Thieves robbed the museum at Olympia (the site of the ancient Olympic Games). Two armed masked men smashed display cases and grabbed priceless artifacts (at least 60) after overpowering guards at the museum.
In the wake of the chaos of Greece’s financial crisis, violent crime (targeting art) has skyrocketed. To read more about the theft, see the article at BBC News.
After the death of Muammar Gaddafi has provided a brief respite for Libyans. As the civilization begins to take a catalogue, one of the greatest heists in history has been publicized. The so called “Treasure of Benghazi,” the world’s largest collection of gold and silver coins (many dating to the time of Alexander the Great) have gone missing from a bank vault in Libya.
Antiquities dealers believe this could be the largest archaeological heist in history. Some have speculated the the looted coins are now in Egypt. To learn more about this, see the article in the BBC or the Sydney Morning Herald.
In the wake of the civil unrest in the Libya, the state of its antiquities has been cause for concern for scholars and archaeologists. Due to the current political state, independent reporters and UNESCO investigators cannot travel to the state to verify their status.
Libya has a wealth of historical material, prehistory, Carthaginian, Phoenician, Greek, Roman, and more modern amenities. Such sites are often of little to no concern during bloody coups when people are most concerned about basic survival.
We know that artifacts have already been stolen, and UNESCO has issued statements to auctions houses warning them to be on high alert for looted antiquities (see the article on BBC). Native archaeologists have already begun to petition the provisional government to take special efforts to preserve sites and artifacts. CNN has issued a special report on Libya’s “other wealth” and you can read more about here.
It is not as dramatic as the collapse of an ancient Egyptian dynasty, but the abrupt fall of Zahi Hawass is sending ripples around the planet. The archaeologist who has been in charge of Egypt’s antiquities for nearly a decade has been abruptly sacked in an overhaul of the country’s cabinet.
The antipathy toward Hawass in Egypt may be difficult to grasp in the West, where he is typically found on American television, fearlessly tracking down desert tombs, unearthing mummies and bringing new life to Egypt’s dusty past. But in Egypt he has been a target of anger among young protesters who helped depose President Hosni Mubarak in February. Hawass had been accused of corruption, shoddy science and having uncomfortably close connections with the deposed president and first lady⎯all of which he has vociferously denied. Many young archaeologists also are demanding more jobs and better pay⎯and they complain Hawass has failed to deliver. “He was the Mubarak of antiquities,” said Nora Shalaby, a young Egyptian archaeologist who has been active in the revolution.
A statue of the Roman Emperor Caligula was recently uncovered at an illegal dig in Italy. There are fewer statues of the Roman Emperor as he suffered a damnatio memoriae (erasure of his name from history) by the Senate shortly after his assassination.
The site is located at Nemi, south of the city of Rome, where Caligula was known to have luxurious retreat. Archaeologists recovered the statue in January after the Italian government stopped an illegal dig at the location. You can read more about the statue and the excavation in this Discovery News article.
The Washington Post reports that the museum’s curator, Julian Raby, has formally put the exhibit on hold to further consult with professional archaeologists and organizations. The concern for displaying artifacts procured via looting is that it continues to support the illegal trade and furthers the demand for materials regardless of the legality in how the objects are obtained. To read more about the decision, check out the Washington Post article.
Recently, the American Institute of Archaeology (AIA) has issued a formal statement opposing the Smithsonian’s display of these artifacts. I have included the statement in its entirety below. You can also read it in its entirety here.
As the largest and oldest organization devoted to archaeology in North America, the Archaeological Institute of America is committed to the protection of the world’s cultural heritage. As part of this commitment we strongly oppose the commercial salvage of antiquities and any exploitation of archaeological materials obtained in this manner.
The Belitung Shipwreck was salvaged unscientifically by commercially-motivated treasure hunters. Although the excavation and disposition of these materials may be technically “legal,” it is the AIA’s position that involvement by the Smithsonian Institution in the exhibition of these artifacts will serve to blur the distinction between bona fide nautical archaeology and treasure huntng. Following this path puts the Smithsonian in the indefensible position of aiding those who believe that antiquities are a commodity to be mined for personal or corporate financial gain. They are not—they are part of the world’s cultural patrimony.
As the premier museum of the United States and the largest museum and research institution in the world, the Smithsonian is a model for others and should endorse the highest ethical standards for American archaeological and museological practice. The AIA urges the Smithsonian’s leadership to heed the voices of archaeologists worldwide—including many within its own walls—in cancelling the plans for any exhibition of the Belitung shipwreck and its artifacts. To proceed with plans to display these objects will increase the risk to other equally valuable shipwrecks that have yet to be discovered.
Sites located in unstable regions of the world (especially those in active conflict) are perpetually in danger due to violence, lack of over-sight, and higher rates of criminal activity (such as looting). Afghanistan is a country with a rich history. Its endangered Buddhist sites first entered the news with the Bamiyan Buddhas, which the Taliban blew up in 2001.
Today, the country’s antiquities are in danger due to development and mining firms. The Buddhist site of Mes Aynak has recently come under threat by a Chinese mining company that wants to destroy the site in order to access the copper veins underneath. The country is especially vulnerable now due to the economic hardship compounding the civil unrest.
Dr. Massoudi, the Director of the National Museum (who has seen its coffers looted by the Taliban and later by insurgents), has stated publicly:
“In three decades of war, a lot of our cultural heritage has been destroyed, damaged and looted. These artefacts do not belong to the country, it’s human treasure that belongs to everybody.”
You can read more about this issue in this BBC Article.
The mysterious statue dubbed the “Getty Goddess” has been repatriated to Italy. The identity of the goddess remains a mystery – many believe it to be the Queen of the Underworld, Persephone. The statue was purchased in 1988 amidst great controversy surrounding its provenance. Police, scholars, and private detectives have successfully pin-pointed its recovery to an illicit excavation in Morgantina in the 1970s.
Its scandalous origins has meant that it has largely been ignored in academic circles. Now at home in a 17th century monastery, Art Historians are hoping that they can correctly identify its subject and history. For more on the “Getty Goddess,” read this LA Times article.