Guest Host: Tom Gjelten

Antiquities—once looted from Afghanistan, now returned—are displayed in the Kabul Museum in Kabul on August 5, 2012.

Antiquities—once looted from Afghanistan, now returned—are displayed in the Kabul Museum in Kabul on August 5, 2012.

Last year, the world watched in horror as ISIS destroyed key historical sites in Palmyra, Syria. But experts warn it’s not only these high profile acts of destruction that pose the biggest threat to the world’s cultural heritage. Instead, it’s a practice that dates back millennia – tomb raiding. The trade in looted antiquities is big business – and some fear it’s growing due to instability in the Middle East and North Africa. While the U.S. has passed laws restricting imports from Syria and Iraq, many argue little will change until the market for these stolen antiquities is eliminated. New efforts to curb the plunder of the world’s cultural heritage.

Guests

  • Gary Vikan Former director, Walters Art Museum; author of "Sacred and Stolen: Confessions of a Museum Art Director"
  • Sarah Parcak Professor of archaeology, University of Alabama Birmingham; National Geographic Fellow
  • Tess Davis Executive director, The Antiquities Coalition
  • Amr Al-Azm Professor of history and anthropology, Shawnee State University; former antiquities official in Syria

Transcript

  • 11:06:53

    MR. TOM GJELTENThanks for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's on a station visit down at WUNC in Raleigh Durham, North Carolina. For the last several years, instability in the Middle East and North Africa has threatened cultural heritage sites in the cradle of civilization. There's been the intentional destruction of ancient monuments and treasures, a spike in looting and damage to antiquities as the byproduct of warfare.

  • 11:07:24

    MR. TOM GJELTENBut along with these new threats have come new efforts to protect the world's antiquities. Joining me in the studio to discuss this are Tess Davis of the Antiquities Coalition and Gary Vikan, former director of The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. We also have archeologist Sarah Parcak from a studio at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

  • 11:07:46

    MR. TOM GJELTENAnd from WOUB in Athens, Ohio, former Syrian antiquities official, Amr al-Azm. Hello to all of you and thanks for joining us.

  • 11:07:55

    MR. GARY VIKANGood morning.

  • 11:07:57

    MS. TESS DAVISGood morning.

  • 11:07:57

    MR. AMR AL-AZMHi.

  • 11:07:57

    MS. SARAH PARCAKHi.

  • 11:07:58

    GJELTENWe want to hear your own thoughts on this important problem and what you think should be done about it. Call us a 1-800-433-8850. Email us, drshow@wamu.org is our address. You can send in your comments and your questions via Facebook as well.

  • 11:14:54

    GJELTENAnd let's now turn to the topic that we're going to be talking about for the rest of the hour and that is the situation with antiquities around the world. And antiquities, Sarah, I'd like to begin with you, Sarah Parcak.

  • 11:15:10

    PARCAKSure.

  • 11:15:10

    GJELTENThese are things that have been around since ancient times. I mean, thousands of years. And I'm presuming that over these centuries, people, tribes, cultures have had some respect for these antiquities. Otherwise, it seems that they might have been endangered before this. What has happened that all of a sudden it seems that we are talking about antiquities being so threatened?

  • 11:15:41

    PARCAKWell, first of all, there's a long history of archeological site looting. Even the famed tomb of King Tut was actually partly looted before it was sealed up. We actually know of fingerprint marks that were left in some of the unguent jars. So this idea that, you know, when archeologists excavate, we find completely intact tombs, that's really rare. One of the main challenges we faced kind of post Arab Spring, post 2011, is simply a lack of stability in the Middle East and many archeological sites that would have been well guarded have actually been affected by looting.

  • 11:16:23

    PARCAKBut this is something that actually started before then and it's a problem that has worsened.

  • 11:16:29

    GJELTENAnd it's not just looting, as we said at the beginning. There are now -- there have been deliberate efforts, Tess Davis, deliberate efforts by terrorists to destroy -- and not just terrorists, by armies as well, to destroy some of these age-old monuments in an apparent effort to destroy an enemy's history, heritage, identity. How does that happen?

  • 11:16:55

    DAVISWell, what we're seeing now in Iraq and Syria and indeed throughout the region is that heritage is being increasingly used as a terrorist financing tool and on the other hand, a weapon of war. And again, this has happened throughout history, but it's being done in a way that's coming into the television sets of people throughout the country and the world that hasn't happened previously. But I think it's important to stress that while these are attacks on buildings, that they're first and foremost -- buildings and monuments -- first and foremost attacks on the Iraqi and Syrian people.

  • 11:17:35

    DAVISWhich is exactly why ISIS is doing this. This is not just about stones and objects here.

  • 11:17:40

    GJELTENTess Davis is executive director of The Antiquities Coalition. My other guests -- and we'll get to this discussion after a break -- are Gary Vikan, former director of The Walters Museum of Art in Baltimore, Sarah Parcak, who you heard from earlier, professor of archeology and Egyptology at the University of Alabama. And we'll be hearing also from Amr al-Azm, former Syrian antiquities official and an active member of the Syrian opposition.

  • 11:18:06

    GJELTENHe's on the line from Ohio. We're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk about this new war crimes conviction guilty plea. I'm Tom Gjelten. Stay tuned.

  • 11:20:01

    GJELTENHello again, I'm Tom Gjelten from NPR, I'm sitting in for Diane Rehm today, and we're talking about the fate of the world's antiquities, now endangered by looting and by war. And speaking of the damage from war, we have a pretty important development this week where we had the first guilty plea, first conviction from the International Criminal Court where Ahmad al-Mahdi plead guilty to being the ringleader of a group that destroyed some ancient mausoleums in Timbuktu in Mali and apologized for that.

  • 11:20:43

    GJELTENTess Davis, as the executive director of the Antiquities Coalition, you are familiar with this. What exactly was it that Ahmad al-Mahdi and his cohorts did in Timbuktu? What did they destroy, and what has he now plead guilty to?

  • 11:21:03

    DAVISWell, al-Mahdi was a local leader of Ansar Dine, which was -- is a homegrown terrorist movement in Mali with close ties to al-Qaeda and the Islamic Maghreb. And when they came into Timbuktu in 2012, Timbuktu of course is a hugely important World Heritage Site, an Islamic city of learning with its golden age dating back from the 13th to 17th century. And from this golden age, its mud brick mosque have survived, thousands of manuscripts have survived, incredibly important mosque, again Islamic heritage.

  • 11:21:39

    DAVISBut when Ansar Dine came into Timbuktu, it was this very heritage that was targeted by al-Mahdi and others for destruction. And so he's now being prosecuted for the destruction of nine mausoleums of local saints and also for a mosque that was destroyed again in 2012.

  • 11:21:57

    GJELTENAnd Amr Al-Azm, you are not only an active member of the Syrian opposition, you, as I understand it, have been working with people trying to preserve some of the monuments and treasures in Syria. What sort of comparably is happening there? We certainly have heard about the destruction of the archaeological site in Palmyra by ISIS. What is the agenda, as far as you can tell, of ISIS with respect to these old sites?

  • 11:22:30

    AL-AZMRight, yes, I have -- I do a lot of work with activists on the ground inside Syria. These are local archaeologists, local museum curators, just local stakeholders who are very concerned about their cultural heritage. They're very connected to it, and they are trying to save it. They're trying to do the best they can. As far as ISIS is concerned, the way we interpret ISIS' actions is that ISIS sees cultural heritage as a resource that they can exploit.

  • 11:23:01

    AL-AZMSo they exploit it on a number of different levels. They loot systematically and very intensively in order to acquire material to sell to fund their activities. We know that looting is a -- one of the important areas, or at least until recently was an important area, of resource and funding for them. But also they destroy cultural heritage, particularly cultural heritage that they cannot loot.

  • 11:23:27

    AL-AZMSo you cannot -- you know, a large monument or a temple is unlootable. So they may put it to better -- to other use as far as they're concerned. They destroy it, and this destruction is part of this very powerful message, very powerful propaganda message, that says I am ISIS, I can act with impunity, and the international community and anyone else, local or otherwise, is impotent to try and stop me. This powerful combination of impunity and impotence that, you know, it's a powerful message, it resonates well with Iran, narrow base of followers, and it shocks us. It makes us feel awful. We feel unable to do anything, and it works into their advantage.

  • 11:24:07

    GJELTENAnd these sites are non-Islamic, right? I mean, they predate the rise of Islam, and in that respect it's comparable I guess to what the Taliban did in Afghanistan to those Buddha statutes.

  • 11:24:16

    AL-AZMWell, they destroy both. No, no, this is the thing. They destroy both. They destroy non-Islamic sites, obviously, for this kind of propaganda, as I just explained, but they also are known and have destroyed numerous Islamic sites, and that's -- you know, we often associate their destruction of archaeological sites and monuments with this extreme interpretation, iconoclastic interpretation, where, you know, it's somehow connected to some sort of extreme ideological, Islamic interpretation.

  • 11:24:49

    AL-AZMBut really their destruction of non-Islamic sites has very little to do with that, even though they use this Islamic rhetoric for it. The real Islamic -- let's say the real ideological, religious aspect comes when they destroy Muslim shrines, places of worship, particularly those connected with other sects, Druze or Shiite or otherwise, because for them that is part of a process of purging Islam from what they consider to be non-Islamic introductions or pollution, if you want.

  • 11:25:23

    AL-AZMSo saint worship, for example, is considered unacceptable in this very strict type of Islam, Wahhabi Islam, that they practice, and they see that as a threat, and they seek to purge it. And that is very different from when they go out and destroy a monument like the Temple of Bel, who they know very well has no connection to the religion or to people's daily worship and practice, and there's no threat to them.

  • 11:25:46

    GJELTENSarah Parcak, you're in the forefront of efforts to preserve antiquities, and we're going to get to some of the things that you're doing a little bit later, but I'm wondering how important it is to raise the consciousness of the world, the awareness of the world that what's at stake with these antiquities. And does this week's guilty plea at the ICC serve any purpose in your mind in that regard, in terms of highlighting this as a problem?

  • 11:26:11

    DAVISSure, so when archaeological sites are destroyed, and objects are taken from them, you know, every piece that's stolen, every piece that's destroyed contributes to us losing a piece of our shared human identity. You know, people are fascinated about who we are and where we've come from, and, you know, the fact is, our basic humanity hasn't changed since we've been human, and understanding archaeological sites and our history contributes to our understanding of who we are.

  • 11:26:45

    DAVISSo I think the conviction at the ICC hopefully sends a really powerful message. You know, I don't know that it will serve as a deterrent, primarily because most looting is fundamentally economic in nature, but it certainly shows the world just how important it is to consider protecting sites and preserving heritage, and ultimately that's something that we have to do a better job of protecting as a world.

  • 11:27:13

    GJELTENNow Sarah, you mentioned earlier that this has been going -- looting of these sites has been going on for a long, long time. Nevertheless, I'm guessing that the market for looted antiquities is a relatively modern development. I mean, you mentioned the looting of King Tut's tomb, but that -- you know, over centuries there really was no market for these antiquities, I assume. Is that not right?

  • 11:27:39

    DAVISYeah, I mean, people, I mean, people certainly would break into tombs. A lot of objects end up getting reused. We see a lot of statues, for example from ancient Egypt that will have one king's name carved out and another one put on, and the same with temples. So, you know, reusing definitely has a long and rich history, but certainly the market for antiquities is a much more modern phenomena, and, you know, this is a -- kind of begs the question, you know, how much has the market increased, especially post-Arab Spring. That's something that people like Tess and others have done a really wonderful job of making sure the world understands this is an increasing problem, and we've got to understand better the severity of the issue.

  • 11:28:26

    GJELTENWell, speaking of the market for these things, Gary Vikan, as the director, former director, of an art museum, you were on this other end. What can you tell us about the demand for these antiquities, the market for these antiquities, and what's a museum's or a collector's role here?

  • 11:28:50

    VIKANWell, let me first of all say that my book, which is coming out next month, "Sacred and Stolen," really has a careful look at what happened after the invasion of Cyprus in 1975. And if you could step the clock back right now to 1980, let's say, and look at the market in London, the United States, Amsterdam, Paris, you would find it absolutely flooded with high-end, specific works of art from Northern Cyprus that had been looted.

  • 11:29:18

    VIKANThe entire interiors of churches were taken out and sold. And museums and private collectors were treating this with great legitimacy. Contrast that with what's going on right now in the Western market in relationship to what's going on in Syria and Iraq. The demand on the Western side has virtually disappeared. There's been a dramatic...

  • 11:29:43

    GJELTENWhy is that?

  • 11:29:45

    VIKANI think it has to do with, in part, a general awareness of how deplorable being part of this trade is, and so much as we don't smoke inside buildings, much as we don't throw beer cans into ditches anymore, it is unacceptable in the museum community and the collecting community and the dealing community to be involved with objects that are freshly looted out of Northern Syria, out of Syria in general or out of Iraq.

  • 11:30:14

    VIKANBut it's really critical, I think, to focus on what's happened in a good way and to be very critical in how we understand the dimensions of the trade right now in order that we not overstate it and take steps that are ultimately damaging to the public good insofar as they curtail activities and museums as being repositories for the great collections that are still out there and are totally legitimate.

  • 11:30:44

    VIKANAnd insofar as we're talking about $1 billion or a $7 or a $15 billion trade out of Syria and Iraq, which is not true, it is not true, to the extent that we believe that we paint with too broad a brush, and I think we really chill the atmosphere that connects museums to collectors and collectors to museums and the public good. And we don't -- we mustn't lose sight of that.

  • 11:31:09

    GJELTENBut I've certainly heard the argument that once an object has been looted that it's better to get a hold of that object and preserve it in a safe place, rather than let it sort of float around from collector to collector.

  • 11:31:20

    VIKANCouldn't agree with you more. I believe very strongly in safe harbor. And one of the -- one of the prominent stories in my book has to do with the entire interior of a 13th-century Byzantine church that was looted probably about 1978. And it was bought by a private collector in Houston in 38 pieces, reassembled, displayed in Houston until 2012 and now is back in Nicosia in Cyprus.

  • 11:31:48

    VIKANSo she on her own dime, and that's 1980's dollars, $1.5 million, preserved an entire church and gave it back. And I think we shouldn't lose sight of the role of museums and private collectors in safe harbor in times of high risk because right now we ask ourselves, to whom do we return the objects even if we have them.

  • 11:32:10

    GJELTENGary Vikan is former director of the Walters Museum of Art in Baltimore. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Sarah Parcak, as an archaeologist, I want to get your view on this issue of what, you know, institutions, that is governments, but in particular museums, what should be their attitude towards this market that has really expanded for antiquities.

  • 11:32:41

    PARCAKSo I think especially now, museums need to be even more cautious and vigilant when they're considering making new acquisitions. I think in particular of the Subhash Kapoor case, and this individual basically contracted people in India to go and loot from temples, and these objects ended up going through the international art market and ended up in museums in Australia and all over the world.

  • 11:33:18

    PARCAKAnd so I think if museums are considering acquiring a piece, they really need to be critical. You know, is it from somewhere in the Middle East, and especially now with so much conflict, so much looting, and when we know so many pieces are flowing out of the Middle East and North Africa, I think museums really have a job. They need to, you know, be really careful in terms of when they want to purchase a piece, but also I think, you know, in terms of looking at the pieces they already have. Where did they come from?

  • 11:33:53

    DAVISYou know, when I walk into a museum anywhere in the world, and I see that a piece is from somewhere in Southeast Asia, you know, I roll my eyes and think oh, this was probably taken from a temple. So I think museums need to be more self-critical. You know, I also think they serve a great purpose. You know, they educate our youth, they educate people about the importance of these wonderful cultures around the world.

  • 11:34:19

    DAVISBut, you know, especially now that we know so many piece are being looted, a lot more caution is needed, and many museums are -- have come out with strong statements against looting. But I think this is something we need to see more of.

  • 11:34:32

    GJELTENTess, we're talking here about museums, but how does this market break down between museums and private collectors? I know that big auction houses like Sotheby's, you know, these antiquities get sold, and they don't always get sold to -- are museums the biggest buyers, or are private collectors very big buyers, as well?

  • 11:34:52

    DAVISWell, the art market's changing a great deal, even in recent months and years, due to the Internet. And things like eBay and the other auction houses have opened up means that people in no matter what remote town and what remote country can be purchasing these antiquities, as well. And you've also seen some of the major auction houses do fewer public auctions and perhaps more sales behind the scene.

  • 11:35:16

    DAVISOne thing we do need is more data on the size of the trade. There's still a lot of questions that we don't know and that we're trying to figure out in terms of how big it is, that we don't have for these comparable trades like guns and drugs. But the numbers that we do have are -- and we do know are quite shocking. I mean, if you just look at the work of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, of ICE, just since 2007 they've repatriated 7,200 artifacts to over 30 countries around the world.

  • 11:35:50

    DAVISAnd the Kapoor case, which Sarah mentioned earlier, this is one case out of New York where they have seized between $100 and $150 million worth of antiquities from one dealer, Subhash Kapoor. That's one individual operating almost exclusively with South and Southeast Asian art. So when you take these little pieces, it does add up into a quite significant industry.

  • 11:36:19

    GJELTENGary, you wanted to put in your view on that.

  • 11:36:24

    VIKANWell, just in general we have a tool available to us now that we didn't have 40 years ago, and that's the Internet, and I'm a strong advocate for transparency. So if you want to buy something, or if something's offered to you as a museum director or curator, two things. One, put it on the Internet. Two, go to the country of possible or likely origin and ask them what they think.

  • 11:36:56

    VIKANAnd if we follow that practice, we will gradually clear title on vast numbers, and there are hundreds of thousands of pieces, I could leave this studio and in one hour be at four collection of pre-Columbian art that belong in the public domain, and we need to make transparent these collections in order that they can re-enter the public domain.

  • 11:37:19

    GJELTENGary Vikan is the former director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. And as he mentioned, he's the author of a new book, "Sacred and Stolen: Confessions of a Museum Director." We're going to take a short break right now, and when we get back, we'll go to your phones and your emails. I have one email here from a woman who wants us to touch on the Native American antiquities that were stolen and sold abroad. Stay tuned. I'm Tom Gjelten.

  • 11:40:01

    GJELTENHello, again. I'm Tom Gjelten from NPR. I'm sitting in for Diane Rehm today. And we're talking about the threat to the world's antiquities collections, treasures around the world that are being looted or destroyed by terrorists or by warfare. My guests are Tess Davis. She's the executive director of the Antiquities Coalition. Gary Vikan, who's a former director of the Walters Museum of Art in Baltimore.

  • 11:40:26

    GJELTENSarah Parcak, a professor of archeology and Egyptology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She also won last year's TED Prize for her idea of using crowdsourcing to combat looting. And I want Sarah to talk about that a big later. Also, Amr Al-Azm, former Syrian antiquities official, an active member of the Syrian opposition. He now teaches at Shawnee State University in Ohio. And Amr, fill us in on the situation in Syria, which is your country. How much has been lost there already? How hopeful are you that in this -- with all the war and fighting that's going on, that more can be saved?

  • 11:41:10

    AL-AZMI mean, the situation in Syria today is catastrophic at all levels. You have a country that's essentially -- and a society, more importantly, that has ruptured across every possible cleavage you can think of, socially, politically, economically, you know, ethnically, and so and so forth. And one of the casualties of this conflicts has been cultural heritage. As soon as the conflict shifted from one of essentially civil activism and protests going out into the streets, to an armed confrontation between regime and opposition, basically the cultural heritage, the archeological sites, the monuments became part of the battlefield in many cases.

  • 11:41:56

    AL-AZMAnd even in areas where they're not directly in the line of fire, because of the essential breakdown of law and order, the breakdown of services and just the ability of people to function on a normal level has led to a very, very great increase in damage to cultural heritage, whether it's from the bombardment or from looting. We see a lot of examples of what we refer to today as subsistence looting. This is locals who have no other means of making a living. And we repeatedly, through our, you know, interviewing and talking to these local people, you ask them why are you looting these sites.

  • 11:42:37

    AL-AZMAnd they'll say, well, if I don't try to find something to sell then my family will starve. The factory I used to work at or the store I had that I used to sell goods from has been bombed, has been destroyed, has been robbed, etcetera. And at the same time, you also have -- as this scale of conflict has spread, it's almost unprecedented when I think of how widespread the fighting is in Syria. It's not just in isolated areas. The contact frontlines are very, very widespread. And Syria is a very rich country, you know, literally. Every Syrian lives either on top of an archeological site, right next door to an archeological site or within a stone's throw of an archeological site.

  • 11:43:21

    AL-AZMSo wherever you have fighting, you also invariably have some sort of cultural heritage around. And that's also suffered terribly. We've had museums bombed, you know, with airstrikes and indiscriminately so. You know, the Amara (sp?) Museum, which is one of the museums that we've done a lot of work at and we've actually been able to save the contents of that museum because the teams that I work with inside Syria were able to sandbag the museum to protect the contents. That museum, for example, was barrel bombed last year by the regime side.

  • 11:43:53

    AL-AZMAnd then again this year in May by a Russian airstrike. And had it not been for the sandbagging it would have been destroyed. But at the end of the day we have to stay hopeful. We have to keep our hopes up because it is this cultural heritage that will also help save Syria's future. You know, this conflict will end one day and when it does end, Syrians are gonna have to find some sort of common area, common ground, that they can communicate across. And I believe that this cultural heritage is this common denominator.

  • 11:44:24

    AL-AZMThey share, you know, Syrians, no matter which side they're on, have a sense of this shared common history. And there are people on both sides of the conflict trying to save this cultural heritage. And so, for me, saving this cultural heritage is also about saving Syria's future.

  • 11:44:39

    GJELTENWell, those efforts that you describe are truly heroic. And it seems very clear that Syria right now is the epicenter of this problem around the world. I want to go now to Ken, who's on the line from Pennsylvania. Ken, thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:44:55

    KENThanks for taking my call (unintelligible) Tom. I'm somewhat embarrassed to actually call in. My family has passed on to me the hobby of collecting Asian antiques, but also have passed on to me the methodical research I need to do before I purchase anything. Several years ago I purchased a tomb (unintelligible) from what was a reputable antiquities dealer outside of Beijing. And I had done my research and bought several pieces off this gentleman. And I was looking for a tomb horse. (unintelligible). And again, did my research to make sure it was coming from a legitimate source.

  • 11:45:38

    KENAfter about two years I finally received it, only to get contacted from Interpol six months later to find out that this antiquities dealer -- they had been watching him for several years, and when he would get a request from an American to purchase something, he was actually sending his workers out and they robbing tulle, you know, robbing tombs. As a result, Interpol offered to fly me over to Europe to testify against this gentleman. I coincidentally ended up sending the piece back.

  • 11:46:13

    KENBut I'm -- this is a perfect example of a private collector like myself, who has done my research, only to find out there's ways that these people can get around it. And I thought I was doing the right thing, but apparently I wasn't.

  • 11:46:24

    GJELTENWell, as you said, you thought it was a reputable dealer, but you learned otherwise. How -- Tess Davis, how familiar is that -- Ken's story to you?

  • 11:46:34

    DAVISThat is unfortunately very familiar. And I've actually been working with the Kingdom of Cambodia in the last 12 years, first researching and -- the illicit trade in blood antiquities from their long conflict in the 1970s and onward. And then more recently with the government, as it seeking to bring these pieces home. And when you see the pieces that Cambodia has recovered, again, all looted after the major international agreement in 1970. All looted during the war, that they've recently recovered from premiere institutions, auction houses and museums and collectors in the United States.

  • 11:47:07

    DAVISThat, nonetheless, were conflict antiquities, were blood antiquities in every sense of the word. And when you can see an institution like Sotheby's or like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with the resources they have at their disposal, with the lawyers they have at their disposal, and yet still they are often purchasing these things. It is a very strong message of buyer beware.

  • 11:47:33

    DAVISAnd one thing we are pushing for is more regulate in the art market because it protects not only countries like Cambodia, but also individual collectors as well. The art market is very unusual, in that you can spend over $100 million on a piece at auction, and not have the legal right to know the name of the person who is selling it to you. In what other world does that happen?

  • 11:47:59

    GJELTENGary?

  • 11:47:59

    VIKANWell, I mean, just to complement or to kind of complete that thought process, the vast majority of ancient and medieval art in American collections is without title. You would not buy a car without a title, you wouldn't buy a house without a title. But when you buy a work of art -- and this is true now and it was true 80 years ago -- you get it without title.

  • 11:48:21

    GJELTENSarah Parcak, let's talk a little bit about Egypt. You are an Egyptologist and you also -- you are very familiar with what has gone on in terms of looting of archeological treasures in Egypt. Fill us in on that and fill us in on your novel ideas for how that might be combated.

  • 11:48:42

    PARCAKSure. So there's been a big question, you know, obviously there's been an increase in looting in Syria and Iraq, but what about in a place like Egypt, which is much more stable? So working with my team and with support from the National Geographic Society, we looked at open-source satellite imagery from 2002 to 2013 at every known and a lot of previously unknown archeological sites in Egypt. We mapped over 200,000 looting pits. And what we found was really interesting.

  • 11:49:16

    PARCAKWhile looting did get worse after 2011, after the Arab Spring, we saw a big spike after 2009, which we think is very closely connected to the economic recession, getting back to Amr's point, that this is fundamentally economic in nature. But this is a project that took our team many, many months. So this idea that we have using the TED Prize funding, is that we're going to create an online citizen science crowdsourcing platform to allow anyone in the world to help us look at satellite imagery and identify possible new sites, as well as map looting.

  • 11:49:59

    PARCAKI should say, by the way, all the data online, it's not gonna have any GPS information. We're gonna be protecting the sites. We're starting in Peru. This is a project where we're working in very close collaboration with Peru's ministry of culture and on-the-ground collaborators. And the main reason is because, you know, you have people around the world that want to own history, they want to own objects.

  • 11:50:23

    PARCAKAnd my challenge to them instead is help be a part of making history. You know, we want to empower everyone in the world and give them the chance to help make these great discoveries and help protect sites. All the data's going to be shared with -- we're starting approval -- we'll expand globally, but this data will be ministries, with archeologists. And the world will get to help engage with discovery. You know, they say history is written by the winners. I think the history of the world should be written by everyone. And the idea is that we'll use this platform to do that.

  • 11:50:53

    GJELTENI'm curious, Sarah, what you can see from a satellite that will, you know, alert you to what's going on. I mean, can you get that kind of detailed information from satellite imagery?

  • 11:51:03

    PARCAKSo fortunately and unfortunately, looting is very easy to spot from satellite images. I could teach anyone how to spot looting in a matter of minutes. You get a -- you tend to get a dark oval shape surrounded by a donut of earth, where looters have gone in and dug up a bit of a tomb or part of a settlement. And it's really easy to spot visually clusters of this activity. So the idea is that when people log onto this platform, which is gonna launch early next year, they can actually help identify areas that have been looted.

  • 11:51:41

    PARCAKAnd for us, the most time consuming part is scanning the imagery and finding the looting. So the idea is that the world can help process data really, really quickly. And we can get that data to people on the ground. Right now, you know, if looting is happening, archeologists will find it if they're searching imagery. But it can take us a long time. And if I'm looking at an image from three years ago and I find looting, that doesn't really help governments in terms of protecting sites. So we've got to work faster, we've got to work more efficiently. And we're really lucky that we've got new technologies like satellites and drones that can help us to identify areas that are being affected.

  • 11:52:15

    GJELTENWell, I'm sure that a lot of Egyptians feel very strongly about preserving their country's heritage, just as Amr said about the Syrian people. This is something that goes to the heart of the people's heritage and there is a natural desire, I'm sure, to want to protect it. So I'm betting that that effort on your part will pay off. I want to go now to Storm, who's on the line from Baltimore, Md. Hello, Storm. Thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:52:45

    STORMHi. Thanks for taking my call. I was calling because I was wondering about repatriation of artifacts. And, you know, I guess a two-fold question. So like, how do you guys feel repatriation of artifacts should be done in cases, for example, like with Britain and India, where they previously had colonized India? But then, how do you feel, you know, what is the responsibility of the country that is antiquing in those objects? So when you look at like Italy and Egypt, those countries have -- my understand is they've had a huge influx of repatriated artifacts. But they don't necessarily have the resources to properly upkeep and maintain or preserve that history.

  • 11:53:30

    GJELTENOkay. Before we get to that question, let me remind our listeners that this is "The Diane Rehm Show." Anyone want to take that question? Tess?

  • 11:53:40

    DAVISHi. Yes. I've been very honored to be a very small part of the Kingdom of Cambodia's efforts to recover its conflict antiquities, again, that were taken during its long war with the Khmer Rouge. And would just like to stress, first of all, how important this is to both the Kingdom and everyone there. I mean, and I think one sign of that is that the negotiations have been done by their secretary of state, His Excellency Chan Toni, which shows, again, how important this is. Because as I said earlier, this is not just -- especially in the case of conflict antiquities, this is not just about objects.

  • 11:54:15

    DAVISThis is part of history and culture and identity, and recovering that and rebuilding it. And Cambodia, like Syria hopefully will soon, you know, when they did rebuild, when peace came it was on the foundation of this culture. It was crucial. And museums and collectors both, I think, are faced with a choice today. Whether to recognize these repatriation requests -- they can look at it as an obstacle or they can look at it as an opportunity. And many and I think an increasing number are looking at it as an opportunity. Cambodia has been able to build fantastic relationships with institutions here in the United States.

  • 11:54:49

    DAVISThe Met, especially, stepped up right away when confronted with this claim. And to their credit did the right thing without waiting for a court order, without waiting for any lawsuit. And actually Christie's Auction House did as well. And I think both those institutions and the country are benefitting from it. Because Cambodians, the ones I've spoken with at least, they want people to see their art around the world. It gives them great pride that people around the world want to see this. They just want it to be done in a responsible way that doesn't lead to the very destruction of this art that we're purporting to protect.

  • 11:55:22

    GJELTENAmr Al-Azm, I think you wanted to jump in.

  • 11:55:25

    AL-AZMYes. It was something -- just to follow off from something Sarah was saying about using satellite imagery. And of course, we use that too in Syria. But more importantly, it's the connection between having teams on the ground that are able to go in and verify what is being shown on those satellite images that is so critical. And it's that combination between having local stakeholders that are able to see this activity on the ground, report it to you and then have that also matched up with what you have coming out on the satellite images. It's that combination of the two areas that really make this such a powerful tool for us in terms of tracking looting of antiquities.

  • 11:56:01

    GJELTENWe're almost at the end of our program, but I have a couple of emails here, Gary, that I want you to address.

  • 11:56:06

    VIKANSure.

  • 11:56:06

    GJELTENThey're important. Mary writes, "What do I do when I find out that a member of my extended family is a black market antiquities dealer? He makes several trips a year to collect them and then sells them in the U.S." Susannah is asking about a ring in her family's possession that her father-in-law claims is from a looted pharaoic (sic) Egyptian gravesite. What should people do, very quickly, when…

  • 11:56:29

    VIKANWell, if I had that ring, I would go to the embassy here in Washington, D.C., or if you're not that close, send them an email with a picture. And ask them what they think about it. And if they want it back, give it back.

  • 11:56:40

    GJELTENAnd are -- is there an agency that people, for example, Mary, who says that her family is -- someone in her family is engaged in this, who should she go to?

  • 11:56:49

    VIKANWell, she should go to the member of the family. They're breaking the law. And it's a time to come to Jesus.

  • 11:56:55

    GJELTENYeah, well. Gary Vikan is the former director of the Walters Museum of Art in Baltimore and author of the new book, "Sacred and Stolen." We have been discussing today the problem of looted and destroyed antiquities around the world. A growing problem, a very serious problem. I'd like to thank my other panelists as well. Tess Davis, executive director of the Antiquities Coalition, Sarah Parcak, a professor of archeology and Egyptology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and Amr Al-Azm, a former Syrian antiquities official who now teaches at Shawnee State University in Ohio.

  • 11:57:31

    GJELTENEarlier, when we were talking about the earthquake in Italy, we were joined by Deborah Ball of the Wall Street Journal. Thanks to all our listeners. Apologies we didn't get to you. Many people had questions that we just didn't have time for. I'm Tom Gjelten. This is "The Diane Rehm Show."

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