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In Today’s News: EU to take on trade in stolen antiquities

November 20, 2015

A couple of weeks ago I posted a review of the Site Unseen: Safeguarding MENA Heritage at Kensington Library as part of the Nour Festival. At that event, Dr Sam Hardy, who maintains the excellent Conflict Antiquities blog, spoke about the trade in stolen antiquities, and Rosie Garthwaite of production company Mediadante spoke of the importance of stigmatising ownership of stolen cultural property. Today, in response to recent global events (but most particularly the Paris attacks last weekend), the Council of the EU held an extraordinary meeting on counter-terrorism. Acknowledging that stolen antiquities constitute a source of revenue for terrorist groups in the Middle East and North Africa, the Conclusions of the Council published today state, under point 8 – Financing of Terrorism:

8. The Council
a) invites the Commission to present proposals to strengthen, harmonise and improve the powers of, and the cooperation between Financial Intelligence Units (FIU’s), notably through the proper embedment of the network for information exchange in Europol, and ensure their fast access to necessary information, in order to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of the fight against money laundering and terrorist financing in conformity with Financial Action Task Force (FATF) recommendations, to strengthen controls of non-banking payment methods such as electronic/anonymous payments, money remittances, cash-carriers, virtual currencies, transfers of gold or precious metals and pre-paid cards in line with the risk they present and to curb more effectively the illicit trade in cultural goods

(my emphasis)

Quite what this will mean in terms of enforcement remains to be seen, but it is a welcome commitment.

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.


Cannibal slugs!

September 16, 2015

Early this morning I saw two Arion sp. slugs in convoy making their way across a path

Two Arions crossing a path

Two Arions crossing a path

The slugs weren’t in the process of copulation, which happens much farther up the body and involves a lot of mucus from what I’ve seen (!), so I was curious to know what was going on (and a bit suspicious because I don’t think I trust Arions to behave nicely). I pulled them apart and found, horrifyingly enough, that the rear slug had been chowing down on the (apparently unconcerned) front slug.

Arion with bitten rear end


Lovely things aren’t they? There is a mucus gland at the rear end of the slug, so it may be that the predator slug was acquiring nutrients the easy way, or it may have been a prelude to mating, or agggressive behaviour. It isn’t something I’ve seen before, but I’m told biting has been reported between Arionids.

Survey: Community Archaeology and Environmental Archaeologists

September 16, 2015

Dear all,

I’m conducting a brief (apparently it takes about 7 minutes to compete) survey to find out what (if any) interaction community archaeology groups are having with environmental archaeologists. If you are a member of a community archaeology group, please do answer the questions at before October 1st.

There will be a complementary survey for environmental archaeologists shortly.

Oyster shell inserts at Glastonbury Tor

June 11, 2015

Back in 2010, I presented a poster on shells in archaeological building materials at the International Council for Archaeozoology conference in Paris, which was published as a book chapter last year (you can read and download a proof copy here). One thing I mentioned was the use of oyster shell, especially the flat right valves of the oyster as a structural insert in between blocks of masonry. Yesterday morning I came across a striking example of this in the north eastern door of the ruined St Michael’s Tower on Glastonbury Tor, where there is a short series of oyster shells in a buff mortar matrix between two courses of masonry. These are very likely to be quite a late insertion, probably nineteenth century when some rebuilding work was done on the tower.

Right valves of European oyster (Ostrea edulis Linnaeus, 1758) used a structural inserts in masonry at St Michael's Tower, Glastonbury Tor

Right valves of European oyster (Ostrea edulis Linnaeus, 1758) used a structural inserts in masonry at St Michael’s Tower, Glastonbury Tor

[The Book of the British Countryside] Abbey

May 30, 2015


Abbey Barn and Abbey Farm in Yeovil. Built c.1420, but not a real abbey

Abbey Barn and Abbey Farm in Yeovil. Built c.1420, but not a real abbey

I don’t remember my first encounter with an abbey. Sherborne Abbey and Glastonbury Abbey are close to where I grew up, so it seems likely it was one of those. Yeovil has an Abbey Manor, an Abbot’s Mead, and an Abbey Farm, but there was never actually an abbey there (somewhere years ago I read that Abbey Farm had belonged to the Priory of Bermondsey – I forget my source, but I don’t think this is correct) .

As an archaeologist, my experience of abbeys has been quite limited. Not quite an abbey, which were large and powerful religious houses ruled by an abbot who was answerable only to the Pope (and perhaps a higher authority), there was a Carmelite friary on the site of the Colston Hall in Bristol, which I worked on as an excavator before the new theatre foyer was built. The late medieval landscape of Bristol between the Bearpit roundabout and the cathedral was dominated by religious houses. Traces are still there to be seen, most obviously the cathedral itself and St James’s Church by the bus station, but if you peer through gates between the two it is possible to catch occasional glimpses of an older cityscape. I find it quite hard to peel away the modern geography and visualise this monastic city.  There was also a convent in Clifton, rich in burials, where the wet red clay stained me and everything I touched a rich orange, so much so that a friend who passed me in town after work one day complimented me on my fantastic tan.

Most recently, and possibly coming full circle, earlier this year I worked on a shellfish assemblage from the Abbot’s Kitchen at Glastonbury Abbey (one of the most powerful abbeys) – dominated by oysters and whelks. That report is now online, and can be read here

Fragment of brown crab (Cancer pagarus) shell from Glastonbury Abbey

Fragment of brown crab (Cancer pagurus) shell from Glastonbury Abbey


[The Book of the British Countryside, first published by Drive Publications, the publishing arm of the Automobile Association in 1973, was a popular volume in 1980s Britain. It was essentially an encyclopedia that covered topics like geology, botany, zoology, archaeology, rural architecture and farming practices in an accessible style. I loved my parents’ copy, so much so that it has lost its cover, and still consult it after a day walking. It was a huge influence on me growing up. I am attempting a series of posts about my personal reflections on the entries in the book. I don’t honestly have very much to say about “Acacia” or “Aconite, Winter”, which are the other two entries on the first page. I did see two false acacia trees in bloom today though. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a winter aconite though.]