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Archaeology, Cultural Heritage, History, Culture, Museums & exhibitions, News

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

So why is Isis blowing to pieces the greatest artefacts of ancient history in Syria and Iraq? The archeologist Joanne Farchakh has a unique answer to a unique crime. First, Isis sells the statues, stone faces and frescoes that international dealers demand. It takes the money, hands over the relics – and blows up the temples and buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of what has been looted.

Temple of Bel

“Antiquities from Palmyra are already on sale in London,” the Lebanese-French archaeologist Ms Farchakh says. “There are Syrian and Iraqi objects taken by Isis that are already in Europe. They are no longer still in Turkey where they first went – they left Turkey long ago. This destruction hides the income of Daesh [Isis] and it is selling these things before it is destroying the temples that housed them.

“It has something priceless to sell and then afterwards it destroys the site and the destruction is meant to hide the level of theft. It destroys the evidence. So no one knows what was taken beforehand – nor what was destroyed.”

Ms Farchakh has worked for years among the ancient cities of the Middle East, examining the looted sites of Samarra in Iraq – where “civilisation” supposedly began – after the 2003 US invasion. She has catalogued the vast destruction of the souks and mosques of the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Homs since 2011.

Indeed, this diminutive woman, whose study of the world’s lost antiquities sometimes amounts to an obsession, now describes her job as “a student of the destruction of archeology in war”. Over the past 14 years, she has seen more than enough archeological desecration to fuel her passion for such a depressing career. Politically, Ms Farchakh identifies a particularly clever strain in Isis.

“It has been learning from its mistakes,” she says. “When it started on its archeological destruction in Iraq and Syria, it started with hammers, big machines, destroying everything quickly on film. All the people it was using to do this were dressed as if they were in the time of the Prophet. It blew Nimrud up in one day. But that only gave it 20 seconds of footage. I don’t know how many people’s attention it could capture with that short piece of film. But now it doesn’t even claim any longer that it is destroying a site. It gets human rights groups and the UN to say so. First, people are reported as hearing ‘explosions’. The planet then has the footage that it releases according to its own schedule.”

For this reason, Ms Farchakh says, Isis does not destroy all of Palmyra in one video. “It started with the executions [of Syrian soldiers] in the Roman theatre. Then it showed explosives tied to the Roman pillars. Then it decapitated the retired antiquities director, al-Asaad. Then it blew up the Baal Shamim temple.

“And then everyone shouted, ‘Oh no – what will be next? It will be the Bel temple!’ So that’s what it did. It blew up the Bel temple. So what’s next again? There will be more destruction in Palmyra. It will schedule it differently. Next it will move to the great Roman theatre, then the Agora marketplace [the famous courtyard surrounded by pillars], then the souks – it has a whole city to destroy. And it has decided to give itself time.”

Roman amphitheatre

The longer the destruction lasts, Ms Farchakh believes, the higher go the prices on the international antiquities markets. Isis is in the antiquities business, is her message, and Isis is manipulating the world in its dramas of destruction. “There are no stories on the media without an ‘event’. First, Daesh gave the media blood. Then the media decided not to show any more blood. So it has given them archeology. When it doesn’t get this across, it will go for women, then for children.”

Isis, it seems, is using archeology and history. In any political crisis, a group or dictator can build power on historical evidence. The Shah used the ruins of Persepolis to falsify his family’s history. Saddam Hussein had his initials placed on the bricks of Babylon. “This bunch [Isis] decided to switch this idea,” Ms Farchakh says. “Instead of building its power on archeological objects, it is building its power on the destruction of archeology. It is reversing the usual method. There will not be a ‘before’ in history. So there will not be an ‘after’. They are saying: ‘There is only us’. The people of Palmyra can compare ‘before’ and ‘after’ now, but in 10 years’ time they won’t be able to compare. Because then no one will be left to remember.  They will have no memory.”

As for the Roman gods, Baal had not been worshipped in his temple for 2,000 years. But it had value. Ms Farchakh says: “Every single antiquity [Isis] sells out of Palmyra is priceless. It is taking billions of dollars. The market is there; it will take everything on offer, and it will pay anything for it. Daesh is gaining in every single step it takes, every destruction.”


Filed under: Archaeology, Heritage, Illicit trade & looting, , , , , , , , , , ,

Ancient Roman Silver Treasure Revealed

Accidentally discovered by a French farmer plowing his field near the village of Berthouville in rural Normandy in 1830, the spectacular hoard of gilt-silver statuettes and vessels known as the Berthouville Treasure was an ancient offering to the Gallo-Roman god Mercury. Following four years of meticulous conservation and research in the J. Paul Getty Museum’s Antiquities Conservation Department, the exhibition Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville, on view at the Getty Villa November 19, 2014, to August 17, 2015, will present this unique collection of ancient silver in its full splendor and offer new insights about ancient art, technology, religion, and cultural interaction. The opulent cache – in the collection of the Cabinet des médailles (now the Department of Coins, Medals and Antiques) at the Bibliothèque nationale de France – is displayed in its entirety for the first time outside of Paris, together with precious gems, jewelry, and other Roman luxury objects from the Cabinet’s royal collections.

“Since 2010, this magnificent collection of silver objects has been undergoing extensive conservation and study at the Getty Villa, providing us a unique opportunity to examine the production of Roman luxury materials and seeing what this has to teach us about the art, culture and religion of Roman Gaul,” says Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

While the treasure – consisting of about 90 silver objects weighing more than 50 pounds – was first discovered in 1830, it was not until 1861 and again in 1896 that the site was extensively surveyed and excavated, uncovering the foundations of a Gallo-Roman fanum, a square colonnaded precinct with two temples. One was dedicated to Mercury Canetonensis (of Canetonum), while the other was devoted to his mother Maia or his consort Rosmerta. A theater-shaped gathering space was also found nearby. The site survey did not reveal any evidence of an ancient settlement or cemetery in the immediate area, so it’s possible that Mercury’s sanctuary at Berthouville was a place of pilgrimage, perhaps visited during annual festivals.

The Roman god Mercury, after restoration.

The most impressive objects in the Berthouville Treasure bear Latin inscriptions stating that they were dedicated to Mercury by a Roman citizen named Quintus Domitius Tutus. Several of the vessels, profusely ornamented in high relief and then gilded, are recognized today as among the finest ancient Roman silver to survive. The elaborately decorated imagery of Tutus’s offerings, except for one ladle that was manufactured specifically for Mercury, feature Bacchic motifs and mythological scenes that are more appropriate to luxurious dining than religious observance. These items were probably presented to Mercury at Berthouville after initial use as private display silver. Subtle differences in their dedicatory inscriptions may indicate that they were given to the god over the course of a few years, again suggesting that it was perhaps offered during annual festivals.

Pair of cups with centaurs, after restoration.

Soon after its discovery, the treasure was acquired by the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris where it was cleaned and the disassociated parts of several vessels were reassembled. Since the treasure had been buried over centuries, many of the objects were heavily encrusted and the ancient solder that had held together their components often became separated. The nineteenth-century restoration included the removal of some of the tarnish, accretions, and harder encrustations, and left some deep scratches. Some of the corrosion was so tenacious that it had to be left in place, and a number of objects were restored with materials that were commonplace in the day, including solder, pine resin, and beeswax.

Offering Bowl with Bacchus, Hercules, and Coins.

In December 2010 the entire treasure, as well as four unrelated late antique silver platters or missoria from the Cabinet’s collection, arrived at the Getty Villa for a comprehensive conservation treatment. The four-year project focused not only on restoring the works but on historical research, careful study, and meticulous cleaning. This treatment has revealed much of the original gilding, additional inscriptions, and valuable evidence for ancient production techniques as well as nineteenth-century methods of restoration.

The four missoria, on view in the final section of the exhibition, were luxury objects in Late Antiquity. They were primarily intended to display the wealth, status, and cultural aspirations of their owners. The two largest platters are the famed “Shield of Scipio” (found in the Rhone near Avignon in 1636) and “Shield of Hannibal” (found in the Alps in 1714). The shape, scale, and imagery of these two platters led early scholars to erroneously identify them as votive shields of historical generals – the Roman Scipio Africanus and his rival, the Carthaginian Hannibal.


Filed under: Archaeology, Exhibition, Rome, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


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