Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Stealing the past: an insider's perspective on antiquities looting in Palestinian National Territories

Some of the destruction at the Malawi National Museum
We were met with the news last week that political unrest in Egypt has led to the looting of the nation's precious antiquities with "1,050 artifacts spanning 3,500 years of history...looted from the Malawi National Museum south of Cairo last week". Unesco Director-General Irina Bokova stated last Monday that she had grave concerns for Egypt’s cultural heritage following the reports of looting at the museum, as well as the destruction of several monuments of religious importance, including churches and mosques in Upper Egypt, Fayoum and Cairo.

Antiquities looting is often an unfortunate and devastating biproduct of conflict and war and much has been published on efforts to prevent looting and how to retrieve stolen artifacts from the black market. In the article "Palestinian antiquities looters, their skill development, methodology and specialised terminology: an ethnographic study" published in a 2012 issue of Palestine Exploration Quarterly, Dr Salah H Al-Houdalieh takes the investigation to the source of the problem and attempts to get inside the mind of the looter. In the study Dr Al-Houdalieh interviews 96 antiquities looters in Palestinian National Territories (PNT) with the aim of exploring the measures that have been used by Palestinian antiquities looters to develop their knowledge, fieldwork skills and experience.

The following is an excerpt from the article's introduction:

"The state of Palestine’s archaeological heritage resources is one of serious risk, due to the on-going looting of antiquities. Vandalising archaeological resources is a widespread phenomenon throughout the Palestinian National Territories (PNT) and has resulted in either total or partial damage to thousands of these resources, and the extraction of at least hundreds of thousands of archaeological objects. The main aim of this study is to explore the measures that have been used by Palestinian antiquities looters to develop their knowledge, fieldwork skills and experience. To this end, I interviewed 96 antiquities looters residing in the West Bank. The Gaza Strip, which is totally relevant to the issues under discussion, was only excluded from this study due to the current travel restrictions between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip."

Dr Al-Houdalieh goes on to conclude that:

"Conducting interviews with a large number of such individuals provides the researchers with valuable, first-hand information of many kinds, including: some idea of the scale of the phenomenon of antiquities looting; the driving forces behind this vandalising of archaeological resources; the formation operations of the looting gangs; the terminology used among the antiquities looters; the measures used by antiquities looters to develop their knowledge and fieldwork experience; and actual stories about vandalising heritage resources, including descriptions of the extracted archaeological objects and their numbers, among other things. Furthermore, the results of this research indicate that the Palestinian antiquities looters have gained and developed their fieldwork experience through four primary means: taking part in legitimate, licensed archaeological excavations; taking part with others in illicit digging by joining an existing gang; conducting their own looting activities, with family members or friends, without prior knowledge; and, finally, referring to relevant publications, especially catalogues."

>> Read the full article for free

>> "Malawi National Museum Looting Condemned By Unesco Amid Fears Egypt's Cultural Heritage Is In Danger"

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