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From tomb raiding museums to ISIS

Lower incomes, higher unemployment, worse health, more debt, more evictions... All those are known effects of economical crisis, but... Also less identity, less history, less culture? Well, yes. Economical crisis and political instability (usually also caused by economical problems) rise significantly the theft and destruction of monuments and objects that represent a big historical and cultural legacy.

Nowadays, the smuggling of historical goods is a lucrative activity for criminal organizations around the world. The sale of stolen pieces from archaeological sites generates a big money flow for mobs specialized in this kind of contraband. It has even become a source of funding for other criminal organizations.

Although the smuggling of this kind of objects is a global problem, specially in remote rural places, it is in states under war where we find the most lucrative and well-planned activities. For example, in Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan, or in countries with big political instability, like Egypt.

In Egypt, the political instability climate of 2011 coming from the unrest against, then president, Hosni Mubarak, facilitated and increased the theft of archaeological objects, which was however already happening before. Looting in various museums of the country put people into shock and led citizens from Cairo to do a human chain around the Cairo museum -one of the biggest collections of ancient Egypt in the world-.

Despite the implication of the citizens and the world community, robbery and theft did not stop. In August 2013, during the bloody riots between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military government led by Adli Mahmoud Mansour, the National Malawi Museum in Upper Egypt suffered a terrible and systematic loot. 1.000 of the 1.100 pieces from the museum's collection disappeared. If that wasn't enough, the criminals destroyed the biggest pieces, which were difficult to move. For now, only a minute part of the pieces has been recovered.

Egyptian Museum, Cairo / Ahmed Amin

In war scenarios like that of Iraq, the generalized looting of archaeological pieces has been going on almost uninterruptedly for the last 12 years. In the year 2003, during the US military invasion of the country, the National Museum of Baghdad was looted in the midst of the capture of the city. Although the investigation done by the US army determined that US soldiers were not involved, suspicion remained upon the occupying forces.

The case of the National Museum of Baghdad became the best known and most controversial, but truth is that looting was the norm in almost the whole country. Additionally, during the war, the camp settling and military manoeuvres by the US forces inflicted serious harm to archaeological sites of great value.

In Iraq and the Levant region, there have been infamous cases of looting and destruction of the historic heritage by the Islamic State. The news of the destruction of Palmyra historical sites –qualified as war crime by the UNESCO-, the videos showing the millenary statues of the museum of Mosul being thrown down and torn apart by the blow of the hammers, the demolition of the ancient temple of Baal, or even the terrible public assassination of the famous archaeologist Jaled Asaad –who, according to some witnesses, was tortured in an attempt to have him say the location of the Palmyran treasures-, are just the tip of the iceberg of a conflict with catastrophic consequences for the historic heritage of one of the cradles of our civilization.

But the situation in Syria goes far beyond destructions by the terrorist group. Already during the civil war, many historical sites were looted, both by organized groups and by impoverished citizens who saw in the high value of the pieces an opportunity to survive. When the Islamic State took over part of Syria, they allowed the looting as long as part of the earnings ended up in the pockets of the “caliphate”. This practice ended when the fundamentalists decided to monopolize these resources, and took the looting and selling into their own hands. The historic pieces are sold to intermediaries who keep them under the radar waiting for a new crisis that draws the international attention away from them so they can start reselling.

Sam Hardy, an archaeologist specialized in the illicit traffic of historical artefacts, tells on his blog that last May, the US gave back to Iraq antiquities that were found by their special forces during the operation in which Abu Sayyaf –the main responsible of smuggling gas and petrol to the Islamic State- lost his life. This is the first material evidence that ISIS is involved in the illegal trade of antiquities.

Do all these thefts, lootings and destructions belong only to our time?

One could think all these crimes are only happening in the convulsed times of the 20th and 21st centuries, but truth is that the tomb raider has been a constant threat to the history of mankind.

The first references to these looters are found in Ancient Egypt. Egyptian funerary rites required the pharaohs to be buried surrounded by numerous objects of great value, so they could use them in the “other life”, which meant a huge plunder for whoever was able to steal them. Measures taken by the authorities back then to avoid these thefts were futile. By the end of the 20th dynasty (1186-1099BC) most of the tombs in the King's Valley had been looted.

The first investigation of tomb raiding, that we have notice of, dates back to Ramses IX's reign (1126-1108BC). The Abbott Papyrus details an investigation carried out by the pharaonic authorities; it explains the inspection of a looted place and even mentions some interrogations. For its part, the Amherst Papyrus, also dating from the same period, collected the confessions of various thieves and the punishments they were subjected to.

Abbott Papyrus / Captmondo, CC BY-SA 3.0

In ancient China we can also find evidence of these malpractices. During his convulsed government Cao Cao, king of Wey (155-220), went as far as institutionalizing tomb raiding among his armies. There are very few royal Chinese graves that have survived intact until our era. The most special case is the one of the mausoleum of king Jinggong (537AD); archaeologists that in 1976 investigated this breath-taking eight-story-high building of about 5000m2 found up to 247 holes, left by looters.

During Middle Age in Europe, the smuggling of antiques was of relatively little importance, although in the 14th century, in the Republic of Venezia, an important commerce of pieces, especially from Asia, was detected. With the arrival of the Renaissance it became trendy to search for Roman and Greek antiques, and the first big collections of ancient art were consolidated.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, long trips and collecting spread among the upper classes around Europe. A big number of excavations were funded, not for academic interest but for the gathering of riches instead. At the beginning, their favourite victims were Greece and Egypt, which were under the occupation of Ottoman authorities, who were not very interested in preserving the historical wealth of the occupied countries. In this will of gathering the most beautiful or significant -according to the criteria of the time- pieces of art, many Western raiders damaged -sometimes severely- goods important to the understanding of the structure and operation of societies in ancient times.

One of the most significant examples of this heartbreaking destruction is the Turin King List papyrus, which now rests in the Museum of Turin, in Italy. This papyrus was discovered in Luxor in 1822, almost intact. It is a unique and vital document for the study of Egyptology, because a complete list of gods, demigods and mythical and human kings appeared, who, according to the text, reigned Egypt since the dawn of times. The manuscript ended up severely damaged due to terrible negligence during its transportation, and today only a couple of chunks remain.

Far from condemning this malpractice, occidental governments, moved by prestige greediness, competed among themselves to see who had the biggest Egyptian monolith. In their eagerness, they sponsored the tomb raiders and bragged about it with the foundation of big museums, such as the British Museum (1753) or the Louvre (1793), which might as well be called “the big looting museums”.

The diplomatic-archaeologists-adventurers of the time do not resemble at all the romantic figure that has come to our times (especially thanks to George Lucas's Indiana Jones and the adventures of Allan Quatermain in Africa). They were more like thieves willing to do anything (bribe, extort, threat) to loot the most beautiful or most valuable goods, and subsequently nourish their galleries of antiques and relics. Sometimes, even big monuments and buildings would be transported stone by stone to European cities. Some of the most significant examples are the Istar Gates of Babylonia, the Zeus altar in Pergamon, but there were many other looted buildings during the 19th and 20th centuries that can be seen today in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany.

The principal goals of those looters were pieces coming from Greece, Egypt and Mesopotamia, but very few countries escaped their claws. Various Romanic and Gothic cloisters from monasteries and sanctuaries from Spain and France can be visited at The Cloister Museum in New York City.

Along the 20th century, these activities started to decline as many of the plundered countries issued laws to protect their cultural and historical patrimony. Nevertheless, there are still countries that used their immense archaeological wealth as diplomatic exchange currency to regale occidental governments. For example, we find numerous temples and funerary collections sold or given away by the Egyptian government, like the Debod Temple, which can be currently found in Madrid and was a present made by Cairo to the Spanish government, then a dictatorship, in 1968.

An emblematic example was the attitude of the Egyptian government during the construction of the Aswan dam between 1956 and 1970. The great amount of deposits that were going to end up flooded by the dam and the impossibility of the government to save them all led to a policy of, essentially, “whoever wants them can take them”. UNESCO and the world community intervened but could only save a couple of pieces and transport them outside the affected zone. In the 1970's, the Egyptian government finally decided to stop using their archaeological wealth as diplomatic exchange currency and started to take action to protect their rich cultural and historical legacy.

The intervention of the world institutions and community, and the promulgation of protection laws have played a fundamental role in the decrease of these practices. However, the existence of worldwide mobs that still traffic in these goods at a global level, and the persistence of political instability in many regions allow these crimes to endure. How do we fight them?

The first step to battle them is to understand how they work. With this goal, Kinea reached out to the Historical Patrimony Group of the Central Operating Unit of the Guardia Civil, in Spain. According to captain Javier Morales, looted pieces usually go through a complex network of intermediaries that buy and sell again and again the piece within the origin country to impede tracking. Afterwards, the piece is introduced into Europe, usually by ship, and especially through the Mediterranean Sea, because it is the safest, cheapest and easiest way to smuggle pieces into the continent, due to the enormous amount of goods that go into big European harbours on a daily basis.

Guardia Civil : Operation Hierática / Ministry of the Interior

Once inside the destination country, the pieces go through a second network of intermediaries that will end in the final buyer: an antique shop or a bidding house that could not even know that they are acquiring a stolen object.

Spain, Morales states, could be, mostly, a crossing point for these goods on their way to big collections or bidding houses in the rest of Europe and America. Due to the large quantity of goods that Spanish harbors deal with, controlling the possible smuggling turns out to be a titanic job.

Recently, the Guardia Civil dismantled a network in charge of introducing these pieces into Spain and France, and confiscated 36 pieces from sites in Saqqara and Mmitt Rahina, near Cairo, that would have reached an approximated value of 300.000 euros on the market. The pieces were found in June 2014 in a container in the harbour of Valencia, camouflaged among vessels of little value. During the investigation various documents about the smuggling and selling of other pieces from Egypt were discovered.

It is not the first time that pieces of Egyptian origin appear in Spain. Back in 2010, works from the Djedkare Isesi pyramid, in South Saqqara, were found in Barcelona. On this occasion, Josep Cervelló, an Egyptologist from the Autonomous University of Barcelona, contributed to the restoration of the pieces and helped returning them to Egypt in 2012. The university itself made this video to narrate the experience of the seizure.

As for the United States, the enormous criticism that the government has received for not avoiding, or even for participating in the lootings in Iraq during military occupation, led Washington to send numerous FBI experts to the country to investigate the disappearances. A large quantity of missing pieces from Baghdad’s museum finally reappeared on US soil, and some were even put up for auction on eBay.

For its part, Interpol has on its website a searchable catalogue of missing cultural and artistical works and the International Council of Museums (ICOM) elaborates red lists with stolen historical pieces. A quick query to whichever of the two websites before acquiring any antique would help battling these severe crimes.

The theft of archaeological relics is a problem we can find in almost all countries with a rich cultural and historical legacy. Thieves find in this activity an easy way to gather huge amounts of money, and many governments do not pay the attention they should, or do not care at all, or they find themselves in situations that require attending other priorities. Nevertheless, we must understand that stealing a country of its past, does not only subtract some wealth that legitimately belonged there, but that one also steals from all mankind a bit of its history, and a piece of the immense puzzle that forms our past, which is disappearing in the hands of greedy raiders and collectors without any scruples.