Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Looting antiquity for Arms?

A few years ago, during my second year of graduate school at George Washington University, I attended a debate/workshop with Mesoamerican archaeologist Michael Coe, along with other archaeologists and experts.  I remember thinking “what could a graduate student contribute to this discussion?”  So I took out this very notebook that I am writing a draft of this current post, and I wrote everything down.  I am sure glad I did.  I learned so much that day, and I thought a lot that day.

Over the two days of the “debate” (a lecture one night followed by a workshop the next day), we discussed the history of collecting Pre-Columbian antiquities and more generally, the ethics of archaeologists publishing data collected from looted artifacts.  Does the publication affect looting? Does the publication bring value to looted objects, which in turn cause people to loot objects to make a profit or for some other commodity?  I believe so, and I welcome other thoughts on these very questions.

So why bring up a workshop from a few years ago?  I do so because I see a parallel with current events in Syria, specifically the Syrian rebels looting sites in order to sell antiquities for arms.  Remember the debate about arming Syrian rebels, during that debate the rebels needed to arm themselves somehow and by any means possible.

The New York Times reported in September 2012 in an article entitled “Syria’s Looted Past: How Ancient Artifacts Are Being Traded for Guns” by Aryn Baker, that the civil war in Syria is a treasure trove for the antiquities black market in Lebanon just over the border.  Baker reported that “[f]ighters allied with the Free Syrian Army units battling the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad have told him that they are developing an association of diggers dedicated to finding antiquities in order to fund the revolution” (Read more:

In that same article, a Lebanese archaeologist, Joanne Farchakh Bajjaly, noted that the Iraq war awakened a desire for Middle Eastern antiquities, and collectors closely follow conflicts in the Middle East.  Syria is a perfect example.  Bajjaly described the happenings in Syria and other parts of the Middle East as cases of “contract looting”.

Looting spikes when central governments collapse, we saw this with the looting of the Iraqi Museum, and in Egypt as I described in earlier posts.  As a result of the civil war in Syria and the collapse of a firm central government and economy, people loot also to provide for food on the table (although this is a story we hear all over the world and I don’t usually agree with the poor farmer theory in looting, I do however think this is the case in times of war).

I remember a statistic from my years of study that the illicit trade in antiquities is the third largest illicit trade globally, behind the arms trade and drug trade.  These trades work in conjunction with each other, so I am not at all shocked by the news that the rebels (Free Syrian army) loot for arms.

So I stress my belief that the publication of looted material can give these or like objects value.  Obviously the Free Syrian army consider antiquities in Syria as valuable commodities, and collectors find value in antiquities as well (why collect if the objects Do not have some form of value, aesthetic or monetary?).  A publication (documentaries included) lets the whole world know how valuable an object is, so it is fair to assume that people will treat antiquity as a resource.

In my thesis, I briefly analyzed how objects accrue value and how nations try to possess property as a form of capital.  I used the French theorist, Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of capital to analyze antiquity as a commodity and why people would use them, and I used the example of the Parthenon Marbles.  Below is an excerpt from pages 13 to part of 16 of my thesis of that analysis: 

As symbols of power, museums and source nations contest cultural property claims. As mentioned briefly, the Aztecs venerated Olmec artifacts (as well as those from Teotihuacan) because they symbolized a glorious past, of which they claimed to be the legitimate heirs (Umberger 1987). Analyzing the theory of capital helps understand power, more importantly who has power. Pierre Bourdieu (1977, 1987, and 1993) offers a theory on capital that can analyze power. Bourdieu dedicated much of his work to the discussion of art, aesthetics, and value, as well as capital and power within the field of cultural production (the consumption of cultural products). Bourdieu (1977:74-75) divides “capital” into symbolic, cultural, and economic capital. Cultural capital refers to the possession and control of material that is symbolically prestigious and is the meaning a person can draw upon (Bourdieu 1977 and 1987). Symbolic capital refers to who has power to define and create meaning, and economic capital refers to the amount of money a person (or nation) has.

An object that is symbolically prestigious such as the Parthenon Marbles held by the British Museum, gives the British Museum cultural and symbolic capital because it possesses the marbles and can create and draw meaning from them. Since their removal from the Parthenon in Athens in 1801 by Lord Elgin (Kersel 2004), the debate over whether or not the removal was legal and ethical surrounds the marbles. The occupying government of Turkey gave Lord Elgin a firman (permission) to dig around the Acropolis, but the Greeks question the wording of the firman, and whether it meant Elgin could remove pieces from the Parthenon (Kersel 2004; Greenfield 1996). The Parthenon marbles also symbolize the power and aesthetic of the ancient Greeks and they provide income for the museum because many tourist flock to the museum to view the marbles. Bourdieu‟s (1977) analysis of capital can be used to explain why a museum will fight to retain cultural property. Power comes from the ability to assemble and circulate capital, and museums or nations that possess capital such as cultural property, have power. The Parthenon Marbles serve as symbolic capital because they represent Greek nationalism and pride, although Britain also considers the marbles part of its national identity, but as Morag Kersel (2004: 49) notes, the marbles are traded for economic capital to gain tourism profit, and the request for their return might just be under the guise of nationalism.

Objects also accrue value, which Bourdieu (1993) describes in his chapter on the “Outline of a Sociological Theory of Art Perception”. Art is symbolic goods, both a commodity and a symbolic object. Thus, the Parthenon Marbles would have a monetary value on the art market and the symbolic values described above. Compared to what Bourdieu calls large-scale cultural production, such as newspapers and movies, rich archaeological finds are a rarity in cultural production because archaeological finds are a limited resource. The antiquities market is a restricted market and, as Bourdieu argues, “the field of restricted production tends to develop its own criteria for the evaluation of its products, thus achieving the truly cultural recognition accorded by the peer group whose members are both privileged clients and competitors” (1993:115).

Bourdieu‟s argument directly relates to the power and prestige that collectors of antiquity gained as Mayo (2005) described. Cultural property, because of its rarity compared to other forms of property, is a symbol of prestige and power, which makes art a symbolic good.

Hopefully this post explained some of my thoughts on antiquity and in particular the dangers looting (at least briefly).  Please let me know if you believe that the publication of looted material adds value to objects and in return promotes looting.

To see an example of what a looted site looks like from space, please visit the following site as I do not have permission to reproduce them:

The bottom two pictures show damage to Crac des Chevaliers (right) and the Citadel at Aleppo (left) (taken from weekly.abram,

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