Tag Archives: Elgin Marbles

Letter from Fargo: Punk, Archaeology and the DIY Ethic of Cultural Heritage

Punk-Archaeology-HandbillWe recently heard about a gathering in Fargo, North Dakota that mixed beer, live punk music, spoken word, archaeology, the general public, and a do-it-yourself attitude for cultural heritage. Punk Archaeology?! We wanted to know more. Here’s a report from our correspondent Andrew Reinhard, the Director of Publications at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens and a DIY punk scribe who makes music in his basement.

Nothing could be more punk rock than an archaeology unconference held at night in a bar in Fargo, North Dakota, in February. The brainchild of professor Bill Caraher of the University of North Dakota, graduate student Aaron Barth of North Dakota State University, and professor Kostis Kourelis of Franklin and Marshall College, the February 2nd event was organic as punk itself.

“The idea came up in conversation between myself and Kostis Kourelis, an archaeologist and architectural historian,” Caraher recalled. “We both observed that quite a few archaeologists had some interest in punk rock music. As we considered the causes and consequences of this coincidence, we got to think about how punk rock music – and the larger aesthetic and lifestyle associated with that musical form – influenced archaeology. We then began to document some of these musings in a blog Punk Archaeology and, from time to time, talked about turning the blog into something more.”

Aaron Barth stepped up to help, speaking with Caraher during fieldwork about Punk Archaeology, deciding to bring Punk Archaeology to reality by hosting a colloquium in Fargo. “We had a great group of scholars willing to contribute, an intriguing group of bands, and a fantastic venue for a meeting that interrogated the borders of the academy, popular culture, and loud, chaotic, and confused social critique,” Caraher said.

fargo1Punk Archaeology speakers gathered at the Hodo Lounge on the afternoon of Feb. 2nd to prepare for the evening and to discuss current projects. Caraher, Kourelis, and Richard Rothaus of Trefoil Cultural and Environmental will spend the weekend of Feb. 9-10 documenting the Man Camps of the Bakken Oil Fields with celebrated cultural photographer Kyle Cassidy. This visit continues a string of trips conducted to study life just outside of the boomtown of Williston, North Dakota. In April, Rothaus and I will also be making a 100-mile transect of the North Dakota Badlands wilderness to explore environmental and archaeological impact of oil exploration in the western half of the state.

The evening kicked off at the Sidestreet Grille and Pub promptly at 7:17 with a four-song set of my own punk songs about problems facing archaeology and cultural heritage. Barth assisted on drums.


On October 9th last year, Caraher emailed me to see if I’d create some music to play for the unconference. Three months and 17 songs later, the album was as finished as it was ever going to get, and I was ready to play it live. In the spirit of punk’s DIY attitude, I set some limits for myself: each song must 1) be about archaeology or cultural heritage; 2) be recorded at home in my basement by myself with instruments I already owned and without any help from anybody; 3) take three hours or less to write, record, and mix the lyrics and music for each tune; 4) have each part (guitars, drums, vocals) be recorded in three or fewer takes. These rules–musical austerity measures if you will–forced me to strip down to the basics while being as creative as possible in working with what I had. It also allowed me to consider major issues relating to Punk Archaeology ranging from repatriation of the Elgin Marbles, to austerity measures creating more art theft, to the destruction of cultural heritage by religious extremists, to the need for archaeologists to be better at sharing their data with each other and with the world.


We played “Sand Diggers” about how war, oil exploration, and immigration enforcement often complicate proper excavation, “American Looters” criticizing popular treasure-hunting programming such as American Diggers, “Untenured” focusing on the perils of being an adjunct professor in the Humanities, and “Repatriate”, an aggressive call to museums to participate in the “Give-Back” movement. “Sand Diggers” resonated particularly deeply with the crowd, protesting the current drilling underway in the Baaken Oil Fields and the possible disturbance of archaeological sites on Killdeer Mountain and
elsewhere in North Dakota.

The spoken word part of the night followed, featuring “papers” by myself, Barth,Caraher, Kourelis, Rothaus, Kris Groberg (NDSU), Joshua Samuels (NDSU), and Peter Schultz (Concordia College). I spoke about discovering punk from a historical perspective, ultimately going native with the music and culture, exploring the punk family tree of bands and how that informed my world-view both personally and professionally. Groberg, an assistant professor of art history at North Dakota State University, recalled her earlier life as a “punk rock mom”, often sleeping bands like Fugazi in her basement when their tours brought them through Moorehead. Caraher instructed all speakers to keep their talks to “the length of a Minutemen song”, to hold the interest of the curious, drinking public, getting immediately to the point.


This collection of narratives was followed by a six-song set with a full-on punk band featuring Todd and Troy Reisenauer of Fargo’s Les Dirty Frenchmen on lead guitar and bass, Barth on drums, myself on vocals and rhythm guitar, and the University of North Dakota’s chair of the Music department, Michael Wittgraf on keyboard. We tore through two more originals, “Publish and Perish” which was transformed by the crowd into a ska rave-up, and “History” featuring a reading from Herodotus’ Histories. We then launched into a set of covers from the ‘60s with The Stooges’ “I Wanna be Your Dog”, heading in to The Humpers’ 1996 song “Losers Club”, a tribute to Ralph’s Corner Bar in Moorehead, Minnesota, a historic landmark in the Red River Valley punk scene that was
demolished in the late-‘00s. We finished off with “Born to Lose” by Johnny Thunders (1991, his final recording), and then destroyed the bar with the unabridged version of “My Way” by Sid Vicious to mark the anniversary of his death on Feb. 2, 1979.

Fargo punk legend June Panic followed us and played a mellow acoustic set. What’s archaeology without a nod to mythology and legend? As the final band of the night, Fargo’s What Kingswood Needs, set up, members of the audience took turns at the open mic to remember their times at Ralph’s Corner Bar. These oral histories were recorded, creating a time capsule of memory on one of the brightest and certainly most colorful eras in the Fargo-Moorehead region.

What Kingswood Needs finished the evening with two sets of original, modern punk songs, pulling from contemporary acts like Green Day, Blink 182, and Sum 41, closing the time-loop, bringing the Stooge’s proto-punk of 1969 all the way through to 2013. Thoughts on Punk Archaeology will be published post-haste by the University of North Dakota in the form of a ‘zine, the immortal DIY punk publication platform. Performances and talks were live-streamed during the event, and an edited version of these will be posted in the coming weeks. Caraher’s reflections on the event can be read on his New Archaeology of the Mediterranean World blog.

Sponsors included the North Dakota Humanities Council, the Cyprus Research Fund, Bismarck-based Laughing Sun Brewery, Tom Isern of the Center for Heritage Renewal at North Dakota State University as the Patron of Punk, as well as Rothaus who donated the gas in his truck, ferrying instruments to and from the venue, Fargo’s Sidestreet Grille and Pub.

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You can follow Andrew Reinhard on Twitter at @adreinhard.

Hot Docs: Marion True the Crusader

Former Getty Antiquities Curator Marion True

One of the most scathing rebukes of the collecting practices of American museums in recent memory came not from a grumpy archaeologist, a nosy journalist or an overzealous foreign prosecutor. It came from one of the museum field’s rising stars: Getty antiquities curator Marion True.

In June 2000, True delivered a gutsy speech to an audience of museum peers that denounced them for relying on “distorted, patronizing and self-serving” arguments to justify their collecting of ancient art. Over the course of the next hour, True dismantled the various justifications museums had long used to buy ancient art that was almost certainly looted.

The speech, whose full text we’ve posted and annotated here, is remarkable not just for True’s scathing remarks but also for their venue: the annual gathering of the Association of Art Museum Directors. The group is the museum profession’s most powerful, consisting of representatives from the country’s largest and wealthiest collecting institutions. As such, the AAMD wields immense clout on matters of institutional policy, including collection practices.

Philippe de Montebello, former director of the Met

Under the sway of former directors Philippe de Montebello of the Met and James Cuno of the Art Institute of Chicago (now CEO of the Getty), the AAMD had long resisted the 1970 UNESCO Convention, which calls for import restrictions and international cooperation to stop trafficking in illicit antiquities. Instead, AAMD’s guidelines were riddled with caveats and loopholes that allowed member institutions to buy undocumented antiquities as long as the pieces were artistically “significant.” In her speech, True was calling out the power structure of American museums.

James Cuno, CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust

Her speech was inspired by an earlier panel at Columbia University on the Elgin Marbles. The discussion “had nearly devolved into a fistfight” when a fellow panelist suggested the Parthenon sculptures needed to remain the British Museum because the Greeks were “unworthy custodians and therefore did not deserve to have it” [sic]. “As the three front rows of the audience were primarily of Greek nationals or Greek Americans, this statements did not go down very well,” True noted dryly.

True said the debate had caused her to re-trace the evolution of what had become an increasingly nasty debate about cultural patrimony that pit foreign officials and archaeologists against American museums, dealers and collectors. “Given the seemingly noble intentions that inspired the foundation and development of American Art museums, how have they now come to be so often in direct conflict with the source countries and the academic communities that work on cultural heritage?”

Her answer laid the blame squarely at the feet of American museums, which had used similarly “demeaning arguments” to justify their acquisition of marquee objects and to brush off the concerns of foreign countries. She listed the most common arguments, many of which are still used today:

“–Because the contemporary population was ethnically not the same people as the creators even thought they inhabit the same territory;

–Because the police force in the source country does not do enough to protect its patrimony and maybe even is in collusion with the smugglers;

–Because art historians in the country are not up to the job of studying their own patrimony but have had to look to the British German and American scholars for leadership;

–Or because the national laws governing the protection of cultural properties are repressive since they do not allow the free trade in the objects that US laws allow and,

–Or most perplexingly and inflammatory, in the case of Italy, because Mussolini had continued to enforce the laws instituted in the 18th century to protect Italian artistic heritage, that we would be enforcing the laws of a fascist regime.”

“Surely,” True said, “we should not have to rely on such distorted, patronizing and self-serving observations to justify collecting ancient art in this country.”

Next, she turned her sights on dealers and collectors, who still “vehemently denied” the extent of looting that has been clearly documented by archaeologists and governments. Their claims that the illicit trade was small were “contradicted by the evidence,” including their own political machinations to gut American laws prohibiting the import of such objects. It was time to accept that most undocumented antiquities came not from “old European collections,” as dealers and museums were fond of claiming, but from recent chance finds or illegal excavations, True said.

Likewise, the claim made by Sothebys and other auction houses that sellers preferred not to reveal provenance information “flew in the face of logic” because such information would only increase an object’s value. And the common practice of asking governments for evidence of whether a piece had been looted “conveniently ignores” the fact that, by definition, such objects are “undocumented,” she said.

She concluded with a knock-out punch: “Most museums have long preferred to consider objects innocent until proven guilty,” she said, citing the Getty’s own 1987 acquisition policy and the writings of James Cuno while at the Harvard Arts Museums. “But experience has taught me that in reality, if serious efforts to establish a clear pedigree for the object’s recent past prove futile, it is most likely—if not certain—that it is the product of the illicit trade and we must accept responsibility for this fact.

“It has been our unwillingness to do so that is most directly responsible for the conflicts between museums, archaeologists and the source countries.”

In one fell swoop, True had laid bare the cynical path of many museum masterpieces—a path few insiders had ever been willing to publicly acknowledge.

But as powerful and succinct as True’s presentation was, her listeners could have been forgiven a measure of skepticism. While it represented one side of Marion True – the crusader for reform — they knew another: the accomplished curator and competitor who for a decade had used those very same tactics to fill the Getty with some of the best undocumented pieces in the world. Indeed, True’s intimate knowledge of museums’ efforts to navigate the illicit trade was based on her personal experience.

As it happened, the day after True gave her speech a judge in Switzerland ruled that Italian officials could take possession of hundreds of Polaroids and documents that had been seized in a 1995 raid of an antiquities dealer’s Geneva warehouse. The Polaroids showed scores of looted artifacts as they appeared fresh from the ground. Eventually Italian investigators traced the greatest number to the Getty and Italian prosecutors started planning a prosecution of Marion True.

A Polaroid of the Getty's Statue of Apollo showing it soon after being looted

Soon after, an internal Getty probe found similar photos in True’s own curatorial files showing, in the words of the Getty’s outside counsel, “objects in a state of disrepair or in a location from which they may have been excavated.” The Getty’s attorney concluded it would take little for the Italians to link True to a conspiracy or to support a claim that the curator “knew or should have known that many objects acquired by the Getty were illegally excavated from Italy.”

Among their best evidence, he noted, would be True’s own 2000 speech before her peers at the AAMD.