Op. Ed.: Blockchain and the Battle for ‘Blood Antiquities’: Could Digital Currency Platforms Help to End the World’s Deadliest Trade?

Executive Brief

Antiquities are not something many in the digital currency community consider; similarly, technology is not a priority for archaeologists and historians. But could Blockchain technology solve the most dangerous problem posed by the trade in antiquities? Terror groups in Iraq and Syria – the richest archaeological region in the world – have been profiting from an illicit trade in antiquities which destroys our shared cultural heritage and which funds the terrorist war-machine which has committed the worst atrocities experienced in the 21st Century so far. Economic historian Chris Cooper explains how Blockchain title deeds – a new type of smart contract – could help law enforcement agencies trace antiquities and stamp out the world’s deadliest trade. 

Read the full story below. 

The World’s Deadliest Trade

It is the ultimate ambition of terrorist groups to destroy our sense of who we are; to propagate the divisions in our societies, and to force us to abandon our values. The war we fight against them runs deeper than politics – it is about identity. And the most effective terrorist organisation in the world exploits this with clinical brutality. While it is far from the most abhorrent war-crime committed by the so-called Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL, known locally – and by this author – using the derogatory ‘Daesh’), the world nevertheless reeled when footage emerged of Daesh ‘foot-soldiers’ destroying museum artefacts in Mosul or blowing up large portions of the Palmyra archaeological site.

Daesh considers these monuments to be idolatrous, having been built in the period the Koran designates as ‘jahiliyyah’, or ‘the Age of Ignorance’, before Muslim prophet Mohammed revealed the Islamic faith to the world. Yet their destruction has more earthly motives: through destroying the cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria, Daesh hopes to erase traces of the world which pre-existed them. In short, they aim to re-write history. But while the destruction of monuments is a major concern, it is the smaller archaeological remains – so-called ‘Portable Cultural Heritage’ – which is most dangerous. Not only does the looting of these remains from archaeological sites deprive Syria and Iraq of their material past, but the subsequent sale of these items funds the Daesh war-effort. Studies by the BBC, CNN, The Guardian and UNESCO seem to indicate that the sale of ‘Blood Antiquities’ represents Daesh’s third or fourth most significant revenue streams.

Between 2011 and 2013 there was a 145% increase in the supply of Syrian antiquities in international markets, and a 61% increase in the supply of Iraqi cultural property. From one site alone – the ancient site of al-Nabuq in Damascus – Daesh is supposed to have made up to $35 million from the export of antiquities; a sum greater than the estimated $20 million of ransoms paid in the same period. All this goes to feed the tastes of Western collectors and Museums, many of whom legitimately buy antiquities in good faith without ever knowing their origin.

The Problem of Enforcement

Collecting antiquities is a difficult business for law-abiding folk. Since the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the ownership of cultural property, it has been illegal to export antiquities from their country of origin without a government-issued license. Buyers from states which ratified this convention – including the US and UK – are required to demonstrate due diligence in ascertaining the origin of the antiquities they purchase. As a result, since 1970 the volume of legitimate antiquities on the open market has decreased; instead, criminal networks co-opt semi-legitimate frontmen to transfer smuggled antiquities from the black market into legally sanctioned sales. Once in the legitimate market, the ownership of antiquities is almost impossible to trace back, and the antiquities themselves – stripped of contextualising information – rarely make it back to their countries of origin.

Before continuing, it should be noted here that neither the system proposed below nor any other attempt at oversight can fully stop those who do not care about the legitimacy of their antiquities. There will always be shady Russian oligarchs, dubious Chinese businessmen and elusive Mafia Dons with collections to expand. But antiquities smuggled to order outside of legitimate markets represent a relatively insignificant portion of the total antiquities on sale at any one time; it is much more important, and cost-effective, to stop trying to catch whales, and to start throwing nets around shoals of smaller fish.

Unfortunately preventing these smuggled antiquities from making it onto the legitimate international market requires us to know the entire life-cycle of the artefact itself, from the moment it is unearthed right through to its eventual destination. Here is where Blockchain technology can help.

We all know by now the value of the Blockchain in facilitating digital currencies; less familiar is its role in creating smart contracts and title deeds. It is this function which may help us to police the antiquities market and stamp out the sale of blood antiquities.

A Blockchain Solution?

In simple terms, a Blockchain title deed controls ownership of property via the Blockchain distributed ledger. It begins with the ‘genesis transaction output’; a single digital coin (e.g. a Bitcoin or a DNote) is assigned to the original owner of the property. In our case, this initial owner could be an excavator, an academic institution or the government of the country of origin. Such coins could be assigned in lieu of an export license. When the property is subsequently sold, the coin transfers between wallets, acquiring the code associated with that wallet in the same way that a Bitcoin or a DNote would normally be spent. The most recent unspent iteration of the coin is therefore the current owner.

The use of a private key to access a wallet allows the present owner to verify his ownership of the coin and therefore the property to which the coin is assigned. But here is where the perennial problem of smart contracts comes to the fore: how can we be certain that a coin in a particular wallet is assigned to the property in question?

Linking the digital and physical worlds is a serious challenge for smart contracts. But Swedish Bitcoin startup Chromaway has applied itself to this problem. Working alongside the Swedish National Land Registry, Chromaway has been formulating a system whereby title deeds for land and houses can operate through the Blockchain. Their solution involves ‘colouring’ the coin created in the ‘genesis transaction output’ so that it is traceable throughout its life; a tag or chip attached to the physical property can then be made to refer to this genesis output. However, this only works where users can guarantee that the tag or chip cannot be altered.

For our purposes, however, this problem is not the end of the line. It is the traceability of ‘blood antiquities’ which would allow investigators to determine where suspicious antiquities were sourced and under what circumstances. Through following the unalterable chain of wallets recorded in the Blockchain back to an original owner, investigators can quickly and efficiently determine where the artefact in question entered the legitimate market. Through tracing and closing off the avenues through which ‘blood antiquities’ make it onto the legitimate market, investigators can stem the supply of such antiquities and ensure that those with a perfectly legal interest in importing antiquities can have confidence in the artefacts in their possession.

However, the technology alone cannot solve the issue; for this crackpot idea to work, governments and international organisations would have to get behind it. Since governments are not responsive to technology, such important social applications for digital currency technologies are being passed over and ignored. It is up to the digital currency community to make our voices heard and ensure that the positive social impact of technologies can be felt as fully as possible.

The views expressed by the authors on this site do not necessarily represent the views of DCEBrief or the management team.

Author: Chris Cooper

Chris Cooper is a doctoral researcher in ancient economic history at Merton College in the University of Oxford. His AHRC-funded research examines transaction costs in the ancient world, and the impact of the invention of money. But while Chris specializes in the cultures that created money in the first place, he is equally interested in digital currencies and their impact on modern societies, cultures, trade-flows and laws.

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