Portable Antiquities from Conflict Zones: Identifying and Safeguarding Cultural Heritage


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Jewelry excavated with the Afghanistan Oxus hoard: Image by dynamosquito

Decoded Science had an enquiry from a reader who was given antique jewelry that had been buried as though it were part of the local archaeology.

She has spent many years traveling in the Balkan states and in Central Asia and encountered people from diverse cultures.

Her questions are how can she find out what the jewelry is made of, and what is the history of the pieces?

Gifts of Antique Jewelry

If traveling in a country with a rich cultural and archaeological heritage and given gifts of antique jewelry apparently freshly dug out of the ground, what is the correct thing to do?

One course of action might be to take it to the local police, or the nearest museum or university.

But what if the recipient is in a war zone or a post-conflict area at the time, where local support systems are not available?

This is a situation which may be encountered by aid workers and diplomats emerging from conflict zones across the world, with varying success. While safeguards are in place to retain cultural artifacts in their country of origin, for centuries antiquarian objects small and large have dispersed beyond borders.

International Policing of Antiquities Traffic

International policing agency Interpol estimate that possibly four billion dollars worth of artifacts are illegally crossing borders, either being offered for sale by sneak thieves, or being stolen to order.

If concerned whether an item may be of particular importance to its culture of origin, check out the UNESCO international council of museums website. ICOM have compiled a number of emergency Red Lists for the use of border agencies and police forces in identifying cultural treasures at risk from current and former war zones including Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt after the ‘Arab Spring’, and now Syria.

Border Controls for Cultural Artifacts

Most border patrol agencies actively watch for cultural heritage artifacts, and will seek to prevent them leaving the country of origin without specific licences, or may confiscate them at port of entry of another country. United States is one of a decreasing number of countries that does not exert border restrictions on cultural artifacts, as Daniel Grant explained in The Boston Globe, June 2012. “Many nations of the developing world have established wholesale embargos of all art from their borders, such as the restriction on all pre-Columbian objects in Mexico, and Central and South America. Greece and Turkey also have memorandums of understanding involving thousands of years.”

Professional Artifact Appraisal

So, for travelers returning home to the US with portable antiquity gifts who wish to find out about the materials the jewelry is made from and something of its history, who can they turn to? The Smithsonian Museums apparently receive too many enquiries to respond other than providing advice pages online. Among the strategies they suggest are visiting university libraries, approaching ‘local historical societies’ or accessing state extension services.

Most prominently, the Smithsonian advise seeking professional appraisal from a registered valuer.  Whether or not the owner intends to sell, by this process they may eventually be directed to an expert in the particular type of property they have who can answer their questions. Appraisers can usually say what material the item is made from, and may  have the expertise to link it to a historical period and geographical origin.


Daniel Grant. Buying antiquities abroad requires law exams, too. (2012). The Boston Globe Travel. Accessed December 28, 2012.

International Council of Museums. Red List Databases (2012). Accessed December 28, 2012.

Interpol. Works of Art. (2012). Accessed December 28, 2012.

Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute. Artifact Appraisals. (2004). Accessed December 28, 2012.

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