An archaeologist's tracking of the (primarily) Southern Hemisphere illicit antiquities trade.
Sunday, April 11, 2010
By Way of Introduction....
So, where to begin? How can one blog written by one person help the world to better get a handle on the scope of the global antiquities trade today, the trickery and outright greed that keep it going, and the urgency and necessity of keeping up the fight?
Not sure yet....but this blog will represent my best efforts to join with others by presenting a forum for keeping tabs on at least one half of it; that overlooked portion of the trade that increasingly flows through galleries, warehouses, auction houses, and private hands throughout the Southern Hemisphere.
Although the gist of my blogging will pertain to galleries operating out of, news stories emanating from, and general facts and opinions about, dealing and dealers from Australia and New Zealand, eventually I can see this blog covering the entire breadth of the hemisphere, in which, in my opinion (and much discussion and, I hope, debate to follow), the wealthy "first-world" countries have been long overlooked as destinations for illicit loot, while specific regions, like Southeast Asia and South America, remain active sources. Yet even with the "bad-old-days" of, say, the wholesale dismantling of an entire Angkorian temple wall in Cambodia largely curtailed due to at least somewhat increased UNESCO monitoring, local law enforcement, the gradual bolstering of museums, and ongoing local public outreach, the antiquities trade (in Cambodia and throughout Southeast Asia) has shifted focus to survive, and unfortunately remains as active as ever. Indeed, my Heritage Watch colleagues continue to rightly state that looting in Cambodia "has reached epic proportions." All evidence points to a similarly active trade in South America...and the situation in Africa (outside of Egypt and Roman North Africa) is even more sparsely reported on!
This blog will also seek to touch on that oft-discussed meme of "Who owns heritage?," as it uniquely applies to relationships between richer and poorer countries of this region. What does having a predominantly wealthy, "European" derived population, these days becoming increasingly multi-ethnic (and with much of that ethnic diversity coming from Asia), with "exotic" Southeast Asia "in its back yard" imply for the continued fueling of the Southern Hemisphere trade? Why is evidence for the looting and sale of Pacific Island prehistoric artifacts so infrequently encountered? Is the sale of Australian Aboriginal or Maori prehistoric artifacts (and the deliberate looting or surface collection on private property that implies) as severe (or high profile) as that affecting Native American sites in North America? And again...outside of Egypt and Mali...what's going on in Africa? Especially Southern Africa, with its more entrenched European-derived population and a more lingering legacy of colonialism.
Finally, I hope to include one other aspect (feature, if you will) of this blog. Where the situation warrants, I will do my best to provide examples of exactly what kinds of information and data have been lost to provide the market with a looted artifact (to borrow Paul Barford's term, a "dugup"). Sure, we in the archaeological/heritage preservation community always talk about "context" (and our detractors use their overall misunderstanding of the term, and what we archaeologists mean when we say it, to perpetually deride us), but to me it seems that understanding of this concept for most people, especially those who are still indecisive about whether to purchase antiquities or not, is still rather abstract. I'm convinced that a blog is an appropriate multi-media enabling format to convey the deeper meanings of what context can tell an archaeologist, or a bioarchaeologist. To take one very recent and gruesome example, the photo above left is one of two catalog entries recently on sale by BC Galleries, out of Melbourne. As you can see, a late Iron Age (c. 500AD or so) bronze bangle with grave fill and human bones still inside was on offer for $650AUD! It was recently taken down....but where has it gone?
If you arrive at this blog because you have previously read my posts for SAFECorner, then great! Rest assured, I will remain active in my roles with SAFE as well.
So there you have it, future readers! I do hope you'll check back regularly as I get the blog up and rolling. I'll leave it to you to let me know if I'm doing my job, and feel free to send blog-worthy content my way. Constant vigilance!
Currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute and National Museum of Natural History. Research interests include Southeast Asian archaeology, bioarchaeology, human osteology, quantifying the antiquities trade, and the use of educational games as teaching tools.