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Site Unseen: Safeguarding MENA Cultural Heritage (Kensington Central Library, London, 31st October 2015)

November 1, 2015

Looter pits visible on DigitalGlobe imagery on Google Earth. Image taken from Dr Emma Cunliffe’s contribution to Day of Archaeology 2015 –

Yesterday I travelled up to London for a free(!) panel on the topic of safeguarding cultural heritage in the Middle East and North Africa during times of conflict which Roya Arab had organised as part of the Nour Festival of Arts. The plight of cultural heritage – sites, artefacts and intangible heritage such as traditional practices – during current and recent conflicts has received quite a bit of publicity, so it was useful to hear the broader context and also some of the things that can be done to help.

The panel began with Professor Roger O’Keefe, a professor of international law at UCL. He described how cultural property has been protected by international law for some time, and that non-state entities are bound by this law, remarking that “We don’t need more law, we just need to enforce it”. Some of the steps towards enforcement he pointed out were that the UN Security Council has obliged every member state to criminalise trafficking of antiquities from Iraq and Syria; and that the peacekeeping force in Mali are empowered to use military force to protect cultural property. Choking off the market at home for stolen antiquities is one of the most positive steps that can be taken.

Dr Emma Cunliffe from the University of Oxford’s Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa project began with a reminder that protecting cultural heritage alongside helping people is an important goal, as people care enough about their heritage to have died protecting it. She also reinforced the point that intangible heritage deserves protection too. Proactive steps we can take include supporting colleagues with supplies, computers, equipment, training, etc; documenting damage; as well as campaigning and raising awareness. She closed by introducing the work of the NGO  Heritage for Peace who specialise in Syria.

Building on the idea of supporting colleagues through training, Dr Jonathan Tubb from the British Museum introduced a new initiative, Preparing for the Aftermath, which over four years will provide training for Iraqi archaeologists in Britain and on field schools in Iraq.

After a short break, Roya Arab read a contribution from Dr Franklin Lamb from the USA, entitled Monument Citizens of Syria, a reference perhaps to the Monuments Men of the Second World War. This initiative provides 3D cameras to citizens in Syria who wish to document destruction and looting. A recent (open access!) Dartmouth College study suggests that more than 25% of Syria’s archaeological sites have been looted since the war began.

Dr Sam Hardy presented an exploration of the illicit trade in antiquities, noting that the UK government believes that this is an issue the industry can regulate for itself. In addition to the groups we hear much about, who use looted antiquities to raise funds, there is ‘subsistence digging’ by people who need money to survive, and looting by other groups involved in, or exploiting the opportunities presented by, conflict. There is a lack of knowledge about how widespread, or how profitable, the trade is, with very little evidence to support the claims about the revenue groups receive from trafficking antiquities. Dr Hardy maintains a thoughtful and current blog about these issues at Conflict Antiquities.

Finally, journalist Rosie Garthwaite presented the work of independent production company Mediadante in relation to heritage protection. I was especially interested to hear her describe a project ‘The Plunder’ as aiming to contribute to the taboo around antiquities ownership, as this seems to me to be another small step we can take to help the problem. As part of their work, 3D scans of objects from Syria will be available to download and print.

I was pleased that I attended this event as I think it made a useful and thoughtfully researched primer to a tremendously important issue, and demonstrated that practical steps are being taken, both within and outside of conflict-torn countries.


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