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Djenne-Djenno, one of the best-known archaeological sites in sub-Saharan Africa, spreads over several acres of rutted fields near the present city of Djenne in Mali. The ruts are partly caused by erosion, but they're also scars from decades of digging, by archaeologists in search of history and looters looking for art to sell.
Ancient pottery shards litter the ground. Here and there the mouths of large clay urns, of a kind once used for food storage or human burial, emerge from the Earth's surface, the vessels still submerged. The image of an abandoned battlefield comes to mind.
Physical assaults there may be, at least temporarily, in abeyance. But ethical battles surrounding the ownership of, and right to control and dispose of, art from the past rage on in Africa, as in other parts of the world.
A few weeks ago the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, announced the acquisition of a private collection of 32 exquisite bronze and ivory sculptures produced in what is now Nigeria between the 13th and 16th centuries. Within days the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments claimed that the objects had been pillaged by the British military in the late 19th century and should be given back.
More chilling were reports last month of cultural property being destroyed in Timbuktu, Mali, 200 miles north of Djenne. Al-Qaida-affiliated groups have singled out Sufism, a moderate, mystical form of Islam, for attack. In Timbuktu, with its Qur'anic schools and manuscript libraries, they have begun leveling the tombs of Sufi saints, objects of popular devotion.
The wars over art as cultural property take many forms: material, political and ideological. On the surface the dynamics may seem clear cut. In in reality, the good guys and bad guys aren't always so easy to identify.
At least some of the complications surrounding the story of art found and lost has played out at Djenne-Djenno over the past 35 years. In 1977, the U.S. archaeologists Roderick and Susan McIntosh, husband and wife at the time, began excavating the site and revealed the traces of a sizable settlement. Its origins dated to the third century B.C., but by A.D. 450 it had produced a complex urban society, one that engaged in long-distance trade. The long-held assumption was that both developments came to Africa with the Arab arrival in the seventh and eighth centuries A.D. With new knowledge, the continent's past suddenly deepened.
And the history of its art was expanded. In the upper strata of the excavation and at neighboring sites, archaeologists found terra-cotta sculptures of human and animal figures: men riding horses or entwined by serpents, figures sitting or kneeling, their bodies covered with what looked like blisters or welts.
The revelation was finding the sculptures in their historical context, though the figures themselves were of a familiar type, showing up as souvenirs and as fine-art collectibles.
By the late 1960s, the supply of wood sculptures that had defined the field was growing thin. Malian terra-cottas became the new available "classical" African art to collect.
To meet the demand, Malian diggers were trenching sites in the Djenne-Djenno area and pulling figures out of the ground, in the process destroying the historical record. The workers were paid a pittance for their labor, but in the 1970s Mali was gripped by famine; any money was better than none.
Unauthorized trade in such art had been illegal since 1970 under UNESCO rules. But the digging went on.
Certain archaeologists, the McIntoshes among them, were aghast at the ruinous plundering and took action. They were convinced that any Western attention paid to Malian antiquities increased the market value and encouraged looting. With this in mind they proposed an information blackout on any and all "orphaned" Inland Niger Delta objects, meaning any that had not been scientifically excavated -- most of those in circulation.
The main objective was to protect objects that were still in the ground by drawing attention away from this art. Noncompliance was punished by public shaming, with its implied threat of professional ostracism.
The standoff continues
A hard line had been drawn. On the other side of it stood the dealers, collectors and museum personnel, whose livelihood and identity depended on a flow of art. Also on that side, were art historians, who didn't need to own objects but did require some contact with them in order to learn how they were made and to learn how to distinguish genuine ones from fakes. (A large percentage of Djenne-Djenno pieces on the market were, and are, fakes.)
Today, decades later, the standoff among the factions still, to some extent, holds. Archaeologists have gained a reputation as fanatical heroes, ethics geeks. And their anti-market position has been backed up with laws, a series of treaties that limit the market and monitor art's movements. The antiquities wars were not easy on dealers, collectors and museum administrators. Not only were their jobs threatened, but the acquired unfortunate reputations. Once esteemed as cultural benefactors, they came to be seen, in some quarters, as hoarders and thieves.