U.S. Protection of Archaeological Material from the
September 19, 1997, the Government of the United States of America and
the Government of the Republic of Mali signed an Agreement
that continues restricting the importation
into the United States of archaeological material from the Niger River
Valley region and the Tellem burial caves of Bandiagara. This restriction
first became effective September 23, 1993, when public notice was filed
in the Federal Register of interim emergency
action taken by the U.S. to protect this material. This material may
be imported into the United States if accompanied by an export permit issued
by the Government of Mali. The request from Mali for an import restriction
was submitted under Article 9 of the of the 1970
UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit
Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.
Region of the Niger River Valley and Bandiagara Escarpment
This action is intended to reduce
the incentive for pillage of Malian artifacts and offers the opportunity
for Mali to further pursue the regulatory, institutional, and educational
measures it has already initiated. These measures include the implementation
of procedures for the inventory and classification of cultural property,
an improved export review system, and the creation of cultural missions
to educate local populations to better safeguard sites against pillage,
thereby maximizing opportunities for scientific excavation.
U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Johnnie
Carson (left), and Ambassador of Mali, Cheick Oumar Diarrah (right), sign
the cultural property agreement in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy of Cultural
U.S. import restrictions are an important
legal deterrent against pillage and illicit dispersal of cultural objects.
Mali is the first African country to request and receive this form of U.S.
The Significance of the Niger River
Valley and Its Artifacts
Sites in the region of the Niger River
Valley represent a continuum of civilizations from the neolithic period
to the 18th century, lending archaeological significance to the region.
The archaeological sites along the length of the Niger River Valley constitute
virtually the only known source of information pertaining to the great
civilizations that existed there. The material from these sites includes
terra cotta figures as well as copper, bronze and iron figurines. As this
region is further excavated, other types of artifacts may be found.
The Tellem inhabited the Bandiagara
escarpment from the 11th to the 15th centuries, prior to the arrival of
the Dogon. They interred their dead in the grottoes, as do the Dogon today,
with abundant funerary materials including textiles, votive neck supports
made of wood and iron, ceramic materials and wooden figurines. The grottoes
have been systematically looted and their contents illegally exported leading
to unbridled depredation of the region. Pillage has left few archaeological
sites intact resulting in the loss to science and history of an incalculable
amount of information.
As Mali noted when requesting U.S.
protection, the looting of archaeological sites severely limits the ability
of scholars to fully understand the pre-modern civilizations of the Niger
River Valley. It is estimated that eighty to ninety percent of the sites
surrounding the ancient city of Djenne-jeno, one of the most significant
archaeological areas in the region, have been plundered. Malian civilizations
were non-literate, and it is not until the arrival of Islam that there
begins to be documentation of the Niger River Valley region. Thus, scientific
excavation and study of objects "in situ" are crucial to understanding
Mali's ancient civilizations.
In reviewing Mali's request for protection,
the Cultural Property Advisory Committee found
the record of the civilizations of the Niger River Valley to be in jeopardy
from pillage. Scholarly research of Mali's pre-Islamic history is vastly
impeded due to the systematic and often sophisticated looting of the Niger
River Valley to meet the demands of the international art market. Consistent
with the committee's recommendation, the United States Information Agency
determined that import restriction be imposed on archaeological material
from the Niger River Valley and the Bandiagara Escarpment as a means of
preserving the sites for systematic and scientific excavation.
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