How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

So why is Isis blowing to pieces the greatest artefacts of ancient history in Syria and Iraq? The archeologist Joanne Farchakh has a unique answer to a unique crime. First, Isis sells the statues, stone faces and frescoes that international dealers demand. It takes the money, hands over the relics – and blows up the temples and buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of what has been looted.

Temple of Bel

“Antiquities from Palmyra are already on sale in London,” the Lebanese-French archaeologist Ms Farchakh says. “There are Syrian and Iraqi objects taken by Isis that are already in Europe. They are no longer still in Turkey where they first went – they left Turkey long ago. This destruction hides the income of Daesh [Isis] and it is selling these things before it is destroying the temples that housed them.

“It has something priceless to sell and then afterwards it destroys the site and the destruction is meant to hide the level of theft. It destroys the evidence. So no one knows what was taken beforehand – nor what was destroyed.”

Ms Farchakh has worked for years among the ancient cities of the Middle East, examining the looted sites of Samarra in Iraq – where “civilisation” supposedly began – after the 2003 US invasion. She has catalogued the vast destruction of the souks and mosques of the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Homs since 2011.

Indeed, this diminutive woman, whose study of the world’s lost antiquities sometimes amounts to an obsession, now describes her job as “a student of the destruction of archeology in war”. Over the past 14 years, she has seen more than enough archeological desecration to fuel her passion for such a depressing career. Politically, Ms Farchakh identifies a particularly clever strain in Isis.

“It has been learning from its mistakes,” she says. “When it started on its archeological destruction in Iraq and Syria, it started with hammers, big machines, destroying everything quickly on film. All the people it was using to do this were dressed as if they were in the time of the Prophet. It blew Nimrud up in one day. But that only gave it 20 seconds of footage. I don’t know how many people’s attention it could capture with that short piece of film. But now it doesn’t even claim any longer that it is destroying a site. It gets human rights groups and the UN to say so. First, people are reported as hearing ‘explosions’. The planet then has the footage that it releases according to its own schedule.”

For this reason, Ms Farchakh says, Isis does not destroy all of Palmyra in one video. “It started with the executions [of Syrian soldiers] in the Roman theatre. Then it showed explosives tied to the Roman pillars. Then it decapitated the retired antiquities director, al-Asaad. Then it blew up the Baal Shamim temple.

“And then everyone shouted, ‘Oh no – what will be next? It will be the Bel temple!’ So that’s what it did. It blew up the Bel temple. So what’s next again? There will be more destruction in Palmyra. It will schedule it differently. Next it will move to the great Roman theatre, then the Agora marketplace [the famous courtyard surrounded by pillars], then the souks – it has a whole city to destroy. And it has decided to give itself time.”

Roman amphitheatre

The longer the destruction lasts, Ms Farchakh believes, the higher go the prices on the international antiquities markets. Isis is in the antiquities business, is her message, and Isis is manipulating the world in its dramas of destruction. “There are no stories on the media without an ‘event’. First, Daesh gave the media blood. Then the media decided not to show any more blood. So it has given them archeology. When it doesn’t get this across, it will go for women, then for children.”

Isis, it seems, is using archeology and history. In any political crisis, a group or dictator can build power on historical evidence. The Shah used the ruins of Persepolis to falsify his family’s history. Saddam Hussein had his initials placed on the bricks of Babylon. “This bunch [Isis] decided to switch this idea,” Ms Farchakh says. “Instead of building its power on archeological objects, it is building its power on the destruction of archeology. It is reversing the usual method. There will not be a ‘before’ in history. So there will not be an ‘after’. They are saying: ‘There is only us’. The people of Palmyra can compare ‘before’ and ‘after’ now, but in 10 years’ time they won’t be able to compare. Because then no one will be left to remember.  They will have no memory.”

As for the Roman gods, Baal had not been worshipped in his temple for 2,000 years. But it had value. Ms Farchakh says: “Every single antiquity [Isis] sells out of Palmyra is priceless. It is taking billions of dollars. The market is there; it will take everything on offer, and it will pay anything for it. Daesh is gaining in every single step it takes, every destruction.”

Source.

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Treasure hunting in Bulgaria

Real-life vampires, giant rock vaginas, ancient sites to rival those of Greece and Rome – Bulgaria’s archaeologists are putting their country on the map of world history, but first they have to stop the mafia stealing its treasures.

The illegal diggers come at night with shovels and sacks, hunting through the places where they know the professionals have been. They’re looking for the tonnes of ancient artefacts that lie hidden in Bulgaria’s soil.

In the past two decades, Bulgarian law enforcement agencies say this plunder has turned into a €30m-a-year industry for local gangs, putting it a close third behind drugs and prostitution. The artefacts – gold Roman coins, ancient Greek silver, Thracian military helmets – wind up with falsified documents in auction houses in Europe and North America, or increasingly with wealthy Arab and Asian collectors.

“You cannot put a value on what is lost because the real loss is information,” says Professor Bozhidar Dimitrov, director of the National Museum of History in Sofia, who has spearheaded efforts to reclaim lost relics. “Even if we recover them, we don’t know where they were originally found, so our understanding of the history is gone.”

Police say there are 300 criminal treasure-hunting gangs in Bulgaria at present, but as many as 50,000 people are thought to be involved in illegal digging in some form. Entire villages have been known to take part in some impoverished corners of Bulgaria.

Belatedly waking up to the scale of the problem, Bulgarian authorities are trying to claw back some of their lost history from around the world.

“The record so far belongs to the Canadians,” said Prof Dimitrov. “A couple of years back, they returned 21,000 artefacts in one go.

A miniature golden chariot with the goddess of Nike, probably dating back to the 3rd Century BC, on display at the National History Museum in Sofia.

“The Italians had so much to return that the minister of culture became worried about the cost of the shipment, so he ordered his entire delegation to carry two extra bags of luggage when they came here. He himself showed up at my office with two huge suitcases full of priceless artefacts.”

Prof Dimitrov’s huge office looks more like a Bond villain’s than that of a historian: wood-panelled walls and a long window staring up at the Vitosha mountains. “It was designed to intimidate guests”, he says between chain-smoked cigarettes – the museum was formerly the residence of Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov, who ruled Bulgaria for 35 years up to 1989.

The Communist legacy is part of the reason why only a quarter of Bulgaria’s treasures are thought to have been discovered so far. Trapped behind the Iron Curtain for half a century, Bulgaria had few tourists, which meant minimal investment in archaeology and preservation.

This was followed by a decade of political confusion and economic crisis after the fall of Communism, when organised crime groups had almost completely free rein.

“In the Nineties, the police could stop only about 10 per cent of the stuff leaving the country,” estimates Prof Dimitrov. “Things have improved a lot. Now they get about 70 to 80 per cent. The police show up all the time with new hordes they have seized from shops in Sofia.”

As if to prove the point, the professor cuts the meeting short to receive the deputy director of the police, who says he has 2,000 artefacts to hand over, discovered in the basement of a local antiques store.

Historical discoveries have been one of the few bright spots for Bulgaria’s beleaguered economy in recent years, helping to convince the authorities of the need to protect their heritage.

Nikolay Ovcharov

Archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov – nicknamed “Bulgaria’s Indiana Jones” – has just started the final excavations at Perperikon, a 7,000-year-old sacred site deep in the Rhodope mountains whose highlight is a walk-in vagina.

First discovered in the 1980s when ethnographers interviewed local villagers, Perperikon was in ancient times as famous as the oracle at Delphi in Greece, a place of wild bacchanalian rituals to the god Dionysus, and, according to legend, the birthplace of the Greek prophet Orpheus, which counted Alexander the Great among its visitors.

“It rivals Machu Picchu,” says Prof Ovcharov. “Bulgarian archaeology has enormous potential. It can change the way people think about this country. It can give us national pride as well as bringing in a lot of wealth.”

One of the most extraordinary aspects of Perperikon is a nearby fertility shrine – a 10-metre vulva carved in the rock, leading into a womb-like cave. Around midday at the right time of year, a phallus-shaped ray of sunlight reaches an altar deep in the cave.

“It felt very unusual standing in a vagina,” says Prof Ovcharov, remembering the moment he first saw the cave in 2002. “It was so unique. It still makes my hair stand on end.”

Perperikon

The big surprise for Bulgaria’s historians has been the global interest in its vampires.

A grave unearthed in the Black Sea resort of Sozopol last year turned up a skeleton with an iron stake through its rib cage. It belonged to a famous 14th-century pirate named Kirov, whose job was to attack the ships of illegal Venetian traders. He was later made governor of the town.

Locals believed the souls of evil men did not ascend to heaven and instead left their graves at night to drink the blood of the living. Although Kirov was given an aristocrat’s burial, locals evidently thought him a nasty piece of work, and snuck in after the funeral to drive a stake through the body in order to keep his soul from escaping. They pulled out his teeth, too, just to be safe.

The discovery reached the press almost by accident. Prof Dimitrov was sneaking a cigarette outside Sozopol’s town hall just after the grave was found and some journalists came up to tease him about his heavy smoking. He only mentioned the vampire to deflect attention.

“Suddenly, it became a huge international sensation,” he says at his office, lighting another cigarette. “Vampires are very common here – we’ve already found more than a hundred – so we hadn’t thought to publicise it. I didn’t know there was a vampire movie with Brad Pitt and that they were so popular. It was featured in over 1,200 publications. That’s more than covered the fall of our Communist dictator.”

The vampire has proved a great pull for tourists, and drawn further attention to the astounding discoveries being made in Sozopol.

The skeleton of a man at Sozopol in Bulgaria, with an iron stake driven through his chest.

In 2010, a marble box containing a tooth and bits of skull were found on an adjacent island which are said to be relics of St John the Baptist. Foreign experts dated them to the first century AD and said the DNA belonged to a Middle Eastern man, making the claims plausible enough to attract coach-loads of pilgrims.

Another site in the town has uncovered the ruins of Roman baths alongside a Greek temple to the God Poseidon and a medieval church – a rare chance to see the evolution of worship in a single spot.

This is not so surprising for Bulgaria, a country whose strategic location at the crossroads of Europe and Asia has made it one of the world’s most sought-after territories throughout the ages. Greeks, Romans, Thracians, Byzantines and Ottomans all fought countless wars to gain control of its fertile lands – a bitter irony given the controversial emigration of young Bulgarians over the past two decades.

Not all are happy with the government’s efforts to control the trade in historical artefacts, however. Bulgaria’s small shopkeepers complain about restrictions on selling any pre-twentieth century objects.

“The police can shut me down for having just one old coin,” says Constantine Georgiev, owner of a small bric-a-brac store in Sofia. “But this just means the trade in antiques is controlled by around 10 very rich guys with political connections. No one goes after the big mafia bosses because they can afford the bribes.”

Efforts to increase sentences for illicit smugglers have started to change attitudes towards a crime that was not taken too seriously in the past.

An archaeologist cleaning a skeleton during archaeological excavations in the Black Sea town of Sozopol last year

“Many used to see it as a fun adventure,” says Prof Dimitrov. “The men dig while the women do a barbecue. You had police and even priests taking part.”

Indeed, a 41-year-old priest from the northern city of Vratsa was busted in 2010 after conducting over 1,000 illegal sales of ancient coins and jewellery over the internet.

But despite these efforts, experts say that widespread corruption and the high demand from overseas means Bulgaria’s treasures will continue to disappear into private collections, while authorities face a relentless challenge trying to protect over 40,000 known archaeological sites across the country.

“We lobbied for an amnesty a few years back so that private owners could declare what they had on the condition it was not sold or exported. That was one of the first laws that was overturned when GERB [a right-wing Bulgarian political party] took power in 2009,” says Prof Ovcharov. “Rich collectors are a powerful lobby.”

From independent.

Archaeology of politics: Turkey vs. Germany

From DW:

An argument between Germany and Turkey about ancient treasures is escalating. Turkey wants its treasures back, but German archaeologists say Turkish sites are being exploited for tourism.

Archaeology often has a lot to do with politics – the current argument between Germany and Turkey is a prime example. Hermann Parzinger, head of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, last December accused Turkey of displaying “almost chauvinistic behavior.” In reply, the Turkish culture minister Ömer Celik told German news magazine “Der Spiegel” that he demanded an apology, and he asked for five ancient objects to be returned that are currently shown in museums in Berlin. He claims they were taken out of Turkey illegally. Parzinger rejects any accusations of illegality for three of these objects: In December 2012, he said that the torso of the Fisherman of Aphrodisias, the sarcophagus from the Haci Ibrahim Veli tomb and a 13th-century prayer niche were all acquired legally.

But “legal” is a fluid concept in the world of archaeology. The export of ancient treasures from the Ottoman Empire has been prohibited by law since 1884. At the same time though, it wasn’t unusual to share the treasures discovered in excavations with teams from abroad. Special permission was often given to take objects out of the country, and there was a flourishing black market. The issue is often less a matter of legality than of morality.

In this context, the tone that Turkey has recently used in its quest to get ancient treasures back from museums like the Metropolitan in New York and the British Museum in London is surprising. The Turkish culture minister’s announcement that he’s only asking for objects “that are rightfully ours” is a sign of Turkey’s new-found – some might say, excessive – self-confidence. Other countries have already felt the effects: two French excavation sites have been recently shut down.

Fight for the Sphinx

In 2011, then Culture Minister Ertugrul Günay reclaimed the more than 3,000-year-old Sphinx of Hattusa, which had been shown in a Berlin museum since World War I. If the Sphinx were not returned, said the minister, the German Archaeological Institute would lose its excavation permits in Turkey. The Sphinx was indeed returned, but without recognition of any legal claim: it was a goodwill gesture, according to Parzinger. In return, he was hoping for substantial loans from Turkey for a big Pergamon exhibition in Berlin last year. But the loans never arrived.

The agreement on more intensive cooperation between the two countries’ museums and archaeologists which was signed at the time seems to have been merely for show. Parzinger has complained publicly that Turkey hasn’t kept a single promise. He says there have only been more demands for the return of objects, as well as accusations that German archaeologists left “devastated landscapes” at excavation sites.

According to Ernst Pernicka, long-time head of excavation in Troy, there is no truth in that. He believes Turkey is using archaeologists as hostages to get the objects back that they want. Last year, Pernicka says, he and other top archaeologists were asked by the Turkish authorities to go to German museums to call for the return of a number of ancient objects. Turkish authorities deny this.

Another problem Pernicka sees is that Turkey is keen to conserve the sites and use them for tourism rather than for ongoing research. The government wants “archaeology in action.” But that often gets in the way of research, says Pernicka.

Ancient cities under water

The Turkish historian Edhem Eldem is also unhappy about the expectation that foreign archaeologists are expected to ensure that their sites are suitable for tourists. He puts it down to “growing nationalism” and the victory of economic interests.

“The fact that archaeology is part of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism shows how ambivalent the situation is,” says Eldem. He also laments the government’s double standards. If it makes economic sense, the authorities have no problem sacrificing important sites like Allianoi or Hasankeyf, which are on a level with Pompeii, for a dam project. Allianoi, an ancient city close to Pergamum, has already been flooded. And despite international protest, the same fate awaits Hasankeyf.

“International archaeology can only flourish in an atmosphere of mutual respect,” says Felix Pirson, head of the German Archaeological Institute in Istanbul. He doesn’t approve of the harsh tone that has dominated the German-Turkish debate recently. He sees the excavations in Anatolia, where “decisive developments in the history of man were continued, enriched and accelerated,” as an international task.

Confrontation doesn’t help anybody

Today, there are many teams already working under German leadership but with international membership. It’s not just German archaeologists who believe that dealing with World Cultural Heritage sites should be a common task not restricted by national borders. They also agree that questions need to be asked about the origin of ancient treasures which are taken out of their country. But it is clear that political confrontation and rigid demands don’t help anybody, including Turkey. The habit of reclaiming archaeological finds could come back to haunt Istanbul if Lebanon decides to ask for the return of the famous sarcophagus of Alexander. It was taken to Istanbul’s Archaeological Museum in 1887, during the time of the Ottoman Empire.

Turkey waging ‘art war’ to repatriate artifacts from foreign museums

From Spiegel:

If one were to describe the current mood in Turkey in one word, it would be pride. Once decried as the “sick man of the Bosporus,” the nation has regrouped and emerged as a powerhouse. Turkey’s political importance is growing, and its economy is booming.

In cultural matters, however, Turkey remains a lightweight. To right this deficiency, the government plans to build a 25,000-square-meter (270,000-square-foot) “Museum of the Civilizations” in the capital. “Ankara will proudly accommodate the museum,” boasts Minister of Culture and Tourism Ertugrul Günay. “Our dream is the biggest museum in the world

And why should Turkey be modest? Isn’t Anatolia home to the most magnificent ruins in the entire world? Even so, it must be noted that the Turks themselves can claim little credit for their archeological treasures. Their ancestors, the Seljuks, only arrived from the steppes of Central Asia in the 11th century. Christian Constantinople, now known as Istanbul, fell in 1453.

Before then, however, Hittites, Greeks, Romans and Byzantines had built enormous palaces, monasteries and amphitheaters in the region. Whether it was Homer, Thales or King Midas — they all lived on the other side of the Dardanelles.

When the new Muslim masters took over, the region’s illustrious past faded into obscurity. The water-pipe-smoking caliphs were more concerned with pursuing their own interests.

But things are different in modern Turkey, and the country is embracing its heritage. A powerful antiquities bureaucracy has grown up in recent years. Throughout the country, Turkish archeologists are excavating Stone Age sanctuaries, Greek theaters and ancient churches.

Robbed of Its Treasures

Turkey envisions the giant new museum in Ankara as the crown jewel in its effort to embrace a multicultural past. Contracts for the project have already been signed, and organizers hope to open the new museum in 2023 so as to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Turkish Republic.

The assertive and ambitious plan has caused a stir in Europe and the United States since Turkish officials also intend to fill their new display cases with treasures that they don’t even own (yet), artifacts that were smuggled out of the country long ago.

Turkey, more than other countries, has lost many of its ancient treasures to thieves and blackmarketeers. Although the Ottoman Empire imposed a ban on the exportation of antiquities in 1906, a well-organized local mafia has continued to wreak havoc in Turkey.

For example, in the early 1960s, among the remains of the ancient city of Boubon in southwestern Turkey, thieves discovered a Roman temple filled with more than 30 life-size bronze imperial statues. It would have been a global sensation — but the public never saw the statues. Instead, unbeknownst to the authorities, they all vanished into the voracious pipelines of the global antiquities trade.

Demands and Rejections

Now Turkey is striking back. It wants these wrongs to be righted. An investigative committee in Ankara was recently reinforced with legal experts to wage what has been dubbed an “art war.” The country has set itself “on a collision course with many of the world’s leading museums,” writes the British trade publication The Art Newspaper.

Berlin’s Pergamon Museum has already felt the brunt of Turkey’s new toughness. Last year, the museum returned a stone sphinx to Turkey. Almost 100 years ago, the figure arrived in pieces in Berlin, where it was painstakingly restored.

As if that weren’t enough, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which administers Berlin’s state museums, now admits that it has also received other demands.

For instance, Turkey is demanding the return of a more than 2,000-year-old marble torso (“Old Fisherman from Aphrodisias”) from the antiquities collection. It also wants the Museum of Islamic Art to return the ornamental structure of a Medieval tomb, as well as a prayer niche from Konya, a city in central Anatolia, that adorned a 13th-century mosque.

No one is willing to comment on the exact status of the negotiations. Or, rather, all they will say is that the objects in question have been in Berlin for more than a century. For now, at least, repatriation has been rejected.

According to a brief statement, Theodor Wiegand, who would later become the museum’s director, bought the statue of the fisherman from an art dealer in Izmir in 1904. Demanding the return of such objects, says one insider, is “absurd.”

American Museums in the Crosshairs

The conflict is bound to become heated given the Turks’ brusque and unrelenting behavior. “We don’t want a dispute,” says Culture Minister Günay. Nevertheless, he is threatening to impose a ban on loaning items to German museums and to expel foreign excavation teams if his request is ignored.

American museums are in a particularly tough position. Their curators have been relatively cavalier about acquiring works from shady dealers without digging too deeply into the antiquities’ provenance. Now it’s time to atone for those sins:

The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles is being asked to surrender 10 of its most beautiful artifacts.

The Washington-based museum of Dumbarton Oaks, a research institute owned by Harvard University, fears for its precious Sion Treasure of 6th-century Byzantine liturgical silverware.

The Cleveland Museum of Art has 22 disputed objects, including “The Stargazer,” a 5,000-year-old Cycladic marble figurine once owned by Nelson Rockefeller, as well as one of the oldest statues of Jesus Christ, which depicts him as a “good shepherd.”

Victories and Ongoing Battles

The campaign is getting a boost from support at the highest level. When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited the United States last year, he returned home with the “Weary Hercules” in his luggage. Under great pressure, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts had decided to return the 1,900-year-old marble statue.

Nothing is known about the details of the deal. All the museums have been tightlipped about the deal, which was negotiated behind closed doors.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York initially denied that it was even affected. It was only a blog called “Chasing Aphrodite” that brought to light the extent to which the Turkish repatriation committee had pursued America’s biggest temple to art.

There are 18 disputed pieces at the Met, including a gold statue of a goddess and silver, animal-shaped vessels from the Hittite Empire. They are from the collection of Norbert Schimmel, a millionaire and museum trustee who died in 1990. He once admitted that his passion for collecting “borders on madness.”

It isn’t a good sign.

As a precaution, the Met beefed up its legal department and wrote a letter to Erdogan.

The Louvre in Paris is also fighting back. It refuses to relinquish a collection of colorful tiles from the mausoleum of Selim II (who died in 1574). One of the sultan’s dentists had acquired the precious tiles in the 19th century “in good faith,” as the French are claiming.

The Turks, for their part, say that the dentist was a swindler. In retaliation, they have revoked their adversary’s most important excavation license. Now French archeologists are no longer permitted to work at the Xanthos UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is a serious setback.

Victims or Hypocrites?

Is this fair? Critics are openly airing their displeasure with Turkey’s behavior online. Instead of lodging complaints, they argue, Turkey ought to return the Obelisk of Theodosius, which stands in Istanbul, to Egypt.

Indeed, the Ottomans themselves weren’t squeamish when it came to appropriating cultural goods. They stole artifacts in Mecca and allowed a private British citizen to pry away the frieze from the Parthenon in Athens — in return for a lot of money. During the Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus in 1974, the occupiers emptied out entire museums.

“The Turks are too determined to depict themselves as victims of cultural oppression to accept that foreign museums and archaeologists have also played a part in saving their treasures,” the Economist wrote in May. For example, when the German archeologist Carl Humann entered the majestic ruins of Pergamon in 1864, he saw large numbers of lime kilns in use. Workers were smashing ancient marble columns and throwing the pieces into the fire. After reaching a deal with the Ottoman government, he then brought the Pergamon Altar back to Berlin to be the centerpiece of a museum of the same name. But Turkey has long called for its repatriation.

Other questions include: How much of a moral right do the Turks have to repatriation? And how well-documented are their ownership claims?The British Museum has already decide not to give in to Turkey’s demand for the repatriation of the Samsat Stele. Archeologist Leonard Woolley discovered the stone tablet with a farmer in 1911. He later took it with him to Syria, where the authorities issued him the necessary export permit.

At the time, Woolley felt that he was doing a noble deed, and that he had in fact rescued the heavy stone tablet. The farmer had been using it as an olive press.

2,600-year-old Buddhist monastery in Afghanistan under threat

From Huffington Post:

It was another day on the rocky hillside, as archaeologists and laborers dug out statues of Buddha and excavated a sprawling 2,600-year-old Buddhist monastery. A Chinese woman in slacks, carrying an umbrella against the Afghan sun, politely inquired about their progress.

She had more than a passing interest. The woman represents a Chinese company eager to develop the world’s second-biggest unexploited copper mine, lying beneath the ruins.

The mine is the centerpiece of China’s drive to invest in Afghanistan, a country trying to get its economy off the ground while still mired in war. Beijing’s $3.5 billion stake in the mine – the largest foreign investment in Afghanistan by far – gets its foot in the door for future deals to exploit Afghanistan’s largely untapped mineral wealth, including iron, gold and cobalt. The Afghan government stands to reap a potential $1.2 billion a year in revenues from the mine, as well as the creation of much-needed jobs.

But Mes Aynak is caught between Afghanistan’s hopes for the future and its history. Archaeologists are rushing to salvage what they can from a major seventh century B.C. religious site along the famed Silk Road connecting Asia and the Middle East. The ruins, including the monastery and domed shrines known as “stupas,” will likely be largely destroyed once work at the mine begins.

Ancient Buddha statues inside a temple in Mes Aynak

Hanging over the situation is the memory of the Buddhas of Bamiyan – statues towering up to 180 feet high in central Afghanistan that were dynamited to the ground in 2001 by the country’s then-rulers, the Taliban, who considered them symbols of paganism.

No one wants to be blamed for similarly razing history at Mes Aynak, in the eastern province of Logar. The Chinese government-backed China Metallurgical Group Corp., or MCC, wanted to start building the mine by the end of 2011. But under an informal understanding with the Kabul government, it has given archaeologists three years for a salvage excavation.

Archaeologists working on the site since May say that won’t be enough time for full preservation.

“That site is so massive that it’s easily a 10-year campaign of archaeology,” said Laura Tedesco, an archaeologist brought in by the U.S. Embassy to work on sites in Afghanistan. Three years may be enough time just to document what’s there, she said.

Philippe Marquis, a French archaeologist advising the Afghans, said the salvage effort is piecemeal and “minimal,” held back by lack of funds and personnel.

Around 15 Afghan archaeologists, three French advisers and a few dozen laborers are working within the 2-square-kilometer (0.77-square-mile) area – a far smaller team than the two dozen archaeologists and 100 laborers normally needed for a site of such size and richness.

“This is probably one of the most important points along the Silk Road,” said Marquis. “What we have at this site, already in excavation, should be enough to fill the (Afghan) national museum.”

The ruins, including the monastery and domed shrines, will likely be largely destroyed once work at the mine begins

The monastery complex has been dug out, revealing hallways and rooms decorated with frescoes and filled with clay and stone statues of standing and reclining Buddhas, some as high as 10 feet. An area that was once a courtyard is dotted with stupas standing four or five feet high.

More than 150 statues have been found so far, though many remain in place. Large ones are too heavy to be moved, and the team lacks the chemicals needed to keep small ones from disintegrating when extracted.

MCC appears to be pushing the archaeologists to finish ahead of schedule. In July, the archaeologists received a letter from the company asking that parts of the dig be wrapped up by August and the rest to be done by the end of 2010.

A copy of the letter – signed by MJAM, the acronym for the joint venture in charge of the mine, MCC-JCL Aynak Minerals Co. – was provided to The Associated Press by the head of the archaeological team. MCC and MJAM officials did not respond to requests for comment.

August has come and gone, and excavations at Mes Aynak continue. But the Afghan archaeologist overseeing the dig said he has no idea when MCC representatives might tell him his work is over. So he tries not to think about deadlines.

“We would like to work according to our principles. If we don’t work according to the principles of archaeology, then we are no different from traffickers,” Abdul Rauf Zakir said.

The team hopes to lift some of the larger statues and shrines out before winter sets in this month, but they still haven’t procured the crane and other equipment needed.

Mes Aynak, 20 miles (30 kilometers) south of Kabul, lies in a province that is still considered a major transit route for insurgents coming from Pakistan. In July, two U.S. sailors were kidnapped and killed in Logar. Around 1,500 Afghan police guard the mine site and the road.

Promised funding from foreign governments has yet to materialize. The Afghan government has allotted $2 million for the dig and is trying to find another $5 million to $10 million, said Deputy Culture Minister Omar Sultan.

The United States has promised funding but hasn’t yet figured out how much, said a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman, Mireille Zieseniss.

Mes Aynak’s religious sites and copper deposits have been bound together for centuries – “mes” means “copper” in the local Dari language. Throughout the site’s history, artisanal miners have dug up copper to adorn statues and shrines.

Afghan archaeologists have known since the 1960s about the importance of Mes Aynak, but almost nothing had been excavated. When the Chinese won the contract to exploit the mine in 2008, there was no discussion with Kabul about the ruins – only about money, security and building a railroad to transport the copper out of Logar’s dusty hills.

But a small band of Afghan and French archaeologists raised a stir and put the antiquities on the agenda.

The mine could be a major boost for the Afghan economy. According to the Afghan Mining Ministry, it holds some 6 million tons of copper (5.52 million metric tons), worth tens of billions of dollars at today’s prices. Developing the mine and related transport infrastructure will generate much needed jobs and economic activity.

Waheedullah Qaderi, a Mining Ministry official working on the antiquities issue, said MCC shares the government goal of protecting heritage while starting mining as soon as possible.

A good resolution is important for MCC “because it is their first-ever project in Afghanistan,” Qaderi said. MCC is expected to make an offer for another lucrative mineral prize – the Hajigak iron mine in central Afghanistan, estimated to hold 1.9 billion tons (1.8 billion metric tonnes) of iron ore. Kabul opened bidding to develop the mine in late September and is expected to award the contract late this year or in early 2011.

Still, a diplomat briefed on internal meetings says MCC has pressured Kabul to stop archaeologists from looking for new places to dig beyond the 12 sites already found. The diplomat spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Marquis said MCC has been cooperative and has helped the archaeologists, hauling dirt away and asking what more needs to be done.

Zakir, the Afghan archaeologist, laughs. “Yes, they are very helpful. They want to help so that we can finish quickly. They want us gone.”

From Huffington Post.

Latest Recovery of Looted Art at the Colosseum

A police officer looks at some of the hundreds of ancient artifacts recovered during an operation against looted art, at the Colosseum in Rome (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

From ArtDaily:

Italian police have recovered hundreds of ancient artifacts in their latest effort to crack down on the looting of art, and have looted art, and they chose a unique setting to display them Friday: the Colosseum.

The 337 pieces displayed in the ancient Roman arena include vases, bronze tools and marble statues of Venus, some dating as far back as the 8th century B.C.

Police said the pieces are worth some euro15 million (about $20 million) overall. They said the pieces were returned from Switzerland in June after a two-year investigation.

Italy has aggressively pursued the return of art it says was illegally looted from its soil and sold to museums or private collections worldwide.

This probe grew out of an investigation into an Italian art dealer later convicted of art trafficking.

The objects were seized in Geneva, part of a massive haul of some 20,000 artworks from all around the world, the art squad of the Carabinieri police said.

The pieces returned to Italy also include “kraters” — huge vases used to mix wine and water — statuettes and drinking cups. Police say the objects were looted mostly from southern Italian regions and, after their spectacular display Friday at the Colosseum, they will return there.

As part of its campaign, Italy has secured the return of dozens of Roman, Greek and Etruscan artifacts in deals with museums including the Met and California’s J. Paul Getty Museum. In exchange, Italian art officials have agreed to give the museums long-term loans of equally significant treasures.

From ArtDaily