Monday, June 27, 2011

"Other People's Treasure" on the High Seas

It seems that, according to this article (also here), hundreds of artifacts from "dozens" of Spice Route-era shipwrecks (c. 1500-1800AD) off of the Tanjung Tuan coast, Malaysia, have been stolen by illicit underwater looters (here read 'salvagers') since the 1990s. What really struck me about these short articles, however, was that on the one hand, the Museum Authority was asked by the state government to gather more information for prosecutions, but on the other, the government itself tried to offer (bribe?) salvage companies to retrieve further artifacts, with the deal most likely to include the local retention of some finds, but the open sale of others (as the full-scale salvage of a single wreck was not the stated goal, unlike the controversial Javanese shipwreck whose artifacts might soon be displayed by the Smithsonian). What maritime excavation methodologies do any of the solicited companies employ? Any regards to context preservation? Nothing is stated.

The article implies that the most active salvage companies or private small enterprises already knew that the wrecks in question have been picked clean. As the time, effort and money involved to 'loot' underwater is far beyond "subsistence digging," the issue to me seems to be one of how to define "national treasure" in the case of high seas 'salvaging?' The people involved were locals of a specific ethnicity (Malay or Chinese-Malay in this case), and the artifacts removed came out of near-shore (i.e. not "international") waters. However, their shipwreck context indicates that such objects recovered from cargo holds were collected and transported far and wide in antiquity. If sold, would pieces such as the Chinese blue and white porcelain (see photo above left) go to a) local Malay dealers; b) non-Malay dealers from countries such as China, people who might see no problem profiting from the sale of "treasure" originally made within the former or current boarders of their country, or c) Western dealers and buyers seeking to cash in on possibly romanticized stories of arduous long distance trade voyages in the time of sail ships and pirates? Each of the parties mentioned above could stake a different claim on anything 'salvaged' from these wrecks, but at the end of the day, looting is still looting when insufficient care is given to archaeological context, no matter how it's dressed up or couched in nationalistic terms.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A quick detour...

I couldn't let this news story pass me by without commenting on it here. It appears that the Jordan River Bank site, on the northern edge of suburban Hobart, Tasmania, is to have a highway built above it, despite previous coverage, and local activists and academic and consultant archaeologists attesting to its extreme importance as a likely meeting place/lithic manufacturing centre from c. 42,000BP into historic times (see here as well). Despite reassurances from engineers that the site (a sandbank separate from the river's main course) will not be disturbed by construction, the incredible artifact density (potentially up to three million stone tools or flakes left over from manufacture, left behind on several "living floors" deposited over the millennia), and the fact that the site was only discovered last year, strongly suggests there is more to uncover there. The preliminary archaeological report provides a more technical assessment of the site's importance, for those interested.

At a price tag of $60 million AUD and two additional years suggested by local governmental authorities to be needed to survey a new route for the highway, it is doubtful that calls for preservation will be heeded in the end. At the very least, perhaps further excavation can be carried out to uncover/salvage as much of the site as possible. Obviously, this post does not pertain directly to looting, and there is no reason to suggest any prehistoric (as opposed to ethnographic) artifacts from the site or region have ended up on the market, but it's impossible to know if any local surface collecting has occurred. Hopefully this won't be the case if/when a construction crew descends on the site. I will return to the post series in progress soon, but as controversial, heritage relevant stories from this part of the world often get overlooked overseas, I felt it important to share.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

"Other People's Treasure" Pt. 2: Sybolic Loot?

A brief press release has come to my attention that strikes very close to home for me. In fact, it concerns the one and only "ancient relic" that currently serves as the official "symbol" of University House, where I currently live on the ANU campus (see photo above, courtesy of Bob Miller, The ANU). In fact, it features on all official University House brochures, letterheads, memos etc. Specifically, we now learn that the "2,500 yr old ancient Greek cup" now held by University House (of the Attic tradition) will be on display in the new "Spirit of Enquiry" exhibition at the National Museum of Australia, an exhibit designed to "explore the last 200 years of Australian science, education and ideas." All in all, a fine concept for an exhibit, I agree. However, this does not negate the fact that, in the case of objects like this cup, a looted antiquity is still being put on display.

I was interested to learn that Professor Dale Trendall, the first "Master" of University House (a prestigious position then and now) collected the cup while traveling in Europe in the 1950s. Does its acquisition and export before the UNESCO laws were put into place make it any more 'legit,' or any less looted (especially in a time when modern, context conscious archaeology barely existed anywhere)? Even if the cup is now most valued for its symbolic links to ANU and University House, and not so much because it's an especially rare example of Attic pottery (but I'm not a Classicist, so don't quote me on that), does this excuse either the University or the National Museum from acknowledging its likely illicit origins (again, despite the lack of appropriate legislation at the time)? I don't think so.

Prof. Trendall is credited with creating the largest catalog of Apulian and Attic ceramics to date, with painstaking stylistic and morphological analyses conducted to attempt to distinguish the various styles in use from the 5th-4th c. BCE, as well as the 'signature' characteristics of individual painters. However, the work that underpinned this effort also put Trendall in contact with numerous local and international dealers, including some future big names, such as Geddes, and spawned a rush of looting in Southern Italy and Sicily, especially during the 1980s (see e.g. Gill, 2010). Although Trendall could not arguably have anticipated this, and even if this particular Attic cup did not recently 'surface,' the fact remains that the use of this particular piece of "other people's treasure" to bolster the image of "refinement" that both University House and the ANU wish to convey to the world, does not go unnoticed. Even though repatriation is impossible (and has never been requested), would not an image of the Parthenon (for example) suffice? Unfortunately, in my opinion the Classics Museum (and dept.) here has at best a mixed track-record of acknowledging provenance where known, collection method, and/or the pre-1970s origins of what's on display. Let's hope the National Museum is more upfront. I will report on the matter when I've seen the display in person.

In this instance, then, we can draw parallels between the use of artifacts from Classical antiquity in "demand" nations in both hemispheres; as signifiers of a person's or institution's aesthetic and cultural sophistication via the display of "pieces" made by the same people who 'founded' "Western Civilization." A spurious argument wherever it's used. This post will lead into future discussion of how "other people's treasure" is used as a marketing ploy in private antiquities sales down here, whether "Classical" or not, but (as per my interest) retaining a Southeast Asia focus.

Related to that, I'm glad to further report on a good example of an antiquities dealer in Britain doing the right thing by way of a looted Afghan statue! Good job! Thanks to The History Blog for covering it first. On the other hand, this article demonstrates that, in the complex world of knock-offs, duplicates, and genuine rare antiquities that is the Chinese antiquities trade, even local dealers can fool local buyers! How much does the desire for "other people's treasure" extend to collecting the antiquities of one's own national or ethnic past in this part of the world? Let the investigation continue!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

"Other People's Treasure" and Looting in the Philippines

This post will be the first in a series focusing on the topic of the collection of "other people's treasure" (or the alleged reclamation of "treasure" thought to affiliate with ones' own ethnic or national history) as an ongoing motive for looting and antiquities trading in the Southern Hemisphere. In this instance, I'm referring to a new case of looting that recently occurred (sometime last year, from what I understand from the article) at the sites of Maulohin Cave and Istar Cairn, on Imorigue island in New Ibajay town, Palawan province, Philippines. Dr. Victor Paz (in full disclosure, a colleague of mine) first reported this incident to get the National Museum of the Philippines involved in the investigation, noting that these 500 year old remains, with clear contextual affiliation with Metal Age ceramics and iron weapons, were "stolen by Japanese descendants of missing World War II soldiers."

Paz, acting in his capacity as a representative of the National Museum and member of the Palawan Island Palaeohistoric Research Project, convinced the Museum Director, one Cecilio Salcedo, to send additional experts to Palawan to work with local authorities to investigate what occurred, when, and the extent of the damage. Not surprisingly, but in my opinion rather suspiciously, the Japanese Embassy is refusing to comment and feigning ignorance.

Although reports of what occurred still seem unconfirmed, or based upon a few "known facts" and several interviews and "unconfirmed reports," it appears that in May last year, Japanese Nationals with local guides visited the sites and carefully "sorted and sacked" all the bones for removal, but guards stopped the removal before it could go ahead, and the remains were eventually turned over to the Palawan Island Palaeohistoric Research Project team who returned them to their original sites, with bilingual signs placed "in clear view" stating that these re-deposited remains were those of prehistoric ancestral Philippinos. Apparently, another sack of mostly material cultural items and shell was also produced, coming from a site no one on the excavation team recognized...suggesting that other nearby sites have also been hit. Dr. Paz, doing his part as a true advocate of archaeological education and anti-looting outreach in his country, has discussed looting issues with concern before, noting again (in light of this case) that "at the rate the looting is going, we will have nothing left for future generations of Filipinos to protect and learn from."

Despite this, the article suggests (if I read it right) that the remains have just recently been removed again, thus sparking the outrage and calls for thorough investigations discussed in the article. As Dr. Paz and others who've worked in the Philippines have personally informed me, many looting cases like the above relate to the story of "Yamashita's Treasure," the likely-mythological burial of immense quantities of gold and other spoils of war 'stolen' by the Japanese fleet from various locations around Southeast Asia and then hidden in caves, tunnels and booby-trapped enclosures throughout the Philippines. The legend has been thoroughly spread by local and American population culture sources (TV, books, video games etc.), but Philippino historian Ambeth Ocampo (among others) has observed that both foreign and Philippino "treasure hunters" have been looking for 50yrs, using every supposed map and bit of oral history testimony they can find, and have still recovered nothing substantial. Yet the dissemination of(ahem) "revisionist" history fueling the search continues apace (e.g. here).

So, here we have the theme of "other people's treasure" seen from two angles: Locals (especially, it seems, foreign nationals and rural villagers) exposed to such legends by foreign and local media and aware of the prices that gold etc. could fetch on the open market, continue to search, occasionally looting prehistoric sites in the process. On the other hand, the Japanese students and nationals allegedly connected to the initial (and perhaps subsequent) removal of bones and artifacts from archaeological context at Maulohin and Istar Cairn destroyed another piece of the Philippines' non-renewable archaeological heritage (i.e. "other people's treasure") to reclaim "ancestors" they erroneously believed to be theirs. The end result is the same. Although this example does not involve a clear intent to sell "other people's treasure" (i.e. human remains and artifacts) on the antiquities market, this motive deserves further investigation where actual looting with intent to sell is concerned.

Forthcoming posts in my first series built around a theme will deal with justifications and influences currently affecting the Southern Hemisphere antiquities trade. Not just the import of antiquities from abroad into source countries (primarily Australia and New Zealand, but also Africa or South America where relevant), but also the trade in Aboriginal or Maori artifacts, remains, or pieces of historic "Australiana" and "Kiwiana" which might find markets amongst the new middle class in Asia. Of course, Southeast Asia remains a primary focus. Is the desire to own a tangible piece of the past of a country with a much longer written and/or unwritten history that yours enough of a reason to support the trade? How is the concept of "other people's treasure" used in antiquities marketing down here, or even the marketing of local prehistoric artifacts overseas (where observable)? Is the non-Indigenous collection of Indigenous artifacts still tied to "exoticization" of the "other?" Stay tuned for some semblance of an answer, hopefully with concrete examples to boot. Onwards!