Saturday, June 26, 2010

China's Sorrow...and the World's

I bring to your attention two recent articles regarding the current uptick in tomb robbing occurring these days in China. The first was written by Dr. Magnus Fiskesjo, an anthropology professor at Cornell University (and former Director of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities in Stockholm). It was published in the China Daily newspaper. The second is by Calum MacLeod, for USA Today. Both center around the recent discovery of the tomb of general Cao Cao, a famous historical figure who lived between AD 155-220, at the very beginning of the Three Kindgoms Period (AD 220-280).

Although the tomb was eventually excavated (read "salvaged") by archaeologists, according to one of the farmers turned collectors in Anyang province (in the vicinity of Cao Cao's tomb), quoted in MacLeod's article, "since 2007, five gangs have targeted the tomb, and the region's poverty is the main driver." Although many locals supplement their meager income with selling field finds (usually obtained by less drastic means than the combination of metal detecting, bulldozing, mobile phone photography, "feng shue" divination and "traditional archaeological techniques" increasingly favoured by the organized tomb raiding teams), the articles stress that at least a few small-scale local collectors who might otherwise wish to see museums built to curate their artifacts are increasingly afraid of draconian penalties.

Both articles stress what is lost in terms of context and more specialized archaeological knowledge when a tomb is ripped open in search of artifacts. Importantly, however, Dr. Fiskesjo stresses that the majority of the blame should not lie at the feet of local looters or even local middle-men (beyond devising more appropriate punishments to act as deterrents as much as possible...certainly not the death penalty). Rather, the urban dealers and private collectors in China and abroad are assigned most of the blame; rightfully so, in my and the author's opinions.

The articles bolster this sentiment by pointing out that urban dealers and collectors in China are encouraged to only accept "the real deal" by such pop-cultural phenomena as antique shopping shows and game shows with content and discussion of antiquities far removed from the on the ground realities of looting. Indeed, MacLeod's points out how just how much "antiques have become the new currency of bribery" amongst corrupt officials in China, notes collector Hu Wengao (as quoted in MacLeod's article). This goes hand in hand with the rise of numerous "antiques malls" in Beijing, increasing export of rare pieces (or retention by corrupt local officials) and a thriving fakes industry, especially out of Hong Kong.

Banned under Mao in 1949 as "too capitalist," the MacLeod article notes that since the 1980's the "hobby" has been making a come back. However, the ideas proposed by Feskijo to use pop-culture as a force for good; something to remove the "lime light" that looting and collecting have been given in the local Chinese media, and expose the messy side of the trade to international collectors who might only see cleaned-up pieces online. To quote Fiskesjo "Alongside the antique shopping shows on TV, there could be programs that highlight this destruction. One could make arrested robbers walk the sites with reporters, under experts' guidance, and explain the damage they have done and reveal the names of persons who payed them to do it. Similar tell-all shows could be conducted with dealers who knowingly sell recently stolen items. One could interview collectors and ask them to reflect on the sad consequences of their activity."

While these seem like intriguing ideas in principle, I think it'd be rather difficult to actually arrange informants to interview or display to the public. However, if participation in such a program was implemented as a legal "community service" option, perhaps in exchange for a reduced fine, jail time, or a stay of execution, especially for those poor rural residents who might only be engaged in "subsistence digging," more of those convicted might try to arrange for it. Indeed, Fiskesjo concludes by noting that the shame itself could be a powerful deterrent, at least for locals (even urbanites who have yet to purchase and are simply not aware of how that shiny bronze object actually got into that gallery's window display). Shaming foreign (primarily Western) middle-men, collectors and dealers into giving up their hobby is another thing entirely.

The future of Chinese prehistoric and historic archaeology appears to be at a cross-roads, and as local and international archaeologists continue to collaborate in their race against time, they key here (as in Southeast Asia and everywhere else looting is felt...i.e. pretty much everywhere), is changing public attitudes. Easier said than done, but in my view, factually-grounded outreach can only be a force for good.

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