What Does the Arab Spring and Isil Have to do with Archaeology?

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HBO VICE: Egyptian Tomb Raiders, Episode 308, airs May 1, 2015, 11 pm EDT on HBO. Producer: Alex Waterfield. Copyright 2015 Home Box Office Inc.. Featuring Samer Atallah, Zahi Hawass, Monica Hanna, Ali Ahmed, Brenton Easter, and Amr Al-Azm. Executive Producers Bill Maher, Shane Smith, Eddy Moretti and BJ Levin.

The appalling video of Isil bulldozers wrecking the site of Nimrud earlier this year had an additional repugnant result: the price of looted Nimrud artifacts shot through the roof.

Guess who's selling those artifacts and using them to fund their continued efforts to remake the world? Isil. A segment of the HBO investigative news series Vice airing tonight (May 1, 2015, 11 pm) illustrates the high cost of the apparently insatiable American appetite for artifacts. That appetite is both destroying the cultural history of Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Libya and supporting the efforts of Isil to turn our planet into a rubble-strewn society bound by a nearly-unrecognizable version of the worst kind of repressive religion.

Egyptian Tomb Raiders, a 15-minute long segment produced by Alex Waterfield and hosted by correspondent Gianna Toboni, is a well-done production showing the effects the early 2011 Arab Spring has had on the cultural history of Egypt and Syria. In addition to the loss of lives, jobs and security for the people of those countries, museums and archaeological sites representing the combined history of the world have been damaged and the artifacts stolen from their native lands.

Toboni speaks to representatives of nearly all segments of people involved in this ugly process, including struggling tour guides, economist Samer Atalla, historian Amr Al-Azm, archaeologists Zahi Hawass and Monica Hanna, Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities repatriation director Ali Ahmed, the Cultural Property arm of US ICE Homeland Security agent Brenton Easter, and, carefully masked, the looters themselves. The only people not interviewed in the video are the auction houses who receive the stolen goods--unfortunately that section did not make the final cut. 

Economics of Looting

The economic math creating this situation is simple: one of the effects of any revolution is political instability. A large percentage of the economies of Egypt and Syria have been from tourism around the ruins of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. When that dropped away--Toboni quotes a figure of 5 billion US dollars in lost tourist revenue in Egypt alone--inequality, poverty, and unemployment hit the tens of thousands of people who earned their livings that way. Now, what those newly unemployed people can use about the past--the monetary value of its relics--is helping them feed their families. How can you possibly blame them?

To demonstrate just how prevalent this situation has become, Egyptian Tomb Raiders features satellite images of the Dahshur plateau south of Saqqara before and after the Arab revolution, a region newly pock-marked by looters' pits as if it had been bombed. Craters of the moon.

Obscure Objects of Desire

By and large, archaeologists believe we've moved beyond the object-fixated archaeology of the past. Modern archaeology is about ideas, we say, it's about ancient engineering and culture and religion, it's about how people in the past coped with growing populations, social complexity and climate change. It's absolutely not about gathering artifacts for museum displays--well, that's what we'd like to believe anyway.

Maybe archaeologists have moved beyond the object fixation, but there's no doubt that it is the 150-year-old study of archaeology that has inflamed the greed for ancient relics in the rest of the population who can afford it. Indiana Jones movies don't help, and I sure as hell wish Zahi Hawass, one of the great populizers of the archaeology world, would stop referring to himself as Indiana Jones. No, Dr. Hawass is not Indiana Jones, that quintessential treasure hunter, nor should he want to be.

What Can You Do?

What Egyptian Tomb Raiders ultimately shows us, if not explicitly, is that we all can actually do something about the destruction of the cultural heritage in Egypt and Syria, not to mention Libya and Iraq, or indeed the rest of the world. Apparently, we also can do something to slow the funding of the nasty and ill-named Isis.

If somebody says to you, "Too bad it's too dangerous to visit Luxor this year, luckily Christie's (or Sotheby's or even the antique shop on the corner) has ancient artifacts from the middle east up for sale", spit in their eye. Walk away.
  • Stop buying antiquities. Of any kind. Stop it. Now.
  • Get a nice reproduction instead, it helps the community that makes it and it doesn't involve the death of culture.
  • And, oh yes! watch HBO's Vice tonight (May 1, 2015) at 11pm EDT.

Thanks to HBO and Vice for featuring this important issue. It's something we all need to recognize. 

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