One price of the war on terror – the ongoing pillaging of cultural heritage artifacts.

Norway’s Aftenposten carried an interesting report on an aspect of the war on terror that does not often get a mention, the pillaging of the cultural heritage of the country at war, in this case Afghanistan.

The article reports that a Norwegian soldier “came home from duty in Afghanistan with a horde of cultural treasures, which he offered to an Oslo museum”. The treasure was a pile of ancient coins more than 2,000 years old and a small metal bottle, all very easy to secrete and remove. The museum, of course, refused the offer and told him to return the treasures to their country of origin.

On top of all the losses faced by a country at war, the destruction of a nations cultural patrimony has also been a price of war and this is not new. In Iraq priceless cultural treasures of Mesopotamia are still being plundered.

There have been estimates that at least 32,000 items were pillaged from the 12,000 archaeological locations across Iraq during widespread looting which followed the invasion. This began only days after the invasion of Iraq when the museum, which housed a priceless collection dating back 7,000 years to the Sumerian civilization, was looted.

No matter who has committed these thefts, the very fact that they have been allowed to continue is an indictment of the government and the occupying forces who have the responsibility of preserving what can be preserved of the cultural heritage that surely belongs to its people.

The most disturbing aspect of the Aftenposten report is the conclusion:

“The solider, who wasn’t identified, is believed to have violated laws against spiriting national treasures out of their homeland. His case wasn’t unique. Museum officials say they’re often offered such items brought back to Norway by military personnel, aid workers and tourists.

Neither Norway’s economic crimes unit Økokrim, the Ministry of Culture nor Norwegian customs officials know what happened to the items offered by the soldier. Museum officials aren’t obliged to report cases of suspected illegal imports, but Økokrim officials are trying to track the extent of such activity.”

By ignoring this problem we are only encouraging it to continue. While ever such treasures exist there will be those who hunger after the profits that can be made from them. The custodians of these cultural artifacts are not the only ones at fault. The collectors are as guilty as the pillagers in this process. With all the losses that a people face in the aftermath of war, the spiriting away of a nations cultural patrimony not only impoverishes the war torn people, but deprives the world of its cultural richness, to satisfy the criminal and the greedy.


Pressure ridges near Scott Base, Ross Island, Antarctica. Pressure ridges are formed by ice buckling as annual sea ice pushes against the permanent ice shelf.

Photograph by: Dominick Dirksen, National Science Foundation. Date Taken: January 22, 2007.

~ by abstraktbiblos on Tuesday, 3 June, 2008.

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