This paper was originally published in ‘This Week in Palestine. Issue no. 184: 20-21, 2013’ and is re-published here with the author Hamdan Taha’s kind permission
Palestine represents a severe case of systematic plunder of archaeological sites, illicit trade and cultural properties. The relationship between illicit trade and systematic looting of archaeological sites in Palestine is well established. The current political situation under prolonged occupation and siege encourages the looting, destruction and illicit trafficking of Palestinian cultural heritage.
In his fourteenth-century Muqaddimah, an introduction to his volumes on world history, the Arab philosopher and historian Ibn Khaldun wrote that treasure hunting is not a natural way to make a living and described the treasure seekers as ‘ill-minded’. The phenomenon of tomb robbers was known in antiquity, and it was so widespread that it was taxed as an industry in the Mameluke period. This situation began to change in the course of the nineteenth century with the evolution of archaeology from treasure hunting to a scientific discipline.
Palestine represents a severe case of systematic plunder of archaeological sites and illicit trade of cultural properties. The relationship between illicit trade and systematic looting of archaeological sites in occupied Palestine is well established. The current political situation, under prolonged occupation and siege, enables looting, destruction, and illicit trade of Palestinian cultural heritage. A thriving market in Israel is fed with looted objects from Palestine.
The re-establishment of the Palestinian Department of Antiquities in 1994 marks the beginning of a new Palestinian role in the protection of cultural heritage, which is viewed as an integral part of human heritage. But in the absence of a final agreement, Israel remains the military occupant in Palestine, and consequently bound by international law, especially the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.
Palestinian law forbids the looting of archaeological sites. At the same time there is a growing Palestinian interest in cultural heritage and its role in nation building, since cultural heritage represents the history and the identity of the people, and is an important element for sustainable development. The Palestinian Department of Antiquities recognises the role of education and public awareness in confronting looting and the illicit trafficking of cultural properties in Palestine and the region.
Since 1967, it is estimated that more than ten thousand archaeological sites have been plundered, most of them ancient tombs that date to the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, and the Roman-Byzantine periods. Robbing archaeological sites in Palestine has been facilitated by modern technology, which has a more destructive effect, causing irreparable damage. Bulldozers and metal detectors are widely used. This phenomenon has reached an extremely dangerous level, putting archaeologists at risk of being left only with contaminated debris and demolished sites in the near future. Hundreds of archaeological sites have been looted and plundered, and there has been an active illegal trade in cultural properties. Many sites have been abandoned and left without any protection. Most importantly, there is a lack of public awareness of the significance of cultural heritage due to the heavy impact of political and ideological claims placed on archaeology by the Israeli settlement policy. Official Israeli policy stimulates the looting of archaeological sites and the illegal trade of antiquities in Palestine. The years of occupation have witnessed a great escalation in the volume of trade and damage caused to archaeological sites. The occupied Palestinian territory has turned into one of the most looted spots in the world. Hundreds of people are engaged in these illegal activities. It is now evident that illicit trade has a negative impact on the country’s cultural resources, which are regarded as an important element in the socio-economic development of the country. This phenomenon, which brings some monetary benefits to a few at the expense of the public interest, can be countered by careful education – of children as well as adults – showing that antiquities form a significant, integral part of the history and main resources of the country. At the same time, education can lead to the recognition that looting and illicit trade can be prevented through legal and administrative measures.
Archaeological artefacts have their value as a part of an assemblage, and they lose their value when taken out of context without scientific control.
The new transformation in the role of archaeology evokes a chain of positive reactions within Palestinian society. The Department of Antiquities is seeking ways to ensure the protection of cultural properties against looting and illicit trade through legal means in co-operation with the tourist police, and also through promoting a modern understanding of cultural heritage, in close co-operation with the local community.
Dr Hamdan Taha is former Deputy Minister for Heritage, (2012-2014), and from 1994 to 2012 served as the Director General of the newly established Department of Antiquities in Palestine. He directed a series of excavations and restoration projects and co-directed the joint expeditions at Tell es-Sulatn, Khirbet Bal’ama, Tell el-Mafjar, Kh. El-Mafjar and Tell Balata. He worked also as a national co-ordinator of the World Heritage Programme in Palestine. He is the author of many books, field reports and scholarly articles. He is now an independent researcher.