Born in Ankara, Turkey, Engin Özgen graduated from the Department of Prehistory at Istanbul University in 1973. He received his Ph.D. in classical archaeology in 1979 from the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied under a Fulbright grant. From 1992 to 1996, he served as the director general of Monuments and Museums in the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Turkey.
He is currently a full professor of archaeology at Hacettepe University in Ankara, where he chairs the Department of Classical Archaeology. Since 1990, he has been excavating at the site of Oylum Höyük, near Kilis in southeastern Turkey.
Dr. Özgen spoke with Marta de la Torre, group director of the Agora, a new, interdisciplinary activity of the GCI that explores, generates, and advances innovative ideas about the preservation of cultural heritage and its conservation.
Marta de la Torre: As an archaeologist of great experience and a former director general of antiquities of Turkey, you have seen the impact of the international market in antiquities on the archaeological record. Can you speak about the impact of this demand in countries such as Turkey?
Engin Özgen: The increased demand by the international art market for Turkish antiquities ignited the organized looting and destruction of the archaeological record of our country, just as is the case in all art-rich countries, especially in the Mediterranean region. Turkey's vast archaeological heritage is threatened by local people who act as agents of art dealers. According to the Turkish Financial Police and gendarmerie, there are over one thousand archaeology and art-related crimes yearly. You can easily guess the possible number of unrecorded cases.
In the fight against the illicit traffic of antiquities, is the main concern the loss of valuable objects to the nation, or is it the protection of the integrity of the archaeological record?
I would say both. A nation's archaeological property is essential to gaining a correct understanding of its historical past and culture, and is the foundation upon which its culture can grow and advance. It is crucial, therefore, to properly preserve it and to make it accessible to the public. The archaeological record, on the other hand, is also very important. We have to maintain its integrity if we are to study it and understand it.
Realistically, what can countries do to protect their archaeological heritage in the face of the great demand for objects and the high prices they fetch in the art market?
Our country has always been a cultural bridge between East and West, and our land holds the remains of over 30 civilizations. The demand for ancient objects began to affect Turkey in the early 19th century. Many travelers, attracted by their love for Greek and Roman antiquities, located ancient sites, discovered hitherto-unknown cultures, and took away the objects they found--carrying off even architectural monuments. This was the beginning of the irreparable destruction of ancient sites in Turkey.
During the five years I was the director general of Monuments and Museums, I tried to complete the archaeological map of Turkey by pinpointing ancient sites in order to protect them. This proved an impossible task because of the size of the country, inadequate financial resources, and a lack of sufficiently trained people and appropriate equipment.
The approach that Turkey has taken, in light of the difficulties of patrolling all our sites, has been to fight the battle in the legal arena outside of Turkey, as a way of dissuading those who would acquire objects. We have been successful in the United States, mainly because we have been dealing in and out of the courts with private entities such as collectors and museums. In other countries, the recovery of Turkish antiquities found in state museums has been more difficult; government bureaucracies can create insurmountable obstacles. Our longtime friend and neighbor Greece and other Mediterranean countries also suffer immensely from the constant looting of their cultural heritage. It is a relief to see that our Greek colleagues, too, have started to benefit from the Turkish experience and have successfully retrieved the Mycenaean artifacts taken from Aidonia.
What have these legal initiatives contributed to the fight against illicit traffic?
The coverage that U.S. trials and negotiations have received in the international media has been very helpful. We have sent a very important message to would-be buyers of Turkish antiquities—the government of Turkey is willing to spend time and money to get its cultural heritage back. I believe collectors and museums now think twice before acquiring an object that could have been exported illegally from Turkey. You see, even private collectors will bring the objects out into the open sooner or later, and the Turkish government will go to court for them. The media attention has also brought good results inside our country. When the Lydian treasure was returned to Turkey in 1993, the local press and TV covered the news extensively. Our own citizens now realize the importance of these objects because the government was ready to go to great trouble to bring them back. Since then, the number of objects found by chance by villagers and turned over to museums has more than doubled.
Do you see a time when illicit traffic will cease to exist?
I do not believe that any country will ever be able to end all the smuggling of antiquities, but we must try to slow it down and minimize the destruction of our heritage at the hands of the looters. International conventions—such as the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property—may create disincentives to the illegal export of cultural heritage and, in some instances, the means to get objects back. However, until today, none of them has proved very effective in curbing the illicit traffic of antiquities.
What measures can be taken by a country like Turkey, with long borders and great archaeological richness?
Based on my experience, I believe that the main solutions will have to be found inside our country. We have to start by having all relevant Turkish organizations collaborate inside our borders and, more importantly, by intensifying the education of our people.
It is not realistic to expect that we can recover, or even attempt to recover, every archaeological object that has left Turkey illegally, but we must do our best to keep such objects from leaving the country. We have to protect what we have within our borders. To do this, we need to strengthen our own institutions and networks. In Turkey, we have over 180 museums, and we have archaeology and art history departments in 16 universities, but we still need more people, especially politicians, dedicated to protection of the cultural heritage. Unfortunately, the majority of archaeologists who have graduated from our universities have no opportunity for employment in their field of study. Since 1988 there have been no new positions for archaeologists; our own national institutions must create new jobs. In addition, as our efforts to protect cultural properties have increased, the budget of the Ministry of Culture has declined—a situation that has created the main obstacle to our projects.
You mentioned the 1970 UNESCO Convention. This convention is now almost 30 years old. In your view, how effective has this agreement been?
The UNESCO Convention certainly has been a positive factor and has helped create an awareness of the magnitude of the problem worldwide. It was an important step forward, insofar as it laid the foundations for an international law on cultural property and set out certain values and principles. But actual implementation is more difficult. Unfortunately, only 86 countries have ratified the convention, and of these, few are among the main importing countries. The United States signed it years ago, but France, for example, did so only last year. Other countries in which the market of antiquities is very active—such as Germany, Austria, and Belgium—still have not adopted it.
There is a new initiative, the UNIDROIT Convention adopted in Rome in June 1995. What impact do you think the UNIDROIT agreement will have on illicit traffic?
The International Institute for the Unification of Private Law (UNIDROIT) worked for six years to develop a new convention that aimed to complement the 1970 UNESCO Convention. The UNIDROIT Convention, however, has not received support from all countries. The Turkish point of view—which is shared by many of the so-called "exporting" countries, including Greece—is that it presents some disadvantages for us, since, for example, for the first time it spells out that the country of origin of the objects should provide compensation to the buyers—even if the objects were taken out of the country illegally.
There are very strong arguments to support the presence of archaeological objects in museums around the world. How do you think we can address this in the future in a manner that doesn't encourage looting of sites and illicit traffic?
There are many legitimate ways that ancient cultures can be represented and enjoyed around the world through their objects. Besides traveling exhibitions, there are exchanges of collections between museums or nations or long-term loans. All major art-rich countries have duplicate collections that are kept in reserve. These objects could be loaned or exchanged between institutions.
At this time, there are practical barriers to these solutions. In Turkey, for example, there is legislation that states that no object from our antiquities collections can be on loan outside the country for more than a year in the same country. During my years as director general, we tried hard to change that legislation, but bureaucratic structures are difficult to modify, let alone change. I am convinced that we are moving toward finding these solutions, but everyone concerned with ancient objects has to be part of the solutions. No one country or institution can do it alone.
If we do prove to be unsuccessful in our battle to stop illicit trade and the destruction of our cultural heritage, then we should ask ourselves the inevitable question—is there a future for the past in Turkey?