By: Susan Kane
Today the cultural heritage of Libya faces significant threats and damage due to unmanaged, unregulated development and civil disorder. Since the February 2011 revolution, Libya has struggled with the challenge of building a new country. There are currently three rival governments, no constitution, no clearly operating legal system, no defined property rights, no organized police force, and too many independently operating militias. A major land-grab is underway that is causing more damage to archaeological sites than all the events of the 2011 revolution and its aftermath.
Libya’s vast landscape contains impressive cultural heritage, including five UNESCO World Heritage sites. The coastline features three Greco-Roman archaeological sites—Cyrene in the east and Sabratha and Leptis Magna in the west. Further inland, nearly 500 km to the southwest of Tripoli, is the World Heritage site of Ghadamès with its distinctive vernacular architecture. The World Heritage site of Tadrart Acacus, a massif located in the far southwest of the country, features thousands of rock-art sites, some dating as early as 12,000 BC.
During the Gaddafi regime, Libya’s pre-Arab cultural heritage was not a priority. And in the context of the challenges facing post-revolution Libya, it is not surprising that cultural heritage struggles for recognition and support from both the government and the populace at large.
As Libya strives to reunify and to shed the vestiges of the former regime, the international community has been eager to provide assistance. A series of international meetings on Libya’s cultural heritage have been held since the 2011 revolution—most recently in June 2016 when UNESCO, with the support of the US Embassy Tripoli, convened a meeting in Tunis of all foreign archaeological missions working in Libya and a group of Libyan archaeologists and community leaders to discuss the current state of affairs in the country. All participants expressed their concern about the fragility of Libyan cultural heritage and final recommendations focused on securing heritage sites and collections, strengthening the legal and institutional framework for the protection of heritage, and increasing the awareness of and support for heritage by the national and local publics within Libya.
Security is a major issue for the country’s cultural heritage. Without a strong police force, regional controllers are hesitant to have their archaeologists conduct fieldwork or site inspections in areas deemed to be unsafe. Clandestine excavations and the export and sale of illicitly obtained antiquities from Libya has skyrocketed since the 2011 revolution.
It was within this context of political uncertainty that the American Mission to Libya held a workshop: “Illicit Trafficking of Antiquities” in Rome (29 February – 02 March 2016) funded by the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, U.S. Department of State grant: “Libyan Heritage in Times of Crisis: Five Mitigation Workshops.” At this workshop, nine archaeologists from Libya’s Department of Antiquities (DoA) and four instructors from the FBI Art Crime Team, the US National Parks Service, and the Italian Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale (TPC) discussed ways to prevent illicit trafficking of antiquities in Libya. During the workshop, the DoA requested help in creating a special police force who could both protect cultural heritage and respond to incidents of illicit trafficking. In the absence of rule of law in Libya, this force would, in essence, be a group of volunteer “Monuments Men.”
The instructors at the Rome workshop recommended the Libyan delegation return to their respective cities and begin to identify local police who were interested in archaeology and willing to work with the DoA to prevent illicit looting and trafficking. They also recommended that similarly sympathetic lawyers and judges be identified who could work with the DoA to develop new legislation for the protection of cultural heritage to be included in the next constitution. These multi-disciplinary teams would form the core of the next training workshop on introductory cultural resource protection.
In May 2016, members of the DoA began to build professional bridges with the Tourist Police and Customs and Border Control agencies. From these meetings, a group of archaeologists and police were identified who were willing to work together to form multi-disciplinary teams. A follow-up workshop to the one in Rome was designed for this group that would focus on practical training exercises such as how to document a cultural property crime scene and how to prepare reports for the repatriation of antiquities illicitly exported from Libya.
This second workshop — “Introductory Cultural Resource Protection Training Course” — was also funded by the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, U.S. Department of State grant. Participants included eight of the archaeologists who attended the Rome workshop and an equal number of Tourist Police and Customs and Border Control Officials, as well as a lawyer and former judge from Tripoli. The three instructors were from the FBI Art Crime Team, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Italian Carabinieri TPC. This workshop marked the first time that Libyan archaeologists, police, and customs agents had ever participated in a joint training exercise.
The workshop included a series of practical exercises on crime scene documentation and the various techniques of evidence collection, including fingerprint lifting and DNA sample collection. After participating in these basic exercises, the group was split into two teams, each composed of equal numbers of archaeologists and police officers.
Each group then completed two more complex exercises. The first was a mock illicit excavation that was laid out on the hotel grounds. Participants had to identify, flag and number the core elements of the crime scene; sketch and photograph the scene; collect any relevant evidence; and write a report.
The second scenario was a border crossing exercise that involved a car carrying stolen antiquities. As part of the exercise, participants needed to search the car, collect any relevant evidence (including evidence stored on a mobile phone), and interview the driver. One group searched the car so thoroughly that they produced multiple examples of “evidence” that had not been planted by the instructors.
These practical exercises provided an opportunity for the police instructors to work directly with their Libyan counterparts in order to build their investigative skills. The workshop also provided an opportunity for extended discussion about the difficult situation in Libya. Many of these conversations could provide no easy answers for productive action at a time when Libya is still gripped with profound instability. However, the FBI Art Crime Team agent took the opportunity to describe his previous work in Cambodia, where he had helped train and establish police forces focused on cultural heritage in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge regime. The progress was slow, but momentum grew with the direct collaboration between international law enforcement officers. Ultimately, the trainers stressed that the most important and immediate action for DoA archaeologists and Libyan law enforcement personnel to undertake is to a) document cultural property so that there is a solid record in case of a) damage/theft and b) document any damage/theft scrupulously and collect any evidence for eventual prosecution.
The Libyan contingent left with a new sense of resolve and a coordinated plan of action that includes organizing follow-up training workshops within Libya to recruit new groups of archaeologists and police willing to work on cultural resource protection. These workshops will conduct exercises similar to those used at the Tunis workshop and also offer basic training in recognizing common Libyan cultural artifacts as well as familiarizing participants with ICOM’s “Emergency Red List of Libyan Cultural Objects At Risk.” The first of these in-country training workshops was held on December 28, 2016, at Omar al-Mukhtar University’s Centre for Archaeological Research and Studies (C.A.R.S) in the northeastern city of al-Bayda.
From this expanded pool of workshop participants, a select group of law enforcement individuals will be identified who have a strong capacity for this type of work and the suitable professional responsibilities to benefit from further training at another workshop, planned to be held in Tunis in 2017.
These ongoing initiatives hopefully will produce a group of “Monuments Men” for Libya who can protect the country’s cultural heritage in these challenging times.
Dr. Susan Kane is a Principal Investigator for the Cultural Heritage Projects at Oberlin College. Dr. Kane is a widely published scholar and Director of the American Archaeological Mission to Libya, which has been involved in capacity building efforts for the Department of Antiquities since 2005.
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