In a few months from now, Indians will be able channel their inner Indiana Jones, the saviour of antiquities. All they will need is a computer, a phone, and the internet to take a stab at identifying archeological heritage, hunting for buried treasure, and preventing the looting of artifacts.
The GlobalXplorer program, conceived by egyptologist Sarah Parcak, and backed by Tata Trusts, the philanthropic arm of the Tata Group, will give Indians access to satellite images and tutor them in the ways of becoming space or satellite archaeologists.
India happens to be the worst victim of antiquities smuggling in the world. The sculptures of Hindu gods are one of the most smuggled commodities.
GlobalXplorer in India, Anica Mann, an art historian and archeologist, who is in charge of the program, told HuffPost India, is mostly about getting everyone involved in preventing smugglers from looting India’s heritage.
Mann, a graduate of SOAS University of London and Oxford University, said that this is also about finding buried treasure. “Buried treasures are all around this country. People are looking for temples but nobody is looking for buried treasure,” she said.
What is satellite or space archaeology?
We have a lot of satellites around the earth now. All these satellites have different purposes to serve. All have different resolutions. With whatever resolution and purpose that they are sent into orbit, they take pictures and send those pictures back. A lot of satellite imagery is housed by private companies like Digital Globe, who supply imagery to a platform like Google Earth, for example.
Satellite archaeologists basically get these images and run them through software and scanners to look for archeological features or built heritage that could be underground or above the ground. This is used in times of war when a heritage site under threat. Do you remember how ISIS busted up an entire temple? There was an image and then suddenly there was no image. That’s the perfect use of satellite imagery.
How else is satellite imagery being used for archaeology?
Say you live in Champaran in Bihar, which is already a very well known site for Buddhism. Say you are farmer and you are tilling the fields when you find a new mound. You contact the authorities to come and check it out. Usually, the authority will sit on a train from Delhi and come to Champaran. This act of seeing if a monument exists over there is called ground truthing. It takes many days and it costs a lot of money.
What if I was able to give satellite imagery of the geographical coordinates to the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) and they could check out whether there is a building or not. You don’t have to ground truth. That is how satellite imagery is used for archaeology.
Since when has satellite archaeology been going on?
It has come into the public domain in the past five to six years. One of the people leading this globally is Egyptologist and space archeologist Sarah Parcak.
There was a lot of looting happening during the Arab Spring in Egypt. The Antiquities Ministry contacted her and asked for help to figure out the trend of looting through satellite imagery. And she did. She also discovered 18 new pyramids for them, thousands of news tombs. She presented this at TED, and she won the TED prize, which is a million dollars. She used it to found GlobalXplorer, a crowd sourced program which gives every citizen an opportunity to go through satellite imagery to find out whether it has archeological heritage or not.
What is GlobalXplorer?
Global means the entire planet. Explorer means you and me getting a chance to be Indiana Jones over our computers, looking for archaeological features. But you are not looking for archaeological features in the old Indiana Jones way, where you are a tomb raider and you take out the objects and try to protect them. Now, you are an explorer who is trying to fill up the missing pages of history with broken pieces of evidence that is previously undiscovered.
We only have 10% of archeological history right now, 90% hasn’t even been discovered yet. The history of India is yet to completely told. GlobalXplorer helps every person, individual, every citizen of the world, essentially participate in the discovery of that heritage.
“Explorer means you and me getting a chance to be Indiana Jones over our computers, looking for archaeological features.”
How does it work exactly?
It’s very simple. You go on to www. globalxplorer.org and there is a short tutorial. Right now, what we are teaching is how to look for looting. Looting that is done in archeological sites is a very big problem around the world. It is one of the biggest black markets that is almost equal to human trafficking and drug market. It’s a big problem in the Middle East, especially with the rise of terrorism. India is the biggest victim of the antiquities black market. Every museum that has any acquisition post 1970, essentially that is a looted object because the law has forbidden the import of antiquities outside the country.
So, you go on the website and we teach you how to look for looting. You would be looking for digging pits outside an archeological site. From space, it looks almost like a beehive. Once you do that tutorial, images are shown to you, and you are asked simple yes and no questions. No geographical coordinates are ever shared with the audience. To prevent looting, we do not reveal the location.
“India is the biggest victim of the antiquities black market.”
The tutorial is on how to detect if something has been looted from somewhere...
How to detect if someone has been on that site and if there has been any intervention on the ground.
But the user won’t know where that site is?
Yeah, you don’t know where that is. You know it’s somewhere in the world. We cannot, according to the laws of several countries, reveal the geographical location to you. You might see — say an amphitheater with holes dug around it — but you won’t know whether it is Italy or Greece or India.
What is one looking for in the images?
We are looking for archeological evidence, which, putting it very simply, could mean a building. Now, when you look at satellite imagery, how do you determine it’s a building? Anything that is made by nature is never in straight lines. So when you see a rectangle, you know for a fact that it is a manmade object. Context is important in determining whether that manmade feature is of archeological importance. So things like is it buried, is it next to a previous archaeological site, how buried, what material is it built of, what is its architectural plan, can help determine whether it is an archaeological feature. But essentially what you are looking at satellite imagery for is evidence of built heritage.
How old does an object have to be for it to be archaeologically important?
It depends on the law of the country. In India, anything that is more that 100 years old, and is of any cultural significance, cannot be imported outside the country. With that, you can redact that it is of archeological importance.
“We only have 10% of archeological history right now, 90% hasn’t even been discovered yet.”
How did GlobalXplorer come to India?
It was a very organic inclusion. India is the biggest victim of antiquities smuggling in the world. It’s a big dramatic thing in the world. Sarah was at a National Geographic event somewhere in America. Someone from the ASI called Dr. Prabhakar and members of Tata Trusts also happened to be at that conference. They heard her speak. ASI told her that India really needed this technology and she agreed to help. Tata Trusts really liked this technology disruptor in this archeology space. So, somehow the stars aligned. Tata Trusts wanted to invest its philanthropy in it. Tata Trusts found me to design the GlobalXplorer to design the project for India.
It has a huge educational element. You will be defining the next generation of archeologists in the country. Right now, archeology is a very dormant genre of working in India. The only places you can work is universities or ASI. There is no other way to participate, but it is still very exciting. Everyone likes it. Everyone wants to go to a site and participate and know more about history. It’s very emotional.
“Tata Trusts really liked this technology disruptor in this archeology space.”
Where is the project at the moment?
We are updating our technology according to ASI’s requirement and we will be ready to launch in a few months.
Is there more that a citizen archeologist can do?
There are several things you do. First, you go on to the website and check out archeological sites. Now, we have people on the platform who say that I want to be involved more, can I know more about satellite and space archaeology, so we are running these workshops where you can learn how to be a space and satellite archaeologist. These are actually being done in partnership with the ASI and Deccan College in Pune, which is the oldest archaeological university in India.
We ask you to participate in actual ground truthing the site. We notice that you live next to Gujarat and there is a site about 12 kilometres away from you. Would you be kind enough to go over there and collect information for us? Can you download this app? We have put in-built scanners into our app. Once we give this person this access, the blockchain that we are using to document all the objects, will monitor this person in terms of when they log on and log off. and if they are at that particular location.
Why is India the biggest victim of antiquities smuggling?
There was a survey done by Antiquities Coalition. In 2017 or 2016, they estimated that the amount of smuggled objects that came into the United States, India had the largest share. Based on that, based on several vigilante figures, based on the numbers of repatriation that have been done, it has been proved that India is the biggest victim of antiquities smuggling. Global organisations have also recognised that.
Tamil Nadu is a really big victim. In fact, Tamil Nadu has a very interesting police force called the ‘idol police.’ Other big victims of antiquity smuggling are Karnataka, Gujarat. Actually, all of the country is quite vulnerable because a large part of it is along the coast. Second, most Hindu temples have several sculptures. Can you imagine a Khajuraho temple and how many sculptures it has. Even one piece of sculpture from there would sell for over two, three, four, five million dollars. And when one piece of sculpture is missing among so many then nobody even notices it. We are so used to this entire discourse of temples being busted over time, being vandalised over time, that we actually don’t miss these sculptures too much, but they actually sell for a lot in the antiquities market.
“Tamil Nadu is a really big victim.”
How does the smuggling happen?
There is a book which I highly recommend. It’s called The Idol Thief written by S. Vijay Kumar, who is from Tamil Nadu, and became a vigilante. He looks at old photographs of temples from Pondicherry Institute or any public domain and then he goes to the temples and compares to see what is missing. This is how he figures out and he has helped in a lot of repatriation.
In this book, a simple anecdote is about a really beautiful Ardhanarishvara (half Shiva-half Parvati) statute which is guarded by a Godrej lock. The smugglers go into a temple at night, take a sword, cut the Godrej lock, they take out the sculpture and replace it with a fake. They glue back the Godrej lock with Feviquick and go off with the statute. That’s how simply statues are taken out of temples.
There are several other kinds of archaeological sites in this country. It just so happens that antiquity smuggling is very popular for sculptures but sculptures don’t exist in Islamic monuments. However, there are swords and daggers and jewellery that has been pilfered. A lot of it by the British.
When people realised, especially temple pandits, that there was an invading army, they took all the treasures of the temple and buried it somewhere. There is a proper ritual on how to bury these treasures. Buried treasures are all around this country. That’s why spotting digging with satellite imagery is very important for this country because nobody is looking for it. People are looking for temples but nobody is looking for buried treasure.
“People are looking for temples but nobody is looking for buried treasure.”
What happens if someone does find treasure?
There is a Treasure Trove Act. Say if you are a farmer digging your land, and you find a horde of sculptures, what do you do? According to the law, you are supposed to submit it to the state and it becomes state property.
But that is a poor farmer who is probably going to earn a lot more by selling it to a smuggler or a dealer and these dealers are all around. They have stronger networks than our governments and our police force. So it has become common for people to sell it to the highest bidder. And that is also how smuggling happens.
How do smugglers operate?
Satellite archaeology is very important for our country right now because smugglers have far more advanced technology than the protectors or the vanguards of archaeological heritage. Smugglers are using very sophisticated shipping routes. Things usually go from the ports of India to usually Hong Kong or Russia. From there, they can go to places like Germany and England. In England, somehow, they work with the provenance of the object ― they say it has come from a major Swiss art collect ― and then it goes into a gallery or an auction house and suddenly it comes into the white market. It also sells on the blackmarket on ebay. A lot of shipping containers have left the country marked as handicrafts.
“Smugglers have far more advanced technology than the protectors or the vanguards of archaeological heritage.”
Is there a famous smuggler?
One of the biggest criminals, who is sitting in jail right now, is Subhash Kapoor. He was a very important gallerist on Fifth Avenue next to Tiffany’s in New York. He ran a gallery called Art of the Past, selling South Asian and Southeast Asian treasures. And he started donating a lot of very important pieces of sculptures to a lot of very important museums like the MET, the Louvre, the Australian National Museum of New South Wales, you name it. Then, his objects started going to the auction market. Then, people started coming to his gallery. He became this millionaire.
Interpol, Homeland Security, the FBI, S. Vijay Kumar, the author, an old estranged girlfriend of Subhash Kapoor, who ratted on him on the Brooklyn Museum’s website, and the Chennai idol police —they got after him and finally caught him in Germany. When they caught him, they raided just one of his warehouses. Just one of his warehouses had Indian sculptures worth $100 million. And he was deemed one of the largest commodity, not even antiquity, smugglers. No commodity has been smuggled out of a country in such volume. That commodity happened to be Indian sculptures.
“Just one of his warehouses had Indian sculptures worth $100 million.”
How do antiquities go from the black to white market? An individual buys it and sells it to a museum. Won’t a museum check its history?
Falsification of paperwork to prove that this particular work has come from a very important private collection, has sat in that private collection for many years, and now the family finally wants to sell it.
We all know that in Switzerland, there are containers and containers ― where the very rich stash their art. Collectors don’t display art on the walls, they collect it for investment purposes. A family can say that we bought it several years ago, it was a gift from so and so maharaja and now we want to sell it.
Is it always a family or individual selling things to a museum or auction house in order to get the object on the white market?
No. Smugglers can find a family who says that we’ll help you, and then the documents are falsified. The artifact might never even go to them.
What does the family get?
A commission. Sometimes, a family may not even know that they are being named in the false documents.
Are smuggled antiquities currently on display in some of the most famous museums in the world?
Yeah, several. More than 200 objects, right before the (2019 general) election, returned to our country from prominent museums.
If objects have been acquired recently, they probably have some dark history. If objects were acquired a long time ago, they too were smuggled. Let’s just take it as a blanket rule that most antiquities from colonised countries are looted objects. Most stone sculptures belong in a temple. They have been sliced off a particular temple and sold. No law allows you to chisel out a sculpture and put it in a museum.
Just last year, I went to Alabama, to the Birmingham Museum of Art. I went to the South Asian art section. This is something wonderful that the museum did. They identified a piece, which a vigilante had pointed out as smuggled and given strong evidence. So, the label of that Shiva Bhava murti sculpture reads ― this sculpture as we understand has been identified from the Subhash Kapoor horde and is thus a smuggled piece. We are awaiting the correct paperwork to come through to send it back to its country where it rightly belongs, but until then we have it in our care.
(Editor’s note: The previous headline of this interview said that Tata was behind this project. It is Tata Trusts. The error is regretted.)