So many times over the past few months, I have opened up a fresh Word document and vowed that I would write a new blog post by the end of the day. After all, I continue to naively remind myself that there are always those few hours between dinner and bed when I can settle in and string together some coherent thoughts… Or not. Maybe I’m just getting old, but the exhaustion seems to hit right at that prime time… Well, instead of blaming age, I’m hoping that the following will present a good excuse for my silence on this blog, and introduce you to the wonderful organization which has recently taken over my life in an awesome way.
In February, around the same time as my last post, I began an online internship with the non-profit, Saving Antiquities for Everyone, or SAFE. As an organization dedicated to raising awareness about the devastating effects of cultural heritage looting and illegal trafficking of antiquities, my work at SAFE was a perfect fit with my interests. As the weeks passed by, the internship experience proved to be rewarding, challenging, and busy (hence the silence on this blog…), but I loved being part of something so active, so grassroots.
Then at the end of February, reports began to circulate regarding the destruction of antiquities by ISIS. Horrendous images appeared online, and video footage showed ISIS attacking priceless archaeological treasures with hammers and crowbars in the Mosul Museum and at the site of Nineveh. (I purposely do not link to this video or related content. The videos propagated by ISIS are performances, and sharing them only presents them to a wider audience). The world was horrified. The archaeological world was turned upside down. Cultural heritage has of course been a victim of war for millennia, but these attacks hit close to home for myself and many of my archaeologist friends who had studied these magnificent works of art. Worst of all, we were helpless as the Iraqi people watched their heritage disappear.
Of course, when these things happen, many valid yet challenging questions arise. Most pressingly, “Why should we care about ancient materials when human lives are being lost?” This is an incredibly important point. No one should advocate for heritage preservation above the safety of human beings. Cultural heritage and history, however, are not merely interesting aspects of an environment otherwise caught up in the modern world; they provide the foundations for communities across the globe, rooting traditions, shaping identities, and holding fast the social bonds that are so necessary for human society. The elimination of cultural material is a disturbingly effective way to carry out “cultural cleansing,” to eradicate human culture.
There is, however, also tangible data which links this material loss to the people who are historically connected to that material. A lesser known aspect of Islamic State’s attacks on the cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria is the black market trade which funds IS activities. According to reports, the trade of illegal antiquities is one of the largest sources of revenue for the terrorist organization, second only to the sale of oil. It is difficult to confirm specifics, but it is obvious that the antiquities trade is a lucrative one for IS, with news of $36 million having come from sales in al-Nabuk and looted objects appearing in dealers’ shops all over the world. These “blood antiquities” do more than strip the Iraqi and Syrian people of their historical legacy; they financially fuel the horrifying violence against them.
So what can we do in the face of such complexities? Well, quite simply, do not buy antiquities! As an archaeologist, I understand all too well the exhilarating thrill of being able to hold a millennia-old object in your hand. But with so many reasons why you should not buy that Greek lamp or Mesopotamian cylinder seal, not the least of which involves the safety of human beings, there is no justification for such a purchase.
On a more grassroots level, you can offer your support by getting involved with organizations like SAFE. I am honoured to now be serving as SAFE’s Executive Director, and am committed to continuing the important work of this organization, maintained so passionately for over a decade by founder Cindy Ho. SAFE’s major focus has always been public awareness, for while experts in the field can most effectively take immediate action, the key to long-term change lies not in the emergency response, but in a fundamental change in the way society perceives cultural heritage and its significance to human stories. So we invite you to engage with our online communities, follow daily news updates, and check out our website to see how you can help. Cultural heritage is a non-renewable resource; we must work together to preserve it, now more than ever.