A February 16 BBC documentary on looting in Syria made the astonishing claim that the smuggling of looted antiquities was “one of Islamic State’s main sources of funding.” On February 22 I responded to this faulty investigation with this blog entry: https://clioantiquities.wordpress.com/2015/02/22/sensationalist-reporting-and-the-antiquities-trade-if-its-in-print-it-must-be-true/ My article raised three key points: First, that despite evidence of looting, which certainly is taking place, there was no evidence in the BBC investigation that could lead a reader to conclude that archaeological looting could possibly provide the type of funding needed to keep IS functioning. Second, that there is still no evidence that any antiquities looted in Syria have actually made their way to the legitimate and legal antiquities market in North America, Europe or elsewhere for sale. Third, that a fascinating and detailed study by a US scholar a few years ago suggested that the scale of archaeological looting is often exaggerated by sensationalist reporting on the subject and that this in turn feeds a perception on the part of archaeologists and the general news consuming public that the problem is greater than it seems.
It did not take long for the firestorm to start. First came Professor David Gill, a key member of the very well heeled and self-styled “cultural heritage” lobby. In his own blog entry he could only resort to personal insults, questioning my motives and suggesting that I might want to see “continued” movement of antiquities to potential buyers. He entirely failed to address any of the key points raised in the article and outlined again above.
Next came self-appointed “independent researcher” Paul Barford, who seems to spend far more time blogging than doing archaeology. He simply mouthed Gill’s earlier work but then went on to embarrass himself with a general lack of knowledge pertaining to ancient Roman and Sassanian glass. Specifically, he referenced a glass bottle on my website (here is the link: http://www.clioancientart.com/catalog/i79.html), from an old and well documented collection, listed as being from Iran or Mesopotamia (he falsely quoted the website as saying, specifically, “Iraq”), then threw the oldest version of Iraq’s cultural heritage laws (1930s) into the mix (no reference to the UNESCO Convention of 1970). Of course, this specific form, while probably having been created in the Sassanian Empire, also was popular on the eastern frontier of the Roman world, an area hotly contested between the two Empires. Copies of the Sassanian form seem to have been made by the Romans. This is not specialist knowledge so Barford seems to be grasping for some contribution of his own to the debate. Like Gill, he entirely fails to address any of the key points raised.
Many public and university museums in North America, the UK, Europe and beyond house collections of Near Eastern antiquities, often collected long ago when there were limited national laws or international regulations governing their acquisition. Acquiring antiquities was a normal and legal practice for museums, private collectors, dealers and ordinary tourists on the Grand Tour. In many cases, the modern nation states from whose territories these items were removed are entirely artificial creations on a map, holdovers from colonial occupations by the Ottoman Empire and later European powers, with little sense of cohesive national identity; e.g., Iraq and Syria. Many antiquities might well have been destroyed had they not been collected in this way. Even in Greece, with a much clearer sense of national identity and respect for its past, antiquities and ancient monuments were broken up for building material or road fill, burnt to make lime mortar or defaced because they were considered anathema to local religious beliefs as recently as the early 20th Century.
The shocking scenes and reports of the last several days, including destruction of antiquities in the Mosul Museum, at the Assyrian sites of Nineveh and Nimrud and now at the Sassanian site of Hatra, are a cautionary note to those who call for blindly repatriating ancient works of art from western collections to their source countries in the name of some form of political or cultural correctness. Their affluent but ineffective lobby is wasting time attacking collectors, auction houses and art dealers, the overwhelming majority of whom are ethical and do not traffic in looted material, while the root causes of looting remain unaddressed and religious fanatics of all stripes simply destroy the world’s archaeological heritage at will.