Archeology and Artifacts, Protection of during War

Archeology and Artifacts, Protection of During War


Plundering is a practice as ancient as warfare itself. With the development of the world's great civilizations, the proverbial "spoils of war" often included national and cultural treasures, including priceless art and antiquities. The looting of exotic, foreign treasure filled the national coffers and museums of the victorious, while depleting the vanquished of tangible remnants of their history. The evolution of warfare, both technical and philosophical, altered international perceptions on the seizure of cultural goods. However, today's international bans on the looting and trafficking of antiquities, as well as the expectation that cultural sites remain protected during wartime, took three centuries to come to fruition.

The Colonial Era: The Beginning of Modern Conflicts over Wartime Plunder

The discovery of the New World by European explorers sparked a fierce competition among European nations to obtain territories abroad. Colonialism was fueled by the desire to fill national coffers, through trade, agriculture, or plunder. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, exaggerated rumors of indigenous wealth and stores of gold encouraged plunder of Indian villages. Almost immediately, the demand for exotic objects d'art from the Americas swelled, as wealthy aristocrats clamored for Incan jewelry and Mayan antiquities.

In the 1790s, the birth of the academic discipline of archaeology spurred further interest in antiquities. Archaeologists conducted expeditions, excavating sites and capturing the popular imagination with the artifacts they found. The development of archaeology occurred with a contemporary revival in colonialism. In the early 1800s, independence movements drove European colonial powers from much of the Americas. Seeking other venues for expanding colonial markets, obtaining natural resources, and extending political influence, several European nations, including Britain, France, and the Netherlands, turned to colonial endeavors in Africa and Asia. As imperial powers expanded, so too did public interest in exotic artifacts. During the mid-nineteenth century, Chinese porcelains, costumes, and figurines were popular goods in Holland, Britain, and France. At the turn of the twentieth century, British collectors favored artifacts and antique jewels from Egypt and India. Colonialism provided a means for such cultural resources to be trafficked to Europe for sale or display in museums.

Even in times of warfare, such as the Napoleonic Wars and wars of colonial expansion, cultural resources were a prime consideration. Many western armies freely destroyed indigenous or ancient sites of cultural significance in the heat of battle—a practice that later devastated the many Medieval and Renaissance treasures in Europe itself during World War I. Western archaeologists and antiquities collectors, in an era before the discipline became highly scientific, looted sites to locate artifacts. Antiquities of value were removed from their national contexts, and sent back to museums in Europe. Napoleon employed special spies to locate and gather the best art and antiquities in conquered nations to send back to Paris. In Britain, ancient Egyptian goods and mummies proved immensely popular with collectors and museum audiences. Later, French wars in Indochina created a popular vogue of Buddhist relics and ancient Chinese artifacts.

Even though many of the great finds of the last three hundred years were considered spoils of war or colonialism, the removal of artifacts from their national contexts in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was illustrative of the colonial worldview. Many archeologists, antiquities collectors, and museum collectors considered the removal of foreign treasures to European museums a chief means of preservation. They considered themselves better stewards of the world cultural resources, believing that European collections offered better access for scholars, and a safer environment for the storage of the artifacts themselves.

Changing practices in the discipline of archaeology, which is now highly specialized, scientific, and wholly dependent on the provenience (location and context) of cultural goods, and the fall of colonialism, facilitated the end of widespread plundering of African and Far Eastern antiquities to Western museums. The demise of nineteenth century values regarding antiquities, however, raised new questions about the ownership of goods plundered during past conflicts.

One of the most complicated cases in the international dispute over antiquities repatriation, the giving back of antiquities or works of art to their original owner, is that of the British-owned Elgin Marbles. The stone sculptures hail from the Greek Parthenon, but were purchased by Lord Elgin, a British collector, from Greek authorities, shortly before Greece erupted in a decades-long series of wars. The Parthenon was in dubious condition, and Elgin took the statues in an allegedly legal transaction. After the establishment of international laws governing the repatriation of both wartime and peacetime plundered goods, the Greek government appealed to the British History Museum for the return of the Elgin Marbles. The legal battle remains ongoing, intensified by Greece's desire to repossess the statues before the 2004 Olympics in Athens, but Britain has retained ownership of the prized antiquities.

Plunder and Warfare in the Twentieth Century

In the early twentieth century, the question of wartime plunder of cultural resources came to the fore in Europe. The outbreak of World War I challenged national art and antiquities holdings in a new manner. The advent of total war threatened archaeological sites, buildings, museums, and other national treasures. More intense and powerful weaponry leveled entire cities. Improvements in transportation permitted a more swift, and expansive, invasion force. Long before the fighting of World War I bogged down in the stalemate of the trenches, museum curators in France, Belgium, and Germany endeavored to protect national art and antiquities treasures. At the Louvre, France's premier art and antiquities museum, the staff evacuated the contents of the museum into secret tunnels and antechambers. Some works were sent to various homes throughout France for protection during the war. A special guard force was established to look after the hidden works, and catalog those sent to safe houses. After the Allied victory in 1918, most all of the works were returned to the Louvre, and only a few were captured by German forces or lost.

Plundering of national museums, on both sides of the conflict, was kept to a minimum in Western Europe. However, the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire prompted ethnic regional resistance groups to steal some works, many previously plundered from various small nations subsumed into the empire, from Austria. In Russia, the 1917 Revolution prompted wide-scale looting of treasures from deposed aristocrats and the czar's family. Some treasures ended up in Soviet museums, but more were sold to private collectors in the West willing to pay premium prices for the contraband goods. For decades, Soviet intelligence employed special forces to track and locate stolen Russian art treasures, reclaiming many that ended up in private homes and museums in Eastern Europe.

When World War II erupted in Europe in 1939, many governments embarked on well-orchestrated efforts to protect national treasures from wartime plunder. Most nations perceived an acute threat to cultural resources from Nazi Germany. As Nazi Germany grew in power throughout the 1930s, the nation made plunder of the world's antiquities and art treasures a strategic priority. The Nazi government employed archaeologists, art historians, antiquities specialists, and agents of espionage to locate and seize foreign treasures, especially in Egypt and the Middle East. When war broke out in Europe, Nazi invasion plans for neighboring nations included special provisions for the theft of national treasures, and their relocation to Germany. A methodical bureaucratic system was established to facilitate the cataloging of Nazi wartime plunder—ironically, after Germany's defeat, this careful inventory system aided international repatriation and reclamation efforts.

In France, museum staff once again emptied the Louvre in advance of German occupying forces. The most valuable works of the Louvre were sent into hiding in a variety of locations throughout the nation, trafficked by members of the French Resistance. When Nazi agents broke into the museum to plunder their spoils of war, the galleries were largely empty. After the first weeks of the London Blitz, the German bombing campaign against London, British officials moved the international treasures of the nation's famous museums to underground storage and to safe houses in Wales, Northern England, and Scotland. Many European nations sent valuables to the United States, Australia, or neutral Switzerland for protection. Despite the success of Britain and France in protecting national treasures, the Nazi government plundered antiquities throughout Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Wartime campaigns of total warfare devastated cultural sites in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Poland, Germany, and Italy.

The Holocaust: The Great Theft and the Establishment of International Cultural Resource Protections

The Nazis directed their effort to plunder the world's art and antiquities not only against rival nations, but also at Europe's Jews. During the Holocaust, the German government orchestrated not only the systematic execution of Europe's Jewish population, but also the plunder of all of their goods. In Germany, France, and Northern Europe, wealthy Jews possessed extensive collections of art and antiquities. Some were the major benefactors of national museums, and a few were among some of Europe's leading art and antiquities brokers. Holocaust plunder, known as the Great Theft, was less extensively catalogued by German authorities. The plundered goods, formerly located in private collections, were not catalogued by museums. Thus, the total loss of priceless cultural resources during the Holocaust is immeasurable.

Though the human tragedy of the Holocaust far outweighed devastation to art and antiquities, the Great Theft was addressed in the 1946 Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals. Theft of personal and cultural property was added to the international standards for war crimes in the 1940s. Much of the stolen Holocaust art and antiquities remain in dispute. With few surviving original owners left to claim stolen goods, many items were subsequently repatriated to their nation of origin, returned to the nation of plunder, or were sold in private art markets. However, the theft of cultural resources during the Holocaust prompted the formation of strict international policy regarding the treatment of art and artifacts in times of both war and peace.

Protecting art, artifacts, and cultural sites today. A 1970 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) convention outlined international policy on the protection of artifacts and cultural sites during both war and peacetime. The convention recommended the repatriation of all antiquities, even those acquired from former colonies. In the 1980s, several UN member nations signed a treaty limiting the destruction of cultural sites during military actions. Archaeologists, art scholars, and antiquities specialists successfully lobbied for a ban on the plunder and traffic of illegally obtained artifacts, or removing any antiquities from their context without express permission of national and local governments. INTERPOL now maintains a special force to investigate art and artifact crimes, including those perpetrated during wartime.

A change in war ethos in the West prompted swift reforms of how military campaigns dealt with cultural resources during war. Cultural sites are generally avoided in battle plans, and many governments maintain both civilian and military intelligence forces trained to protect cultural goods. In the recent conflict in Iraq, however, the national museum, containing a vast wealth of antiquities from ancient Mesopotamia, was looted before guard forces were established. The rampant looting raised questions about the enforcement of international anti-theft laws, the effectiveness of military protection, and the readiness of international intelligence forces to track down the stolen goods. Subsequently, many of the artifacts feared initially stolen or lost were recovered from hidden vaults.

The incident in Baghdad also brought to the attention of the international media one of the most basic concerns of preservationists. The growth of the modern antiquities market, and the continued international hunger for plundered goods, has elevated the price of antiquities to enticingly high levels. High prices encourage the looting of cultural sites by local populations desperate for income. Despite international action, looting has become an increasing local phenomenon, but looters are better connected to dealers and antiquities markets. The Internet aided the proliferation of illegally obtained antiquities, but also helps law enforcement monitor the illegal cultural goods trade.

One of the greatest protections to archaeological sites and cultural resources during wartime is the continued development of "smart weapons," ammunition that is carefully guided to specific strategic targets and detonated to minimally impact surrounding areas. Smart weapons permit militaries to strike targets in close proximity to cultural sites. Use of smart weapons by Britain and the United States in the Iraq War minimized damaged to Baghdad's numerous museums, mosques, and cultural sites. However, these weapons are only developed, possessed, and used by a handful of the most developed nations. Less developed regions, many of which are prone to endemic conflict, rely on more conventional weapons and techniques of total warfare.

Today, the national governments of the United States, Canada, and the European Union maintain the most comprehensive intelligence forces devoted to the protection of the archaeological and art resources. In 1998, several European nations sent a special task force into the Balkans, in conjunction with UN operations in Bosnia, to track the trafficking and theft of cultural resources. Coalition nations from the Iraq War in 2003 have devoted intelligence resources to an international effort to recover goods stolen from the Iraqi museum. Thus far, the international intelligence community and INTERPOL have arrested persons suspected of trafficking Iraqi treasures in Europe, the United States, and Asia.



Brodie, Neil, and Kathryn Walker Tubb. Illicit Antiquities: The Theft of Culture and the Extinction of Archaeology. London: Routledge, 2002.

Feliciano, Hector. The Lost Museum: The Nazi Conspiracy to Steal the World's Greatest Works of Art. New York: Basic Books, 1987.

Simpson, Elizabeth. The Spoils of War: World War II and Its Aftermath: The Loss, Reappearance, and Recovery of Cultural Property. New York: Abrams, 1997.


Architecture and Structural Security
Document Forgery
Espionage and Intelligence, Early Historical Foundations
Forensic Geology in Military or Intelligence Operations
Interpol (International Criminal Police Organization)
Libraries and Information Science (NCLIS), United States National Commission
World War I
World War II

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