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.
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.