excavation under annexation: archaeological work in Crimea

I have posted a simple English summary of how Ukrainian archaeologists might protect cultural heritage in annexed Crimea. If I can help anyone, please contact me.

These are considerations, not instructions

I want to help Ukrainian archaeologists and their international colleagues to think through the possibilities for cultural heritage management in annexed Crimea. They need to establish guidelines for cultural heritage workers who come from or live in Crimea, ones who come from or live in the rest of Ukraine, and ones who come from abroad.

The first “proper” chapter of my doctoral thesis (pages 116-151) considered archaeological work in secessionist territories (in northern Cyprus). So, in solidarity with Ukrainian archaeologists – and, hopefully, as assistance to them and their international colleagues – I want to consider some of the political, legal and ethical challenges that they now face.

What’s happened?

The Russian army has invaded and occupied Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and city of Sevastopol. Its vanguard are preparing the ground for its destabilisation/invasion of eastern, south-eastern and southern mainland Ukraine – for example, in Artemovsk, Chernovy Lyman, Donetsk, Druzhkovka, Gorlovka/Horlivka, Kharkiv, Kherson (region), Kramatorsk, Krasnoarmiysk, Krasny Liman/Krasnyi Lyman, Luhansk, Makiyivka, Mariupol, Mykolayiv, Odesa/Odessa too, Shaktarsk, Slaviansk/Slovyansk/Slov’yans’k, Zaporizhzhya… Those links were added as the first news arrived. Many places have since seen (even) more violent action.

As the Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Admiral Ihor Kabanenko, observed, ‘the penetration of Russian Federation troops into the east has taken place [Вторгнення військ РФ на Сході відбулося]’. (As Euromaidan PR translated it, ‘Russia’s invasion in the East has already occurred‘.) So, Ukrainians have more urgent concerns than cultural heritage management. However, Russia has also (unsurprisingly, inherently, but nonetheless problematically) annexed the licensing of archaeological excavations in Crimea.

Why should anyone care at all?

Apart from demonstrating Russia’s long-term intentions (and expectations), the cancellation of Ukrainian licensing prevents any legislative fiction of archaeological work in “occupied territory” (that could be used to ease efforts to protect cultural property).

Russian licensing obliges archaeological work in secessionist territory (or, more precisely, annexed territory), which is at best ethically difficult, at worst legally impossible. So, it threatens the conservation and protection of cultural heritage, which in turn threatens the long-term cultural and economic security of the country.

Furthermore, Russia-backed authorities are preparing the ground for its annexation of Transnistria(1), and there are rumblings of activity in or around Vitebsk (in Belarus) and Kazakhstan, so this is going to be a growing problem for the protection of cultural heritage in eastern Europe.

Why shouldn’t Crimea’s unification with Russia be recognised?

The parody of a narrative of humanitarian intervention – protest, provocation, occupation of the administration, declaration of independence, petition for peacekeeping, annexation – is too theatrically perfect for any audience to suspend disbelief. And, whether for annexation or sheer destabilisation, AstroTurf (fake grassroots) activists are initiating repeat performances elsewhere in Ukraine (and elsewhere in Europe).

Anyway, there is a lot of evidence – including participants’ free and frequent confessions – that (many of) the “local protesters” are paid Russian ‘volunteers’ (activist fronts and agents provocateurs) and (many of) the “local self-defence forces” are hired ‘thugs’, private security contractors and Russian soldiers.

The population of the Crimean peninsula comprises 58% Russian, 24% Ukrainian, 12% Crimean Tatar and 6% smaller minority citizens – including Belarusians, (other) Tatars and Armenians. The population of the city of Sevastopol comprises 72% Russian, 22% Ukrainian and 6% smaller minority citizens – including (other) Tatars, Crimean Tatars, Armenians and Jews. But, in the 2014 referendum, allegedly 97% voted for unification with Russia. (Obviously, but for the avoidance of doubt, independent Russian media did report voting fraud/election-rigging.)

Technically, technically

Readers may object to my description of legal obligations as “technical” obligations. (And I certainly apologise for the next sentence…) I make that awkward distinction because the legally recognised authorities of the Republic of Cyprus allow some cultural heritage workers to somehow engage in some work within the area under the administration of the legally unrecognised Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

I also make that distinction because states may be members of some conventions but not others, so they may be held to the poorly-written letter of the law, rather than its well-meant spirit, even if the administrators/assistants of that law have clarified its original intent

Whatever action the Ukrainian authorities choose, they should not be forced to take self-sacrificial/self-harmful action in order to reject Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Occupied archaeology

Russia is an occupying power, and has consequent legal responsibilities for Crimea’s 300+ cultural heritage sites and its 900,000+ cultural/historic artefacts. Even if Russia had “simply” occupied Crimea, cultural property protection would be difficult, because Russia and Ukraine have only ratified the 1954 Hague Convention and the 1954 First Protocol, not the 1999 Second Protocol.

The 1954 Convention obliges occupying powers to ‘support the competent national authorities of the occupied country in safeguarding and preserving its cultural property’ and, where necessary, to ‘take the most necessary measures of preservation’ themselves; but it doesn’t explicitly require (or enable) rescue archaeology.

Ukraine and Russia are not signatories to the 1999 Protocol, which explicitly enables excavations that are ‘required [obliged] to safeguard, record or preserve cultural property’. So, technically, they would be expected to follow (or could be held to) the 1956 New Delhi Recommendation on International Principles Applicable to Archaeological Excavations, which advises that occupying powers ‘should refrain from carrying out archaeological excavations’ in occupied territories (regardless of the circumstances).

Annexed archaeology

But Russia is not only an occupying power. It cannot (or will not) support the competent national authorities, because it does not recognise them, and it has installed itself as a legally incompetent national authority. Concomitantly, it has rendered any formerly legally competent regional authorities of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea legally incompetent, because they are under its direct rule.

‘Permits for archaeological excavations in the Crimea will be issued in Moscow. [Разрешения на археологические раскопки в Крыму будут выдаваться в Москве.]’ ‘Moscow will issue clearance lists for excavations in Crimea. [Открытые листы на раскопки в Крыму будет выдавать Москва.]’

Because they need licences for archaeological work (survey, excavation, analysis, conservation, etc.), technically, archaeologists cannot work under a licensing authority that they are prohibited from recognising (by using its permits as legitimate licences). So, the competent national authorities of Ukraine have no power or freedom to safeguard or conserve cultural property in Crimea. They cannot (or may not) license their former colleagues, or recognise any licences that are issued by/through their former colleagues, because archaeologists in Crimea are now instruments of Russian rule.

International regulation

Even more technically, if archaeologists did work in Crimea, their primary legal defence would be that Russia vetoed the United Nations Security Council resolution that would have formally prohibited work in Russia-annexed territory…

The United States’ Executive Order precisely targets the Russian regime (and its Crimean puppet regime), so (seemingly) it could not be used against someone who “only” violated the Ukrainian authorities’ wishes (though it could be used against the issuer of the licence). But the Council of the European Union (CEU), at least, has decided to restrict travel and freeze funds for people who are responsible for

actions which undermine or threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty and inde­pendence of Ukraine, including actions on the future status of any part of the territory which are contrary to the Ukrainian Constitution, and natural or legal persons, entities or bodies associated with them.

So (seemingly) it would prohibit unauthorised archaeological work (although, so far, they have only targeted senior regime figures).

Moral force

Disregarding the lack of any global resolution with legal force, non-EU archaeologists would still have to contend with the moral force of the judgement of the United Nations, UNESCO and the professional community. The United Nations General Assembly

call[ed] upon all States, international organizations and specialized agencies not to recognize any alteration of the status of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol… and to refrain from any action or dealing that might be interpreted as recognizing any such altered status.

Likewise, UNESCO judges the process to be an illegal annexation. ‘All activities with UNESCO… are currently blocked or stopped in Crimea’, including World Heritage listing of sites on the Tentative List of Ukraine. With ‘Crimea’s cultural heritage in danger’, UNESCO has resolved to monitor the situation.

Military force

In response to UNESCO’s attempt to help to protect cultural heritage in Crimea, the Permanent Russian Mission to UNESCO declared that ‘any activities of UNESCO in Crimea may be conducted exclusively with the consent of the Russian Federation [будь-яка діяльність ЮНЕСКО в Криму може проводитися виключно за згодою Російської Федерації]’; a genuinely concerned occupying power would not phrase its response like that.

This is one of the reasons that I am cautious about the technical obligations of international law. Russian authorities annexed cultural heritage management in Crimea because they annexed Crimea; but they may consider it a lucky accident if Ukrainian authorities prohibit all cultural heritage work in the annexed territory, and thereby prohibit the conservation of their own cultural heritage…

Professional judgement

The President of the Ukrainian National Committee of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), Serhiy Laievsky, publicly condemned his ‘despised and no longer colleagues [Зневажені та вже не колеги]’ (Russian cultural professionals who supported Crimea’s annexation) for their ‘adulatory support of military aggression [підлабузницьку підтримку військовій агресії]’, through which they ‘have now become complicit in crimes against humanity [відтепер стали співучасниками злочину перед людством]’ (via cultural commentator Norman Lebrecht (@NLebrecht)).

In anticipation of the annexation of property ownership and work licensing, Culture Minister Yevhen Nishchuk had stated that Ukraine was revising the laws regarding the administration of archaeological artefacts and the management of archaeological sites; and a Member of the Committee for the Rescue of the Museums of Crimea (Комітету порятунку музеїв Криму), Viktor Trygub, had advocated European court proceedings.

Since the usurpation of power, Ukrainian ICOM President Laievsky has specifically stated that ‘the Institute of Archaeology of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine should express [their objection/]protest [Інститут археологій НАН України має висловити протест]’ at that usurpation.

What can Ukrainian archaeologists and their international colleagues do?

I am not advocating any of these policies. I am not suggesting that Ukrainian archaeologists want any of these policies. I am only trying to think through the long-term consequences of all possibilities, based on the evidence from Cyprus and elsewhere, in order to help Ukrainian archaeologists to decide for themselves. And they are all based on real-life events.

Prohibit any and all work under annexed authority?

Already, Crimean cultural property law enforcement agents will only be able to work with EUROPOL and INTERPOL through the Russian police, so they will be far less able to suppress international trafficking of Crimean antiquities and ethnic cleansing of minority heritage.

Ever since Turkey’s occupation, and especially since the Turkey-allied Turkish Cypriot regime’s secession, archaeologists in that occupied/secessionist territory have lacked the people, the materials and the money to protect cultural property (Cormack, 1989: 34; Dalibard, 1976: 3; Şevketoğlu, 2000a: 110; 2000b: 53; van der Werff, 1989: 16-17).

If Ukraine prohibits any and all cultural heritage work under annexed authority, archaeological excavations and other cultural heritage sites in Crimea will be left open and vulnerable to looting; museums will become unable to conserve cultural property.

Permit emergency work?

Concomitantly, if Ukraine prohibits any and all cultural heritage work under annexed authority, and if Ukrainian archaeologists in Crimea perform emergency work on vulnerable sites – closing archaeological trenches, rescuing exposed material, etc. – even on their own sites, they will be blacklisted and may be prosecuted for undermining Ukraine’s territorial integrity, sovereignty and inde­pendence.

At the same time, if Ukrainian archaeologists in Crimea refuse to perform emergency work under illegal licences from Russia, they may be condemned for unprofessional conduct. To protect its cultural heritage (and its cultural heritage workers), Ukraine could allow emergency work.

If it did so (and especially in the long-term), it would have to decide whether archaeologists in Crimea were (or remained) competent to perform the most professional work, or whether they needed assistance and/or training from abroad. It would also have to decide how (would-be) archaeology students from Crimea should be limited and/or supported in their training and practice.

Permit emergency and existing research work by archaeologists?

When archaeologists were displaced from their excavations in northern Cyprus, they were (often, largely) divorced from their sites, their finds and their records. Beyond any immediate danger, this disconnection threatens much of the knowledge and understanding that had been established through excavation in Crimea; so, it ultimately threatens much of (the record of) those sites.

A Cultural Heritage Rapporteur of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Vlasta Štěpová (2002a), reviewed the situation in Cyprus and advised (amongst other things): university training of local students in annexed territory; international assistance through ICOM and ICOMOS; and the return of foreign archaeological schools to occupied archaeological sites, particularly because it might be ‘the last chance to renew personal contact with the site and so ensure continuity‘.

Long before that, Senator Ymenus van der Werff (1989: 17) had implied the same thing. Even longer before, in a suppressed report to which I have access, UNESCO was advised that its supervision in Cyprus was essential to protect cultural property.

Cooperation without recognition?

Furthermore, Štěpová (2002b) proposed a locally-advised, internationally-managed Foundation for the Protection and Preservation of the Cultural and Natural Heritage of Cyprus, which would ‘protect, preserve and facilitate the preservation (including research, study and survey) of the cultural heritage of Cyprus’ (and, long before that, PACE had considered a European Foundation for the Cultural Heritage of Cyprus).

Neither ever happened, but nevertheless some work has been achieved, and it has involved both Cypriot and international archaeologists. The key was apparently an ‘intermediary body’ that would ‘avoid the problem of political recognition’ (Štěpová, 2002a) – although seemingly that body would face the same problem.

If an EU organisation, a UN mission or a US agency can engage with work (and workers) in a territory under illegal authority, without being judged to have recognised that authority, presumably the Ukrainian authorities can do so too, even if they are reduced to doing so by “double-licensing” projects with the annexed authorities.

Again, if I can help anyone, please contact me.

Aside 1: the art of compromise

Since states’ and forces’ mutual looting during the Second World War, there have been untold numbers of artefacts from Germany in (post-)Soviet collections, and from (former) Soviet states in German collections. Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum in Aachen and Simferopol State Art Museum (Сімферопольський державний художній музей) had been compromising over the ownership and stewardship of art that had been looted from Aachen and transferred to Simferopol.

However, Russian law nationalises the Soviet Trophy Commission brigades’ plunder from the Second World War. So, the law has nationalised the plunder in annexed Crimea; it has prevented any restitution to plundered countries; and it may ease the plundering of Crimea by Russia.

The 1954 Convention could be (disingenuously and unconvincingly) exploited to excuse the transfer of cultural property from an occupied territory to an occupying power for the endangered property’s protection. But the 1954 Protocol actively obliges occupying powers to ‘prevent the exportation… of cultural property‘ from occupied territories – and to return exported property to occupied territories.

Regardless, there has been a reportedlymassive transfer [массовый вывоз] of priceless cultural objects from Crimean museums to the Russian capital’. (There is at least some forensic evidence of such ransacking. I am working on a more detailed report.)

Aside 2: territorial integrity versus cultural integrity

On top of everything else, the annexation has created the somewhat novel problem of the return of artefacts that were loaned by regional museums under national authority.

An exhibition of the cultural heritage of Crimea – Gold and Secrets of the Black Sea [De Krim – Goud en Geheimen van de Zwarte Zee] was sent to the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam just weeks before the Russian invasion. To whom do the ancient treasures now belong [à qui appartiennent maintenant les trésors antiques]? They were exported under Ukrainian licence, but by (four) Crimean museums (and one mainland museum).

Certainly in an attempt to correct media (mis)reporting, possibly in an act of dissent, the Russian Hermitage Museum has rejected the idea that it or other Russian institutions would have claims to Crimean collections, and it contemplated,

[ethically], the exhibits should return to the museums where they have been kept for hundreds of years but[, legally], they may belong to the museum fund [foundation] of the country, from the territory of which they were loaned.

Contrarily, Deputy Director of the World Heritage Site of Hersonissos (Chersonesos in Sevastopol), Larisa Sedikova insisted that it was ‘important’ that their loaned artefact was ‘not stolen‘ from them by the mainland. The Chairman of the (Crimean) Standing Commission on Education, Science, Youth and Sport, Valery Kosarev, has threatened to boycott anyone who withholds artefacts from Crimea.

Blogger Vladimir Kornilov has (or sometimes ‘sources in the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine [источники в министерстве культуры Украины]’ or ‘the leadership of the Amsterdam museum [руководство Амстердамского музея]’ have) (allegedly) explained that,

since the Netherlands has not recognised an independent or especially a Russian Crimea, all exhibits will be transferred to the Ministry of Culture in Kyiv.

[Однак керівництво Амстердамського музею вже гучно заявило, що, оскільки Голландія не визнала незалежної або тим більше російського Криму, всі експонати будуть передані Міністерству культури в Київ.]

In fact, the museum has stated that it would return the objects according to their ‘legal ownership’, but it has also stated that their ownership is still ‘being investigated’.

A Cultural Heritage Rapporteur of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Vlasta Štěpová, questioned the fairness of the “return” to southern Cyprus of cultural property (actually) stolen from northern Cyprus, which could lend weight to Crimean authorities’ arguments. However, due to Russia’s appropriation of cultural property from Crimea, delivery of cultural property to Crimea would be gravely unwise.


1: the population of Transnistria – the Pridnestrovie/Transdniester Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic – comprises 32% Moldavian, 30% Russian, 29% Ukrainian and 9% smaller minority citizens – including Bulgarians, Poles, Gagauz, Jews and Germans. The Transnistrian region did declare independence from Moldova, and did establish its independence through a (political, not ethnic) civil war with the Bessarabian region; but, in the 2006 referendum, allegedly 98% voted for independence from Moldova and unification with Russia. The situation is complicated, but it’s not so complicated that the referendum result, or the administration’s appeal for incorporation into Russia, is plausible.


Cormack, R. 1989: “Appendix II: Report”. In Van der Werff, Y, (Au.). 1989: Information report on the cultural heritage of Cyprus [Doc. 6079, 6th July 1989], 20-34. Brussels: Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

Dalibard, J. 1976: Cyprus: Status of the conservation of cultural property. Paris: UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation). Available at: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0002/000217/021772eb.pdf

Şevketoğlu, M. 2000a: Archaeological field survey of the Neolithic and Chalcolithic settlement sites in Kyrenia district, north Cyprus. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Şevketoğlu, M. 2000b: “The university involvements in cultural heritage in North Cyprus”. In Forum UNESCO (Ed.). University and heritage: A living world heritage – the shared ethical responsibilities of universities, 52-56. Paris: UNESCO.

Štěpová, V. 2002a: “Memorandum arising from the study-visit of November 2002 by Mrs. Vlasta Štěpová”. In Štěpová, V, (Ed.). Cultural heritage of Cyprus: Information report, 7th of May 2002 (Doc. 9460). Strasbourg: Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Available at: http://assembly.coe.int/Documents/WorkingDocs/Doc02/EDOC9460.htm

Štěpová, V. 2002b: “Draft Proposal for a Foundation for the Protection and Preservation of the Cultural and Natural Heritage of Cyprus”. In Stepová, V, (Ed.). Cultural heritage of Cyprus: Information report, 7th of May 2002 (Doc. 9460). Strasbourg: Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Available at: http://assembly.coe.int/Documents/WorkingDocs/Doc02/EDOC9460.htm

Štulc, J. 2002: “Report on a mission to Cyprus”. In Stepová, V, (Ed.). Cultural heritage of Cyprus: Information report, 7th of May 2002 (Doc. 9460). Strasbourg: Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Available at: http://assembly.coe.int/Documents/WorkingDocs/Doc02/EDOC9460.htm

Van der Werff, Y. 1989: Information report on the cultural heritage of Cyprus [Doc. 6079, 6th July 1989]. Brussels: Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

6 Responses to “excavation under annexation: archaeological work in Crimea”

  1. Nice propaganda. There are no Russian troops in Ukraine.The Ukrainian Nazis are trying to ethnically cleanse the east of Ukraine. The Ukrainian Nazis are totally destroying infrastucture with any Russian association. The Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the east and in Crimea want nothing to do with the Nazi Ukrainian regime. They voted democratically (wow that’s radical) to be independent.



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