CDR Michael Hallett, NATO HQ SACT Representative opening the course
NATO Allied Command Transformation (ACT), the International Military Cultural Resources Working Group (IMCURWG) and the Austrian National Defense Academy (NDA) recently conducted a Pilot Course on Cultural Property Protection. From the 29th of November to the 2nd of December, NATO and NATO partner personnel gathered at the Austrian National Defense Academy in Vienna to attend this training event.

Professionals from 13 countries and diverse backgrounds composed the audience. The participants were not only members of national armed forces, but also civilians operating in the field of cultural heritage protection, archaeologists and historians. 

The course was designed to enhance NATO’s Cultural Property Protection (CPP) capabilities and to establish a new structured and institutionalized forum of discussion. The lectures addressed a number of issues. For instance, on the opening day the conversation focused on the value and utility of CPP and on the way in which it should be implemented in the Military Decision Making Process. 

The Blue Shield emblem on a historic building in Wiener Neustadt, Austria
The Austrian approach was taken as an example of good practice, recognizing that only a limited number of armed forces are effectively complying with the principles accepted by international customary law and articulated in the 1954 Hague Convention and its protocols.

A number of case studies were presented to illustrate both good and bad practice (Afghanistan, Iraq, Macedonia, Libya). Members of the Blue Shield emergency assessment mission to Libya (Dr. Kila, Karl von Habsburg and Dr. Walda) presented the results of their investigations and described their efforts to compile a non-strike list. A list that was then forwarded to NATO and might have been at the base of the care and attention paid by the Alliance in avoiding sites of cultural relevance during the ‘surgical strikes’ on the Libyan territory.

Members of the Austrian Armed Forces briefly introduced the principles of international law that are regulating the protection of cultural property in times of conflict. In addition to this, the Austrian Defence Academy engaged the participants in a practical exercise based on a scenario commonly used for the ordinary training of their National Army.

From the left: Major Laire, Dr. Rush, Dr. COL Speckner, CDR Hallett
During the course, Dr. Laurie Rush and Dr. James Zeidler presented the activities of the CENTCOM Historical/Cultural Action Group. They described a variety of training tools developed for the US Department of Defense to raise awareness among military personnel and contractors about the importance and value of protecting cultural property.  Though, what I appreciated the most was the fact that their presentations were not structured simply as self-promoting discourses (all too common…). On the contrary, what I found most useful was their ability to use case studies to demonstrate how the lack of knowledge is frequently the primary cause of destruction and damage of cultural property. Mistakes that could have easily been avoided by informed commanders and trained soldiers. Starting from the description of  real situations that the military had to face in Afghanistan and in Iraq, a series of lessons were drawn. In particular it was possible for them to stress the importance of designing and institutionalising specific training modules on heritage issues. The message was that only through knowledge and awareness damages can be minimised if not prevented.

The course was not structured to deliver a complete and exhaustive training on CPP matters. It appeared more like a round table where, after each presentation, the audience would come alive with questions and suggestions to find a way forward. What was clear, by the end of the week, was that at both national and international level there is a general and widespread lack of concrete measures to enforce and implement of the provisions of the 1954 Hague Convention. One fundamental question was also that there is not a commonly agreed definition of the professional figure of the Cultural Property Advisor or Specialist. It seems that the rising awareness of the fact that cultural heritage should be taken into consideration during military operations has created a new professional niche. However, until this professional figure is not formally defined the risk is that all the efforts of good will made by NATO (or by any national military force) will be vain and might result in a further loss of credibility. 

To close the course CDR Hallett introduced one of the tools that could be used by anyone who felt the need to stimulate a change of approach within NATO. He presented the Joint Analysis and Lessons Learned Centre  and its database. By registering to the database it is possible to submit observations, sugestions and comments on specific issues related to NATO operations. The database can then be accessed and all the entries queried. Obviously, the contributions submitted need to meet certain criteria to be taken into consideration and included in the database, but once accepted they are analysed and become part of a corpus of information that can be beneficial to others and that can eventually stimulate a process of change within the Alliance. It is hard to predict how effective this tool might be. However, for those who believe that we are in desperate need of a radical change in the way in which the military are approaching cultural heritage issues, it might be worth a try!


Several articles  echoed the growing concern on Libyan cultural heritage. I will advise  to start with the great article of Dorothy’sKing PHDIVA who gave a great professional insight supported with strong arguments on the composition of the “Libyan treasure”. Once more, the looting raised the importance of having safely stored and up-to-date documentation on collections (as part of risk management plan) to facilitate the work of Interpol to locate looted artifacts in International Antiquities markets. At the end, an article on the recent recovering by Italian Carrabinieri of the head of a statue from the Sabratha Museum, west of Tripoli detached and stolen in 1990 and sold in Christies last April” .Laurence Lepetit

Antiquities missing from Libya (Blog Dorothy’sKing PHDIVA, October 31st, 2011)
“A great deal is being written about the missing "Benghazi Treasure" so I thought it might be worth doing a quick blog post about it. (…)
Firstly, the Benghazi Treasure does not come from Benghazi - it was stored there after the Italians who'd originally excavated it returned it (…)
I'm not trying to downplay the issue of looting, but from a logistical point of view very few of the other items were photographed, and those that were tend to be relatively minor and so will be hard to identify should they appear on the open market.  (…)”
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Priceless gold of Benghazi is stolen (Dan Sales, the Sun, October, 31st 2011)
“A GANG used the battle for Benghazi to steal a priceless haul of ancient gold. The thieves escaped with 7,700 gold, silver and bronze coins — each more than 2,000 years old. A single similar coin sold this month for £268,000.
(…)The disappearance of the hoard — known as the Treasure of Benghazi — was called "one of the greatest thefts in archaeological history".
Read more
Among the missing treasures, clockwise from top: an embossed thin gold plate depicting a battle, golden and wrought silver foils with human heads in profile, and a figure of Nikai. The Arts Newpaper
Thousands of Antiquities looted from Libyan Bank Vault (Blog Illicit Cultural Property, October 31st, 2011)
Thousands of antiquities are reported to have been stolen from a Benghazi bank vault in Libya. The objects are small, portable and very valuable. The collection has not been displayed for many years and has not been sufficiently documented. Chances for recovery would therefore be very remote.
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Looted Libyan treasure “in Egypt”( Alder, Katia, BBC NEWS, October 31st 2011)
Libya's National Transitional Council says it believes several hundred ancient coins stolen from a bank in Benghazi during the Libyan uprising have turned up in Egypt. (…)
Fadel al-Hasi, Libya's acting minister for antiquities, told the BBC there were suspicions the robbery could have been an inside job. (…)
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Interpol confirms Libyan treasure was looted (Bailey, Martin, The Arts Newspaper, October 31st 2011)
(…)“Francesco Bandarin, Unesco’s head of culture, working with Libyan archaeologists, is ­det­ermined to hunt down the treasure; Interpol has alerted 188 national police forces. Inform­ation about the loss is scarce, but there is some new evidence, based on research by Italian archaeologist Serenella Ensoli, the Naples-based director of the Italian Arch­aeological Mission to Cyrene. (…)
The problem with individual coins is that without good photographs it will be difficult to prove their provenance, and to show that they were once part of the Benghazi Treasure. Unesco director-general Irina Bukova told a meeting in Paris that the loss represented “one of the largest thefts of archaeological material in history.” Unesco now hopes to send a mission to Tripoli and Benghazi to pursue inquiries.”
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The Art Newspaper
Head sold at Christie’s stolen from Libya (Bailey, Martin, The Arts Newspaper, October 31st 2011)
“A Roman head of a woman, which was sold at Christie’s in London on 14 April, had been stolen in Libya. It was bought at auction by an Italian for £91,250 and has now been recovered in Italy by the carabinieri. (…)
 The provenance was given as “private collection, Switzerland, circa 1975; acquired by the present owner in Switzerland in 1988”. At the time of the sale, an archaeologist contacted Christie’s to warn that lot 261 was the head of a statue at the Sabratha Museum, west of Tripoli; it had been detached and stolen in 1990.”
Read More

To know more on Libyan cultural heritage fate following the conflict: 

Civil-Military Assessment Mission for Libyan Heritage, By Blue Shield and IMCuRWG, September 28 to 30, 2011
Photo gallery of the report  by Karl von Habsburg and Joris Kila: http://www.blueshield.at/
I strongly believe that it is necessary to give visibility to all initiatives aiming at calling attention on the fact that armed conflict and internal strives are threatening cultural heritage all over the world. Therefore, I report in its entirety the appeal made by a number of organizations to urge immediate action to protect the immense cultural patrimony of Libya.


A Call to Protect Libyan Antiquities and Cultural Heritage and Economy

We, the presidents of the undersigned cultural organizations, call on the international community to protect the ancient sites and antiquities of Libya, which face very real threats of damage and destruction caused by the civil unrest and military action currently taking place there. The cultural heritage and archaeological resources located in Libya are irreplaceable elements of the world’s shared memory, going back thousands of years. The importance of guarding these treasures while civil unrest is underway cannot be overestimated.

We strongly urge immediate action to protect Libyan antiquities, cultural heritage, and archaeological sites, as illustrated at

Through such action, significant archaeological artifacts and irreplaceable historic objects will be preserved in situ and in the many Museums and sites across the country. Such an initiative will also help stem illicit international crime organizations that have links to money laundering, human trafficking and the drug trade and are known to exploit civil unrest and political instability for profiteering.Whereas, cultural heritage and archaeological resources located in Libya are irreplaceable elements of the world’s shared memory, going back thousands of years, Whereas, some ancient Libyan artifacts of unknown provenance and antiquity may already have been stolen and are in private hands,

Whereas, the United Nations has called for international mobilization to block stolen cultural artifacts from Libya,

Whereas, the tourism industry in Libya is closely tied to cultural expeditions, is a source of employment for Libyans, and has a huge potential to contribute to the rebuilding efforts of the new Libyan economy,

We call upon Congress and the President to direct the following actions:

- The Department of State to work with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency in implementing import restrictions on undocumented cultural artifacts from Libya.- The Federal Bureau of Investigation and ICE to coordinate with foreign counterparts and intensify their antiquities enforcement operations, with a view to initiating targeted law enforcement operations with the aim of the seizure of the stolen or illegally exported cultural property, the arrest of the criminals involved, and the seizure of the proceeds of these and related crimes.

- US-AID to grant additional monies for protection and management of archaeological sites, museums, and historical monuments.We call upon Parliament and the President of European Union to direct the following actions: to be added

We further call for the following additional actions:

- INTERPOL to use its special expertise in identifying and sharing critical  information throughout its 188 member countries, and in particular to use its I-24/7 telecommunications system for the exchange of information related to crimes involving Libyan cultural property and to identify suspicious financial transactions which can lead to the freezing and confiscation of the proceeds.- The United States Congress to designate funds for the protection of Libyan antiquities as part of its economic aid package for Libya.

- The European Union to designate funds for the protection of Libyan antiquities as part of its economic aid package for Libya.

- The People Republic of China to designate funds for the protection of Libyan  antiquities as part of its economic aid package for Libya.

These actions are in keeping with U.S. international obligations under the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Goods. They will help promote the protection of invaluable cultural artifacts. They will continue to provide the crucial basis for tourism revenue as Libya seeks to build a successful democratic economy.

President Ben A. Nelson
Archaeology Division-American Anthropological Association

President Elizabeth Bartman
Archaeological Institute of America-AIA

President Lucy Wayne
American Cultural Resources Association

President Friedrich Lüth
European Association of Archaeologists-EAA

Co-Presidents Douglas C. Comer and Prof. dr. Willem J.H. Willems
International Committee on Archaeological Heritage Management-ICAHM

Secretary-General Luiz Oosterbeek
International Union of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Sciences- UISPP

President Benjamin Smith
Pan African Archaeological Association for Prehistory and Related Studies

President Margaret W. Conkey
Society for American Archaeology-SAA

President Sandra L. López Varela
Society for Archaeological Sciences-SAS

President William B. Lees
Society for Historical Archaeology-SHA

President Chapurukha Kusimba
Society of Africanist Archaeologists (SAfA)

President Dr. Leslie C. Aiello
Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research

President Claire Smith
World Archaeological Congress-WAC

President Dr. Eldon Yellowhorn
Canadian Archaeological Association


In this interview Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO, discusses the current concerns for the cultural heritage of Libya and she points out that one of the major issues related with conflict is the exponential growth in the traffic of illicit antiquities.
When the situation in Libya started precipitating a number of concerned voices pointed out that the rich archaeological patrimony of the country was in danger. Many mentioned the 5 World Heritage Sites and the two major museums, others reminded us of the vastness of the whole prehistoric archaeological heritage. An example is the statement issued by the Blue Shield  in which appears a reminder of the fact that 'Libya is a party to the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict since 1957, and became a party to the Second Protocol of this convention in 2001'. As we know from today's news Geddafi's troupes are very much aware of the provisions of this convention; and probably, they are intentionally breaking them in the hope of moving public opinion against the NATO intervention in the country.

As we know the members of the 1954 Hague Convention agreed to refrain from  'any use of the property and its immediate surroundings or of the appliances in use for its protection for purposes which are likely to expose it to destruction or damage in the event of armed conflict;'  However, the protection, granted by the Convention to Cultural Heritage, is lost when such property is used for military purposes. And this is exactely what seems to be happening now to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of  Leptis Magna, located at 130 km east of Tripoli. In fact, rebel sources reported that Gaddafi troops have stashed on site rocket launchers and other military equipment. If this news is confirmed, it means that the ancient ruins, used for military purposes  have lost their protection and, in the eyes of the  NATO officials  overseeing the campaign of aerial bombing in Libya, the archaeological site has become a legitimate and lawful target. As the CNN reports, the alliance is not ready to release declarations on this issue and, with caution, they are communicating that they could not verify the reliability of rebels claims. This certainly means that no action will be taken for the time being, but things could rapidly change. 

What would be extremely interesting to discuss now is how breaching International Law can become a weapon in itself. It does not seem too unrealistic that an archaeological site has been used by the Geddafi's men to store or 'hide' military equipment; but, what would be the advantage for them? And what would the rebel be gaining by spreading this news?
Well, certainly Geddafi is not the kind of leader that plays by the rules, and such an action could have been conceived as provocation to push his adversary towards a controversial decision. If the NATO raids were to hit the World Heritage Site this would certainly be detrimental for the image of the mission. What for military experts is a legitimate target, in the eyes of the public opinion is more likely to be seen simply as an important archaeological site that should have been spared. In this case lawful military action could back fire becoming a failure under the point of view of media communication, playing a delegitimising role at international level. On the other hand,  the rebels  could have fabricated this news knowing that mass media would have magnified it to the point that it would have become an other tessera composing the image of the ruthless dictator, the man who attacks the civilian population of his own country, the man who hires mercenaries, the man that threatens the whole mediterranean and, if this was not enough, also the man who is ready to put in danger his national heritage in order to maintain his power and defeat the rebels supported by the international community.

We do not know what is really happening in Leptis Magna, and in all the other archaeological sites of the region, at this stage it all boils down to mere speculation. However, this news can certainly be considered as a warning. Once again cultural heritage is on the line of fire risking to be turned, in a way or an other, in a propaganda tool.  International law provisions exist and are designed to create obligations to take positive steps to protect cultural heritage, but realistically what is at stake during an armed conflict is victory. For some this comes through legitimisation, for others this has to come at any cost, even if this means to commit unlawful actions or in the worse case, war crimes!

Patrizia La Piscopia

Read more: 
Libya's 'extraordinary' archaeology under threat
With Roman Ruins Under Threat, Libya's Ancient Past Presses Against Its Present
UN cultural agency calls on Libyans and NATO to protect heritage sites

The Director-General calls for the protection of the Old Town of Ghadamès

The map below was generated by Pleiades, a collaborative project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities that is mapping ancient sites around the Mediterranean and beyond, the link shows sites throughout Libya. We are posting this map encouraged by the The AIA and US Blue Shield that are promoting it and suggest to share this information. The map is released under a Creative Commons license and is reusable so long as Pleiades is cited. If you would like to post the map, you can find it at: http://tinyurl.com/4jlcl96