Looted from Algeria to Tunisia

Last year I covered the public "revelation" (no big surprise to anyone who had spent time in Tunisia), that despot president Ben Ali and his family had been playing fast and loose with Tunisian archaeological artifacts. The image in most press coverage was of this gorgon mask re-used as a water spout by the Carthage swimming pool of Ali's playboy billionaire son-in-law Sakhr El-Materi. That they had gotten their grubby paws on antiquities from museums and sites was no big surprise, but this new development came as a bit of a bomb-shell ...

The Algerians have identified the Gorgon head as coming from Hippone in Algeria not from a Tunisian excavation.
This huge head, which could not easily have been moved let alone smuggled without anyone noticing, was discovered in 1930 (Choupaut, Les fouilles d'Hippone de 1929 à 1934. le plan de la ville et le forum, Bull. Acad. Hippone, 37, 1930-1935, p. 109-114).

It went missing in 1996 during the bloody civil war between the government and the FIA, a time when bombs and massacres were widespread.

See: L’Algérie va-t-elle récupérer ses biens archéologiques? - Liberation

The composite Liberation is of two separate Gorgon faces from Hippone; the larger colour image one still in situ, the smaller black and white one from the old publication.

When one compares the Carthage swimming pool head and the black and white image, they are clearly the same object, with the same cuttings into the lower jaw.

The piece is currently being held by the Tunisians as evidence in their prosecution, after which it will be returned to Algeria.

What's interesting is that the Carthage villa collection included a mosaic of Neptune
And this Punic-style stele ...
Again, I had assumed that the stele came from Tunisia, but when I was going through the publications of Hippone in Algeria, I noticed quite a few of these Punic-style stele found there popping up in old academic journals, so now I'm wondering where it came from too. Although Punic culture centred on Carthage, it spread east in Africa to Sabbratha and west to the Gates of Heracles.

The Tunisians sold antiquities for hard currency. Unfortunately, we've also been picking up antiquities on the art market sold by Gaddafi cronies from Libya. We tend to think of antiquities going from "source" countries rich in archaeological material to western collecting countries (Germany, the US, the UK, via Switzerland and increasingly Munich), but another trend is collecting in Muslim countries. Whilst it's wonderful that people in Saudi, Dubai and other countries are becoming more interested in cultural heritage, what is less wonderful is how unworried they are about provenance or looting. The Tunisian example is one example, another is a Saudi man arrested this week smuggling manuscripts from the Institut d’Egypte out of Egypt.


  1. Great article. Really intestesting and important for this regions patrimony.

  2. Nice article. It's unfortunate that many "source" countries do not have the funds to have controlled excavation archaeological digs. The archeological record continues to rapidly be destroyed by pot hunters, as well as dictators just taking shit & claiming it for themselves.

    It's especially difficult to see this in Tunisia since I once called it home...

  3. Even if 'source countries' don't have the money to excavate and guard every site, that doesn't mean that it's okay for the sites to be looted.

    It annoys me that collectors claim they were saving material from countries like Cambodia and Afghanistan when they were going through genocide or civil wars. But then again, those in power in those regimes often sells off antiquities for hard currency, and that seems to have been the case in Algeria which has an amazingly rich archaeological heritage.


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