AAiR Symposium on Cultural Heritage in Danger

This one’s been sitting in my box for a couple of days … from the Plain Dealer:

The images of ancient Roman mosaics found and preserved recently in south central Turkey were stunning.

Unfortunately, they flashed across the screen in a darkened auditorium at the American Academy in Rome too quickly. One had the impulse to shout at the lecturer, “slow down!”

But the two-day symposium last month on “Saving Cultural Heritage in Crisis Areas” was running late, and Italian archaeologist Roberto Nardi had a lot of ground to cover in his dramatic tale of rescuing the mosaics from the rising waters of a lake created by the Birecik hydro-electric dam along the Euprhates River.

The American Academy conference — part of which I attended during a recent trip —showed how cultural treasures around the world are threatened by war, natural disasters, infrastructure projects such as the dam in Turkey, and the looting of sites around the world.

The conference also illuminated the evolving moral and political climate affecting art museums that buy antiquities, including the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Archaeologists have long held that when museums buy antiquities in the art market or accept gifts from collectors who do, they tacitly encourage looting, which destroys the physical context in which the objects are found and obscures a good part of their meaning.

Museums, on the other hand, insist that antiquities offered for sale on the market belong in public collections where they can be studied and appreciated, absent clear evidence that their purchase violates international laws and agreements, such as the 1970 UNESCO Convention aimed at halting illegal traffic in antiquities.

“Our communities are fighting each other non-stop and not making any progress,” said Brian Rose, who co-organized the conference in Rome.

Rose, a professor of archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania, a past president of the Archaeological Institute of America and a trustee of the American Academy in Rome, said in an interview after the conference that he’d like to see greater cooperation among museums and archaeologists. But he also said he felt the era in which American museums can collect antiquities is coming to a close.

Source countries are becoming more aggressive in pursuing traffickers and enforcing laws against looting, he said. Buying antiquities could alienate foreign governments and prevent the cooperation necessary for international loans of individual objects or traveling exhibitions.

“You’ll end up in litigation, and you won’t be able to enter into collaborative projects,” he said. “It’s all about collaboration now.”

Rather than collect, museums ought to forge agreements with source countries to share cultural riches, Rose said.

In response, C. Griffith Mann, the Cleveland museum’s chief curator, said last week that the museum would continue to buy antiquities “because we’re a collecting institution.”

Nevertheless, Mann acknowledged that the “burden of proof is on the museum to do the research to be confident that by collecting, you’re preserving art, not supporting an antiquities market that’s illicit.”

The museum’s website does not include information on the provenance, or ownership history, of most works in its collection. In the case of antiquities, this makes it impossible for the public to know how much the museum knows about where and when the objects were said to have been found. Mann said the museum’s policies on the issue are under review.

The conference in Rome documented global crises which make it likely that antiquities with unclear ownership histories will continue to tempt museums and pose painful moral questions for art audiences everywhere, including Cleveland.

Often, traffic in looted cultural treasures parallels trade in illegal drugs, guns and sex slaves, speakers at the conference said.

Advanced technology aids both the thieves and the archaeologists — the offense and the defense. Archaeologists are using satellite photographs, to pinpoint illegal excavations. At the same time, looters are gaining access to ever-more sophisticated gadgets, such as ground penetrating radar or magnetic resonance imaging equipment, which can help them spot where to dig, Rose said.

Rose, who co-organized the conference with Laurie Rush, an archaeologist for the U.S. Army at Fort Drum, N.Y., said he was motivated to convene the gathering as a response to the revolutions of the Arab Spring, and the threat they pose to world heritage sites.

The conference documented heartbreaking losses, such as the destruction of an historic bridge at Mostar in 1992 by the Yugoslav Peoples Army, and the demolition of the monumental Buddhist statues at Bamiyan, Afghanistan by Taliban forces in 2001.

Speakers also celebrated successes, such as the preservation of the ancient Roman ruins of Leptis Magna in Libya, spared from damage in the recent NATO bombing raids that helped overthrow Muammar Gaddafi.

Rose said that source countries should train soldiers to preserve cultural sites during wars and revolutions and instill pride over patrimony by educating children about national heritage.

Yet he also lamented how hard it can be today for countries rich in archaeological sites to police their own territories. In Turkey, Rose said, it is widely known that thieves use road building equipment at night to smash open stone chambers in ancient burial mounds and to remove treasures buried for centuries. Turkey simply can’t prevent the activity, he said.

Nardi, the Italian archaeologist who led the rescue of the mosaics at Zeugma, described another serious challenge: that of raising the money needed to preserve antiquities.

He said it was clear for years in advance that the rising floodwaters along the Euprhates would inundate a large portion of the ancient Roman garrison town of Zeugma. But it wasn’t until The New York Times published an article in 2000, that the impending crisis caught the attention of the Packard Humanities Institute in California, which donated $5 million to save the mosaics.

“You need journalists to wake up public opinion,” he said.

Nardi, who heads a private restoration company in Rome called the Centro di Conservazione Archaeologica, led the rescue operation at Zeugma. In his video presentation, he showed how skilled workers peeled mosaics off their ancient foundations and remounted them in sections on lightweight aluminum panels.

The mosaics are now housed in a $50 million museum that opened during the summer in the city of Gaziantep, 50 kilometers away from Zeugma. The city hopes to boost tourism and the local economy on the strength of the mosaics.

The collection includes clear evidence of looting at Zeugma prior to 2000, including a mosaic double portrait of Metiochos and Parthenope, fictional lovers described as the Romeo and Juliet of the ancient world.

Archaeological journals reported in 1999 that the two central figures in the mosaic surfaced at Rice University in Houston, where they had been loaned by the Menil Collection. The mosaics were later returned to Turkey, where Nardi reassembled them.

It was one vivid example of how institutions and collectors in the U.S., even with the best of intentions, can sometimes participate unwittingly in the ongoing destruction of cultural sites around the world.

… and it’s just scratching the surface …

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s