Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Road Goes Ever On and On...

Well, the day has finally arrived! As of tomorrow, I am off to Washington DC to begin what should be an amazingly productive, educational and fun two years of (very hard) work as a post-doc at the Smithsonian! Although my region of focus (in terms of bioarchaeological research) will move from Southeast Asia to Central Asia and the Near-East, it is guaranteed that my scientific skills will continue to develop, and my participation in antiquities trade research and public outreach grow immensely. Opportunities abound!

In the last couple of months, in and amongst packing and running around, the writing up of some intriguing and somewhat unexpected findings from the period of investigatory fieldwork in Hanoi last January is occurring apace, with publications to be submitted soon. Furthermore, I had the honour of taking part in a new TV documentary series being produced by the ABC 4 Corners program (to air on the 24th), in which the ins-and-outs of the Kapoor case as it currently stands will be discussed, from multiple angles. Though my time on camera might be short (whew!), participating was a novel experience for me.

I will miss Sydney and Australia terribly, but know that both academic and personal connections will keep me coming back. I leave thankful for all the great friends and colleagues made, experiences shared, collaborations begun, and all around fun I was able to have. Like the most complex of  courtroom dramas, I foresee many twists and turns in the road, but the journey has been wonderful so far.

Stay tuned for more updates as events warrant, and see you on the flip side!

Monday, February 3, 2014

I Have Re-Surfaced Down Under!

Greetings, archaeo-blogosphere! I have triumphantly returned from a successful conference and fieldwork trip to Cambodia and Vietnam. The IPPA conference was a smash hit, and my panel on the illicit antiquities trade in Southeast Asia garnered much more attention than I expected, to my great honour. I feel that this topic is finally "on the radar" for our region, so that documentation, research, and advocacy will increase.

What's more, it was fun to participate in the "live-Tweet" team, organized by my colleague Noel Hidalgo-Tan. We successfully, I think, covered a wide spectrum of talks and topics during the conference as they occurred! I had never done this before, but will do so again.

My time in Hanoi was also very productive. Besides catching up with old friends and colleagues, there was much learned and some (I feel) very important data gathered. While there is not much I am really at liberty to blog about at the moment, I'm sure that as time goes on, this might change.

It was lovely to be in Vietnam again for the Tet New Year (Year of the Horse), and I look forward to my next chance to visit and continue this project throughout the country someday. For now, I look forward (with trepidation) to the two months to come, where "organized chaos" will rule my life as I prepare for an international move. Wish me luck! Until next time.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Season's Greetings!

Season's Greetings to all of you in the cultural heritage blogosphere who visited my home in cyberspace this past year, or may do so in 2014. This is just to confirm that I'm still alive, so be prepared for more news and updates on my travels and adventures. As a preview, I can report that I will attend the IPPA (Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association) conference in Siem Reap, Cambodia in January. I am honored to be able to host a small panel on the illicit trade in Southeast Asia, which should bring together speakers who can offer both archaeological and legal/criminological insight as applied to that region of the world.

From there, I am Hanoi bound for two weeks in order to conduct "pilot" research for what I hope will be a long term project to better understand the antiquities trade within and from Vietnam using quantitative and qualitative data (see initial announcement here in the Oct. 1st post). Planning continues apace, but as always with research in this part of the world, some aspects will be played by ear. However, good outcomes are anticipated by myself and all involved.

As a final happy announcement, I am overjoyed to report that I will officially be a post-doctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution from April next year. Yes, this does mean that I am DC bound. I will maintain three affiliations, be engaged in what should be a very exciting bioarchaeology research project, and also be well positioned (I feel) to keep things going in regards to antiquities trade research (and the application of archaeological science to it) and public outreach. So, whilst updates here might be intermittent (more so!) from February through April, once I've arrived I will do my best to tap into the Smithsonian's wider outreach and training programs as a way to share what I do with an even wider audience and do new things to boot. Stay tuned!

As we close out 2013 (where did it go?!), may I take this chance to wish one and all Happy Holidays and a joyous New Year.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Homework Sucks!

As many of you out there can recall from your school days, not doing your homework, even just once or twice, would almost surely make you fall behind. Some might cheat to try to catch up, some might beg "the smart kid" for answers (but I'll be your best friend!), and some might accept their fate and be more diligent.

This metaphor perfectly sums up the moral of a story that has recently come to my attention. A figurative cry for help has reached me, in the form of a comment left on my VERY first blog entry for SAFE, way back in April, 2010. Who would've imagined anyone still read that far back?! Let's see what's going on.

As you can see if you click on the link above, on October 24th, someone simply going by the name Mo has commented. In it, he informs myself (and all of SAFE) that he'd recently bought five rings from BC Galleries (referred to as a Local Antique shop...does this mean he's in Melbourne)? He wants my personal help in ID'ing/authenticating, as he's "not good at Hellenic culture." I am?!

The story continues with the assertion that he's a "university accounting student also interested in Antique," but that he went ahead and spent $2,700 US (allegedly) on these rings...without getting anything independently verified first! If this is true, I'd also assume that he only found out about SAFE and my blog post after the fact. One would hope! He goes on to beg my help as, apparently, he could find no appropriate specialists in Australia (not even at the undisclosed "Local Museum"). No experts, he says? Perhaps it's merely that he's worried the experts won't help...because since when is it their responsibility? They have enough on their plates! I have thus become his "last hope."

So, seems like Mo wants me to "do his homework" for him, perhaps after the fact. Either he's clueless and got had, so now reaches out to whomever he can in the hope that someone can assuage his buyer's remorse with a vindication that he's purchased real items...and to hell with considerations such as import/export legality or whether he's holding "toxic antiquities."

On the other hand, would a Uni accounting student (!) with apparently some cash to blow (lucky him!) buy no-questions-asked online? Wouldn't you want to talk to the dealer in person first? Would any but the most gullible ever buy, say, a car from a used-car salesman (not known for their honesty, alas) without performing "due diligence" first?

If anything resembling a licit global market entirely separate and not fed by the illicit market is ever going to exist, if that's even possible, then everyone involved on the demand side has the utmost responsibility to perform due diligence not just afterwards when caught or investigated (or uneasy about one's purchases). When one tries to click on the links to each individual catalog item as offered in his original comment, "not found" messages appear.

Given the numerous evidence-based arguments put forth already that strongly suggest licit can't be separated from illicit in this case (see here and here), I have my doubts. If such a development can ever occur in any meaningful sense, it will be a celebration worthy public policy outcome of new research in this field welcomed by many I'm sure.

As this unexpected example shows, and as we in this scholarly/investigative field continually stress, everyone who voluntarily chooses to further this risky business via "ethical" participation at any level MUST "do their own homework" by asking all the right questions, not just the most pressing afterthoughts.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Your Feedback is Important to Us!

As those of you who follow this blog would know, Vietnam and its ancient past are near and dear to my heart. The need to better conserve its archaeological record and understand what threatens it remains important...but the degree to which it is threatened is less known than other countries in the region. Research begun by myself and a colleague with legal and criminological expertise in art crime will begin to remedy this.

As part of our overall goal, we have drafted a series of questions designed to produce qualitative data via elucidating Western and Vietnamese archaeologists' experiences and observations of looting and the antiquities trade on the ground. We have already posted a call for interview subjects on three key Southeast Asian archaeology forums. I announce it here as well so as to keep spreading the word. If you or your colleagues would like to contribute, let us know and we can send you the questionnaire and more information about the project and its goals. There's plenty of time, and a diversity of perspectives would be very informative! Anonymity will be preserved.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

If You Happen to Find Yourself in Chicago...

On November 14th, please make an effort to attend this one-day symposium, to be offered by the DePaul University College of Law Centre for Art, Museum and Cultural Heritage Law. The symposium "will address the underlying legal, ethical and moral reasons and policies behind the return of cultural objects. Panels will discuss provenance research, museum acquisitions, the 1970 UNESCO Convention and historical appropriations, and the ethical issues that come into play when requests for repatriation are made." It is rare to see so many influential scholars on this topic in the same room at the same time, so this is truly an opportunity not to be missed (if you're not on an entirely different continent, as I am).

Topics will include "market and legal" perspectives on the need for more thorough provenance (ownership history) research, how museums can negotiate the acquisition of artifacts that lack a pre-1970 provenance (and should they?), legal and moral aspects of international calls for repatriation of artefacts lifted during the Colonial-era, and the oft-contentious issue of when museums and private dealers or collectors should and shouldn't heed calls for repatriation. All in all, it seems like quite the fascinating that I wish I could attend! If any readers of this blog do attend, and would like to guest-blog about what they learned, they are more than welcome.

Monday, August 19, 2013

A "Wrecked" Opportunity?

Yet another historic shipwreck has been discovered and heavily plundered off the coast of Vietnam (Quang Ngai Province), the third since 1998. Thanh Nien News reports that towards the end of June, about 30 boats full of "treasure hunters" rushed over to plunder the shallow wreck; unfortunately discovered no more than 100 meters from the coast and 1.5m deep (more news here).

The seabed around the clusters of likely c. 16th-17th century blue-on-white ceramics discovered has also been dredged and disturbed in the hunt for more artifacts, thereby revealing some of the wreck itself, but also destroying vital archaeological context regarding site formation and taphonomy. There is even testimony to the effect that axes and crowbars were used to free individual artifacts from the wreck as quickly as possible, smashing other pieces in the process!

Fortunately, police have allegedly been on patrol since last Friday morning and a southern Vietnamese "salvage" company was contracted out to conduct an excavation of what remained (see photo above left). The trajectory of discovery, looting, patrol, and "salvage" that occurred for this wreck is very similar to that which occurred for another c. 13th-14th century wreck in the area.

The merits of approaching a salvage company (headed by a known antiquities collector...), as opposed to an organization devoted to maritime archaeology such as the Vietnam Maritime Archaeology Project Centre (full disclosure: colleagues of mine), is open to debate. I'd assume it's just a question of time and money, as always.

Here's hoping that authorities will have better luck recovering looted items this time around, but how many are destined for international markets as opposed to local collections is anyone's guess. Vietnamese heritage law would theoretically prevent their export (search for Vietnam here), but enforcement and detection is another matter. With the likely upcoming expansion of Dung Quat port, time is running out to decide what to do with these wreck; remove it or preserve it in-situ as a tourist attraction? Given that other wrecks from different time periods remain unexcavated (but already looted?), how authorities deal with this situation will set important precedent. Stay tuned...