The At Risk Cultural Heritage Education Series (ARCHES) is a new Smarthistory learning resource for the study of at-risk cultural heritage, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

ARCHES is in active development, so please check back periodically.

Tangible cultural heritage—the monuments, sites and objects that express and help define our shared humanity—is imperiled in a myriad of ways. While we regularly read headlines that feature the destruction of ancient monuments by extremists such as the Islamic State and the Taliban, these attacks point to a larger global crisis: the loss of cultural heritage at an unprecedented scale. The scope and scale of what is at risk makes it clear that protecting our irreplaceable cultural heritage is now unavoidably entwined in the very study of these objects and sites themselves. The recent targeting of cultural heritage by extremists has made clear that opportunities to understand the brilliant histories of cultural heritage must be made broadly accessible. An informed public is essential to ongoing efforts to protect cultural heritage.

Our cultural heritage defines our humanity. Cultural diversity, like biodiversity, plays a quantifiable and crucial part in the health of the human species. An attack on cultural heritage in one part of the world is an attack on us all—on all of humanity. But cultural diversity is under grave threat around the globe. This wanton vandalism and destruction is not collateral damage—it’s a part of a ruthless wave of cultural and ethnic cleansing inseparable from the persecution of the communities that created these cultural gems. It’s also part of a cycle of theft and profit that finances the activities of extremists and terrorists. Any loss of cultural heritage is a loss of our common memory. It imperils our ability to learn, to build experiences, and to apply the lessons of the past to the present and the future.
—Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, 12 April 2016

Looting and the loss of the archeological record

Archaeology is central to the protection of cultural heritage. The availability of dynamite and bulldozers to looters in the modern era has caused the widespread loss of site context and created a class of orphaned, provenance-less objects that now pervade the art market. These objects — Cycladic figures, Malian ceramics, and ancient coins — have been favorites of collectors who have driven up prices, escalating demand and further encouraging looters. Looting of archaeological sites is a worldwide problem that occurs in poor countries where local populations have few other resources and in rich nations such as the United States where, for example, a civil war site, the Petersburg National Battlefield, was recently looted. What is lost in these cases is not simply prized objects that vanish into private collections, but also the valuable scientific information that is destroyed when the site’s sediments and less salable materials are disturbed.

Seated Figure, terracotta, 13th century, Mali, Inland Niger Delta region, Djenné peoples, 25/4 x 29.9 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Seated Figure, terracotta, 13th century, Mali, Inland Niger Delta region, Djenné peoples, 25/4 x 29.9 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In the ancient African city of Djenné, for example, archaeologists unearthed terracotta figures (many covered with mysterious welts) which became highly valued by collectors. This in turn caused widespread looting of the sites (during a period of famine affecting the region) and the appearance on the market of hundreds of unprovenanced objects. Archaeologists and art historians are engaged in a debate about whether to research and publish on these objects, which may inadvertently increase their market value, and thereby encourage more looting.

Images are not only repositories for cultural identity and vehicles for spiritual transcendence, they also carry monetary value that makes them a target for those who live in poverty, for the middlemen and dealers looking to make a profit, and for collectors who long for an important object. Looting archaeological sites destroys cumulative sedimentary context rich in scientific knowledge. In recent decades this dynamic has, at times, pitted the archaeologist (or cultural heritage organization) against the interests of local populations and even internationally recognized museums.

The role of museums

We are still living with the ramifications of centuries of colonial domination. Major museums, especially those in the West, hold treasures obtained through conquest, revolution, and colonial occupation. The museum emphasis on the aesthetic qualities of the object, often presented alone in an illuminated transparent box, hides not only the object’s original use — perhaps in a masquerade in West Africa, in a Buddhist temple, or on a church altar — but also has the effect of secularizing what was once held as sacred. This tension between the secular values of the encyclopedic museum (those museums with global collections often obtained through colonial ventures or through the donation of unprovenanced objects) which seeks to understand humanity across time and place, and potentially more nationalistic sentiments of people who were colonized, is regularly played out in debates between archaeologists, museum directors, curators, and local populations.

This is, however, a complex discussion. In some cases, the cultures that created the objects no longer exist; in other instances, efforts to link objects to traditions that do endure have been criticized as far-reaching. Some also argue that the values of commonality, of a shared universal heritage, are more important than national claims especially if they are made by governments sullied by political agendas. Clearly, this is not a debate for those looking for a well-defined moral high ground. If, on the other hand, we are looking for a forum in which to examine how we define identity, and upon what we can base reciprocal cultural respect, then cultural heritage offers enormous advantages.

Euphronios, Sarpedon Krater, (signed by Euxitheos as potter and Euphronios as painter), c. 515 B.C.E., red-figure terracotta, 55.1 cm diameter (National Museum Cerite, Cerveteri, Italy)

Euphronios, Sarpedon Krater, (signed by Euxitheos as potter and Euphronios as painter), c. 515 B.C.E., red-figure terracotta, 55.1 cm diameter (National Museum Cerite, Cerveteri, Italy)

The story of the Euphronios Krater is a case in point. The krater, a large ancient Greek punch bowl, was purchased by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and became one of their most celebrated objects, not only because of the pot’s recordbreaking price, but because of its exceptional painting. The krater is now in Italy, having been returned after it was discovered that the vase was likely looted from an ancient Etruscan tomb north of Rome. Questions linger about The Metropolitan’s acquisition and its willingness to overlook gaps in the pot’s provenance.

Images in the broadest sense, be they paintings, sculptures, textile, metalwork, ceramics, or architecture, are among the most powerful forms of cultural heritage. Yet despite their power and persistence, and the roles they play in defining identity, images are also fragile and are under threat. Today, more than any previous moment in history, threats including the effects of new technologies that make communication and travel faster than ever before, and environmental changes brought on by global warming, loom large. We hope that ARCHES can play a critical role in helping the public become better informed about the unprecedented loss of cultural heritage that is now taking place.

ARCHES was made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavour.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this video do not necessarily express those of the National Endowment for the Humanities

Additional resources:
Cultural Property at Risk — Questions and Answers (UNESCO)
Antiquities Coalition
Central Registry for Looted Cultural Property 1933-1945 (Europe)
International Centre for Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property
National Park Service: NAGPRA
SAFE: Saving Antiquities for Everyone
Trafficking Culture
UNESCO illicit trafficking of cultural property
UNESCO’s list of world heritage in danger

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
Thomas G. Weiss and Nina Connelly, Cultural Cleansing and Mass Atrocities: Protecting Cultural Heritage in Armed Conflict Zones

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "ARCHES," in Smarthistory, September 2, 2017, accessed March 20, 2018,