Our featured object this week hearkens back to a time when the Middle East was quite different demographically than it is today. For more than 400 years, large parts of the Near and Middle East were governed by the expansionist Ottoman Empire. Under the Empire’s authoritarian rule, the many ethnic and religious minorities of the region, particularly in the border areas of modern Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, coexisted though not always peacefully.
All of these groups, including Kurds, Turkomans, Armenians, Assyrians, Yazidis and others, were strongly influenced by Ottoman culture. This was certainly true of fashion. The satin and silk embroidered waist jacket for a girl or young woman featured here this week is a good example of this. Using a technique known as Sarma, which made extensive use of metallic thread for embroidering, this item was acquired around 1930 in Iraqi Kurdistan by a Christian Iraqi family that later emigrated to the United States in the 1960s. This style of embroidered clothing was adopted in the later part of the 19th Century by ethnic and religious minorities throughout the region described above. Even after the Ottoman Empire collapsed following the First World War, its cultural influence remained and this style of clothing remained popular for decades, only gradually fading as the European colonial powers that had stepped into the Ottoman power vacuum relinquished their grip in the face of rising local nationalism.
It is difficult for most modern viewers, without the benefit of learning the region’s complex history, to think of the Middle East as anything but a monolithic Islamic region. The horrors of the Armenian Genocide, the less well known Assyrian genocide, the huge population transfer of Greeks out of what is now Turkey following more than 2,500 years there, all unleashed by the emergence of post-Ottoman Turkish nationalism, were huge events that fundamentally transformed the region and made it much less diverse than it had ever been. Compounding those events of a hundred years ago are the population shifts seen since the rise of Islamic State, with many Kurds, Assyrians, Yazidis and others deciding to seek a better life in Europe, Canada, Australia or the US. Our little jacket is a reminder of a more diverse, complex and perhaps even happier side of life in the Middle East early in the previous Century.
Below are a few recommended works to help readers investigate further the diversity and complex relationships among different groups in the Near and Middle East during and just after the last decades of the Ottoman Empire.
- Aboona, Hirmis, Assyrians, Kurds, and Ottomans: Intercommunal Relations on the Periphery, 2008
- de Bellaigue, Christopher, Rebel Land: Unraveling the Riddle of History in a Turkish Town, 2010
- Braude, Benjamin, and Bernard Lewis, eds.Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire. 2 vols., 1982.
This item may be found in our Etsy shop here – https://www.etsy.com/listing/507209757/womens-or-girls-hand-made-embroidered?ref=shop_home_active_3
Recent news reports out of the City of Paphos, Cyprus describe a clash between the Mayor of Paphos on the one hand and the Cyprus antiquities department and its local Museum in Paphos on the other, with official pronouncements, competing press conferences and plenty of mudslinging. The Mayor indirectly accuses staff at the Museum and organized crime (directly) of being involved in trafficking antiquities and the Museum of not completing a long term project to catalog and digitize their collection of some 20,000 0bjects. In a surprising twist, the Museum staff and antiquities department head have denied there is any illicit trade in antiquities in the area, despite police evidence to the contrary. Something is fishy on the coast of Cyprus.
This row is in many respects a manifestation of long term problems in antiquities-rich nations involving how to store, record and care for countless archaeological and casual finds. Many Mediterranean nations have found themselves increasingly pressed to adequately store and preserve the wealth of archaeological materials excavated or accidentally unearthed in their territories. The situation has been described as “a crisis in curation” and a problem that “continues to be widespread and serious.” At the same time, local governments are eager to benefit financially from tourist revenue generated through the display of antiquities in Museums or in situ. An excellent paper on this issue is: Kersel, Morag M. “Storage Wars: Solving the Archaeological Curation Crisis?” Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies 3.1 (2015): 42-54.
Here are two articles on this ongoing clash, one from The Committee for Cultural Policy website: https://committeeforculturalpolicy.org/cyprus-mayor-accuses-museum-staff-of-stealing-antiquities/
The other from the “incyprus” news site: http://in-cyprus.com/fedonos-organised-crime-behind-antiquities-looting/
All links open in a new tab or window.
The link below leads to an illustrated article from the Canadian Global News network on the unexpected discovery of a Praetorian Guard barracks in Rome, resulting from the ongoing upgrade to the City’s subway system (opens in a new window or tab). The ruins are impressive for the wall decorations and mosaic floors, and are said to date from the time of Hadrian – http://globalnews.ca/news/2703631/in-photos-rare-roman-relics-unearthed-in-rome-subway-construction/
A ruling by Israel’s high court, supported by the Israel Antiquities Authority, now requires all dealers to document every object in their inventory online with a description, including provenance, and a photograph. While this may at first sound sensible, it is important to point out that much of the trade in Israel is in very low value objects, such as common ancient coins, oil lamps and pottery. Some argue that this will simply drive the trade underground, rather than inhibiting unauthorized sales. Here is the link to an article in The Art Newspaper (opens in a new window or tab)- http://theartnewspaper.com/news/israeli-high-court-says-antiquities-dealers-must-document-all-artefacts-online/
2015 was a year that saw unprecedented destruction of antiquities, ancient monuments and cultural heritage of all sorts, particularly in the conflict zones of the Middle East. And it wasn’t just IS that was responsible – even the Syrian government got in on the act by, among other actions, bombing the UNESCO World Heritage site of Bosra during the final days of December (Ensor). But while the well heeled cultural heritage industry held countless conferences, attended posh receptions and issued gratuitous proclamations, damning the trade in antiquities, legal or illegal, and demonizing museums, collectors, dealers and governments alike, a few proposals floated in the final months of the year offered rational, practical options for saving antiquities and ancient monuments.
The first of these came on October 1, with an announcement held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), a one hundred year old professional association representing 242 members in the United States, Canada and Mexico. (Neuendort). AAMD issued “Protocols for Safe Havens for Works of Cultural Significance from Countries in Crisis.” Based on the principle that stewardship is the hallmark of the museum community, the Protocols would provide a framework for museums to give safe haven for works at risk due violent conflict, terrorism, or natural disasters. Owners/depositors could request safe haven at an AAMD member museum where the works would be held until conditions allowed their safe return. Works deposited would be treated as loans. To ensure transparency, AAMD member museums accepting such works would register them in a new publicly available online registry where information on the objects would be publicly available. The Protocols would even cover considerations such as transport and storage, scholarly access, legal protections, exhibition, conservation, and safe return of works to the appropriate individuals or entities as soon as feasible.
Not surprisingly, some of the leading players in the self-styled cultural heritage community, including the American School for Oriental Research and the Archaeological Institute of America, immediately issued a statement obliquely attacking the AAMD Protocols while offering no meaningful proposals of their own. They claimed that because depositors of objects in AAMD’s institutions might include private owners, rather than just national museums, there might be a chance of looted objects also being deposited, thereby indirectly supporting the illicit trafficking of antiquities (Sharpe). Presumably, they would prefer these objects meet the same fate as those in Afghanistan, where objections – based on the UN’s 1970 cultural property conventions – to the safekeeping out of country of ancient objects, led to their destruction by the Taliban.
In November came word from Paris of a French offer of “asylum” for artifacts under threat. French President Hollande had asked the President of the Louvre to develop a national plan for the protection of cultural heritage. The resulting 50-point proposal included using French museums as a temporary safe haven for antiquities, much like the AAMD plan, as well as a new European database of stolen art and artifacts and funding to preserve existing archaeological sites and monuments, train archaeologists and conservators abroad and reconstruct damaged or destroyed sites (Jones). Again, the heritage industry either ignored the French “asylum” proposal or offered criticism similar to that offered on the AAMD Protocols.
While it seems unlikely U.S. cultural heritage policy will be significantly influenced by either of the initiatives outlined above, there is at least now a glimmer of hope for antiquities to be spared destruction at the hands of extremist groups, indifferent governments and the random destruction so prevalent in all civil conflicts. With museums, acting in unison under the umbrella of organizations such as the AAMD, as well as some foreign governments, such as the bold French initiative, taking the lead, perhaps the tide of thinking is turning away from ineffectual, elitist, self-serving entities such as the so-called Antiquities Coalition, SAFE, and the AIA. Let us all hope that 2016 proves a safer and more stable year for antiquities, monuments and heritage in general.
- Association of Art Museum Directors. “AAMD Issues Protocols to Protect Works of Cultural Significance in Danger of Damage or Destruction.” AAMD website, 1 Oct. 2015. Web.
- Ensor, Josie. “Syrian regime ‘bombs Unesco world heritage site.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group Limited, 24 Dec. 2015. Web.
- Jones, Jonathan. “Asylum for artefacts: Paris’ plan to protect cultural treasures from terrorists.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 20 Nov. 2015. Web.
- Neuendorf, Henri. “Museums Offer Safe Haven for Threatened Art and Antiquities.” Artnet News. Artnet Worldwide Corporation, 2 Oct. 2015. Web.
- Sharpe, Emily. “We’ll store your artifacts, US tells Syrian museums.” The Art Newspaper. The Art Newspaper, 8 Nov. 2015. Web.
To raise much needed revenue for archaeological excavations, reduce the strain of storage and maintenance of artifacts on museums and national heritage agencies and help undercut the trade in illicit antiquities, governments, universities, public museums and related institutions should consider making duplicate, common and unwanted artifacts available to the public for sale.
Government agencies responsible for management of archaeological sites and artifacts in antiquities rich countries – nations whose long histories of human occupation have left them with considerable archaeological and architectural remains – have found themselves increasingly pressed to adequately store and preserve the wealth of archaeological materials excavated or accidentally unearthed in their territories. The situation has been described as “a crisis in curation” and that “the problem continues to be widespread and serious” (Kersel 44). Many of these nations once participated in a system known as “partage” under which foreign archaeological missions divided duplicate or similar objects between themselves and national heritage and museums agencies. With the end of European colonialism and a rise in nationalist sentiment in many of these countries, the partage system came to an end and all antiquities stayed in the host nations. This helped fuel the storage crisis (Kersel 48).
This crisis is not limited to developing nations rich in antiquities but to economically postmodern western nations as well. At the most recent “Dig It!” conference in London, museum professionals and archaeologists met to discuss the crisis of storage for archaeological collections in the UK. Despite much debate, no practical solutions were arrived at (Sharpe).
Just as a crisis exists in storing archaeological materials, another crisis is slowly unfolding for national heritage agencies and research institutions in funding both routine ongoing archaeological excavations and rescue archaeology, and with such basic tasks as maintenance of ancient monuments and the publication of archaeological excavation reports. Sometimes referred to as “archaeology’s dirty secret,” the failure to publish excavation results can be said to reduce archaeologists to little more than looters (Kersel 46). This is true both in antiquities rich Mediterranean and Near Eastern nations, where widespread political instability has frightened away outside funding sources, even in specific countries that have remained stable, and in developed European nations, where national priorities have shifted in light of fiscal belt tightening. “Archaeology in England is in the middle of its worst crisis ever” was the pronouncement in a recent blog entry by a prominent British academician (Nevell).
At archaeological sites all across the Mediterranean world and beyond, remains that have been excavated, published and restored over the past century or more have begun to fall victim to official neglect. One site, in particular, has garnered a great deal of attention due to its high profile: Pompeii. Visited by as many as two and a half million tourists and locals per years, the site has suffered extensively at the hands of the very tourists whose revenues support it and through wasteful and indifferent practices by the Italian governmental agency tasked with its preservation. The photographs below make this point very clear. In the first image, a frescoed wall of the mid-First Century AD is shown covered in graffiti scratched into its surface by Italian school children and foreign tourists (Personal photograph). In the second image, a storage pen for excavated materials is open to the weather, allowing complete and fragmentary Roman transport vessels, roof tiles and even a lead cinerary container to slowly crumble due to lack of climate control (Personal photograph).
Despite a legal market for antiquities in most European and North American countries, there is also an illicit market, involving the illegal removal of artifacts for profit, and it thrives in times of political upheaval. Egypt, Syria and Iraq have all fallen victim to this practice in recent years. To many people involved in archaeology and cultural heritage protection, the importance of this problem far outweighs the other issues raised above. While evidence suggests that the actual extent of illicit excavation in most countries is not as severe as sensationalist media reports would suggest (Proulx 17-18), there can be no doubt that in times of conflict and political instability the problem is exacerbated. The well-heeled cultural heritage “industry” and the archaeological community have sought to associate this trade (which is primarily carried out by impoverished locals when conflicts impede their livelihoods, and who are primarily seeking precious metals that may be easily transported or melted down) with organized crime on an international scale (Massey 732-33). Both communities have made many imperious pronouncements, seeking to take the moral high ground in the debate over antiquities, but have offered little in the way of practical solutions to this illicit trade. In a 2003 interview, Jane Waldbaum of the Archaeological Institute of America said simply “We do not support a legal trade in antiquities. Period” (Tierney).
Although the crises outlined above can only be solved through multiple solutions, there is one proposal that can address, at least in part, all of them: Selling, using a carefully monitored and documented methodology, duplicate or common antiquities to help reduce the artifact storage problem, generate much needed revenue for archaeological digs and research by national heritage agencies and universities and help to undercut the illicit trade in antiquities.
The assertion that duplicate archaeological objects that have little or no practical research value, after being recorded and placed in storage, could be sold to benefit archaeology, museums and heritage protection is not a new one. It has proven to be a highly controversial suggestion, arousing powerful emotional responses from the archaeological, historic preservation, cultural heritage, museum and antiquities dealer communities. In view of the recent unprecedented acts of religiously motivated destruction of archaeological resources in the Middle East, the continuing decay of World Heritage sites in Italy such as Pompeii and the gradual shifting of financial priorities in most countries away from culture, the arts and heritage, the time has come to examine this idea seriously.
The most credible proposal of this type came from a most unexpected source. The late Israeli archaeologist Avner Raban, a highly respected scholar and field archaeologist with forty years experience, rocked the archaeological world in 1997 with an article entitled “Stop the Charade: It’s Time to Sell Artifacts” (42). Raban proposed that Israel and other Mediterranean countries should permit the sale of artifacts from legal archaeological excavations following their publication in scientific journals. Specifically, he proposed that such sales be governed by clearly defined rules that included triplicate documentation of each object (one to the government archives, one to the excavating institution and one to the purchaser) and a prioritization of objects that sent unique items to national or regional museums and less important items to university or other study collections for further research or display. Only the remaining objects might be sold on the legal antiquities market through authorized dealers. To guarantee the items would be traceable for future study, each object would also bear the excavation permit number, a registry number and locus number – the precise location of the find within the excavation (45).
The logic behind Raban’s proposal was that objects with such precise documentation, even if they tended to be very common types, would fetch far greater sums on the open market than objects with no clear provenance, a concept that this writer can attest to through personal experience. The revenue thus generated for archaeological projects, storage, display and additional curatorial research would also change the perception of the antiquities buying community from facilitators of looting to benefactors of archaeology. In addition to undercutting the illicit trafficking in such objects, Raban’s proposal would also make it more difficult for forgers to ply their trade (45).
Of course, entrenched interests continue to oppose ideas such as Raban’s, the most obvious of these being the professional associations representing the established archaeological community. These special interests cling to outmoded nationalistic concepts of cultural patrimony because doing so facilitates obtaining excavation permits in host countries. In a recent New York Times piece, J. Paul Getty Trust Chief Executive James Cuno addressed the issue of repatriating art and artifacts to nations on the basis of “national identity” claims, which he argues cannot be adjudicated, only debated. He argues that the notion of “cultural heritage” is a construct of modern nation states and therefore not relevant to archaeological context (Cuno). And in a remarkable break with much of the academic community, Sir John Boardman, Emeritus Professor of Art and Archaeology at Oxford University and widely recognized as the world’s greatest living authority on ancient Greek vase painting, posed the question: “So who do these archaeologists think they are, as absolute guardians of the world’s heritage?” (qtd. in “Some Scholar’s Opinions”). He criticizes at length the archaeological community for failure to publish excavation reports, comparing an unpublished excavated site to the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, and for their complicity in supporting, through their silence in the interest of receiving excavation permits, tyrannical regimes in antiquities rich nations. Despite such criticisms, the archaeological community continues to resist any innovative proposals such as Raban’s that might appear to lessen their grip on the past.
Since Raban’s original article, similar ideas have been floated again. Herschel Shanks, publisher of Biblical Archaeology Review magazine, said in 2003, following the looting of the Iraq Museum, ”Archaeologists like taking the high moral ground against selling antiquities, but it doesn’t solve the problem of looting. I would like to use market solutions. Sell very common objects, like oil lamps or little pots, and use the money to pay for professional excavations” (Tierney). And at the recent “Dig It!” conference in London, an audience member asked if museums should sell excess material in their shops. The panel unanimously replied in the negative (Sharpe).
Despite the resistance, ideas similar to Raban’s may soon prove to be the only viable option for dealing with the issues outlined above. Time, space and funds are running short for archaeologists, museums and the past itself.
Kersel, Morag M. “Storage Wars: Solving the Archaeological Curation Crisis?” Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies 3.1 (2015): 42-54. Print.
Massey, Laurence. “The antiquity art market: between legality and illegality.” International Journal of Social Economics 35.10 (2008): 729-738. Print.
Nevell, Mike. “Archaeology in Crisis.” Archaeologyuos. WordPress, 7 Apr. 2014. Web.
Pompeii, Italy. Personal Photographs by Author. December, 2002, JPEG files.
“Pompeii to Receive Italy Rescue Fund.” BBC News. BBC, 4 Mar. 2014. Web.
Proulx, Blythe Bowman. “Organized crime involvement in the illicit antiquities trade.” Trends in Organized Crime 14.1 (2010): 1-29. Print.
Raban, Avner. “Stop the Charade: It’s Time to Sell Artifacts.” Biblical Archaeology Review 23.3 (1997): 42-43. Print.
Sharpe, Emily. “An embarrassment of riches: UK museums struggle with archaeological Archives.” The Art Newspaper. theartnewspaper.com, 6 Mar. 2015. Web.
“Some Scholar’s Opinions.” International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art. n.d. Web. Accessed 15 Mar. 2015.
Tierney, John. “Ideas & Trends: Did Lord Elgin Do Something Right?” New York Times. New York Times Company, 20 Apr. 2003. Web.