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Artifacts returned to the Ministry of Information and Culture?

Retrieving objects looted from the Kabul Museum before they disappear

Published on 31 December 2004

Author(s): SPACH/Brendan Cassar

Type:  News

In the last several years literally thousands of artifacts have been returned to the Ministry of Information and Culture, including weaponry, sculptures, coins, ceramics.

Since 1994 great efforts have been made to retrieve objects looted from the Kabul Museum before they disappeared into the world trade in illicit antiquities. Some items with the Kabul Museum accession numbers still on them were retrieved by SPACH from the antiquities markets in Peshawar, but most of the objects vanished without a trace and most probably forever. Such purchases are not in normal circumstances recommended, but these objects had a provenance, had been documented, inventoried and scientifically studied progressively during the course of the twentieth century. In short they had been published and were well known to archaeologists and historians from all over the world. It was a case of using desperate measures during the height of the civil war to try to stem the flow of artifacts directly stolen from the Kabul Museum and to preserve them as documented objects of the cultural heritage of Afghanistan. However, a new and quite different phenomenon has sprung up in regard to retrieving and preserving artifacts looted in Afghanistan.

In the last several years literally thousands of artifacts have been returned to the Ministry of Information and Culture, including weaponry, sculptures, coins, ceramics, etc. Some have come from expatriate Afghans purchasing them in shops or auction houses abroad and others have come from people who present themselves at the doorstep of the Ministry offices or the Kabul Museum with burlap sacks of artifacts. Certifiable pieces from the Kabul Museum do still occasionally emerge, some as recently as several weeks ago, presented by an Afghan who had apparently stored them in his house for several years. As these artifacts were traceable to the Kabul Museum collection before the looting began, Ministry officials made a decision to purchase the articles and return them to the Museum. However, the vast majority of the pieces that have been handed over to the Ministry in the past few years, and that are actually of some historical or iconographic value, are not from the Kabul Museumís collection. Most of these pieces were previously unknown and therefore have never been documented.

While the return of artifacts in principle is something to be celebrated, returns of this nature are quite worrying for several reasons. Firstly, the artifacts have no known provenance and are therefore likely to have come from fresh looting in various archaeological sites in Afghanistan. People present rather vague stories of how and where they obtained such pieces making the determination of provenance difficult. Even when pieces can be traced to a particular site they have quite simply been ripped from their archaeological context and much of the valuable information that may have come from their context within the site - date, function, relationship with buildings and other artifacts- is lost forever. Secondly, people typically present artifacts to the Ministry in the hope that they will receive some reward or compensation. If compensation is given, whether in terms of money or of public recognition, this simply encourages people to seek to obtain similar artifacts from the same sources in the future. This source will be sites either looted recently or at some indeterminable time in the past. Whether or not the artifacts are coming from newly discovered but scientifically unexcavated sites, or sites previously but not fully excavated in the past, then the outcome is much the same, their principle historical and archaeological value has been irrevocably destroyed.

SPACH also regularly receives visitors to the Kabul office who come seeking financial recompense in receipt for handing over artifacts. People often see themselves as patriots because they would rather see the artifacts remain in Afghanistan at a good price than see them smuggled into Pakistan and sold into foreign hands. Despite being illegal in Afghanistan, such activities are both dangerous and fraught with ethical dilemmas in any case. For one, it would mean having to "buy in" to an illegal market that goes hand-in-hand with the smuggling of illicit weapons and drugs. Firstly, buying objects from such people would only encourage and indeed sanction the activities surrounding their acquisition in the first place. These activities typically include a pick and shovel under cover of darkness in a small village in the Provinces of Afghanistan, but reports have also come of bulldozers in broad daylight ploughing archaeological sites under the auspices of the regionís controlling warlord. However, most regrettably, other instances have occurred at Tepe Maranjan, in a suburb of the city of Kabul itself.

Despite the more preventable interventions at archaeological sites such as that which occurred at Tepe Maranjan, the problem is generally too vast and the security conditions too unstable in Afghanistan at present, for the Afghan Government to control every archeological and historical site in the country in order to curb looting at the source. International military forces stationed in Afghanistan are of little help in this regard also. Coalition and ISAF forces cannot ensure security for themselves or civilians outside the boundaries of Kabul city, let alone significant archaeological and historical sites. However, some initial steps are being taken in the form of new laws regulating cultural heritage in Afghanistan and a modest increase in security. There is some encouraging news of 100 soldiers soon to be re-assigned from the Ministry of Interior to the Ministry of Information and Culture, and whose specific task it will be to guard sites of archaeological and historical significance. These guards will require screening and training to ensure that they become part of the solution and not a new cause for concern. These are small but necessary steps towards addressing the issue and at least the guards may be able to curb looting at a targeted number of significant sites.

However, it appears to be the case for the time being at least, that the best tool we have at our disposal, and one with greater long-term benefits for cultural heritage in Afghanistan, is educating people on the social worth of preserving cultural heritage. Increased knowledge of Afghan history and the role of archaeology in uncovering and increasing that knowledge will assist in bringing to light the moral implications of looting and smuggling artifacts, and hopefully encourage sanctions against such activities in regional communities. When cultural heritage and history are given due weight in education programs in schools across the country, we might see a change in attitude that brings community weight to bear on protecting cultural heritage throughout Afghanistan.

We can only hope that enough is done within reasonable time, before the stratigraphy in every archaeological site in Afghanistan is pock-marked beyond recognition.

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