Cultural property

Lost cities and looted tombs: Studying artifact smuggling in Belize

On last year’s day of archaeology I was 3700 feet above sea level, studying the looting of Andean churches. This year I am in the Central American jungle conducting fieldwork on artifact smuggling in Belize.

The image above shows the looting of a large Maya temple front at the site of Placeres, Mexico: it is literally being sawed off. Read about the looting and trafficking of this facade on the Trafficking Culture website. Photo by permission of the person who took it.

This job is exciting to say the least

An antiquities smuggler in the process of looting a large stucco temple facade at the Maya site of Placeres, Mexico (Photo with permission of individual pictured)

An antiquities smuggler in the process of looting a large stucco temple facade at the Maya site of Placeres, Mexico (Photo with permission of individual pictured)

Although I am an archaeologist by training (I have a trowel and I know how to use it), I do something a bit different. I am a researcher on Trafficking Culture, a multidisciplinary research project focused on researching the transnational criminal trafficking of looted and stolen cultural property. In other words, while many archaeologists work to reconstruct the past, we work make sure that there is a past left for them to reconstruct. The looting of archaeological sites and the trafficking of stolen antiquities is big business and my team is studying how to disrupt these criminal networks. I am based at the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow. I’m an archaeologist in a criminology department.

Recently our project’s work in Cambodia has received much media attention, thanks to an article on the National Geographic site and a paper in the British Journal of Criminology (available for free for a limited time). My colleagues Simon Mackenzie and Tess Davis were able to reconstruct two criminal networks that stole Khmer art from jungle temples and moved them across borders and on to the market. One at least was tied to the Khmer Rouge. Many supposedly-reputable dealers, collectors, and museums bought these blood antiquities.

We want to study more of these artefact trafficking networks. That is why I am in Belize: to learn the who, what, when, where, and why of the devastation of the massive, jungle-covered ancient cities of the Maya by antiquities traffickers.

Almost every Maya site has been looted

A fat Maya lord rides on a jaguar man doing a handstand. It is in the November Collection, a brutally looted group of Maya pots acquired in the late 80s by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (photo by the author)

A fat Maya lord wearing a mask  rides on a jaguar man doing a handstand. It is in the November Collection, a brutally looted group of Maya pots acquired in the late 80s by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (photo by the author)

The ancient Maya were an artistically, culturally, and scientifically advanced civilization located in parts of what is now Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and, of course, Belize. They charted the movement of Venus, had a complete written language, and built cities that housed 10s of thousands of people. The remains of their massive temples are other-worldly: they stick up over the canopy of the jungle. From the temple tops, you can watch monkeys, toucans, and scarlet macaws going about their business below between the swirls of morning mist.

We’ve known about the ancient Maya for a long time. Formal archaeological excavations began in the region in the late 1800s and many many ‘lost cities’ were recorded by archaeological pioneers who braved the green uninhabited expanse, slinging their hammocks on ruins as they went along. There was not an international market for Maya artefacts, however, until the late 1950s and early 1960s. Collectors and museums went wild for the complex iconography of Maya carved stone statues (usually called stelas) and fell in love with the delicate, masterful scenes painted on Maya pottery. That it was illegal to buy, sell, and export Maya artefacts from their countries of origin was immaterial. The law rarely stops very rich people from getting what they want and what they wanted was the ancient Maya.

Maya Tomb at Rio Azul, looted in the late 1970s, empty when archaeologists arrived. We'll never know what was inside (poster by the author for Saving Antiquities for Everyone)

Maya tomb at Rio Azul, looted in the late 1970s, empty when archaeologists arrived. We’ll never know what was inside (poster by the author for Saving Antiquities for Everyone)

Almost every known Maya site (and many sites unknown to archaeologists) has been hit by looters. Archaeologists are often left cleaning up the tattered remains left as a supply of artefacts was found to meet the demands of artifact-hungry collectors and museums. Once-intact temples have been cut nearly in half to access the artefacts within. Many have collapsed, destabilized by looting tunnels. Archaeologists find once-beautiful carved stela mutilated by looters: “thinned” with power tools to make them easier to transport or broken into bits, with only the prettiest carved sections taken for the international market. Archaeologists find once-sealed Maya tombs empty and bare with human bones smashed or pushed aside. Any Maya pot or jade piece you see in a museum almost certainly came from a tomb. There is a very good chance it was looted as well. And relatively recently.

We’ve lost so much information about the Maya to the illicit antiquities market. I am out to figure out how this happened and what we can do to prevent it from happening again.

My day of archaeology

Having finished up some initial work in Belize City, I will ride an old American school bus north along Belize’s Northern Highway to the town of Orange Walk. There I will stop in to the town museum which houses artefacts from a number of nearby Maya sites to speak with museum workers about looting and trafficking of antiquities. Hopefully this will generate some local leads: we’ve found that people involved in antiquities trafficking in the past are often willing to talk about it.

The author showing her love for the ancient Maya at the site of Lamanai, Belize back in 2003.

The author showing her love for the ancient Maya at the site of Lamanai, Belize back in 2003.

I am very interested in what we call ‘parallel’ trafficking networks: illicit objects that are smuggled alongside antiquities in the same areas. Along Belize’s borders with Guatemala and Mexico rare plants and animals, arms, drugs, and people have been trafficked, as well as antiquities. I am going to (safely) see if anyone around those parts is willing to tell me some stories about this.

The author excavates a rare unlooted Maya tomb at a heavily looted site on the Belize/Guatemala border

Me excavating a rare unlooted Maya tomb at a heavily looted site on the Belize/Guatemala border. The pot type I am finding is very rare and, sadly, very sellable as an illicit antiquity.

Next I plan to move a bit further afield. I plan on visiting some of the heavily looted Maya sites along Belize’s northern border with Mexico. These sites are very difficult to get to, but several archaeologists working the area have kindly invited me into their camps.

This trip is an emotional one for me. As I say in this post on my blog, Anonymous Swiss Collector, I first found myself face-to-face with the devastating effects of looting while working in Belize and Guatemala in 2003. It was then and there that I devoted myself to this issue and my life has never been the same. A BA, MPhil, PhD, and post doc later, I am still working to protect and preserve the Maya sites that I fell in love with. This will be my first time back to Belize in over a decade.

I think that the only way to prevent looting at archaeological sites is to disrupt the criminal networks that bring these items to the market. To do that, we have to understand those networks. Hopefully this fieldwork will shed new light on a very dark chapter in the archaeological history of Central America.

The author, all of 20 years old, at the (looted) Maya site of Xunantunich, Belize

The author, all of 20 years old, at the (looted) Maya site of Xunantunich, Belize


High Crimes: Studying the Illicit Antiquities Trade in the Bolivian Andes

Painting of Santa Rosa

Painting of Santa Rosa stolen from the church of the Bolivian village of Jesus de Machaca and recovered on the London art market in 2011 (image via. Bolivia’s Ministry of Cultures)

Although I am a trained field archaeologist, I now work for a criminology department. I study the looting of archaeological and historic sites and the transnational trade in illicit cultural property. That is what I am doing now, in La Paz, Bolivia, 3700 feet above sea level, thanks to a Fulbright grant and a Leverhulme fellowship.

I am part of the University of Glasgow and the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research’s Trafficking Culture project. My research group is approaching looting and antiquities trafficking from new angles to hopefully come up with interesting regulatory responses to this problem. Besides larger criminological and market analyses, our project is engaged in several regional case studies. That is where I fit in. I am looking into this phenomenon in Latin America and, right now, in Bolivia.

At the moment I am working on the looting of remote Conquest-era churches and the international market for stolen ecclesiastical paintings, sculpture and silver. The Andes are filled with rural churches: they were part of the evangelising mission of the Spanish Conquistadors. These churches are filled with spectacular and regionally-specific art. Most notable in Bolivia is silver work: for several hundred years the majority of the world’s silver came from Bolivia and Indigenous artists had a ready supply to make thousands of beautiful objects of devotion. Unfortunately there are collectors out there who are willing to buy stolen church art and, as supply meets demand, poor Bolivian communities are robbed of their heritage.

Stone Church at village of Laja

This church at the Bolivian village of Laja was robbed in 2012 (wikimedia commons)

Bolivia is culturally rich but economically poor. These churches are in bad states of repair and are insecure. Many cannot be alarmed, even if they are located in an area with electricity, because there is no money for such things. In most of the villages where churches are located residents live well below the poverty line so the idea of paying a full time guard is laughable. Increase police presence? Not when the nearest police outpost is 100km away over an unpaved road. Not when this country is thought to have one of the most corrupt police forces in the Americas.

But even the most important and well-protected Bolivian churches are not safe. In April the church of the Virgin of Copacabana, Bolivia’s most holy and miraculous shrine, was robbed of the silver and gold that anointed the Virgin herself. The baby Jesus in her arms was stolen as well. A priest who was at Copacabana on temporary assignment was jailed this week for involvement in the robbery. The holy pieces have not been recovered. My guess is that they were carried into Peru and then on to anonymity. That was the 6th church robbery in Bolivia in only 4 months.

17th Century Painting of the Virgin of Copacabana

A 17th century painting of the Virgin of Copacabana surrounded by silver (public domain)

I am constantly asked why these silver-filled churches were not robbed before. If they have been sitting out there, vulnerable, for 500 years why are they only being robbed now? The best answer I can give is that there was no illicit market for these items before. These churches are being robbed because terrible people want to own beautiful things.

I warn I am writing in advance because my day will include being without internet.

So what will my day be? On this day of archaeology I will take a taxi to the La Paz cemetery then squish myself into a minibus. I will head westward for about two hours until I reach the famous UNESCO World Heritage Site of Tiwanaku.

Tiwanaku is a vast, monumental, pre-Inka site that I excavated at (when I was a diggy-archaeologist) back in 2004 and 2005. I am sad to say that in 2011 Tiwanaku’s conquest-era church was robbed. It wasn’t the first time. The thieves have not been arrested and the objects stolen have not been recovered. I am going out there to talk to old friends about the robbery. I am interested to hear their perceptions about how the theft could have been prevented, their thoughts on the response of public authorities, and how they feel the robbery has affected the community. I want to hear the facts but I also want to hear wild speculation, rumours, and emotion. I think emotion is very important in this kind of work.

Tiwanaku's church

Tiwanaku’s conquest-era church was built by the Spanish from stoned looted from the nearby World Heritage site. It was robbed in 2011 (photo by the author)

And, really, this is an emotional issue with grave consequences. Just last year two men were caught robbing the church in the small Bolivian village of Quila Quila. The villagers apprehended the men and, in a public display of frustration, insecurity, and fear, they lynched the alleged robbers and buried them behind the church.

A ruined church in Bolivia

A ruined and abandoned church in the Altiplano, Bolivia’s high plain (Jduranboger, CC attribution)

I don’t think most people imagine that what I do is archaeology (even the Day of Archaeology website doesn’t have a category for this post to fit into!), but I think that it is. The past is what we say it is, and we believe that the physical remains of the past are important. That they are worthy of being preserved as tools of both memory and identity. When they are ripped from their contexts and sold on the black market,  everyone loses. We are all robbed because we will never get to know the information those objects contained. “Neocolonialism” is a word that is bandied about quite a bit in Bolivia: it is a word that even people with no education know. The illicit antiquities trade is a prime example of neocolonialism. When objects are stolen from vulnerable areas of the developing world and moved into the hands of rich people in the developed world, we perpetuate an unjust imbalance. We keep people down.

This is my dream job. I am so thankful to be able to do this research.

From Cultural Property to Fiction

Cast of part of the Parthenon frieze at UCS

Is there a typical day in the life of a Professor of Archaeological Heritage at University Campus Suffolk?

This is the week of Ip-Art, the Ipswich Arts Festival. On Tuesday night I was at Arlington’s in Museum Street for a poetry evening hosted by Poetry Anglia. The building was constructed as a museum – so it appropriately became the home of the muses! I was invited to be the first reader and offered my ‘Roman Vision‘ reflecting on the Roman remains that peep out among the buildings of modern Athens.

Earlier in the day I had attended an e-learning workshop. There was a focus on the use of iPads, a topic of interest to me through the Gwella project work at Swansea University (in my previous role). I am developing materials that can be delivered to smart phones and tablet devices to assist with the interpretation of archaeological and heritage sites.

Wednesday was the UCS research day. There was a varied programme with a keynote address on e-medicine. I gave a paper, ‘Looting matters: cultural property, conventions and compliance’. This considered a discussion of how recently surfaced antiquities can continue to surface on the market and to be acquired by major museums. I reviewed some of the international guidelines, as well as the ethical codes for museums and dealers in ancient art. The focal point was the compliance (or non-compliance) of dealers and museums when questionable material is identified. (For more on this topic see ‘Looting Matters‘.) Earlier in the week I had received my offprint of a study of the material returned to Italy from Princeton University Art Museum.

The same research conference included a discussion of project management from a colleague in the Business School. We have developed an interesting dialogue about the management of ancient projects. I was struck by the wording the (Athenian) Eleusinian Epistatai decree of the 430s BC that cites the way that the ‘management’ structure for the temple (presumably the Parthenon) and the statue (presumably the Athena Promachos) should be used as a model.

The Sainsbury Centre at UEA

Yesterday was spent in a series of meetings at UEA in Norwich. Part of the day involved discussions in the Sainsbury Centre and it was good to see the series of Cycladic marble figures from the southern Aegean. These figures formed the subject of a research paper with Christopher Chippindale (Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology) that was published in the American Journal of Archaeology [JSTOR]. It was the first in a series of studies about cultural property.

One of the trends on Twitter yesterday was the submission of online poetry from around the world to celebrate the forthcoming Olympics.  I offered my ‘Shaded Marbles‘ as an audio track with appropriate images. The theme is on (historic) cultural property currently in the British Museum. (The Greek theme was appropriate given the origins of the Games.)

Another of my roles is as Head of the Division of Humanities. So this evening I will be attending the Short Story event in the Spiegeltent at Ip-Art to hear the competition winner announced. I was one of the judges for the short-listing and I have been asked to say something about our institutional support for this literary event.