Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Human Remains Repatriated to Namibia

This is a quick post to report on the successful repatriation case of 20 human skulls to Namibia, after more than a century of storage at the Charite teaching hospital in Berlin (see the photo above left for an example). Namibia, then known as German Southwest Africa, was the site of Germany's brief attempt at colonial rule of foreign lands; a chapter in its history which ended rather badly. These skulls were taken from those who died in German prison camps during a retaliatory campaign of genocide against the Harero (Herero) and Nama (Namaqua) tribes from 1904-1907. This "first genocide of the 20th century," according to the article, was in response to a Harero uprising in January 1904 over alleged theft of land, cattle and women which killed 123 newly settled German civilians. The skulls were kept in a medical hospital to inform later eugenics-themed "research" intended to lend scientific credibility to Nazi claims of racial superiority.

It is great news, then, that these skulls will finally be returned on October 4th, with a reburial memorial and traditional mortuary rights being held on the 5th in the capital, Windhoek. As Namibia's former ambassador to Germany noted in 2008 (quoted in the article), the return of the skulls is "a question of retaining our dignity." I couldn't agree more. As this additional article points out, this repatriation is the tip of the iceberg, with the Charite museum allegedly having at least 7,000 skulls in its collections, as well as a variety of other bones, and several other museums in Germany the same; acquired under equally dubious circumstances. In their year of remaining funding, it is my hope that the physical anthropologists and historians involved will be able to collaboratively identify the most likely origin events that brought these skulls to Germany and arrange for their repatriation, after making sure that all relevant data that can be collected from them is. The injustices of the past should always be acknowledged and remedied as much as possible, but in my opinion, this does not excuse collecting all relevant information.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The "tomb raiding" crisis in China continues.

As I gather my thoughts and photos together from Vietnam to soon begin a series of posts discussing the antiquities trade in Hanoi as I observed it last month, this interim post concerns the following article. It concerns the continuation and apparent escalation of organized, literal tomb raiding in several provinces around China, specifically highlighting the situation in Shaanxi province. Criminal gangs from several nearby provinces have descended on the province in droves, with local police having solved 250 cases of raiding/smuggling since 2009 alone.

However, it is clear from the article that this is a drop in the ocean of what's really going on. What was most disturbing, and obviously the most challenging for local and national archaeologists and non-corrupt officials to deal with, is the degree and extent to which these gangs form "alliances" with either local villagers or even local police. This is not a new phenomenon, nor is it confined to China, but the situation again indicates why the severity of looting in China is among the worst in Asia; similar to what's going on in Peru.

On the upside however, the article suggests that increased village patrols, police presence, and even the self-induced reformations of former gang members/leaders while in prison appears to be having some effect. Note as an example the case of Pan Baocheng, the 53yr old gang member from Henan. He started to loot out of greed, was caught, and saw the error of his ways in prison. Or, the case of Pan Liusuo (see photo above left), also from Henan, serving time in the Dafeng detention centre. Sometimes, if the stolen and smuggled antiquities are "high profile" enough (like the grave goods of Wu Huifei, sold in 2006 to US collectors, but later returned to the Shaanxi History Museum), they can be tracked down and repatriated. Perhaps a similar fate would have awaited the Baphuon lintel described in my last post (if authenticated), should it have been purchased and shipped? It is common knowledge, however, that such high profile pieces are a tiny fraction of the global trade.

The legal punishments mentioned in the article strike me as very fair (and I would never advocate the death penalty), but at the end of the day, the task remains to stop these crimes before they start. Like anywhere else, increased vigilance, education, transnational cooperation and (where possible) the fostering of greater responsibility on the "demand" side. However, it can't be stated enough: the only way to avoid complacence in the destruction of global heritage and the archaeological record and/or avoid scams, fakes and individual ties to additional criminal activities is to NOT PURCHASE ANTIQUITIES!

Thursday, September 1, 2011


A colleague recently sent me this opinion piece, published on the "living if" website. Brazenly entitled "taking home a piece of Angkor Wat," it describes in very open terms the process of shopping for antiquities in Bangkok, a place "where a person can get anything they want, for a price." At first glance, one might assume that this is an expose piece focused on the reality of the antiquities trade, and the real ethical and moral "dilemmas" contained therein. Sadly, this is not the case. The author instead seems to take pages straight out of Cuno's playbook in arguing the "aesthetic" point of view, perpetually seeking to justify the transborder sale of antiquities for beauty's sake. "Why should cultural relics stay in a place rather than cross borders and share their beauty with people who can't make it to their original location?," the author posits. The possibility of the international movement of carefully excavated and recorded artifacts as part of a museum exhibit on loan to a foreign institution doesn't even come up.

The gist of the internal "debate" the author and his wife engage in in this article concerns the purchase of a piece of the Bayon temple from a Bangkok dealer. Questions of authenticity (deemed likely real, given their "research," but no way to guarantee it without asking Sotheby's "experts"), price (too expensive!), and shipping (look how easily we can fool US Customs...) all come up in the author's investigations. One might hope that their raising of these questions would lead them to realize how risky and ethically fraught the purchase of looted antiquities is (if the piece is even real), but instead, their actions are continually justified through the same tired arguments. You know the drill: Priceless artifacts are safer permanently in foreign museums or living rooms; "sharing" the "beauty" of artifacts (whether devoid of context or not?) helps otherwise apathetic Westerners care about "those" countries that have or are suffering political turmoil; private buyers (as well as foreign museums and institutions) are required to help preserve objects for the good of humanity, etc. These arguments sound no more or less like "sugar coated" cultural property internationalism...

The final line really got to me. "The lessons we learned in the process though, were worth it, without finding a piece we loved, doing the research, debating amongst ourselves, and deciding, we wouldn't have had the opportunity to think through the right, wrong and grey area of being a tomb raider." A tomb raider? Really?! The public misconception of archaeology that helps fuel the trade continues. Without deliberate outreach effort to counteract pieces like these, it will only get worse...