The Heritage Heist: protecting history
We have to address the destruction of heritage in the world in order to resolve the downright criminal situation. It is, therefore, crucial to talk about the challenges we are facing in the fields of illegal trade of artefacts and the protection of cultural heritage in war zones. That is why the conference named “The Heritage Heist”, organised by Leiden University and UNESCO, is going to be a unique opportunity to learn more and simultaneously share your views on the above mentioned issues.
The name alone made many archaeologist smile with joy whenever they came across the reference, and with good reason. A city built between 1274 and 1245 BC, it had enormous value to the scientific community. Among the artefacts excavated from the site were the Nimrud Slab (a summary of the reign of king Adad-Nirari III), Nimrud Tablet K.3751 (a history of the early reign of king Tiglath-Pileser III), and the Lion Weights, important to the history of the Assyrian alphabet. Among many other discoveries, they were of key interest to those studying ancient Assyria, which landed the latter two artefacts in the British Museum in London. The former, the Nimrud Slab, was lost and never recovered.
The fate of the Nimrud Slab is now shared by many ancient artefacts from the city and places all over Mesopotamia and the Levant. Keen readers have probably observed my usage of the past tense in the introductory paragraph when referring to Nimrud, which should give a clue where this piece is going. Indeed, in 2015, forces of the Islamic State (IS) opened an attack on this ancient city, with the sole purpose of destroying anything in range of their mallets. Bulldozers and explosives levelled the ancient capital of the Assyrian civilization. Artefacts that survived the onslaught were sold on the black market, where many are still circulating today. The only impression of Nimrud that remains today is a 3D tour, on display in the British Museum.
Illegal trade of artefacts and art is one of the great difficulties facing the legal world today. The world of ancient possessions, passed down from generation to generation, is very much a grey area in our civil law. Old Somalian families hold (and sometimes sell) old family heirlooms of great scientific and communal value, goods which the Somalian government deems part of their cultural heritage. When we throw malicious intent in that already precarious balance, like IS did in Mosul and Nimrud, the system begins to show its cracks. Who exactly can claim ownership of an artefact that has changed hands scores of times since its disappearance is a legal maze, especially seeing how many borders are crossed in the process. Thus, international law, unclear legal definitions and malicious intent turn the black market into a legal crossfire, where eventually no-one really wins.
We have to address these issues in order to resolve this downright criminal situation. It is, therefore, crucial to talk about the challenges we are facing in the fields of illegal trade of artefacts, and the protection of cultural heritage in war zones. That is why the conference named “The Heritage Heist”, organised by Leiden University and the National Commission of UNESCO in the Netherlands is going to be a unique opportunity to learn more and simultaneously share your views on the above mentioned issues. The conference aims to bring together various stakeholders including students, experts and policy makers in order to exchange ideas while thinking together towards a possible solution to tackle the further destruction of cultural heritage and the illegal trade of artefacts. For this is not an issue for just one field of science or one occupation. Illegal arms trade and the threats posed to cultural heritage threaten all our cultures, all our understanding. We are, partly, made by our history. It deserves our greatest respect and utmost efforts. Combined knowledge will carry the day, not misguided ambition of extremists and puritans.
(12 May 2015 / András Pleszel and Bo Salomons)