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Expert Panel Urges Passage of Bill Protecting Syrian Antiquities

The "Death of History" exhibit showed ongoing destruction of Syrian antiquities during the country's prolonged civil war.

More needs to be done to protect vulnerable Syrian cultural heritage sites from further destruction by the Islamic State group, beginning with the passage of legislation that protects Syrian antiquities, according to a panel of cultural heritage experts.

Leaders from the federal government, museums, and the scientific community convened for "Death of History: Witnessing Heritage Destruction in Syria and Iraq," hosted 28 October on Capitol Hill by Sen. Bob Casey ( D-Pa.). The program and accompanying exhibit was organized by the Penn Cultural Heritage Center at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution, AAAS, and the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield.

Casey was joined at the event by a host of congressional representatives from both sides of the aisle calling for the Senate to pass the Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act (H.R. 1493/S. 1887). The bill would impose restrictions on the import of illicit Syrian artifacts in an effort to undercut the looting and trafficking that earns the Islamic State group up to $100 million annually. It follows a similar law passed by Congress in 2004 to protect Iraqi artifacts.


Sen. Chuck Grassley

The bill unanimously passed the House of Representatives in June; Sens. Casey, David Perdue (D-Ga.), and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) introduced the bill to the Senate in July.

Grassley called the continued destruction and looting of cultural heritage sites and the subsequent enrichment of the Islamic State group "an atrocity on two fronts."

"Together I hope that we can reduce the market for these exceptional antiquities and stop the flow of funds to this ruthless group and, in the process, preserve history," Grassley said.

"The least we can do is here in the Congress of the United States is to shut down the U.S. market for these artifacts," Grassley added.

The event also convened a panel of experts to explore other avenues for the protection of cultural assets. Brian I. Daniels, director of research and programs of the Penn Cultural Heritage Center, moderated the panel, which included Salam Al Kuntar, former deputy director of the Department of Excavation and Archaeological Research in Syria's Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums; Richard Kurin, under secretary for history, art and culture at the Smithsonian Institution; Patty Gerstenblith, secretary of the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield; and Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, program manager of the FBI Art Theft Program.

Kurin called for support for a "more sophisticated" research agenda to supplement work already been done by groups like AAAS' Geospatial Technologies Project, which applies geographic technologies to improve research and documentation in service of human rights and humanitarian issues. AAAS' analysis of high-resolution satellite images has documented the targeted destruction of Syrian cultural heritage sites. In 2014, the project's researchers found that four out of six proposed World Heritage Sites have been damaged in the conflict. The images in the 2014 report, unlike satellite imagery from 2011, when the conflict in Syria began, showed numerous pits at some sites — evidence of looting. Satellite research can tell us that destruction and looting has occurred, Al Kuntar said, but she said that more investigation is needed to determine which objects are taken.

Panelists also called for the sharing of best practices — like how American museums should handle items from Iraq and Syria. Gerstenblith noted that museum acquisition of looted goods, although such actions may appear to protect assets, is a "self-defeating solution" that funds more destruction and encourages more loss.


Panelists Patty Gerstenblith (l), Richard Kurin, Salam Al Kuntar, and Bonnie Magness-Gardiner

Panelists also discussed other actions that governments are taking — or should take — to supplement efforts against cultural heritage destruction and looting. The Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act would facilitate this by designating a U.S. coordinator for international cultural property protection and streamlining interagency coordination of existing programs.

The FBI's Magness-Gardiner said that the Bureau, after receiving intelligence that objects from Syria and Iraq were being offered for sale in the United States, created a public service announcement directed at researchers, museum professionals, and other experts that called for a more rigorous due diligence process for purchasing antiquities that appear to be from the region. The announcement also requests that any solicitation for the sale of goods report this information to the FBI, she said. The State Department's Rewards for Justice program offers a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to the disruption of the sale of antiquities that benefits the Islamic State group.

Gerstenblith said that the U.S. should take up consideration of the second protocol to the Hague Convention, which protects cultural property during armed conflict. Consideration, and eventually ratification, of the protocol would "bring us back to the world community," she said.

While many proponents of cultural heritage protection are rightly concerned with the loss of historical records, panelists also focused on the present and future significance of cultural assets.

"In Syria, cultural heritage is part of everyday life. It's not something that belongs to the past," said Al Kuntar, who is Syrian. Emphasizing the ongoing importance of sites that have been destroyed or looted by the Islamic State group, she noted that these "living historical landscapes" are "embedded in our identities as Syrians and Iraqis."

Kurin added that after the end of a conflict, surviving cultural heritage sites become "touchpoints for the rebuilding of a civil society."

"Ancient History/Modern Destruction," a related exhibit that focuses on scientific approaches for protecting cultural heritage sites, will open 10 December at the AAAS Art Gallery to coincide with Human Rights Day. The exhibit will be open to the public.


Andrea Korte

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