Archaeologist warns of historical treasures lost to global black market

Burma’s jungles and plains are dotted with historical artefacts the envy of much of the world. But now many of those precious items are ending up overseas, thanks to a thriving black market.

Burmese artefacts are being plundered by locals, in many cases by villagers both desperately poor and unaware of the historical significance attached to items.

Archeologist Bhone Tint Kyaw says that the pressures of poverty are forcing villagers to scavenge for lost treasures.

“Regardless of what the law says, due to difficulties in livelihood in the rural areas, people still scavenge for antiques, looting ancient Pyu graves,” Bhone Tint Kyaw said. “It is necessary to ensure that local authorities regularly report to township officials so they can effectively control the looting. “

In Burma villagers are legally required to turn over artefacts to the government, and then wait to be given an award. Instead, many precious finds are sold straight to antique brokers, who produce cash on the spot.

Bhone Tint Kyaw said that unscrupulous antiques dealers are offering better deals to these Burmese tomb raiders.

“Some villagers do not have the patience to wait as they need the money,” the archeologist said.

“Merchants can pay them immediately. I believe that if the government can process and verify the items to ascertain whether they are real or fake, and reward the person who turned it over within two weeks, then it would encourage more people to return artefacts to the government instead of selling them to black marketeers.”

UNESCO recognised three ancient Burmese sites for the first time last year. Those are the ancient Pyu cities of Beikthano, Sri Kestra and Halin.

The city states of Pyu existed from around the second century BC to the mid-11th century, and stretched from Sri Kestra near modern-day Pyay up through central Burma as far north as Tagaung, which is about 200km north of Mandalay.

The city-states were founded as part of the southward migration by the Tibeto-Burman-speaking Pyu, arguably the earliest inhabitants of Burma. The thousand-year period, often referred to as the “Pyu Millennium”, linked the Bronze Age to the beginning of the classical period when the Bagan kingdom emerged in the late 9th century.

Mostly centred around the confluences of the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers, the ancient towns were part of an overland trade route between China and India.

Hanlin, founded in the 1st century AD near present-day Shwebo in Sagaing division, was the largest and most important city until around the 7th or 8th century when it was superseded by Sri Kestra.

Support from the UNESCO body has seen greater conservation efforts at the sites, and a boost in tourism.

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The Burmese government is pushing to have more sites UNESCO listed. Including Burma’s most recognisable tourist destination, the thousand year old temple complex at Bagan.

“Bagan Archeological Area and Monuments”, UNESCO’s official name for the site, has been on the “UN Heritage Site Tentative List” since 1996, when the military regime dropped their efforts for heritage listing after the UN’s cultural agency, which funds conservation efforts on hundreds of the world’s most prominent historical sites, asked for the government’s commitment to transparent maintenance and administration plans.

Over 20 years ago, the then Burmese government sanctioned the building of high-rise hotels in the heart of the ancient site, such as the 61-meter high Palace Tower Hotel. A viewing tower of a similar height, a golf course and a highway, cutting through the middle of the complex, also blight the otherwise picturesque location.

The use of modern materials and a lack of adherence to the original architectural style in maintenance work over time has too invited criticism from UNESCO and held up a World Heritage Listing.

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