Being Human at the BSR

We asked BSR Research Fellow Peter Campbell to look back on last week’s workshop Lost and Found (part of the festival of humanities Being Human) from his perspective as a researcher in the study of antiquities trafficking networks.

On Friday 27 October, the British School at Rome hosted Lost and Found: Places, Objects and People, a workshop that is part of the Being Human Festival. The workshop brought together experts from various backgrounds to discuss cultural preservation. Looting of ancient sites has recently been in the international spotlight following actions by Islamic State, but trafficking of antiquities has been a significant problem for many decades.

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Cultural heritage is a central component of what it means to be human, so the workshop subject is important to the festival. This is a sentiment expressed by Professor Sarah Churchwell and BSR Director Professor Stephen J. Milner to commence the meeting. Being Human is led by Sarah at the School of Advanced Study (SAS), University of London, in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy. The BSR and Being Human are in a unique position to bring together international experts and discuss topics such as this.

Archaeological sites are being looted and destroyed on a large scale across the world, but how do we quantify and mitigate the loss when we do not know the full extent of the cultural resources? This is what Dr Robert Bewley (University of Oxford) discussed in his talk about the Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa (EAMENA) project. Using aerial photography, Robert’s team has been able to identify archaeological sites and revisit them years later, documenting changes to the sites. This is invaluable to those studying looting, as operating on such a large-scale is quite difficult. Over the years Robert has noted a number of different threats to archaeological sites. One of the foremost is the increase in populations, which leads to increased development and infrastructure which cuts through sites. New forms of agriculture and mining have also leveled sites that the team had identified in previous years. Of course, conflict is also a significant threat, such as Islamic State. In one example, Robert discussed how Islamic State may have blown up monuments in order to cover up looting of friezes that were trafficked out of the region for sale on the black market.

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Robert Bewley discusses the use of aerial photography in documenting changes to archaeological sites.

Mosaics are one of the most beautiful forms of ancient art, but also one of the most delicate. Dr Roberto Nardi (Centro di Conservazione Archeologica, Roma) gave a masterful presentation on how mosaics are under threat from conflict and looting, but also poor conservation practices in the past, as well as archaeologists who do not know how to properly preserve mosaics in situ. Roberto has organized a training programme for conservators working in North Africa and the Middle East, named MOSAIKON and funded by the Getty Foundation. In his presentation, as well as in videos made by the conservation students, he showed how the program develops independence, construction of locate labs, and interventions to save mosaics. These interventions were needed not only in North Africa and the Middle East, but in Italy as well.

Dr Anna Leone (Durham University) and Morgan Belzic (École Pratique des Hautes Études) presented their recent work conducting training in North Africa, along with coauthors Dr Corisande Fenwick (UCL) and Dr William Wootton (KCL), who were not in attendance. The presentation was wide-ranging, but the training programs appear to have substantial deliverables. The team has created an app called HeDAP (Heritage Documentation and Protection) that uses photo identification algorithms to make a searchable database for identifying looted artifacts. It is currently being trialed in North Africa, but they hope it will soon be available for broader regions and law enforcement. They raised excellent points about data and storage. What happens during periods of conflict? Who has access to the databases? In one example, museum workers had to build false walls to hide artifacts from Islamic State. There are no good solutions, which led to a substantial discussion. It made me think about the Archaeological Data Service, which hosts a server storing open data, or the use of blockchain technology, which is a decentralized network so that data cannot be corrupted or lost. Perhaps a system where the data is stored across a network, but only accessible to certain individuals would preserve data for the long term. Solutions need to be found in order to protect antiquities and sites in conflict regions.

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Gianluigi D’Alfonso of the Guardia di Finanza on how art and antiquities are used by criminal groups for laundering and profit.

Rarely does the public hear about the law enforcement side of trafficking, which made the presentation by Generale Gianluigi D’Alfonso (Comandante della Guardia di Finanza) particularly interesting. He discussed how art and antiquities are used by criminal groups for laundering and profit. The Generale had several cases where criminal organizations had purchased works of art specifically for laundering, fencing and tax evasion. One of the most gripping examples was a group of Vincent van Gogh paintings that were recently confiscated and returned to a museum setting. The presentation raised a number of questions about how we think about antiquities in the hands of criminals. What percentage of their illegal art is collection and what percentage is laundering? Or perhaps there is no clear distinction.

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Simon Keay on public engagement at Portus

Professor Simon Keay (University of Southampton; BSR) concluded the workshop’s archaeology presentations with an overview of the Portus Project and the new means of collecting and presenting archeological data. The site of Portus is of such a large-scale that many years of research have been required to understand the ancient imperial harbour. Of particular interest, Simon discussed how the site is being presented to the public. Located near Fiumicino Airport, Portus is being advertised to travelers as an easy side trip. The number of visitors has increased each year, showing that this forgotten gem is finally receiving the attention it deserves. Even people who are not in Rome can visit Portus through the online platforms that the project uses, such as an online course and web tour.

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HMA Jill Morris with Paul Sellers (Director, British Council Italy) and Sarah Churchwell (Director of the Being Human Festival, and Professor of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities at the School of Advanced Study, University of London)

The workshop ended with a viewing of the British Council film Desti\Nations. It is a fascinating short piece that discusses migration and movement within the modern world. The film was introduced by British Ambassador Jill Morris, who spoke on the intertwined nature of Britain, Europe, and the Mediterranean world. Jill and the film told of shared cultures, with the film telling of a family with North African and Italian background, as well as the members’ migrations to and from locations around the world. [BSR Director] Stephen concluded the workshop with the observation that not only does modern Europe face these migration, but Medieval Italy did as well. Much like the flow of cultures in the ancient world, modern migrations take place for many reasons such as conflict, employment, and family. The film was a terrific conclusion to the Being Human workshop, which left the audience with much to consider.

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L to R: Stephen Milner, Sarah Churchwell, Anna Leone, Robert Bewley, HMA Jill Morris, Simon Keay, Roberto Nardi, Paul Sellers.

Peter Campbell (BSR Research Fellow)

Photos by Antonio Palmieri.

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