First Person Accounts about November 16th Public Session of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee
December 15, 2011

First Person Account of Public Session about Belize

By Christina Luke, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology, Boston University

On 16 November I attended and spoke at the public session concerning the initial requests for Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) between the United States and Belize and between the United States and Bulgaria. The requests were submitted under the Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA), the implementing legislation in the United States for articles 7b and 9 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention. The policy taken by the Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) of the Department of State is to hear from the public during open sessions. Members of the public must sign-up in advance. Each speaker is given 5 minutes to make a formal statement. The CPAC may then ask questions of the speaker.

I made presentations concerning both Bulgaria and Belize. In both statements I focused on the opportunities for people-to-people programming aimed at understanding the importance of the past (i.e., archaeology) in the present (i.e., cultural heritage). Of specific interest to me is the important future role of cultural landscapes and regional cooperation. My formal statements have been made public through the portal system of the Department of State. Below I focus on my public statement for Belize.

The committee had already heard from stakeholders focused on the trade, museum, and policy issues concerning future import restrictions, long-term loans (of objects), and looting (all related to the pre-Columbian past). Therefore, I tailored my statement to focus on issues that had yet to be tackled (one needs to be on their toes to modify prepared remarks!).

For me there were three main points to be made:

1) opportunities for students, scholars, and the general public to participate in archaeological excavations and heritage preservation projects;
2) emphases on the protection of Colonial period material;
3) regional initiatives focusing on collaboration among the countries of Central America and Mexico.

Belize is a welcoming host to hundreds of students, scholars, and tourists every year. Whether through formal excavation or survey projects aimed at scientific documentation of the past, heritage projects focused on preservation and understanding, or tours that take people to see these impressive monuments, I see people-to-people opportunities as the engine behind successful long-term U.S. cultural diplomacy abroad. Thus, the proposed MoU is significant not only for the awareness of the past, but also for providing opportunities for intercultural exchange and mutual understanding in the present.

While the U.S. currently has MoUs with Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, these agreements focus on pre-Columbian material. The request from Belize asks for consideration of preservation efforts for not only pre-Columbian material, but also for Colonial material, the Colonial past being in equal or greater jeopardy. A regional approach to heritage preservation that sees the Pre-Columbian and Colonial periods as components of the living landscapes of Belize would offer a forward-thinking model that considers cultural landscapes as dynamic and not necessarily defined by national boundaries.

The committee had specific questions for me about archaeological field schools and opportunities for people to visit places of heritage. They asked also about expanding opportunities for long-term exchange and fostering relationships between Belize and institutions in the United States. In addition, they had queries about current opportunities to meet and share information at the regional level. This point is especially important because Belize (along with Guatemala and Mexico) holds annual symposia where people interested in archaeology (as well as the directors of archaeological projects, museums, and heritage preservation programs) can meet and exchange information.

Advocating for the Preservation of Bulgarian Archaeology and Cultural Heritage

A First-Person Account of the Public Hearing of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee of the U.S. Department of State on November 16, 2011 in Washington, D.C.

By Nathan T. Elkins, Assistant Professor of Art History, Greek and Roman Art, Baylor University

On the morning of Wednesday, November 16, I joined several colleagues at the U.S. Department of State to speak in favor of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Republic of Bulgaria.  Import restrictions on archaeological and cultural materials have been requested by Bulgaria in order to help stem the plunder of the country’s rich archaeological heritage.  The territory of modern Bulgaria was home to much of ancient Thrace and parts of Dacia and Moesia.  The public hearing had been announced in October; all who were present submitted written comments in advance of the meeting.

After proceeding through security, we were escorted upstairs to a conference room.  The chairperson of the Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) of the U.S. Department of State, Patty Gerstenblith, called the meeting to order, introduced herself, the members of the CPAC, and several staff members of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural of Affairs of the U.S. Department of State who were in attendance.  That morning, the CPAC heard public comment on requests from both Belize and Bulgaria.  The committee first received comment on Belize (see Christina Luke’s summary).

Immediately following discussion on Belize, the CPAC entertained commentary on the request from Bulgaria.  Every speaker had five minutes to make their presentation, although members of the committee could also ask questions of the speakers at the conclusion of their prepared comments. 

Stephen J. Knerly, an attorney who represented the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), expressed support for a MoU with Bulgaria with some reservations.  He asked that any designated list that outlines categories of objects regulated by import restrictions be specific enough only to cover ancient material made in modern Bulgarian territory, because ancient Thrace also incorporated parts of modern Greece and Turkey.  Mr. Knerly also suggested that the Bulgarian government is not doing enough to police looting and antiquities trafficking within its own borders and that this is fostered by high level of government corruption.  He requested that the committee consider tabling Bulgaria’s petition for import restrictions until Bulgaria makes sufficient changes within its own borders.  The AAMD would like to see long-term loan agreements as a component of any MoU.

Peter Tompa, an attorney and lobbyist representing the International Association of Professional Numismatists (IAPN) and the Professional Numismatists Guild (PNG), two international trade organizations for dealers in ancient coins, opposed Bulgaria’s request outright and suggested that if a MoU is signed, the designated list ought not to include ancient coins.  Mr. Tompa began by pulling out a wooden ruler.  He asked the committee to think of the ruler as scale to represent varying degrees of criminal behavior, whereby “12” might represent the most serious crime possible, e.g. murder, while “1” would represent the most minor of criminal offences like speeding violations.  He insisted that looting would be “1” on this scale and that it is no worse than a traffic violation.  Mr. Tompa argued that the scale of looting is so great in Bulgaria, that Bulgarians themselves do not view looting as a crime and asserted that elected officials are involved.  He believes that recent cultural heritage legislation in Bulgaria in 2009 should not be taken seriously by the committee as it was “rammed through by ex-communists only with input from archaeologists.”  He stated that metal detectors should be targeted as as opposed to collectors.  In his view, there is too much undocumented material in American collections and dealer inventories to force such a burden on American collectors and tradesmen.  Echoing Mr. Knerly, Tompa asked the committee to table the request until the Bulgarian government exhibits a greater commitment to curtailing looting.  Tompa also emphasized to the committee that approximately 70% of the written comments submitted via the e-portal opposed a MoU with Bulgaria or opposed the inclusion of ancient coins in any potential import restrictions.  (I, however, would point out that the majority of those comments are simple statements of opposition without any further substantiation or remark upon the four determinations upon which the CPAC makes their recommendations. Please see below).

Kerry Wetterstrom, a former auction director for Classical Numismatic Group (CNG), offered comments on behalf of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG), an organization governed by American dealers in ancient coins and with a broad base of collector membership.  Mr. Wetterstrom made points similar to Tompa’s, although he added that it would be a better approach if Bulgaria were to adopt a scheme similar to the Treasure Act and Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) in England and Wales.  Under such a scheme, metal detectorists would be allowed to operate and would be encouraged to report their finds to the authorities, which may in turn record or remunerate them for their finds.

Presenters who spoke in full favor of a MoU with Bulgaria followed Knerly, Tompa, and Wetterstrom.  I was the first speak among this group. I am an Assistant Professor of Art History (Greek and Roman art) at Baylor University; I am also a member (second-term) of the AIA’s Cultural Heritage Policy Committee.  My research primarily revolves around Roman coin iconography, but I have also published peer-reviewed research on the trade in ancient coins, especially as regards certain supply mechanisms.  I indicated that Bulgaria is a primary source country for freshly discovered ancient coins and minor antiquities that enter the trade in the United States.  In view of the precedents of Cyprus, China, and Italy, I suggested that a designated list include coins as there is great demand for fresh supplies of ancient coins in the United States and there is also a great deal of plunder in Bulgaria to feed the trade; I pointed to numerous seizures of ancient coins and metal artifacts that were smuggled from Bulgaria and destined for the U.S. as evidence.  I also indicated that coins coming from Bulgaria are indeed the fruits of organized plunder and not casual or chance finds of isolated hoards as opponents of import restrictions have claimed in the past.  This is illustrated by bulk lots or wholesale lots of ancient coins from Bulgaria that are advertised on dealer websites and eBay.  I held up printouts of eBay auctions that were online at the time of the meeting; one dealer had numerous lots of earth-encrusted metal artifacts such as arrowheads, jewelry, and parcels of thousands of mixed Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman coins.  Such a mixture of objects from a diverse range of chronological periods represents multiple layers of archaeological sites, not isolated hoards or casual finds.  In fact, the American eBay seller explicitly stated in many of his auctions that he received the material directly from “excavators” and metal detectorists in Vidin Province in Bulgaria.  Vidin Province is an area that has historically been subject to a large degree of looting and which is also home to Colonia Ulpia Traiana Ratiaria, an important archaeological site that has been systematically targeted by looters.  Restricting the flow of all other archaeological materials except coins would solve nothing as it is clear from the seizures and from wholesaler inventories in the United States that the material is derived from the same sources and from the same sorts of organized metal detecting activity.

Christina Luke, Lecturer in Anthropology at Boston University and chairperson of the AIA’s Cultural Heritage Policy Committee, spoke on behalf of the AIA.  Dr. Luke indicated that in recent years Bulgaria has become much more aggressive in policing its own borders and in targeting bands of looters and smuggling rings in Bulgaria.  She substantiated her argument by pointing to specific examples as well as to recent legislation that clamps down on antiquities trafficking.  She also confirmed that looting is widespread and offered some statistics on the looting of tombs in Bulgaria that is being prepared for publication; the U.S. could help to safeguard Bulgaria’s cultural patrimony by signing a MoU.

Brian Daniels, a Fellow of the Penn Cultural Heritage Center of the University of Pennsylvania Museum, spoke on its behalf.  Mr. Daniels reinforced points Dr. Luke and I had made regarding Bulgaria’s more aggressive stance towards looters and traffickers in recent years.

Kevin Clinton, Professor Emeritus of Classics at Cornell University and President of the Board of Trustees of the American Research Center in Sofia (ARCS), spoke on behalf of ARCS.  Dr. Clinton confirmed that looting is a widespread problem in Bulgaria and that he has firsthand knowledge of the situation from his own work in Bulgaria.  According to Dr. Clinton, the new Bulgarian State Prosecutor is very active in pursuing traffickers and looters and has been successful in many respects.  The Bulgarian Ministry of Culture has also responded to the situation by supporting the new law that was passed in 2009.  He also pointed out, on the subject of cultural exchange, that Bulgaria is more open to international cooperation, especially with American archaeologists, than it had been several years ago.  There are several active American excavations in Bulgaria and there are also hundreds of excavations led by local museums, universities, or the Bulgarian government.  The signing of a MoU with Bulgaria would strengthen these ties.

At the conclusion of the meeting, the speakers were dismissed and the CPAC met privately.  My colleagues and I reflected on the day’s events over lunch.  On the whole, we believe it was a productive meeting and that those who support a MoU with Bulgaria made a compelling case for its enactment.

As the CPAC is composed of individuals who represent the diverse interests of archaeologists, anthropologists, museums, the trade, and the general public, it is indeed difficult to predict the outcome of the meeting.  Nevertheless, it is my opinion that proponents of the MoU better articulated their arguments with regard to the four determinations and the actual situation in Bulgaria.  We trust that the CPAC will carefully weigh the substance of the commentary provided to the committee and will make a decision that will aid Bulgaria in the preservation of its cultural heritage.

The four determinations upon which the CPAC will make their recommendations are

1. Is the cultural patrimony of Bulgaria in jeopardy from pillage?
2. Has Bulgaria taken proactive measures to protect its cultural patrimony from pillage?
3. Would the application of import restrictions be of substantial benefit in deterring a serious situation of pillage?
4. Would the application of these measures [import restrictions] be consistent with the general interest of the international community in the interchange of cultural property among nations for scientific, cultural, and educational purposes?

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