U.S. Response:
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U.S. Protection of Archaeological Material from the 
Region of the Niger River Valley and Bandiagara Escarpment

On 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 

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.  

Signing the 1997 U.S. - Mali AgreementPHOTOGRAPH: 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 Property, USIA)  

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. protection.  

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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Revised: October 20, 1998

1997 Agreement 

1997 Federal Register Notice (html) (text)   

1993 Federal Register Notice 

Frequently Asked Questions 

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