Illicit antiquities

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


My life as an archaeologist in a Criminology centre

TC

The Homepage of of Trafficking Culture

Friday 26th July, 2013.

Hello. My name is Suzie Thomas, and I’m a Research Associate at the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, at the University of Glasgow. I work on a really exciting project, so exciting that the European Research Council  decided to fund it for a whole four years (we are well into year 2 at the moment). Our project is called Trafficking Culture , and as is stated on the website’s home page: ‘Trafficking Culture aims to produce an evidence-based picture of the contemporary global trade in looted cultural objects.’ It’s interdisciplinary, which makes for a rich and informative working environment.

We work at a global level, with regional research taking place in parts of South America, South East Asia and Eastern Europe, to name but a few areas. We have PhD students attached to the project, all of whom have really exciting research topics planned. We also disseminate useful information through our website, such as an ever-growing resource of relevant publications, and often previously-unseen or previously-unavailable data (which we hope fellow researchers can use in some way). My favourite section by far though is our Encyclopedia, in which we present better (and also less well)  known case studies of looting, theft and trafficking, and also some useful terminology. We all write entries for the encyclopedia, and sometimes guest writers provide entries for us too, like this interesting piece on the Everbeek Roman Silver Hoard in Belgium. Some of my own entries include pieces about the thefts from, and recoveries to, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the saga of the  Salisbury Hoard, and definitions of looting-related terms like Tombarolo.

Suzie_Snow

Me, during my Visiting Fellowship at the University of Helsinki in March/April. I like cold places, and I really like finding out about cultural object issues that are less well known.

So, as you can see, we have a pretty cool project here. In fact, two of my colleagues are in Cambodia and one is in Bolivia on fieldwork as we speak. And what about me, on today the official Day of Archaeology? I’m in Glasgow.

I had visits to Finland and Estonia (I’m interested in the Baltic region) earlier in the year, and I even got to be a keynote speaker, for the first time in my career, in Brussels back in May. But right now, I have a very quiet office and lots of transcribing to do. I can’t tell you the content of the transcripts, and our informants are completely anonymised. But let me assure you, it is really interesting stuff. Which makes up for the fact that it is still transcribing.

Later on today, I will probably review a draft chapter for a new book which I am co-editing with a Criminology colleague from Loughborough, which will be all about Heritage and Crime. This book will cover some of the issues around global trafficking of looted cultural objects, but will also explore other types of crime that can affect heritage, with some very interesting case studies from different parts of the world. I am excited about this, too.

I’m also primarily responsible for our social media presence on Facebook and Twitter, so it would be remiss of me not to ask you to ‘Like’ us (www.facebook.com/TraffickingCulture), and to follow us (@CultureTraffic). For Tumblr fans, we even have one of these (traffickingculture.tumblr.com).

In what I optimistically refer to as  my ‘spare time’, I am also one of three Editors (joined recently by two Assistant Editors) for a brand new Journal – the Journal of Community Archaeology and Heritage. This also has Twitter (@CommunityArchae), a blog (journalcah.blogspot.co.uk), and Facebook (www.facebook.com/JournalOfCommunityArchaeologyAndHeritage).

This is my other passion, you see. As well as trying to understand and maybe even suggest solutions to the global problem of smuggled and trafficked cultural objects, I also really love community archaeology. It’s just such a great idea, and it gets more and more interesting as you start to explore how it is developing in different ways and to different extents in various cultural, socio-economic and legislative settings across the world. We’re all very excited for the papers that will appear in the journal to reflect this rich diversity, and are looking forward to its official launch in 2014.

Later, I’m away for the weekend. This has nothing to do with ‘the day job’ or even JCAH, but I am excited about it.

Loot Busters

What can we do about looting? Lots of people like to theorise, but I tend to prefer to be more practical.
I used to work on field projects, trying to prevent looting of archaeological sites on the ground. Partly because one project in Central Asia went very wrong – several archaeologists died, I was treated for PTSD – and partly because I realised that it was futile to try to police every square inch of land, often in war zones, I decided to try another approach.
Rather than trying to stop looting often done by poor people desperate to feed their families, I decided to try to identify the material and “burn” it at the art market, in effect prevent it from being fenced. My theory is that most (not all) art dealers and collectors are basically scrupulous people, who want to be able to collect but do not support looting.
So I came up with a very simple solution – to create a web site where all the material reported stolen could be listed and therefore identified. It sounds obvious, but no-one has done it before.  Rather than giving the site a long academic name I went for the catchier “Loot Busters” (and yes, it has been hard to resist adding the Ghostbusters theme tune to the web site): www.LootBusters.com
Does it work? Surprisingly, yes. And most dealers are thrilled with the project, as it means they can identify the dodgy pieces. (Okay, a few are not happy with it). I keep thinking that, for example, Nazi loot has mostly been found by now, but a few weeks ago whilst going through the database of material stolen from Poland I noticed an 18th century piece which I happened to know was in a collection in London. Ditto a Venetian painting reported stolen by the Italians I’d seen with a London art dealer. And we’ve even found some antiquities!
There are various databases already of looted art, but most concentrate on one area – for example the exemplary Turkish Ministry of Culture web site which lists stolen Turkish material – or are hard to use. The Interpol Database only makes a couple of hundred of recently stolen items available to the public. The Art Loss Register makes no material available to unregistered users, and charges a great deal for searches – an academic wanting to look up a piece they spotted somewhere and think it stolen is unlikely to pay to check …  The Carabinieri Database is unwieldy, with very hard to use search parameters and more often than not returns this message:
These days there seem to the thousands of people working on cultural property, and dozens of conferences a year. Honestly, I don’t go to any of them – I hate theorising, and prefer practical projects.
I also don’t like the “gotcha” attitude of a lot of people who theorise about looting, so when Loot Busters find a looted piece we tell both the representative of the country from which it was stolen and whoever has it (dealer, collector or museum), so that they can sort it out – we also have a policy of confidentiality, so we can’t boast about our successes … sometimes frustrating, but keeping a low profile and letting whoever is returning the item take the credit works better in the long term.
This week I’ve been busy updating the web site, so it’s all sitting at the computer loading photos and typing … Plus we should send out another newsletter soon, so I’ll be working on that this week-end.
Most archaeologists’ main concern when it come to looting is Syria at the moment. We keep hearing reports of looting, but little precise information about pieces looted. We’ve posted photos of material that has been reported missing. Damascus Museum seems to be untouched, thank goodness, but Homs, Hama and Apamea have suffered badly. I found photos of the Hama and Apamea Museums on a web site, and the photographer, Dick Osseman, has kindly allowed us to re-post them.
This mosaic from Hama Museum is extraordinary, and pretty unique in showing women playing musical instruments – so it should be pretty easy to identify if it appears on the art market:
I’ve also been busy this week re-posting images from the Carabinieri Database of material stolen from Italy. It’s going a little slowly as I am trying to sort the material as I go into categories, and then sometimes I break them down further, but the material I’ve added can be accessed through the index here (lots more coming soon): http://www.lootbusters.com/ItalyIndex.html
Some of the stolen material is so generic I doubt it will ever be possible to identify it (other material I wonder why anyone bothered to steal it, as the financial value probably won’t justify the crime). Other pieces, such as the mosaic above, is extraordinary – I was at a conference in Copenhagen in early May and several of the archaeologists were amazed at some of the stolen material, which they didn’t know about.
This Roman relief depicting a theatrical performance on the upper level and a horse race in a Circus below is pretty unique and would be easy to identify on the art market (see: http://www.lootbusters.com/Italy/ItalyReliefs.html):
I try to make people aware of the more important pieces, so I often beg David Meadows to blog about pieces on his fabulous blog Rogue Classicism, which is on every archaeologist and Classicist’s must-read list. I’m hoping that he’ll blog this relief soon, just as he blogged this stolen Afghan glass vessel with a relief depiction of the Pharos of Alexandria (here):
I tend to downplay the excitement of dealing with looting and looted antiquities – it ain’t nothing like Lara Croft – because most of it is research rather than swinging from vines. One of the things I do love is going through the material and coming across items I probably would have missed, or which bear witness to history. This gold fibula, for example, can be very precisely dated to AD 306-7 by it’s inscription, and was owned by a supporter of Constantine in the years before he became the sole ruler of the empire (http://www.lootbusters.com/Italy/ItalyFibulae.html):
This week has been quiet, just sitting at a computer, loading up information. Sometimes things are more exciting, for example when we find a looted item and trying amicably negotiate its return. I know collectors come in for a lot of criticism for buying looted antiquities, as do auction houses and dealers for selling them, but my experience has been that the vast majority of them co-operate when they are told they have looted items, and go out of their way to help.

Looted Heritage

Earlier today, I mentioned that one of the nice things about digital work was that, well, I could timeshift as necessary. So now, with kids in bed, and a quiet moment, I return to another project of mine that I’ve been working on since January – Looted Heritage.

This isn’t funded, or part of anything larger – just one guy and some students, as time and energy allow. I started this project partly as an exercise in some of my classes, but partly out of an interest in the shady side of the interest in the human past – the market for illicit antiquities. By some counts, it’s the third largest black market out there, after drugs and guns. With Looted Heritage, we use the Ushahidi platform to grab and monitor tweets, blogs, news aggregators, and various social media streams for notices of looting, cultural heritage vandalism, or other items of interest. We turn these into reports, and pin them to the map. Periodically, we download all of this information (and you can too!) and mine this data for trends in this market.  There’s an ios and android app available too, so if one happened across a field where tombaroli were active, you could snap a pic and send it to us.

We’ve already written up our results from the first quarter of 2012 here; our data is all there too if you’d like to explore it. If you’d like to keep an eye out for anything happening in the illicit antiquities market, it’d be great if you could submit reports on Looted Heritage. They say ‘many eyes make for better code’; many eyes can also help bring the illicit trade into the light.

You should also take a look at WikiLoot and Loot Busters, who are working with more of the primary materials related to this trade. Me, as a digital guy, well I’m sifting the dirt of social media…