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The Shōsōin Repository and its treasure
In the Japanese city, Nara, on the northwest rear corner of Tōdai-ji Temple’s Daibutsuden Hall stands a building largely unaltered since the 8 th century. Of age-darkened cypress and deceptively plain, its distinctively ribbed walls, punctuated by large flat rectangular doors, find an echo in the linear grooves of its deeply eaved, flaring roof of ceramic tiles. Poised on forty columns and lacking stairs, its simple box shape seems to float. This vision of austere, geometric elegance is the Shōsōin Repository.
Map of the Silk Roads (various overland routes across Eurasia)
For almost 1200 years, until the twentieth century, it preserved in excellent condition approximately nine thousand artifacts from China, Southeast Asia, Iran, and the Middle East—a miscellany connecting ancient Japan to the cultural trade and artistic exchange of the Eurasian continent. While other collections worldwide hold treasures from the ancient Silk Roads, the Shōsōin is unique as a time capsule of the entire known world of its time—when Nara-period Japan glowed as a star in the brilliant cultural cosmos of Tang-dynasty China (618-907).
The Daibutsu, Vairocana, at Tōdai-ji, Nara (photo: JahnmitJa, CC BY-SA 2.0)
The structure and its context
Despite its grand spiritual setting, the Shōsōin itself is practical, and not intrinsically religious. It typifies a renowned form of storehouse called an azekura zukuri, developed by ancient Japanese village carpenters to hold grain and other foodstuffs that formed the lifeblood of their agrarian society. Often referred to as of “log cabin style,” this two thousand-year-old design is not the primitive, drafty pile the expression typically calls to mind. Nor is it simply a matter of taste. Its appearance owes to sophisticated structural engineering that makes brilliant use of wood’s basic property to expand and contract according to weather conditions. The precisely planed, triangular logs interlock to form a flat wall on the interior and the uniquely ribbed exterior.
The ceramic tiles and hip-and-gable design of the roof both shed water and repel fire. The columns that raise it from the ground stand on natural stone. In all, this creates a natural climate regulation system that lessens the dampness of Japan’s humid climate, and discourages infestation by vermin. The absence of permanent stairs deters thieves. The wooden chests in which most of the objects were kept provided additional protection, preventing light and pollution from damaging the organic materials. The secure, ventilated conditions proved ideal for protecting the prized possessions of Japan’s Buddhist monastic communities. The Shōsōin is the oldest extant example of such treasure houses.
Azekura zukuri interlocking technique (photo: ignis, CC BY-SA 2.5)
The Shōsōin interior contains three rooms on two floors, each with an entrance door. Despite the lack of written sources confirming its dating, a recent analysis of the timbers has confirmed a middle-8th century construction date (note that the middle room walls with additional flat beams that are different from those of the other two, is likely not original). Restorations done during the much later Edo period (1603 – 1868), including iron strips added to the columns and copper plates added to protect the floor edging, do not significantly impact the repository.
Objects as Buddhist offerings
Founded by early emperors, Tōdai-ji was one Japan’s highest-ranking Buddhist monastic communities and remains an important religious center. Patronage from members of imperial and noble families, as acts of piety, made it among the wealthiest. The Shōsōin mainly served to house personal possessions donated by Empress Kōmyō to the Daibutsu Vairocana, a Buddha that is the world’s largest cast-bronze statue. These gifts were made after the death of her husband, Emperor Shōmu in 756, in order to ensure the protection of his soul. These offerings were stored in the Northern room.
Senior monks used the Middle and Southern rooms for ceremonial objects, and in the 10th century, articles and documents were added from another smaller repository nearby. While the Southern room remained accessible until the Meiji period (1868-1912), sometime in the 12th century, Japan’s Imperial household sealed the Middle and Northern rooms. High-ranking ministers took responsibility for their security. From this point on the Shōsōin was rarely opened and over the centuries it survived both war and fire, leaving virtually all the ancient cultural treasures intact.
The treasure at the Shōsōin Repository
The thousands of items preserved in the Shōsōin repository include manuscripts, musical instruments, textiles, shoes, banners, ceramics and glass, metalwork, and lacquerware. These objects showcase the high level of craftsmanship and the complex techniques available to the imperial household during this early period, some of which are now lost.
We also benefit from the meticulous records of these objects kept by ancient caretakers. Thanks to an inscription on each, today we know its date, usage, and sometimes its provenance—all of which help to put the objects in context. The material preserved in the repository is particularly important because it created the foundation for the Japanese art and style that followed, which originated in this era against the backdrop of China’s Tang Dynasty (which has long been seen as a golden age of art, music, and literature, and economic and political influence across East Asia). Nara was modeled after Chang’an (now Xi’an in China) the Tang capital, and a self-proclaimed center of Buddhism. It was especially between the 7th and 8th centuries that Japan, welcoming foreign people and sending envoys abroad, studied, preserved, and developed its own artistic culture.
The unquestionable beauty and finesse of the mulberry wood lute inlaid with mother of pearl makes evident Tang China’s wide, complex cultural impact. Known in Japan as a Kuwanoki no genia and in China as a pipa, this pear-shaped 5-string instrument was likely introduced originally to China from Central Asia in the 1st or 2nd century C.E., and would attain a lasting popularity. This particular 8th century example from the Shōsōin very much recalls the type of pipa depicted on murals of the 3rd-4th century Buddhist cave complexes of Dunhuang and Yulin in what is now Gansu Province, China—vestiges of a chain of major monastic centers that once spread Buddhism and served as junctions for the interchange of ideas, goods and peoples along the northern Silk Roads.
Kuwanoki no genia (a composite image showing front and back) , Tang Dynasty, 8th century, (Shōsōin Repository, Nara) (front and back)
Mother-of-pearl inlaid bronze and lacquer mirror (Shōsōin Repository, Nara)
Far east across the Yellow Sea, the Sea of Japan, and the ancient kingdoms of the Korean peninsula, the route concluded with the imperial monasteries of Nara-era Japan, including Tōdai-ji.
The large floral motif embellishing the Kuwanoki no genia and other objects in the repository, such as mirrors, boxes, and ritual rugs offer further links. Typical of the late Tang period, this motif is generally recognized as an emblem of the Tang dynasty and in Japan it is known as kara-hana, meaning “Tang flower.”
Musicians (pipa at the bottom right and held by the central dancing character behind the shoulders) from the Western Paradise of Amitaba, Dunhuang Cave 112, Middle Tang Period, 8th century
Correspondence with visual material from these Chinese caves confirms that many objects in the Shōsōin enjoyed actual use. The repository artifacts likewise make very tangible the Silk Route’s far-flung connections and the complexities. For example, a handsome glass bowl with cut hollow facets finds an echo in a 9 th century banner discovered in the Mogao caves at Dunhuang.
Left: Hakururi no wan from the Shōsōin Repository right: Banner (detail) of a Bodhisattva holding a glass (British Museum)
The banner portrays an important deity, a Bodhisattva, holding a similar bowl his hand (in Japanese the bowl is called a Hakururi no wan ). This type of glass is commonly known as “Sasanian glass,” referring to the last pre-Islamic Iranian dynasty that, from the 3 rd to the 7 th century, dominated a vast Eurasia territory (from Central Asia to Iraq). But this type of glass was already being produced before the Sasanian period, and also elsewhere in the Middle East. A similar, much earlier type also was discovered in Palmyra (in modern Syria).
Ancient fabrics were among the most highly prized of luxury items in ancient times and represent the majority of the artifacts from the Shōsōin. Similar patterned textiles remain among the important possessions of other Buddhist communities established during the era of imperial Nara (such as Hōryū-ji). Almost entirely made of silk and ramie, they belong to the second period of textile development in Japan, which like other items in the Shōsōin, reflect Tang China’s influence in their motifs, such as the floral medallion made in weft-faced compounds (generally known in the West as samite). An earlier, first phase can be dated to between the 4 th or 5 th centuries, possibly when early emperors invited textile weavers to Japan from Korean kingdoms and China, societies that were then far more sophisticated.
Reproduction of a silk twill textile, woven in Japan, imitating a Sasanian Persian original, from the Shōsōin repository in Nara (originally held in Horyuji Temple), 6th–7th century (private collection)
In particular, a clan of artisans called the Nishiki is mentioned in early Japanese historical accounts, most famously “A Record of Ancient Things” (Kojiki) and “Chronicles of Japan” (Nihon Shoki). Not by coincidence, the term nishiki has long referred to Japanese polychrome patterned weavings.
Amongst the Iranian or Iranian-inspired artifacts in Nara, there is a particular nishiki fragment, now considered a national treasure, which shows the artistic collaboration among a diverse group of artisans of different ethnic groups who combined their artistic and technical expertise. Its design consists of a repetition of beaded roundels enclosing pairs of mirrored hunters on a winged horse, drawing a bow at a rearing lion. All the pictorial elements in the composition (crown, roundel, flower, etc.) link to Sasanian motifs, though the Chinese characters in the bodies of the horses suggest possible Chinese-Central Asian production. Such collaborations were quite frequent along the Silk Road, especially in the area between Sogdiana (a colony of the Eastern Sasanian Empire) and Turfan in the Xinjiang Province. The composition often appears on Sasanian metalwork in collections worldwide.
In 1997, the Shōsōin building was designated as a National Treasure and registered as part of the World Heritage. Its contents are no longer kept there but in two secure buildings built nearby in 1953 and 1962, called the Eastern and the Western Repository. Every autumn, for about two weeks, fifty to sixty items are exhibited in the Nara National Museum (with a related catalog), giving the public the opportunity to admire and learn about many of the Buddhist-inspired artifacts preserved by the Shōsōin that characterize the “Nara period.” The Shōsōin’s treasure as a whole represents the cultural transfers that occurred along the Silk Road, which stretched in the East through China and Korea, and placed Japan in an ancient global context.
Ry-Oichi Hayashi. The Silk Road and the Shoso-In ( The Heibonsha Survey of Japanese Art V. 6. Clarendon: Tuttle Publishing, 1980).
Kaneo Matsumoto, Jōdai –Gire: 7th and 8th Century Textiles in Japan from the Shōsō-in and Hōryū-ji (Kyoto: Shikosha Publishing Co. Ltd., 1984).
Scrapbooks: troublemakers and treasures in the archives
October is American Archives Month—a great time to flip through the old family scrapbooks and spend time preserving these homemade albums that often hold so much history. During my internship at the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History, I had the opportunity to process a collection of scrapbooks related to All in the Family actress Jean Stapleton. This sparked my interest in other scrapbooks housed in the Archives Center containing intriguing photos, characters, and stories from American history. Scrapbooks are as diverse as their makers. And yet, no matter the topic or preferences of the scrapbook-maker, they likely contain two materials that pose vexing dilemmas for the archivist: glue and newspaper.
Archivists are preservers who prevent further damage and protect content for ready access. Alongside conservators who combat existing damage, they care for artifacts such as scrapbooks whose materials might not otherwise stand the test of time.
Years after the assembly of a scrapbook, glue remains a sticky issue—or, rather, a rigid one. This became apparent to me when I was asked to date, folder, and box the scrapbooks from the Jean Stapleton collection. Often the adhesive in scrapbooks ages in such a way that items pop off or crack when turning the pages. Consequently, a scrapbook's personal and careful organization of pages could become fragmented.
For many scrapbookers, pasting in favorite or interesting newspaper articles was a popular choice. For archivists, this is good and bad. Newspapers provide an authoritative source to situate the albums in time, which is helpful for archivists. However, newspaper is susceptible to deterioration. It is mechanically produced with low-cost wood pulp paper, with short fibers that are brittle and prone to tearing. As such, keeping the paper for an extended period of time is a challenge.
Not only is newspaper delicate, but its acidity causes it to yellow and stain materials touching it. To prevent further damage in scrapbooks, archivists might interleaf the pages with alkaline paper to chemically balance the acid of the newspaper if it is touching fragile materials, such as photographs.
Despite the challenges scrapbooks sometimes present, the Archives Center chooses to acquire, preserve, and provide access to scrapbooks because they are careful, unique, and very personal constructions of moments in time that contribute to the telling of America's story. And, much like the scrapbooker who composes a story with glue and scraps of materials, the archivist helps make a larger story available to researchers, providing access to a collection of scrapbooks acquired from all corners of the nation on a wide range of topics. The archivist and the scrapbooker often share common goals: collecting and storytelling for posterity.
So, the next time you create a scrapbook to share your story or favorite memories, remember your friendly archivist. Carefully choose your materials—especially your adhesive—and remember the importance of long-term preservation to keep your story alive for generations to come.
Eva H. Buchanan-Cates completed an internship with the Archives Center in summer 2017. She is a junior at Kenyon College.
Mughal Emperors and the Imperial Hunt
There is something deeply poetic about the synchrony of man and beast locked in battle with each other, relying on their wits, speed and sheer cunning to outwit the other. When the inevitable moment arrives, time stops as victory and defeat are juxtaposed in the most delicate balance. Then, in a split second, the fate of hunter and hunted is decided.
But, in Mughal times, the battle of man and beast went beyond pure sport. Hunting, no matter how violent and brutal, was an extension of empire building, kingship and sovereignty. The Imperial Hunt was both a political as well as a military strategy that rulers used frequently to test their own limits and pleasures. Why, it was sometimes even a tool of diplomacy.
The Mughal Emperors used hunting or shikar as a royal privilege, to exercise authority over their subjects and the natural world.
Ruling vast territories of the subcontinent and maintaining tight control over their subjects was a given for all rulers, kings and emperors. But they derived true pleasure and sheer indulgence from the ‘imperial hunt’, as it gave them a chance to show off their hunting prowess.
These Emperors maintained detailed accounts of their heroic exploits and they are great sources of information. These accounts focus mainly on the fauna of Hindustan, and animals like the lion, cheetah and tiger are given pride of place. The Mughal chronicles also talk about the capturing of elephants and hunting the black buck, nilgais, deer, buffalo and small birds.
Emperor Jahangir (r. 1605 – 1627), author of the Jahangirnama, meticulously made notes of every hunt he did in this work. He claimed that from the age of 12 until his 50th year, he had hunted 28,532 animals including the big cats, and 13, 964 birds, a feat, no doubt.
It is not just the Mughal chronicles that give us detailed descriptions of the Imperial Hunt , but also paintings that each Mughal Emperor commissioned of himself while on these jungle expeditions.
The thrill of the hunt provided an adrenaline rush that had the Emperors hooked. Apart from casting themselves as heroes who could slay the fiercest of beasts, they believed that by hunting, they were destroying the forces of evil that surrounded them. The majestic, big cats – tigers and lions – were especially challenging to hunt and were therefore their most valuable quarry.
For the Mughals, there was also a cultural connection linked to their Mongol and Timurid ancestry. In the Timurid tradition, hunting lions was an important ritual to formalise any kind of authority. The Mughals also believed that killing a lion was a lucky omen. Conversely, if the lion escaped during the hunt, trouble would befall the Empire.
The Mongol tradition of hunting was about bringing out the warrior in an Emperor, and this was amply represented in Mughal paintings. The hunting method of the Mongols, called ‘Qamargah’, was like a battle plan. Hundreds of men were employed as ‘beaters’, whose job it was to trap the animal in a circle and lead it to an area encircled by nets or fences. Once trapped, the animal is then forced to succumb to the authority of the Emperor, who was seated on a horse or an elephant and assisted by trained cheetahs and dogs.
The risks were considerable but the Emperor could not afford to bed faint-hearted. The hunt and all the rituals that surrounded it were witnessed by members of his court and the royal artists who travelled with him. They used the hunt as an opportunity to hail the Emperor in their paintings, as a grand hero who had conquered an evil force
A Diplomatic Exercise
The excitement of the hunt and the dance of death pursued by the hunters were also an extension of a diplomatic bond that the Mughal Emperors were trying to build. This was especially true vis-à-vis the Rajput clans that the Mughals wooed and forged alliances with.
The Rajputs were essentially a warrior clan and the hunt, therefore, appealed to their sensibilities, perhaps more than it did to any other community. Simply put, the Rajputs considered hunting a necessity for all warriors going into battle.
Abu’l Fazl, historian and chronicler of Mughal Emperor Akbar (r. 1556 – 1605), believed that the Imperial Hunt was a sign of good governance and an effort made by the Emperor to win the hearts of his subjects. He writes in the Ain-i-Akbari authored by him: “ At this time, the lord of the universe in accordance with his noble ways was continually outwardly engaged in hunting while inwardly he walked with God and was employed in the capturing of souls.”
A Chance to Look Inward
Emperor Akbar also used the Imperial Hunt as an occasion to meet ascetics and mendicants and interact with them. There is a miniature painting of him falling into a trance while on a hunting expedition in Punjab. This is similar to the stories of many historical characters who discover the truth of ‘true self’ in a forest.
Hunting allowed these royals to break with protocol and interact with people who had shed their materialistic aspirations. Did royal customs and practices prove tiresome for the Emperor? Did they secretly envy the lives of ascetics and mendicants? Akbar did use these interactions to make changes in his own life. He abstained from meat for certain periods and forbade the killing of animals to please his Hindu subjects.
His son Jahangir, known in Mughal history as one of the most enthusiastic hunters of his time, was forced to respect his father vow. However, he did break it and went back to hunting cheetahs or, in extreme circumstances, asked his wife Nur Jahan to shoot in his place.
The Imperial Hunt was always organised in open forests and miles and miles away from the royal capital, making these expeditions a month-long event. A huge retinue of people accompanied the Emperor while on a hunt. Along with his courtiers and noblemen, the harem too was in attendance.
On one expedition, Akbar was accompanied by 4,000 soldiers. Massive tents were erected to house everyone, who along with the Emperor enjoyed all the comforts of the palace in the middle of the forest.
Other pleasurable pursuits, such as cock-fights and the duelling of rams and pigeons were organized to keep the Emperor entertained in case he ever got bored.
Falcons were trained for the purpose of hunting, which was hugely popular in Akbar’s time. It was the speed and sharpness of the bird that made it a huge favourite for hunting expeditions. Akbar had over 1,000 trained cheetahs in his retinue they were great hunting companions. It is said Akbar promoted one of his cheetahs as ‘Chief of Cheetahs’ in a ceremony marked by the beating of drums and great pomp and show. This was all because the animal had helped catch a deer that Akbar had set his eyes on!
If the hunt was the centrepiece of the expedition, the feast that such an expedition entailed came a close second. The hunting grounds were filled with an assortment of wild beasts and fowl that eventually found their way into the rather expansive menu designed for the Emperor. It is said that on a hunt that extended up to a month, at least 30-40 dishes were laid out for the Emperor. Of course, he would not taste them all but they had to be presented before him anyway. After all, palace pleasures extended even to the open forest wherever the Emperor went, entertainment of all kinds followed.
Shah Jahan Hunting Lions
The Qamargah method of hunting was inspired by the Mongol tradition of hunting, where hundreds of beaters were employed to drive the Royal game into a circular enclosure, to be killed by the hunter . This depicted in a painting commissioned by Emperor Shah Jahan (r. 1628 – 58). It is titled Shahjahan Hunting Lions At Burhanpur in the Padshahnama, which documents the official history of Emperor Shah Jahan’s reign. The painting depicts a hunt conducted by the Emperor in Burhanpur, in present-day Madhya Pradesh. In his late 30s, Shah Jahan is shown hunting along with his teenage sons, who like him are also seated on elephants.
At the bottom of the painting is a netted enclosure, which probably accommodated members of the court who witnessed the hunt. The top half of the painting shows Shah Jahan confronting a lion and a lioness, who seem to be protecting their cubs. This very direct confrontation between man and beast is very symbolic of what all battles in history are about. Hunting of lions was a powerful omen, and killing them ensured victory in all battles that were to come.
Nur Jahan: A Super-Slayer
Hunting was not solely a man’s prerogative to assert his authority over his subjects. Some royal women too stamped their authority themselves via this elaborate and dangerous ritual. One of them was Empress Nur Jahan, wife of Emperor Jahangir, who immersed herself in this heady addiction.
Nur Jahan is hailed as a feminist icon and a powerful woman in 17 th century India. Her contribution to art, architecture, music and fashion rivalled the contribution made by some of her male counterparts. Nur Jahan was an excellent shot, possibly even better than Jahangir, and there are stories about her bravery and her pursuit of a ‘man-eating tiger’ who had ‘terrorised’ a village. It is said that she shot the animal dead with a single shot from her musket, while sitting on an elephant.
Jahangir trusted her skills as a hunter so much that she accompanied him on all his hunts. The Historian Ruby Lal in her book Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan (2018) aptly says: “Nur Jahan was living in the land of tigers, and her skills as a hunter helped her immensely while ruling an Empire.”
Since hunting was extremely symbolic and so deeply embedded in Mughal culture, it was widespread and wiped out a large number of animals. But it is the tales of the hunter that are immortalised in art, architecture and folklore the voices of the hunted remain smothered in legends of the Imperial Hunt .
Samyukta Ninan is an Educator from Delhi who has a deep interest in the tangible and intangible heritage of India. An avid reader and a heritage walker, she has combined her interest in visual and performing arts with her passion for writing .
Cultural heritage “in crisis”
In recent years, particularly since the rise of ISIS’ destructive activities in the Middle East, it’s become common to see articles in the news media as well as in academic journals on the theme of “cultural heritage in crisis.” You could say it’s a booming field.
But how true is it?
It’s certainly true that cultural heritage is in danger of destruction, looting, or illicit trafficking in many places around the world. It’s also true that new types of threats to cultural heritage have developed in the last few decades.
- the easier movement of goods across national borders via online marketplaces like eBay
- the spread of global banking
- the outbreak of war and other forms of political instability and poverty
- the widespread availability of heavy machinery and explosives
Some regions—most recently the heritage-rich areas of the Middle East—have certainly experienced a marked increase in illicit trafficking in the context of ongoing political upheavals and conflicts.
But usage of the term “crisis” to describe the destruction of cultural heritage around the world is perhaps a misleading one. “Crisis” is a term that indicates a problem that has an urgent, yet temporary quality. However, the loss and destruction of cultural heritage is not new in human history and is not restricted by the duration of political instability in faraway lands. Many regions of the world, including the United States, face a longstanding and ongoing struggle to protect heritage in the face of numerous challenges, regardless of political, social, or economic security. It may be worth considering that the idea of “crisis” deceptively frames the destruction of heritage as a product of temporary instabilities that cease to be a problem once conflicts are over. In reality, conditions of “crisis” only really provide new opportunities for heritage destruction processes that were already happening and will continue happening after the “crisis” is over.
Threats to cultural heritage: war
Let’s take a closer look at these processes. Broadly speaking, there are two types of threats:
- destruction of heritage sites and objects caused by war, poverty, and development initiatives
- the looting and trafficking of objects that frequently arises out of those contexts
In wartime, destruction of heritage sites can be a result of collateral damage, for example, when a bomb targeting one location inadvertently hits another or it can be the result of intentional damage, aimed to demoralize and insult the values and religious and cultural symbols of an enemy. It is often difficult to distinguish between collateral and intentional damage, and perpetrators may claim deliberate destruction was an accident in an attempt to avoid prosecution. In the Syria conflict, for example, you’ve probably heard about the destruction caused by ISIS. However, the majority of damage to cities and to heritage has in fact not been caused by ISIS, but by the Syrian government’s campaign of relentless aerial bombardment, which has destroyed up to 70% of the fabric of the ancient city of Aleppo, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Walter Hahn, Dresden: view of the destroyed inner city from the town hall tower with sculpture, 1945 (CC BY-SA 3.0 DE)
And though it’s easy to demonize a regime in a country far away, it’s important to remember that similar levels of destruction were caused by both the Axis powers and the Allies in World War II — for the Allies, most famously in Dresden, where a British and American aerial campaign in 1945 left more than 70% of the city in ruins. The neglect of the occupying U.S. forces in Iraq in 2003 famously led to the looting of the National Museum of Iraq, with thousands of objects lost, only half of which have returned, as well as the burning and destruction of Iraq’s magnificent national library, including hundreds of priceless manuscripts dating back to the 16th century. Deliberate or neglectful destruction of heritage has long been a key strategy of war, and perpetrators are rarely prosecuted for it.
The long history of the destruction of heritage shows us that the elimination of culture has always been viewed as a powerful tool of domination and as a key strategy for eliminating the value humans accord to their lives. In recent years, the destruction of heritage — whether through war, commercial exploitation, and/or looting — has been defined by UNESCO as a form of cultural cleansing. In taking human lives, oppressors erase the existence of individual people: but in destroying culture, the memory and identity of entire peoples are erased. It is not surprising to note, therefore, that the destruction of heritage is often a precursor to genocide. This is because in denying people their past, perpetrators also deny them a future.
Threats to cultural heritage: development, climate change, tourism, and natural disasters
Nevertheless, wartime destruction of heritage is only a small fraction of the overall loss of cultural heritage around the world. Much more significant and long-lasting is destruction due to urban development, mineral and resource extraction, climate change, tourism, and even natural disasters. For example, the ancient Buddhist site of Mes Aynak in Afghanistan is now threatened by Chinese mining interests, a situation made famous in a recent documentary. Similarly, the push to expand resource extraction on public lands in the United States is also causing widespread loss of heritage, as at the Bears Ears National Monument, which was controversially reduced by 85% in a decision signed by President Trump in December 2017.
The impact of mass tourism on the historic city of Venice (photo: Alessandro Giumelli/World Monuments Fund)
Although many heritage sites are preserved in order to encourage tourist revenue, tourism can also cause massive destruction because of the large numbers of people it can attract and also because transforming a site into a tourist-friendly locale often profoundly transforms its meaning for local people, who may find their connections to a place have been erased. Such is the case at Dubrovnik, a city that was reconstructed by an international consortium of donors after the Balkan war and which now finds itself managing a Game of Thrones-inspired tourist influx that threatens to leave little of the original city behind, a destruction that some residents have characterized as worse than that during wartime.
If destruction of heritage during wartime is akin to a relatively sudden death, looting is like a cancer that slowly erodes it. Looting is the theft of heritage items for sale on the antiquities market, most often to wealthy private buyers in the United States and Europe. As art history professor Nathan Elkins has shown, the consequences of purchasing even small items like coins can be devastating for our knowledge about the past. Once an object is removed from its original environment, it instantly loses much of its ability to convey information about how people once lived.
Pedestal with feet fragments, Prasat Chen, Koh Ker, photo: © Simon Warrack, by permission, all rights reserved
Archaeologists call the environment in which an object is found, its context. Context is the object and its relationship to all the other objects and material in an archaeological site. The relationships between these objects is what enables archaeologists to recreate the past (objects that have been looted, and thereby robbed of this context can be called “ungrounded“). As such, even the smallest objects, such as ancient coins, can provide powerful evidence about the lives of people in the past. While locals are often blamed for looting, it is important to point out that local looting is often subsistence looting — looting carried out to supplement meagre incomes — and that it is only profitable because it responds to demand in wealthy countries. The antiquities market is vast, and as the Wall Street Journal reported last year, it has consequences far beyond just loss of our knowledge about the past, since much like drug trafficking, its profits fuel terrorism, criminal enterprises, and many other forms of criminal activity.
What can be done?
In repositioning the discussion of the “current crisis” to a discussion of how we are in fact currently experiencing the latest iteration of a long-standing problem with global reach, we can avoid simplistic solutions that propose that squashing the “bad guys” — for example, ISIS — will solve the destruction and looting problem once and for all. Most importantly, it allows us to focus on the real driver of destruction: the demand in wealthy countries for heritage objects — a demand that ultimately fuels the entire antiquities trade — and the lax legislation that enables that trade to flourish. It also permits a conversation about related issues, for example the lack of public education about the antiquities trade, or problematic distinctions such as that between art — largely considered to be a private commodity subject to market demand, versus heritage — which is typically framed as “universal” and the patrimony of all.
Understanding that cultural heritage has been under threat for a very long time allows us to avoid short-term, crisis-based responses, and enables us to craft long-lasting, systemic solutions.
Trinidad Rico, “Heritage at Risk: The Authority and Autonomy of a Dominant Preservation Framework,” in Heritage Keywords: Rhetoric and Redescription in Cultural Heritage, Kathryn Lafrenz Samuels and Trinidad Rico, editors, Boulder, University of Colorado Press, 2015, pages 147–162.
What are some big hidden treasures of history?
I do know most action/adventure flicks centered around finding a hidden treasure based on elaborate clues and riddles are a huge stretch, however - are there/were there any such real life hidden treasures, maybe still unsolved ones?
I can imagine all the expeditions into Egypt and pyramids were something like this, however those are quite straightforward (I mean the pyramids are HUGE, no need for riddles to find them :D). I also understand with satellite imagery not much is left for the imagination, so I don't expect tales of not-yet-found cities.
But for real, are there any such huge real treasure hunts still going on?
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Heroditus described it as being grander than the great pyramids. It was vast necropolis with a massive above and underground complex.
It's location is now known at hawara but its materials were repurposed by the ptolmey dynasty and its roof collapsed and its caverns are flooded.
Let's get some shoring put up and some pumps in there!
Heroditus is kind of known for just making shit up though, so it's hard to know whether something like this is for real or would just be a wild goose chase
Isn't the Sphinx hollow too?
The mausoleum of the First Emperor of China has never been opened, although we know where it is. Parts of the complex have been excavated, including the terracotta warriors, but the tomb itself, which may contain vast riches, remains unopened.
Is this the guy whose tomb is a miniature city with rivers of mercury?
I seem to remember it was because they don't have the equipment to keep the environment at the right conditions? Seems shammy but I seem to remember reading something like that when I was there seeing the terracotta warriors.
They arent opening it because the 8,000 terracotta warriors would come alive and attack them
Iɽ expect this guy's tomb to be full of way more valuable stuff than the Egyptian Labyrinth or the chamber under the Sphinx. Places in Egypt have been looted by tomb robbers ad nauseam. However, I think when they talk about Chinese Imperial tombs having never been open, they mean it. Having a giant poisonous lake of mercury surrounding your tomb, obviously filling the air will all kinds of lethal fumes, would probably discourage even the most adventurous tomb robber. Frankly the the Chinese "August Rulers" seem to be a bit meaner than the Egyptian "Horuses" anyways. Sure, Ramses II might have your head chopped off or whatever (in extreme cases they wouldn't allow you a proper burial *gasp*), but I don't think they're going to have you and your family walled up alive inside the Great Wall. that's a tad above and beyond.
Yes, cultural treasures carry vast amount of significance to their respective countries.
Cultural treasures should be displayed in the context in which they originated only then can they be truly understood. In the case of the Elgin marbles this is an architectural context which only proximity to Some cultural treasures, e.G Native American artefacts, have religious and cultural associations for the area from which they were taken, but none for those who view them in sterile glass cases. To the descendants of their creators it is offensive to see aspects of their spirituality displayed for entertainment.The Parthenon itself can provide.Display of cultural treasures in western museums is a last hangover from Artefacts such as the Parthenon marbles were often acquired illegally, for example through looting in war (the Benin bronzes), under the duress of imperial force (many Chinese artefacts), or by bribing officials to ignore the carrying away of sculptures from monuments they were meant to be guarding (the Elgin marbles).The imperial belief that “civilised” states such as Britain were the true successors to Greece and Rome, and that the modern inhabitants of those ancient regions were unable to appreciate or look after their great artistic heritage. Whether that was true in the 19th century is open to doubt it certainly is not valid today and the display of imperial trophies in institutions such as the British Museum or the Louvre has become offensive.It may have been true that countries such as Greece were not capable of looking after their heritage in the past, but that has now changed. A state-of-the-art museum has now been completed in Athens to house the surviving marbles, while pollution control measures have reduced sulphur-dioxide levels in the city to a fifth of their previous levels. At the same time the curatorship of institutions such as the British Museum is being called into question, as it becomes apparent that controversial cleaning and restoration practices may have harmed the sculptures they claim to protect.
The Fate of Cultural Property in Wartime: Why it Matters and What Should Be Done
Citadel of Aleppo, 2007. Damaged by shelling, 2012. CREDIT: Watchsmart, (CC)
"In a race against time, a crew of art historians and museum curators unite to recover renowned works of art stolen by Nazis before Hitler destroys them." This is the description of the latest George Clooney film, The Monuments Men, based on a book of the same name. Art historians dashing around Europe in the midst of World War II to save paintings sounds like an improbable work of imagination. But the Monuments Men actually did exist, and their battle to save the symbols of European Civilization should inspire reflection on the fate of cultural property 1 in wartime, why it matters, and what should be done to provide protection in today's conflicts.
The Fate of Cultural Property in Wartime
While most people are familiar with the history of World War II, many are unaware of the fate of art in the European theater during the war. As part of Hitler's plans to construct a Fuhrermuseum, the Nazis systematically plundered Europe's art and are estimated to have transferred to the Third Reich more than five million cultural objects. 2 In response to this extensive looting and the widespread battle damage to cultural landmarks such as Coventry Cathedral, the abbey at Monte Cassino (destroyed by the Allies), and the old town of Warsaw, the Allied armies created the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section (MFAA). 3 From 1943 to 1951, the MFAA was composed of 350 men and women from 13 nations, with 60 Monuments Men actively serving in Europe from a few months after D-Day until VE day. 4 These 60 Monuments officers, all volunteer museum directors, artists, archivists, curators, and educators, 5 were responsible first for mitigating battle damage, and then for locating the looted and missing art across the continent. 6 Robert Edsel, author of Monuments Men, describes the mission of the group as "simple: to save as much of the culture of Europe as they could during combat." 7 By 1950, the MFAA had secured and repatriated 2.5 million cultural objects, including legendary pieces such as the Ghent Altarpiece and the Madonna of Bruges.
Over 60 years later, despite legal instruments such as the Hague Convention of 1954 (designed to prevent the damage, destruction, and looting witnessed in World War II), the 1970 Convention on Illicit Traffic of Cultural Property, and the World Heritage Convention of 1972, the fate of cultural property in conflict remains much the same. While the looting is not as organized or far-reaching as the Nazi campaign, during our current troubled era, reports emerge frequently from Syria, Mali, and Egypt of looting and damage to cultural property. In addition to the destruction of the historic center of Aleppo, in February 2013, the Syrian government warned of an increase in antiquities trafficking from looted archaeological sites. Under the Islamist occupation of Timbuktu, Mali in 2012, FT Magazine reported that occupiers demolished shrines to which residents pray as part of their Sufi beliefs and the monument to the city's patron djin was destroyed by a bulldozer. Of the 24,000 ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu's Ahmed Baba Institute, 4,203 disappeared or were damaged during the conflict. Most recently, the archaeological museum in Mallawi, Egypt was robbed and vandalized, losing almost 1,050 of its 1,089 exhibit artifacts.
Cultural property, whether art, architecture, or antiquities, continues to be damaged, destroyed, or stolen during conflicts. It is often collateral damage in battles and bombings, the object of theft for those seeking to sell valuable objects, or the target of destruction in an attempt to destroy a people's culture or evidence of a culture's existence.
Why Protect Cultural Property?
Why, amongst the many horrors of war, most particularly the great suffering and loss of life, should humanity care about the fate of objects and buildings? In fact, the argument for protecting cultural property in wartime has both ethical and practical foundations.
Museum conservator and Monument Man George Stout wrote in 1942:
As soldiers of the United Nations fight their way into lands once conquered and held by the enemy, the governments of the United Nations will encounter manifold problems…In areas torn by bombardment and fire are monuments cherished by the people of those countrysides or towns: churches, shrines, statues, pictures, many kinds of works. …To safeguard these things will not affect the course of battles, but it will affect the relations of invading armies with those peoples and [their] governments….To safeguard these things will show respect for the beliefs and customs of all men and will bear witness that these things belong not only to a particular people but also to the heritage of mankind. 8
Stout explains the ethical importance of respecting cultural property. We should not protect ancient manuscripts and statues simply because they are beautiful or historic buildings of worship because they serve as a gathering place for the faithful we must understand them to be part of the culture and history of a people. In a time in which Hitler was attempting to destroy a people and conquer many cultures, to show respect for the cultures and the symbols of others was to fight for the liberation of Europe in another, meaningful way. What's more, these objects do not belong solely to the people who cherish them. Stout argues that they also belong to "the heritage of mankind." This recognition that the symbols of one civilization are also part of the history of all mankind is an idea that has been further embraced and recognized post-World War II and has become an integral part of the ethical argument for protecting culture in conflict. As Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, wrote in a 2012 article on the importance of preserving embattled states' cultural heritage, "this [the destruction in Syria] is a loss to all humanity. Some cultural sites have an outstanding universal value—they belong to all and must be protected by all. Let's be clear. We are not just talking about stones and building. This is about values, identities and belonging."
In addition to the ethical foundations for protecting cultural property, there are several very practical arguments for the benefits of doing so.
1. The loss of cultural property is not only a loss to the heritage of mankind, but also to the better understanding of that heritage. As Rodrigo Martin, a heritage expert monitoring the damage to Syria's sites, expressed it, "[t]he destruction of things that have not been studied is like burning pages in the book of history." Archaeologists can recover stolen artifacts, but as Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, leader of the U.S. investigation into the 2003 looting of the Iraq Museum, explains, without the context of the item, little can be learned about the civilizations that came before us. This limits our educational resources and collective knowledge of the past.
2. The destruction or looting of sites and objects of cultural significance, especially when intentional, can create lasting resentments and obstacles to peace. As Bokova writes, "[d]estroying culture hurts societies for the long term….Warlords know this. They target culture because it strikes to the heart and because it has powerful media value in an increasingly connected world. We saw this in the wars in the former Yugoslavia, where libraries were often burned first." When the deliberate destruction of cultural property is linked with genocide or ethnic cleansing, such as the intentional destruction of mosques in Kosovo, it is easy to understand why resentment would endure. To protect cultural property is a way to avoid one more obstacle to peace.
3. Even when cultural property losses are not linked to genocide, the issue of repatriating and restituting looted objects of cultural property remains expensive, contentious, and legally complex. For example, amongst the "trophies of war" removed by the Soviet Union in World War II were books of important cultural value to Hungary. The books were not returned until 2006, after years of negotiation. Similarly, reconstruction of cultural heritage sites, if even possible, is a long-term process that can be extremely controversial and expensive. Afghanistan's Bamiyan Buddhas, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, are a case in point.
4. In certain circumstances, the theft of cultural property can fuel further conflict. As Bogdanos writes, "things have become even more troubling—when tracking down terrorists, we now find antiquities…" Bogdanos notes that antiquities trafficking provides a source of funding for insurgents in Iraq, and one must be concerned that this trend could continue in other conflict zones.
What Can be Done?
Since World War II, the world has seen modifications to military rules of engagement and the ratification of several legal instruments, all designed to protect cultural property, particularly in conflict. Cultural property destruction has even been recognized as a war crime and prosecuted as such. These are necessary and important steps, and yet destruction and looting continue. The time has come to consider additional courses of action and to learn from the lessons of the Monuments Men.
In a 2012 article, Bokova declared that in the 1954, 1970, and 1972 conventions the world has the legally binding international treaties it needs, but that "legal texts will never be as fast as a rocket." She argued that what is needed now is a strengthening of national capacities, training for soldiers, more resources, experts on the ground, and better coordination with armed forces, Interpol, and other actors. Bokova is right. Efforts must be made to actively prevent the destruction of cultural property and to track trafficked objects through better coordination with experts on the ground and better training and resources for soldiers in and entering conflict zones. What may be most important is the deployment of experts much like the Monuments Men who volunteer to assess, protect, and investigate cultural property destruction and looting. Unlike the MFAA, the experts should not be affiliated with one side of the conflict the group must be apolitical. While specialized sections for arts and antiquities are rare in today's militaries, there are non-profit organizations working to fulfill this mission. The International Committee of the Blue Shield states that it "works to protect world cultural heritage threatened by natural and human-made disasters," and various national chapters, such as the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield work as "the cultural equivalent of the Red Cross, providing an emergency response to cultural property at risk from armed conflict." The efforts of these committees and other actors with similar goals should be promoted and heavily supported.
The world must work to protect cultural property during times of conflict, not only because it shows respect for all peoples and cultures, but because the heritage of one civilization is the heritage of the entire world. Cultural property protection in conflict is often neglected or brushed aside as people argue that the lives of individuals in warzones are far more important than old buildings, pots, and books. However, it is not a question of prioritizing. We must not dismiss cultural property protection in conflicts as secondary to humanitarian tragedy, but as part of the effort to save humanity. In an August 2013 speech, Bokova expressed this well, when speaking about the destruction, looting, and illicit trafficking of cultural property in Syria:
I am keenly aware that in the context of a tragic humanitarian crisis, the state of Syria's cultural heritage may seem secondary. However, I am convinced that each dimension of this crisis must be addressed on its own terms and in its own right. There is no choice between protecting human lives and safeguarding the dignity of a people through its culture. Both must be protected, as the one and same thing—there is no culture without people and no society without culture.
1 "Cultural Property" as defined by the 1954 Hague Convention: "the term 'cultural property' shall cover, irrespective of origin or ownership:
(a) movable or immovable property of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people, such as monuments of architecture, art or history, whether religious or secular archaeological sites groups of buildings which, as a whole, are of historical or artistic interest works of art manuscripts, books and other objects of artistic, historical or archaeological interest as well as scientific collections and important collections of books or archives or of reproductions of the property defined above
(b) buildings whose main and effective purpose is to preserve or exhibit the movable cultural property defined in sub-paragraph (a) such as museums, large libraries and depositories of archives, and refuges intended to shelter, in the event of armed conflict, the movable cultural property defined in sub-paragraph (a)
Frameworks for cultural heritage protection: from ancient writing to modern law
Major threats to cultural heritage come in two forms: destruction during military conflict and the looting of sites and collections. Both in antiquity and in contemporary times, we see these destructive activities often going hand in hand, but we also see a consistent development toward recognition that such cultural remains should be protected.
Toward a recognition that cultural heritage should be protected
In the second century B.C.E ., the ancient Roman author Polybius criticized the Roman plunder of Greek sanctuaries on Sicily. A century later, the Roman orator, Cicero, prosecuted the Roman governor of Sicily, Gaius Verres, for excessive looting of Sicilian cities. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius and the international legal theorist Emmerich de Vattel established principles stating that, as works of art were not useful to the military effort, they should be protected.
Greek Temple of Apollo, Syracuse, Sicily (photo: Allie_Caulfield, CC BY 2.0)
During the Napoleonic Wars of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the French looted artworks from throughout Europe as well as from Egypt and brought them to Paris, which was to be recreated as the “new Rome.” With the defeat of Napoleon, the British leaders (the Duke of Wellington and Viscount Castlereagh) not only declined to take these collections for Britain but decreed that the French should return those artworks taken from other European nations. Despite this, only about half of the works looted by Napoleon—and none of those taken from non-Europeans—were returned.
Phidias, East Pediment Sculpture for the Parthenon (a.k.a. the “Elgin Marbles”) (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
During this same time period, the British Lord Elgin, at that time ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, removed sculptures and architectural elements from the Parthenon and other structures in Athens and brought them to London, where they were later purchased by the British Museum.
The Lieber Code
In 1863, during the American Civil War, the first military code of conduct was written at the request of President Abraham Lincoln by Francis Lieber, who had been present as a young soldier at the Battle of Waterloo . Lieber later studied the classics and then moved to the United States, where he became a professor of history. Known as the Lieber Code, it addressed the same two threats discussed above: destruction and looting. Lieber wrote that structures devoted to religion or education and museums of the fine arts and science should not be destroyed during armed conflict and “classical works of art, libraries, scientific collections or precious instruments…must be secured against all avoidable injury even when they are contained in fortified places whilst besieged or bombarded.” He added that such objects shall not “be sold or given away…nor shall they ever be privately appropriated, or wantonly destroyed or injured.”
First international conventions
The Hague Conventions and Regulations of 1899 and 1907 were the first international instruments to codify rules on the conduct of warfare. Influenced by the Lieber Code, they ingrained these same concepts of protection into international law. These two Hague Conventions were the governing instruments during both World Wars. While these Conventions did not prevent large-scale theft and destruction of cultural objects and structures—particularly during the Second World War—they served as the basis for prosecution and punishment of those who violated their principles.
Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) Officer James Rorimer supervises U.S. soldiers recovering looted paintings from Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany during World War II, April-May, 1945 (The National Archives)
The Hague Convention after WWII
At the end of the Second World War, in response to the humanitarian and cultural devastation in Europe caused by the Nazis, the international community promulgated a series of international humanitarian conventions. Cultural property protection was now separated into its own distinct convention: the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property during Armed Conflict and its First Protocol.
Article 1 of the Convention defines cultural property as
movable or immovable property of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people, such as monuments of architecture, art or history, whether religious or secular archaeological sites groups of buildings which, as a whole, are of historical or artistic interest works of art manuscripts, books and other objects of artistic, historical or archaeological interest as well as scientific collections and important collections of books or archives… buildings whose main and effective purpose is to preserve or exhibit the movable cultural property…such as museums, large libraries and depositories of archives, and refuges intended to shelter, in the event of armed conflict, the movable cultural property.…
The two core principles of the Convention are safeguarding of and respect for cultural property.
The first obligation of Parties to the Convention is to “prepare in time of peace for the safeguarding of cultural property situated within their own territory” by taking whatever steps they consider appropriate to protect their cultural property from the foreseeable effects of warfare (Article 3).
The obligation of respect (Article 4) prohibits the use of cultural property for strategic or military purposes if doing so would expose the property to harm during warfare. In addition, States must not target cultural sites and monuments. However, this obligation is subject to a significant exception “in cases where military necessity imperatively requires such a waiver” (Article 4, para. 2). In other words, if attacking a cultural site or monument is necessary to achieve an imperative military goal, then military necessity supersedes, and the protections for cultural property of this article are lost. Unfortunately, the Convention does not define “military necessity,” and some nations have criticized this exception since a fairly low level of necessity could result in destruction or damage to cultural sites and monuments.
Article 4 also imposes an obligation on a Party to the Convention “to prohibit, prevent and, if necessary, put a stop to any form of theft, pillage or misappropriation of, and any acts of vandalism directed against, cultural property” (Article 4, para. 3).
The First Protocol to the 1954 Hague Convention also addresses the subject of movable cultural property. However, it does so only under very narrow circumstances of illegal removal of cultural objects from occupied territory and the voluntary deposit of cultural objects by one State in another State for the purpose of safekeeping.
15th Session of the Assembly of State Parties of the International Criminal Court at the World Forum in The Hague, Netherlands (photo: Eloïse Bollack, Coalition for the ICC, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Second Hague Protocol and the Rome Statute
The Second Protocol was adopted in 1999 to clarify some of the provisions of the Hague Convention. For example, it narrows the definition of military necessity and requires States to adopt criminal measures for those who intentionally violate the Convention’s provisions. Other international legal instruments address the protection of cultural property, most particularly the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which classifies intentional destruction of cultural property as a war crime.
An increasing loss
In the post-Second World War period, the appetite of the international art market for works of art, including archaeological objects, grew along with the increase in wealth of the European and North American countries. At the same time, the increasing use of scientific methodologies (including stratigraphic retrieval and scientific analyses) meant that greater quantities of information could be recovered from the proper excavation of sites. As a result, looting caused an increasing loss to our knowledge and understanding of the past. Finally, with the end of colonialism in much of the world, particularly Africa and Asia, the new countries sought legal means to conserve at home what remained of their heritage, after so much had been lost to the colonial powers.
1970 UNESCO Convention
Sparked in particular by the work of Professor Clemency Coggins, who brought world attention to the destruction of Maya architectural and monumental sculptural remains in Central America, the world community under the leadership of UNESCO drafted the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property to confront the illegal trade in art works, antiquities, and ethnographic objects. This Convention makes illicit the import, export, and transfer of cultural property contrary to its provisions. Some countries, such as Germany, Canada, and Australia, prohibit the import of any illegally exported cultural objects. Other countries, such as the United States and Switzerland, prohibit the import of illegally exported archaeological and ethnological materials, as long as there is an additional bilateral agreement in place between themselves and the country of origin.
Temple of Bel, Palmyra, Syria, photographed in 2007 destroyed in 2015 (photo: Erik Albers, public domain)
New resolutions for modern warfare
Both the 2003 Gulf War and the civil war in Syria (2011-present) created opportunities for large-scale destruction and looting of archaeological sites. During the conflict in Syria, Daesh intentionally destroyed ancient structures at the sites of Palmyra in Syria, at Nineveh, Nimrud, and other Neo-Assyrian sites in Iraq, and objects in the Mosul Museum in Iraq. The looting of archaeological sites helped to fund the terrorism and military conflict of Daesh and possibly of the Assad regime in Syria.
In response, the United Nations Security Council enacted a series of Resolutions calling on all member States to prohibit the import of and trade in undocumented archaeological and other cultural materials from Iraq and Syria. These Resolutions have established a new standard for controlling the market for looted archaeological objects, at least within the context of armed conflict. These events have also brought the negative effects of looting and destruction of cultural heritage to the attention of the world community and encouraged countries to take further steps to prevent this destruction.
Kevin Chamberlain, War and Cultural Heritage: A Commentary on the Hague Convention 1954 and its Two Protocols (2nd ed., Builth Wells, UK: Institute of Art and Law, 2013).
C.C. Coggins, “Illicit Traffic of Pre-Columbian Antiquities,” Art Journal 29 (1969), pp. 94-114.
Patty Gerstenblith, Art, Cultural Heritage and the Law (3rd ed., Cary, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 2012).
Patty Gerstenblith, “The Destruction of Cultural Heritage: A Crime against Property or a Crime against People?,” John Marshall Review Intellectual Property Law 15 (2016), pp. 336-93.
‘US illegally obtained and kept thousands of Iraq’s cultural treasures’
“I’m sure that everything that was stored in the Central and other banks was sent to the US without any documentation and now is kept in archives,” Fathi said. “Huge amounts of documents representing historical importance that cannot be assigned a monetary value were taken by the US.”
And all attempts to reclaim the country’s stolen treasures failed: “The Iraqi government was trying to get them back but the American Administration wanted to strike a deal and return only half of the documents,” he explained.
The Iraqi architect estimated there are about “35,000 small and large items missing from the National Museum of Iraq… The Iraqi museum, for example, was plundered before their very eyes. The plundering lasted for three days without the occupation forces stepping in at all.”
Also, in cities like Babylon artifacts were damaged after Polish troops took over the area and “used heavy armor, tanks and helicopters” for “construction work for their military infrastructure … and seriously damaged many archeological sites in the area.”
RT:Mr. Ihsan Fethi, you witnessed the looting of Iraqi cultural treasures. Everybody knows what was happening in Iraq after the American occupation. What will be the consequences of all this for Iraq’s culture?
Ihsan Fethi: As you know, our civilization originated on the territories where Iraq is now. We have historic landmarks that are over 10,000 years old. And everybody thinks that Iraq is responsible for preserving this cultural heritage. But unfortunately, Iraq is the world leader in having destruction visited on its historic sites. This destruction started during the Mongol invasion in 1258 and continued all the way to the 20th century, when the Iraqi state was formed. We’ve suffered great losses.
During the 1991 occupation, the Americans reached the suburbs of Hillah. Many of the museums in the city were looted, and the US forces just let that happened. But even more damage was done in 2003, when Iraq was occupied. I will not talk about the nature of that operation right now – whether that campaign was to liberate or occupy our country. It surprises me that some intellectuals in Iraq still refuse to call this campaign an occupation. The UN Security Council resolution #1483, passed on May 22, 2003, calls the international military contingency in Iraq occupying forces. This was the official status of the international coalition. This was an occupation.
Prior to the occupation a number of international organizations – including those for protection of archaeological sites which are responsible for preserving these very sites – had officially informed the USA and President Bush in particular, that as a consequence, the cultural and historical heritage of Iraq might be found in deplorable state. Among cultural advisers to President Bush there were four experts who were suggesting that the preservation of Iraqi historical and cultural landmarks should have been his priority task.
RT: Still, the US allowed the looting of Iraqi historical landmarks, or maybe even gave a spur to this. Can you tell us the exact number of looted sites if there is such information at all?
IF: This is a frequently asked question, too, and the answer is clear to me. People who were in charge of Iraqi museums didn’t have any detailed lists or catalogues that would enroll all cultural and historical monuments and antiquities. In particular, it refers to the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad, which is regarded as one of the world’s largest and most important museums. The museum items should have been inspected annually, but unfortunately, the inspection was either not carried out at all, or it was not full. That is why we can’t define the exact number of stolen artifacts. However, some experts tend to think that there are about 35,000 small and large items missing from the National Museum of Iraq.
RT:And they haven’t been regained, right?
IF: To our regret, only a small portion has been returned. Valuable artifacts are always looted when there is a conflict and the atmosphere of chaos reigns. And international experience has proven that at best only 10 percent of them are usually regained.
RT:The former regime is considered to have taken special care of rare gold artifacts and gold bars, which were of great importance. Were these items stolen, too?
IF: A great number of gold artifacts and gold bars were kept in some palaces of the former president. This gold has been misappropriated. Iraqi authorities had no idea about the amount of the stolen antiquities. In addition, large amounts of currency have been also misappropriated. The country’s Central banks and other banks had accounted for billions of dollars, and now all these funds have been transferred to the USA without any paper trail.
And this does not refer only to the objects of value. They have also moved out of the country tons of documents that captured the history of Iraq. These documents are priceless. All that gold is nothing compared to those historical documents that are now locked up somewhere in a US archive. The government of Iraq has attempted to return these documents home, but the Americans are trying to make a deal here and offer to return only half of the documents. The reason they are giving is that they are trying to repair the documents from the presidential palace and Iraqi special services archives, but no one knows the true story behind this.
Also, a lot of documents have been moved from the Foreign Ministry and state security agencies to the US by Adnan Makiya, with the help of the occupation authorities – allegedly for the Iraq Memory Foundation. This operation had been planned long before the war. We have the information that these documents were sold to one of the American universities. Things like this should not be allowed to happen.
RT:Is it true that there are some valuable Jewish manuscripts among the misappropriated documents, including one of the oldest copies of Torah, which is now said to be in Israel?
IF: Yes, there are some documents in the stolen archives that belonged to Iraq’s Jewish community. Some of these centuries-old documents are now in the USA. According to international regulations, the occupation authorities have no right to move local cultural and material values. On the contrary, it is their duty to preserve these values. Iraq must insist on its right to recover all of the illegally moved objects, down to the very smallest ones.
RT:So, Iraq has lost some valuable pieces of its cultural heritage under the conniving eye of the occupational authorities. But is it possible, on the other hand, that the present-day level of culture in the Iraqi society is insufficient to address the task of preserving Iraq’s historical heritage?
IF: Yes, of course. I would say that we should blame not just Iraqi people, but also trade unions and other civil society organizations for not taking necessary measures in order to preserve the great Iraqi heritage. Even archeologists didn’t do anything.
But interestingly, when the US occupation ended, some of Bush’s advisors resigned over the fact that the US and other countries didn’t do anything to preserve Iraqi historical sites. They were protecting objects like the Oil Ministry and others that were strategic to the US occupation forces. Even Americans themselves acknowledge that they are responsible for the destruction of many archeological sites, especially in Babylon. This city was first occupied by US forces, and later they handed it over to the Polish troops.
Several thousand Polish soldiers lived there, they used heavy armor, tanks and helicopters they were doing construction work for their military infrastructure. This seriously damaged many archeological sites in the area. Later, the US occupation authorities offered a laughable amount of money – some $20 million – for the restoration of damaged archeological objects. Several years ago at a conference in Paris, I addressed some ranking State Department officials and demanded that the US provide at least $1 billion for the restoration of Iraqi historical buildings. But the US didn’t respond to that.
In many cases, Americans just allowed our museums to be looted. The National Museum was looted within three days. And Americans would not do a thing to keep the exhibits safe. That’s why Americans should take full responsibility for that.