Category Archives: looting

Fueling the New Chinese Mania For Antiques

I can’t believe how badly the New York Times missed the point this morning in its article on the newly red-hot antiquities trade in China.   Journalist Dan Levin reports on the growing mania among  middle class buyers in Beijing for Chinese antiquities, extolling their newfound passion for ” Ming Dynasty porcelain vases,  19th century hardwood furniture and even early 20th century calligraphy ink pots.”  Such antiquities,  Levin explains,  “have become popular status symbols for an emerging middle class eager to display its new wealth and cultural knowledge.”

Too bad Levin didn’t ask a few  hard questions about exactly where all these Chinese antiquities  are coming from.  If he had, he might have come away with a very different impression.  While researching a new story for Archaeology magazine,  I recently discussed with Victor Mair,  a Sinologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and one of the world’s leading experts on the archaeology of Xinjiang province,   this very issue.

I had noticed in Mair’s  articles that many of the most important Bronze Age and Iron Age sites in Xinjiang–sites that have yielded European-looking mummies and western grave goods and that are now revolutionizing our understanding of Central Asian  history–had been badly looted.  In fact,   looting in Xinjiang has become so serious that Chinese archaeologists are constantly forced to excavate entire cemeteries just to salvage and protect some of the finds.

I asked Mair what on earth was going on.  The Xinjiang sites, after all,  are in the midst of a huge and very barren desert–one of the bleakest and most remote places on earth. Mair explained to me that Chinese looters have become very sophisticated.  They journey into the desert equipped with GPS  and specifically target the ancient cemeteries there. The devastation is enormous,  Mair explained,  with mummified human body parts strewn everywhere.  “They just take the bodies,  the heads, the coffins and throw them out on the ground,” he said.  “They are looking for gold or they are looking for something that is obviously a nice artwork.”

Most looters then sell their finds to middle men in Hong Kong, individuals who don’t ask any questions.  “You can go down to the antiquities market street there,” said Mair, “and you can find unbelievable things, precious materials or precious objects from all over China being sold there.  So Hong Kong is like a  door for selling.”

To me,  this is the real story behind the newfound enthusiasm for antiquities in China. And there is a terrible irony here.   During the Cultural Revolution,  Mao Zedong ordered the destruction of  “old culture,”  officially condoning the looting of old cemeteries  and destroying antiquities.  Now the pendulum has swung wildly in the other direction,  as the Chinese middle class celebrates  its ancient culture.  But the change in attitude has only led to further destruction of the archaeological record.

Should We Be Repatriating Rock Art?

My cup of  Starbucks Breakfast Blend wasn’t the only thing steaming this morning as I read today’s post over at Northwest Coast Archaeology.  It seems that the folks at the Vancouver Museum,  whose job it is to carefully and lovingly preserve its collections for future generations,  are allowing a rare treasure from British Columbia’s Fraser River to crumble and flake into oblivion.  The treasure in question is a massive 5-6 ton boulder once blanketed with petroglyphs. According to the museum,  the art-inscribed boulder once lay in the bed of the Fraser River,  and may have marked an ancient salmon harvesting site.

The petroglyphs are in a dire, near-death state.  In sharp contrast to their striking appearance in a 1930s photograph,  you can barely make them out now.   Partially covered with destructive moss,  the animal figures and other inscriptions are literally disappearing before our eyes–vanishing,  one might add,  as surely as the once bountiful runs of  Fraser River salmon are.  I can’t believe that a museum is allowing this to happen.

But it’s all part and parcel of a much, much larger problem.  Most people,  I’m sorry to say, just don’t value or respect,  much less understand,  ancient rock art. They feel no compunction about prying loose a painted or inscribed boulder from the spot where it was created hundreds or even thousands of years earlier and hauling it off to a museum,  archaeological park or even a private garden.  They think rock art is simply about the art itself–the often mysterious figures painted or inscribed on stone.

But rock art is all about place.    It was created in a specific spot that had great meaning to the ancient artist–a spot, for example,  that looked out on a sacred mountain,  a place where fish were abundant or easy to catch,  or a trail head for a mountain pass or trade route.   For me, there  is nothing more wonderful and exhilarating than coming across a panel of  rock art while I am out hiking with friends.  I love,  of course, to study the inscriptions and photograph them,  and think about what they might mean. But even more than that,  I like to reflect and puzzle over the place itself.   Why did the artists choose that mountain cliff  or this boulder on the beach?  Why there? What made it an important place? What was the artist honoring?

By contrast,  nothing makes me sadder than to see a slab of rock art sitting in a museum foyer or archaeological park.  It looks like an orphan to me,  cut off and isolated from everything that once gave it meaning.  It honors no place any longer,  its meaning has been lost,  its beauty and wonder sadly diminished.

I wonder if it isn’t time to start repatriating rock art in museum collections.  Giving it back to First Nations who may still have stories about where it once stood or belonged. Certainly the First Nations would value it more and take better care of it than that Fraser River boulder at the Vancouver Museum.

Today’s photo shows Buffalo Eddy 2 Petroglyphs at Nez Perce National Historic Park.  Photo courtesy of Nez Perce National Historic Park.

Jihadist and Young Archaeologist

Did Mohamed Atta,  the man who flew American Airlines Flight 11 into a World Trade Center tower, pay for his  flying lessons by selling looted antiquities? It now looks like a distinct possibility. According to The Art Newspaper,  a senior Italian official has stated publicly on several occasions that Germany’s secret service, BND,  possesses testimony documenting Atta’s attempt to sell looted Afghan artifacts to a German archaeologist in 1999.

Atta, as you may recall, was born into a wealthy Egyptian family and graduated from the University of Cairo in 1990  with a degree in architecture.  After a short stint as an architectural planner in Cairo,  the young Egyptian  moved in 1992 to Germany,  where he enrolled at the Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg.   There Atta studied under Dittmar Machule, an expert on Middle Eastern architecture who was conducting an archaeological excavation at a Bronze-Age site in northern Syria.

So interested did Atta become in archaeology that Machule invited him to visit the Syrian dig in 1994.  The German professor later recalled what happened  in an interview with ABC television.   Atta,  said Machule,   “slept in the tent as we all slept and he was very interested in the excavation.  I explained to him what we are doing, the methods of archaeology, the research and I remember that he wanted to help.”

Five years later,  in 1999,  says Guiseppi Proietti,  secretary general of Italy’s Ministry of Culture, Atta approached a University of Goettingen archaeologist with a business proposition.  He offered to sell the unnamed archaeologist Afghan artifacts,  explaining that he needed the money to pay for flying lessons he wanted to take in the United States.   The archaeologist declined the offer.

How might Atta have obtained these artifacts?  As investigators have now established, Atta became increasingly radicalized during his studies in Germany and disappeared for lengthy periods of time.  During the university’s winter break in 1997, for example, he vanished for three months, and applied on his return for a new passport,  claiming he had lost his–a common strategy that jihadists employed to conceal their travel to a terrorist camp.

With his newfound knowledge of archaeology,  Atta may have spent his spare time in Afghanistan looting remote sites and collecting antiquities.  And it certainly seems possible that he sold the plunder privately or through auction houses  in order to finance the flying lessons that ended in such terrible tragedy.

This is an appalling scenario–European collectors financing one of the worst terrorist attacks in recent memory.   I sure would like to know more about this.