Blog Post

Mapping Antiquities: Looted Heritage and Digital History

From the increasing unrest in Middle East countries to the great Museums of New York and London, the acquisition and sale of looted antiquities is truly worldwide. The increasing loss of cultural artefacts means an increasing loss in heritage. But what if there was a way to map at least some of these looted artefacts? For pattern seeking mammals such as ourselves, we could begin to make sense of the illegal antiquities trade in terms of networks. This is exactly what I have been working on this past year.

I was recruited in my second year by Professor Shawn Graham of Carleton University's History Department to help with a start-up project. The goal was to map the illegal antiquities trade using a platform that affects billions – the internet. By searching through news articles, twitter posts, eBay sales, and emails, we began to form a network. The project Looted Heritage is hosted by Ushaihidi, a platform for crisis mapping that was originally created to map post-election violence in Kenya following the 2008 elections. The platform soon expanded and could be used by anyone to map anything (not necessarily crisis related).

Using this platform we were able to scrape information from the web mainly from Twitter, Google News, and other media/blog sources related to antiquities that were relevant to our cause. A report is created from a Twitter post, news articles, etc. and geo-tagged with the location it is from/talking about and then it is put on a map such as the one below, thus creating a crisis map/network. Anyone can create a report, but to prevent any 'digital vandalism' or fake sources admins had to approve the reports.

 

Looted Heritage Map

Twitter was of enormous help as it usually is the initial source of information when antiquities are looted. Though information from Twitter must be treated with great skepticism, it is truly live information that comes from those who are "on the ground." It is also a great method of crowdsourcing information and getting a variety of viewpoints. We were able to set up a filter that gave us a feed of words with certain hash tags (on Twitter hash tags are used to describe the content of or "tag" a tweet) such as #looted, #heritage, #antiquities, etc. Though a majority of the 'Tweets' were irrelevant and there were many to sort, much of the information was very helpful. News/media sources were set up in the same way using a filter to search for relevant words and then a report would be created from appropriate articles.

This is especially interesting because much of the looting is/was taking place in the Middle East during the Arab Spring. As the map shows, a majority of reports come from that area. Through much of the unrest in places like Egypt and Syria security was placed more on demonstrators and riots and as a result, much of the museums and historical sites were looted. We were able to map, often times 'live', the looting of these countries' cultural heritage. At many times, reports of looting would flood the 'Twitter-sphere'.

We also mapped a different kind of antiquities looting. That is, museums which, knowingly or not, acquired looted artefacts. There were many cases where countries would petition the repatriation of stolen artefacts (through any series of events such as war) back home. This just goes to show that loss of cultural heritage affects everyone, in all countries.

We asked ourselves the question: what can we learn from our project? What does mapping the illegal antiquities trade do for historians? The answer, I believe, is not necessarily to offer a solution to the problem, but rather to promote awareness of a problem so important to our history – its preservation. Our goal is to make people aware that looting of cultural artefacts - those which hold so much meaning to certain group's heritage and ways of life - is happening right now in all areas of the word. Staying true to Ushaihidi's original goal, this truly is a crisis. Awareness is the first element to a solution. Without it we are in the dark. We should embrace the technology that so much history has unknowingly produced, and utilize all of our best and current methods to exhaustion.

I have presented the first step to awareness of the illegal antiquities trade. The next time you are visiting a museum and see an artefact, contemplating all of its history and grandeur, think to yourself: How did this end up here? Because it certainly has a future.

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4 comments

Thanks for sharing, Rob. I'm interested in mapping too, and would love to know more about this platform. How did you choose it? What were some highlights or frustrations?

Your awareness project is indeed important-- how did you share the map with others?

Looking forward to hearing more about you and your great work.

-Rebecca (art-history-turned-English-major)

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Rebecca,

I was introduced to this platform by Professor Shawn Graham at Carleton University. The platform itself is great but we initially had some trouble with categorizing reports. Another major problem is of course verifying sources and searching through all of the feeds we have set up. This was all part of the process though and the learning curve was not too steep. There is a twitter account for the site that tweets certain reports but other than that Shawn Graham has many colleagues in the field of archeology with whom it was shared. 

I am glad you are interested though!

Best,

Rob

 

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Hey Rob,

Good to know you are onto this project :) Why this immediately caught my eye is because I had read this article on a Stanford heritage project a few months ago: http://multi.stanford.edu/features/heritage/

I am specifically interested in the tools of your project because the Stanford guys claimed to have used Google maps while Elizabeth Stone, mentioned in the article, pulled up satellite images etc. They also mention that her method was quite expensive and they tried cheaper options. Since then, I was wondering and had sort of assumed that this project would definitely take up a lot of resources.

Would you mind, elaborating on the costs involved or if any technical expertise was required on your part?

Great job :) Keep it up!

Noopur (former museum studies, now visuality and technology student)

PS: Also, what parameters were you using to pull out relevant information from blogs, news etc?

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Noopur,

That is quite an interesting article. Personally I have used Google Maps/Earth for mapping as it is much more versatile. I see no reason why we could not gather our info in a spreadsheet to be used as a dataset for mapping software.

Though the platform we are now using is open-source, very little technical experience is required. Initially I did some very basic html "programming" but we soon discovered that it was not needed as the site has many great features built into it. The platform itself has a free sign-up.

As for gathering the information, we just basically set up RSS feeds to "scrape" the information from the web.

Best,

Rob

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