In my last post, I queried recent claims of German archaeologists looting Nigerian archaeological sites. One of those archaeologists, Prof. Peter Breunig, was kind enough to send me their letter to the Society of Africanist Archaeologists (SAfA), which confirmed my suspicions.
So, I have uploaded the German archaeologists’ refutations of Nigerian archaeologists’ accusations of looting (DOC), and I have summarised the facts of the matter here.
The spread of the allegations
Apparently, the accusing archaeologist, Dr. Zacharys Gundu, has never visited or even contacted the project. Instead, Gundu went on a miniature media tour to spread his claims; and it worked. The allegations were published in Nigerian newspapers like Leadership, Premium Times and the Sunday Vanguard (29th January 2012), and reported by news agencies like the Abuja Press Agency (APA) and Premium Times‘ source, the News Agency of Nigeria.
The accusations were republished on national news sites like Nigeria Newsline, and international websites like allAfrica and Modern Ghana; on international professional news sites like Archaeology News, Archaeology News Network, Archaiologia and Cultural Heritage Law; and on international professional discussion lists like H-Africa (the Humanities and Social Sciences Network for Africa). The claims were also highlighted on international professional websites like Archaeology News Weekly, Archeonews and Cultural Security.
None of those challenged or questioned the allegations; not one even hinted that the allegations were extraordinary, and would require extraordinary evidence (or, indeed, evidence).
It was also forwarded to SafA’s e-mail discussion list (which I guess should be available at http://www.safa.rice.edu/forum.cfm but isn’t), where the Frankfurt team defended themselves.
The Frankfurt team’s defence
The German-Nigerian project is a collaboration between Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main (JWGU) and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Abuja (NCMM).
The project had dismissed Gundu’s ‘aggression’ and ‘provocation’ as understandable ‘resentment’ of a well-funded foreign expedition; but the ‘outright lie[s]’ and ‘shameless defamation’ became so gross that the German team members needed to refute it.
Allegation 1: German archaeologists are ‘mainly responsible’ for ‘looting’
The ‘legal and scientific’ Frankfurt-NCMM project is the ‘only’ rescue work on Nok archaeology. JWGU has research permits from and a memorandum of understanding with the NCMM; and the permits and memorandum are in those institutions’ publicly-accessible archives in Germany and Nigeria.
Allegation 2: ‘unethical archaeological practices’ and ‘cultural imperialism’ – export
The project ‘only temporarily’ exports some artefacts for ‘analyses that are not possible in Nigeria due to the lack of technical equipment’, and for the artefacts’ restoration and exhibition; and it will repatriate any and all artefacts after the Liebieghaus exhibition. Again, JWGU has NCMM approval.
Allegation 3: ‘cheating local communities’
The project has the support of local communities; indeed, it was lent land for its research station by Janjala village. The project employs local community members on excavations and in research facilities at ‘standard local rates’; it has built a well and a two-room secondary school building for Janjala.
The project also has the support of traditional authorities; local, regional and national government; and state security services. It has used that support for the benefit of the local community (for example, by securing the promise of electricity for Janjala).
Allegation 4: German archaeologists ‘promise to give money to anyone that brings a Nok piece’, ‘brib[e] them for access’ to sites
They ‘do not buy artifacts’ (or access) and they ‘never have’. In order to prevent locals being disadvantaged by cultural heritage protection, locals are paid expenses for donations of finds (so they do not lose money by preserving sites); they are paid a ‘1000 Naira (5 Euro) bonus’ for identification of sites that are unknown to scientists (and they are employed if the sites are excavated).
Allegation 5: Julius Berger ‘funded’ looting
Julius Berger provides accommodation and car maintenance for archaeologists in Abuja (and contributed to the construction of the research station in Janjala).
Allegation 6: German archaeologists do ‘not collaborat[e] with Nigerian archaeologists
They ‘are and have always been open for cooperation’. Indeed, as has already been noted, the entire project is a collaboration between JWGU and the NCMM; and about one-third of the project’s fieldworkers are NCMM archaeologists.
The project has trained Nigerian staff for its surveying, sampling and documentation; it supports Nigerian doctoral students conducting PhD research; and it supports a Nigerian postgraduate student doing the MA in Culture and Environment in Africa at the University of Cologne.
The Frankfurt team members share Dr. Zacharys Gundu’s fear of the cultural and economic consequences of the illicit antiquities trade in Nigeria; and they agree with him that ‘[p]overty is indeed encouraging people to dig’; but they convincingly explain or absolutely refute all of Gundu’s allegations against them.
The JWGU/NCMM project is legal, ethical, scientific rescue archaeology; and it contributes to Nigerian education, training, culture and tourism. Gundu’s exploitation of his power as president of the Archaeological Association of Nigeria (AAN) is unethical; and his defamatory statements endanger Nigerian progress in cultural protection and economic development.
Gundu claimed that ‘one small Nok piece can fetch you about four million dollars’ (Sunday Vanguard, 29th January 2012); and a truly exceptional piece might be able to. But as conservator Patrick J. Darling observed, a good Nok terracotta used to be worth N30,000-N35,000 ($190-$222) and, since the crash in the Nok art market, it would only be worth about N15,800 ($100). (So, if the price of an exceptional terracotta has crashed too, it might fetch you about two million dollars.)