Thursday, December 14, 2017

Day 14 - The Looting of Ancient Latvian Burial Sites

A short preface to today’s 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas post… There are really only two requirements for submissions to the series; the topic must be Baltic, and Christmas. However for Day 14, I have relented on the Christmas aspect, as I believe this is an issue that is of the upmost importance to all Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians, and one that we (mostly as as Balts living outside of the Baltics) should take notice of, especially during the holiday season when we may be more actively looking for Baltic jewelry and gifts than at other times during the year. 

The destruction of archaeological sites in Latvia is an epidemic, and it isn’t only artifacts being looted – it is our history and the ability to learn more about our culture and heritage from these burial sites. Today I introduce Andris Rūtiņš, Latvian jeweler who specializes in Baltic, Finnic, Nordic and Slavic reproductions. As you browse Ebay and other online sites for jewelry and gifts, please keep in mind that this large-scale theft and resale of ancient artifacts is occurring, and that you have a responsibility to help stem the flow of antiquities from illegal digs by helping to educate the public and therefore lowering demand for “authentic Viking” artifacts.

Namejs bracelet with dragon terminals (source)

Museum-Quality Viking Artifact or Destroyed Ancient Latvian Burial?

The phrase “looting archaeological sites” may call to mind images of sweaty men sifting through Anasazi cliff dwellings in Utah, dusty Roman ruins in Syria, or vine-covered Mayan pyramids in Guatemala, but one need not look farther than forests in the Latgale region of eastern Latvia or islands in the Daugava River near Ikšķile during the annual maintenance of the Rīga Hydroelectric Station to find previously undisturbed burials as old as two millenia being destroyed for greed enabled by an astonishing contempt for history and the incomprehensible impotence of Latvian authorities. The loot resulting from such desecration is readily available for sale in global internet auctions and shops. How did this situation arise, why is it continuing to get worse, and what can we do to stop it?

Liv tortoise brooch and chain pectoral ornament, 10th-13th century C.E., looted near Ikšķile, Latvia in August 2015, source

Although looting of ancient burials is nothing new, and it is actually the antecedent of modern scientific archaeology, the plague has rapidly grown since the renewal of independence in Latvia, and it continues to worsen. One factor is the dissolution of the Soviet Union; make no mistake, I am not nostalgic for Moscow’s heavy hand on Latvia, but it did discourage unauthorized digging in archaeological sites. I remember my first visits to Latvia in the 1980s, when USSR border guards, customs officials, and milicija (militarized law-enforcement) were not to be trifled with. The fear of being jailed on a whim not only discouraged freedom of speech, but ordinary misdemeanors as well. Trade involving valūta (hard currency) was a serious offense, and contact with foreigners, not to mention travel abroad, was discouraged and closely monitored. There were, of course, black-marketeers willing to take risks, but they generally exploited the scarcity of consumer goods in the domestic market as their business model – much easier than grave-robbing.

Starting with Latvia’s 1990 declaration to renew its independence, its acceptance into the European Union in 2004, and especially after Latvia’s signing the Schengen Agreement in 2003 and implementing it in 2007, travel between Latvia and other European countries became a common daily event which no longer required a passport check at the border, much less a search of one’s car. The rights of individuals were much elevated in relation to the state compared to how it was in the USSR, and store shelves groaned under heaps of imported blue-jeans, coffee, consumer electronics, and everything else that used to populate Soviet-era fantasies and black market stashes.

It is probably no coincidence that the first (of which I am aware) of numerous museum round-tables, seminars, and training sessions devoted to the problem of looting archaeological sites in Latvia was also held in 2007. Newspaper, television, radio and internet media outlets have been reporting on the problem since at least 2010. In a 2011 television broadcast, Jānis Asaris, speaking for the Latvian State Inspection for Heritage Protection (VKPAI) said that he had contacted to notify them of Latvian cultural artifacts being sold in violation not only of Latvian law and international conventions, but also contrary to Ebay’s own published policies. He says an Ebay representative shrugged that the company could take no responsibility for what its members chose to list for auction.

A current Ebay “Viking” listing of believably stray finds being offered for auction from Latvia

Things were already bad enough when in 2013, the History Channel debuted a series called “Vikings,” which lit a new wave of excitement and created a greater demand for artifacts of the period. In the three years since 2014 that I have been following these events, the most prolific traders of stolen Latvian artifacts on Ebay have doubled their individual sales from about 5K to about 10K transactions each. Not all of these were Iron Age (roughly 0-1200 C.E.) pieces, in fact most of them may have been as recent as WW2 vintage, but we are still talking about colossal destruction to feed a major market. One seller has 253 active offers at this moment, of which all but one are identified as “Viking”. Another has 116 listings, of which 115 are “Viking”. A third has 173 “Viking” of 923 active offers. So, just these three Ebay sellers of the 26 based in Latvia that I keep tabs on have 540 “Viking” artifacts on sale right now. Keep in mind that sales are completed every day, and the sold artifacts are continually replenished with new ones.

On November 16, 2014 I inventoried the 2819 “Viking” antiquities on offer on Ebay that day, by recording all relevant information about the first 1503 and extrapolating to the rest. I disregarded Viking-themed articles of recent vintage, but I included items that were at least a few hundred years old and were being represented as Viking whether they really were of the correct period and geography or not. The sellers represented twenty nations, but none of the Viking homelands of Denmark, Sweden, Norway or Iceland were among them. Poles offered 23 items, Belarusians 45, Ukrainians 111; Estonians (who I believe were actually stealth Latvians) offered 131, but there were none from Lithuania, Ireland, Finland, or from Russia directly. United Kingdom took the number two spot with 136. Guess who was number one? 894 of the 1503 counted offers of “Viking” artifacts on Ebay that day were from sellers based in Latvia. After adding artifacts from sellers in other countries that likely originated in Latvia based on their typology, the number rose to 1049. So, if Ebay could be taken to represent the global trade in illicit so-called Viking artifacts (and why shouldn’t it?), Latvia was supplying roughly 70% of the entire market.

The Latgallian/Selonian crown and torc is large, intact, complex with multiple parts, and in “amazing condition”... guaranteeing that it was not turned up by mechanized plows, cultivators, or other farm machinery, much less found laying around above ground for almost a thousand years. The US dealer and self-described anthropologist claims to help indigenous peoples by buying up their scattered cultural artifacts from multiple sources, and then selling them back to their original owners as a curated collection.

Trade in historical artifacts has more or less always been restricted since anyone alive can remember, but the  United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) took a major step toward international cooperation to deter and combat these crimes in Paris in 1970 with the “Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property”. Latvia was deep in the harsh embrace of the Soviet Union at the time, so it could reasonably be excused for not having signed the convention prior to regaining independence in 1990. Soviet Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine signed in 1988, independent Estonia signed in 1995, Lithuania in 1998, and Latvia… has not signed the convention. Last year Juris Dambis, director of VKPAI, promised that Latvia would sign the convention this year, but with two and a half weeks to go in 2017, the UNESCO website still does not list Latvia as a signatory. One stumbling block may be that joining the treaty puts a few obligations on the signatory state, which most likely cost some money. A source in Rīga said he expects Latvia to sign the treaty in early 2018.

Some sellers of looted artifacts go to great pains to obscure the true origin of their „merchandise” falsely claiming that it did not come from burials. This dealer, however, seems to like the idea

On the brighter side, there has been some progress in clarifying the law, at least within Latvia. In 2012 the Latvian Saeima (parliament) defined exactly which items fall under the full protection of the state: “Artifacts are the result of deliberate human creation, e.g., jewelry, weapons, tools, domestic items, pottery, and coins, whether whole or fragmented… Cultural monuments, including artifacts, which belong to the state of Latvia may not be transported out of Latvia, except temporarily when authorized by the VKPAI… Artifacts found under or on the surface of the earth or water in archaeological sites and dated until the 17th century inclusive belong to the state and are to be preserved in public museums. This regulation does not apply to artifacts about which VKPAI was notified prior to March 30… The use of metal detectors is prohibited in the study of cultural monuments, except when allowed by VKPAI.” 

The take-away here is that anything found in Latvia and made by a human hand prior to the year 1700 belongs to Latvia unless it was registered prior to the 3.30.2013 deadline. That covers every single article originating in Latvia and described as “Viking” in internet auctions and anywhere else. One might argue that doesn’t include items with legal export permits, but years have passed without a single permit being requested, and only a hundred or so have ever been issued. Compare that to the two thousand or more “Viking” artifacts from Latvia on offer at any given moment of the last three years, plus the tens of thousands that have been sold during that same period on Ebay alone! Add all the other channels of distribution and everything that was sold beforehand, and one begins to grasp the magnitude of the crisis.

A Latgallian or Selonian woman’s torc sold on Ebay three years ago

2015 started with a bang: in January a scene of devastation was discovered in Latgale. 199 previously undisturbed graves in a well-known designated, protected, archaeological monument, a Late Iron Age burial field, had been destroyed in the largest single array of devastation to date. Some of the burials at Daņilovkas ancient burial field in Šķilbēnu Parish, Viļakas District had been scientifically excavated in the early 1960s, and those finds became the basis for Anna Zariņa’s classic 1970 book “Seno latgaļu apgērbs” (Garments of the Ancient Latgallians). The rest had been left intact for future study.

A small sample of the over 199 previously undisturbed 11th. – 12th century C.E. graves destroyed by looters at just one site, the Daņilovkas ancient burial field in Šķilbēnu Parish, Viļakas District, Latvia in January 2015 (source)

I don’t recall how I first got the notion to contact the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, which states, “The ancient and historic monuments, objects, and archaeological sites of the world enrich and inform today's societies, and help connect us to our cultural origins. The Department's Cultural Heritage Center specializes in the protection and preservation of these irreplaceable resources, working on many fronts to safeguard the patrimony of other countries… The Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act ("the Act") empowers the Department of State to consider requests from governments party to the Convention to impose import restrictions on archaeological or ethnological material.” Through e-mails, telephone conversations, and a chat at Starbucks, I came to understand the U.S. Department of State can direct the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and local law enforcement to interdict suspected shipments of cultural artifacts from abroad, confiscate such items from importers and dealers, and repatriate them to Latvia, whereupon Latvia could prosecute the looters, and the problem would be solved. All that Latvia had to do to start the process was to ask for help from the U.S. and create a catalog describing the types of antiquities in question. I informed the Latvian Ambassador to the U.S. and his deputy about my discoveries, gave them all the contacts I had made, and expecting to see the number of dealers of looted Latvian antiquities start to decrease, was disappointed to see no change. The deputy ambassador explained that despite the possibility of direct bilateral treaties, the simplest, fastest, and most effective way to secure the assistance of the U.S. would be to invoke the 1970 UNESCO Paris Convention – the treaty that Latvia has not yet signed.

In 2016 VKPAI along with the Latvian National History Museum (LNVM) published the Catalogue of Endangered Latvian Archaeological Artefacts. The force behind this publication was Andris Kairišs, who is employed by neither of the institutions listed as authors, but who volunteers significant energy to this cause apart from his unrelated professional duties. With at least one of the critical conditions of the U.S. State Department met, we are taking significant steps towards making some sort of progress.

Viking age Baltic axe charms (source)

I’ll explain in the next installment about the whole Latvia-Viking connection and rebut one-by-one each of the arguments put forth by looters, dealers, and collectors to justify what they do, but what can you do about this today?

The most important thing is to just say “No!” to authentic artifacts being offered for sale. Do not buy or bid on anything that could both possibly have originated in Latvia before the year 1700. Some dealers are up front with this information while others are not.

Educate yourself about the ancient peoples of Latvia and about the science of archaeology.

Visit museums in Latvia (my favorite is the Latvian National History Museum), buy at their gift shops, and make donations to them.

Spread the word, ask questions, and speak up whenever you may hear someone talk about buying a little piece of ancient Latvian heritage. If we can’t stop the looters with deterrents, we can stop them with simple economics: if we stop the demand, we will staunch the supply as well.

If you want to wear an ornament that connects you with your heritage, please patronize one of the many fine craftspeople in Latvia and abroad, but please leave the original artifacts for museums.

Priecīgus ziemassvētkus! 

Latvian penannular brooch (source)

Thank you to the Balticsmith for this eye-opening article. Looting of archaeological sites continues, and as can be seen with a quick Ebay search of “Viking,” the ongoing demand for artifacts is feeding the destruction. Now that you know…
Andris Rūtiņš is the artist behind Balticsmith, featuring Baltic, Finnic, Nordic and Slavic reproductions from the Migration, Vendel and Viking Periods & beyond, as well as original work in silver and bronze. Whether you are a Balt looking for a reminder of the homeland, a Viking, Rus, Celtic, or early medieval re-enactor, or anyone who appreciates hand-crafted jewelry, you’ll want to take a look at the Balticsmith store as well as his Facebook and Pinterest sites.  

I hope to publish a follow-up to this introductory article in the near future. Until then, please keep buying, gifting, and most importantly, wearing your Baltic jewelry; it is one of the most recognizable and beloved expressions of our culture.

Tomorrow on 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas we travel to New York City for a Christmas concert tradition

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