to the village. It isn’t clear from the story whether the museum would display only newly unearthed antiquities or also the ones already plundered by Granada, but the story raises the murky ethical question of what type of artifacts museums should be allowed to exhibit.Scores of world-famous museums, including the British Museum, New York Museum of Metropolitan Art and Malibu’s J. Paul Getty Villa, have been ensnared in controversies surrounding the provenance of some of their antiquities. According to an estimate by the Archaeological Institute of America, published in a story on the Verge earlier this year, some 85-90 percent of “classical and certain other types of artifacts on the market do not have a documented provenance.”

But is there any difference between items plundered by an invading army or colonial power versus antiquities nabbed by a guy out wandering around after dark with a metal detector? It may not seem very fair for a village to profit from the fact that one of its residents was a thief, but I would visit this museum if it opened. I like to see treasures where they were actually unearthed rather than in a big city museum, far away from their origin. Would you have any ethical qualms about patronizing a museum exhibiting looted antiquities? What do you think Spanish authorities should do with the treasures Granada unearthed?

As Egypt’s Tourism Industry Languishes, Antiquities Under Threat

Egypt
Since the January 2011 Revolution, Egypt has been suffering social and political unrest, and its tourism industry has been hit hard.

Now the tumultuous situation is affecting one of the nation’s main sources of income – its ancient heritage. Al-Ahram Weekly investigated several reports of damage at ancient sites and found a dire situation of neglect and willful destruction. At the ancient capital Amarna, farmers spread their fields onto the archaeological site. Part of the Graeco-Roman site of Al-Bordan got bulldozed when “developers” built holiday homes for themselves. At the ancient city of Iwn, a group moved in and built a car wash right on top of some ancient buildings.

In some places the destruction has been stopped. Police stepped in at Amarna before any serious damage was done. In others, the damage is already done and is even continuing.

The most famous site to suffer damage is Dashour, site of the famous Bent Pyramid (shown here in this Wikimedia Commons image). Part of the pyramid was damaged when locals built a cemetery nearby. Others in the area see the value of the site and staged a protest at the pyramid, holding up signs that said, “God does not bless a nation that ruins its heritage,” and, “Heritage is our past, present and future. Let’s protect it with love and respect.”

A growing Islamist movement in Egypt has been blamed for the recent upturn in disrespect for ancient sites, but the Al-Ahram reports that even Cairo’s ninth century Ibn Tulun mosque has suffered neglect and the area next to the walls is being used as a refuse dump.

Tourism is one of Egypt’s main sources of hard currency. With tourist numbers down, police and archaeologists struggle to get the funds to protect the sites that generate income, thus creating a vicious downward spiral.

A Sneak Peek At The Soon-To-Reopen National Museum Of Iraq

National Museum of Iraq
The National Museum of Iraq is as battered and defiant as the country it represents. Battered because it has suffered looting and neglect, defiant because its staff fought to protect it. Now they’re rebuilding and the museum will soon reopen.

I got a sneak peak while visiting Iraq and was overawed. I knew I would be. Here is the treasure house of the dawn of civilization. Giant statues of Assyrian guardian demons stand next to cases filled with wide-eyed Sumerian statues pleading with their gods. Detailed bas-reliefs from excavated palaces show scenes of war and hunting. Cases full of cylinder seals show scenes of Babylonian life in miniature.

My favorite was the writing. The first scribes developed a simple system around 3300 B.C. or even earlier. Clay tokens represented objects such as sheep or jugs of beer. These were often sealed in clay envelopes with an impression of the tokens on the outside, thus creating the first contracts. Soon tablets were used with a system of writing that was mostly pictorial – a bull’s head represented a bull, etc. As the needs of the developing civilization grew more complex, so did the system of writing. The pictures morphed into almost unrecognizable collections of lines, and words for abstract ideas appeared. The writing was done with a stylus on soft clay to make a series of wedge-shaped impressions called cuneiform.

Looking at these ancient texts was hypnotic. The same process we’re engaged in right now, with me writing and you reading, was going on 5,000 years ago in a vastly different culture. We don’t have to know each other or even be in the same country to communicate. It was an incredible innovation that opened up countless possibilities for the human race.

As I studied the galleries I was amazed that anything survived the chaotic days after the fall of Baghdad in 2003. The Coalition troops hadn’t been given any instructions to protect the museum, so looters broke in and ransacked the place. Museum staff came back in force and drove them off, a brave act considering the looters were armed. Eventually the museum workers convinced the U.S. Army to post some guards.

It was too late. Thousands of priceless artifacts had been stolen. Some were later recovered but most have disappeared into the private homes of “collectors.” Luckily, the museum staff had hidden some of the best artifacts in secret locations. They told no one, not even the Coalition, about their existence until the situation had stabilized.

%Gallery-170304%Now workers are busy finishing up the displays. Twenty-two galleries have been completed and there are five more to go. Some rooms survived the war relatively intact and will look familiar to those who were lucky enough to visit before the war. Others have been completely remodeled. The museum officials didn’t allow me to photograph those. It seemed an odd restriction. Wouldn’t they want people to see their hard work? When traveling in Iraq, you get used to random rules. You just have to shrug your shoulders and move on.

In one room I found a member of the staff restoring an Abbasid sarcophagus made of teak. As I studied the intricately carved designs he explained in perfect English that he was filling in the cracks and chips with a paste made from powdered teak and “micro balloons,” tiny polymer spheres that act as a chemically inert adhesive. I asked if I could take a picture of his work and he said no.

“That’s the museum’s rule, not mine,” he said apologetically.

He and his coworkers have done a good job. The difference between the traditional galleries and the remodeled ones is astounding. The new galleries have better lighting and signage and show off the museum’s artifacts to much better advantage. All the galleries, both new and old, have signage in both Arabic and English.

The National Museum of Iraq is due to have a grand reopening in two months. As with everything in this struggling nation, the date is subject to change due to security issues and funds not getting to the right place at the right time. The work is almost done, though, so one of the greatest museums in the Middle East will almost certainly reopen in 2013 to teach a new generation of visitors about the wonders of Iraq’s past.

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “Ghosts Of A Dictatorship: Visiting Saddam’s Palaces!”

All photos by Sean McLachlan

Destruction, Looting Of Syria’s Ancient Heritage Continues, Report Says

Syria
The upheaval in Syria has been going on for more than a year now, and in that time thousands of people have been killed, including many civilians and children. Syria’s many ancient sites are also getting damaged. Previously, we’ve talked about how the Syrian army has shelled the ancient city of Palmyra and the Crusader castle Crac des Chevaliers. Both of these are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, of which there are six in the country.

A report by the Global Heritage Fund states that these and many other sites and museums, are getting damaged and looted in the chaos. Sites like Tell Sheikh Hamad, pictured above in this Wikimedia Commons image. This Assyrian town was inhabited for several centuries and archaeologists have found numerous cuneiform inscriptions there. Recently it became a battleground between the Syrian army and deserters. An Assyrian temple reportedly collapsed when it got hit by shellfire and the rest of the site likely suffered serious damage as well.

The medieval citadel of Hama has also been shelled, as can be seen in the video below.

Besides the fighting, historic sites are getting damaged by troops digging trenches, tanks rolling over fragile areas, and snipers building positions atop historic homes. Not even mosques have been safe, with several historic mosques suffering damage.

Looting is also a serious problem since members of museum staff are often not around to guard their collections due to the fighting. In Crac des Chevaliers, looters kicked out the staff at gunpoint and started digging.

With no end in sight for the Syrian Civil War, it’s certain that more of the nation’s previous heritage will be destroyed or stolen.

Roman sites in Libya survived the war mostly unscathed, initial reports show

Roman sites in Libya, Roman, Lepcis Magna
The recent fighting in Libya that toppled Gaddafi destroyed many lives and laid waste to many neighborhoods. Now that the country is beginning to rebuild, Libyans are taking stock of other effects of the war.

Libya’s beautiful Roman remains, it appears, got off easy. Earlier this week, the Guardian reported that the Roman cities of Lepcis Magna and Sabratha both survived the war without any significant damage. This news came from Dr. Hafed Walda, a Libyan scholar working at King’s College, London. Dr. Walda has excavated and studied Lepcis Magna for more than 15 years.

On the other hand, the new government displayed a cache of Roman artifacts that it says were going to be sold on the international antiquities market to finance Gaddafi’s fight to stay in power. They were found on the day Tripoli fell to the rebels in the trunk of a car driven by Gaddafi loyalists as they tried to escape. No word on what happened to the pro-Gaddafi fighters. One can imagine.

This brings up the question of how many more artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites, and if any made it abroad into the hands of unscrupulous collectors. Iraq and Afghanistan lost a huge amount of their heritage this way. Much of it disappeared after the main fighting, when armed bands looted what they could before a new regime was installed.

%Gallery-140657%Thousands of coins dating to the Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic periods have gone missing from a collection in Benghazi, the new Libyan government reports.

These are, of course, only initial reports in a country still subject to much chaos and uncertainty. Time will tell how much of Libya’s rich archaeological heritage has survived to attract the next generation of tourists.

I want to be one of the first of that new generation. Libya has always been high on my list of places to see and my wife and I were in the beginning stages of planning a trip there when all hell broke loose. Instead I spent two months out of harm’s way in Harar, Ethiopia.

For anyone interested in history and archaeology, Libya is a great place to go. The nation has five UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The two most popular are the Roman cities of Lepcis Magna and Sabratha. Both are on the coast and were founded by the Phoenicians. Libya was an important province in the Roman Empire and these two sites reflect that with their theaters, broad avenues, and large temples. Lepcis Magna was especially grand because it was the birthplace of the Emperor Septimius Severus (reigned 193-211).

Other UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Libya include the Greek colony of Cyrene, the prehistoric rock art of Tadrart Acacus, and the traditional architecture in the oasis town of Ghadamès.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.