Nur Banu Kocaaslan 

Today archaeology-related news coverage is a hot topic in the media, pointing to the urgent need for reporters and editors specialized in this field. However, Turkey does indeed have a specialized investigative journalist, who for many years penned news stories on archaeology, cultural heritage policies, artefacts smuggled abroad, and helped Turkey recuperate many items with his articles. Özgen Acar is a veteran journalist, having worked as reporter and columnist in many newspapers for almost half a century. We visited Acar at his home in Ankara, where he answered our questions with great kindness.

The portrait of an investigative journalist: Özgen Acar's life and times, news reports and the archaeological smuggling stories that he unveiled.

Nur Banu Kocaaslan: Your brand of journalism is not very common in Turkey; in fact you are its first representative. During your professional life, you have penned countless news reports about the smuggling of archaeological artefacts. You have not only pointed to works smuggled abroad, but also contributed to their recuperation. One such artefact was the Lydian Treasure. Could you tell us about that?

Özgen Acar: Of course. In 1970, a British journalist named Peter Hopkirk came to Ankara. He asked the press office at the British Embassy, "Who is the best archaeological news reporter in Ankara?” There are no such reporters today, let alone in the year 1970. I had a special interest in the issue and someone told him “Özgen has an interest, call him.” He called me and said: "There is this treasure smuggled from Turkey, which is now in New York and hidden in the New York Metropolitan Museum. I am after this treasure. You are Turkish, so keep watch on these events here in Turkey, and I will do likewise in the UK, we will cover the developments together." We looked into the matter, but found nothing: No one knew anything.

So I went to the General Directorate of Ancient Artefacts - which was under the umbrella of the Ministry of Education back then - and explained the situation to the then-Minister of Education Prof. Orhan Oğuz. "He said, what can I tell you about a treasure which doesn't even exist?” I responded, "Sir, let me ask you a hypothetical question" and he said, "Go ahead". I asked "Sir, if a treasure were to be smuggled out of Turkey, if this treasure were taken to New York's Metropolitan Museum, and if it were to be put on display there, what would your ministry do?"

The man laughed and said, "If a treasure were to be smuggled out of Turkey and sold to the Metropolitan Museum, and if it were to be displayed there one day, then we would file a lawsuit in New York".

I told Peter Hopkirk what I had learned. Peter penned a long article covering eight columns for Sunday Times, headlined "Turks want the Croesus Treasure back". I just wrote a short summary of the issue for Cumhuriyet newspaper, because there wasn't much concrete information. It was Peter Hopkirk who gave this name to the treasure. In fact it includes Lydian artefacts, Persian artefacts and pieces stolen from four different mounds.

After that, I went after the story. I asked around in the villages of Uşak and Manisa. I talked to the locals there. When I spoke to someone in a village, they would immediately tell me "Speak to so-and-so in the next village, he knows about these things". My investigation continued for years.

Then one day, after a long lull, the then-Minister of Tourism Mesut Yılmaz, took up the matter and went to Prime Minister Turgut Özal, explaining him the situation. The challenging part was filing a lawsuit against the USA. Yılmaz did not want to annoy the US government. He asked Özal, "What should we do?" Özal's answer was typical: "How much would it cost?" "One million, sir." "File a lawsuit then," he responded. So the political aspect was not important for him: "Just file the lawsuit". Upon Turgut Özal's instructions, the lawsuit was filed and it took seven to eight years. Finally the artefacts were brought to Turkey, and were out on display at Uşak Museum. Later, one piece, a seahorse with wings, was stolen from the museum, then found in Germany, and once again returned to Turkey. It is now on display in Uşak. A new museum has been built in Uşak. The Treasure of Croesus is now on display there.


'One day I saw in the display cabinet an artefact described by peasants'


NB: It was not immediately realized that the pieces were on display in New York, right? It took time.

ÖA: You are right, it was me who realized it. I went to New York a few times to check, and they were not on display. Then another day, I saw the writing "Eastern Greek Artefacts" on a display cabinet. In the Greek language, "East" means Anatolia, and "Eastern" translates as Anatoliki. So in a smart move, the museum had chosen to mark it as not Anatolian, but Eastern Greek artefacts, regardless of whether they came from the Islands, Turkey or Greece.

That's when I started to identify the artefacts. And that's because the peasants had described one of them to me: "You know there is a pot which bears heads of bearded men..." I saw such a piece in the cabinet and then penned a news story, after which Mesut Yılmaz took action.

NB: As far as I know, during the judiciary proceedings, it is thanks to your news story that the expiry of the statute of limitations was avoided. The judge of the case ruled that the statute of limitations had not expired since the process began when the journalist wrote the piece.

ÖA: Yes indeed. The lawsuit took years and years. The opposite party realized that they were about to lose, and started to focus on the statute of limitations. Then our American lawyers presented to the court my newspaper articles as written evidence, arguing "The Turkish government was informed of the matter only after these were published in Milliyet newspaper; as such the statute of limitations started only after that.” My article was published for seven days on Milliyet.

When the opposite party realized that they would lose the case, they did not press it any further because they were under pressure from other museums, private collectors, American antiques dealers, etc. They said, "Return the pieces immediately; if you lose the case it will set a precedent for further cases." So they returned the pieces to Turkey without waiting for the final verdict. 


NB: Do you remember when you penned those stories for Milliyet?  

ÖA: 1986-87.

NB: The artefacts were recuperated after a lengthy legal battle. 

ÖA: That's right, it took seven or eight years. Our greatest advantage here was that the US lawyers excelled on the issue of historical heritage. They returned to East Germany artefacts first smuggled by the Nazis and then transported to the USA, although America did not officially recognise East Germany at the time. East Germany had no official relationship with the USA; however, they sued and hired these lawyers defended. That was one of our biggest advantages.


‘I circled around the sculpture, and the museum guard around me’


NB: You were also the one who noticed the Weary Heracles on display at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, and notified Turkey of the situation. Could you elaborate on that for us?

ÖA: Well, I served for four years in New York, and once or twice every week I would visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At every visit I would see something novel, learn something new, and thus enhance my knowledge of the cultural heritage. Naturally the museum houses not only ancient artefacts but also contemporary works. Once, a private collection belonging to the American couple Shelby White and Leon Levy was on display. I visited the exhibition on the day following its inauguration. I passed by the artefacts smuggled from Hacılar in Turkey in the special section -similar artefacts are found all over the world. I continued to wander around.

Then I came across the Weary Heracles sculpture, that is, its upper part. I was surprised, thinking "I know this sculpture". Interestingly, it was the only piece placed in a glass case. I started to walk around the sculpture, looking for further clues. Something really funny happened then: I was circling around the sculpture looking for clues, and a museum guard started to circle around me to see if I would do anything weird. The sculpture was in the centre like the Sun, while I played the role of the Earth, and the guard acted like the Moon. And the rest of the visitors stopped to watch us. 

After realizing what was going on around me, I left the exhibition. I took a catalogue and Xeroxed the page about the piece, and then sent it by fax to the Director of the Antalya Museum, Kayhan Dörtlük. Then I called him ten minutes later: “Kayhan”, I said, “Is this from your museum?” “Man, don't you know? You remember the broken sculpture, which stands next to the entrance, it is the lower part of the sculpture. I checked it with colleagues here, it fits like a glove.”

I was very pleased and published a news story on it. I asked for opinion from various experts. Interestingly, Professor Jale İnan, who was excavating Perge then, told me on the phone, "Look Özgen; this is a Roman sculpture, and there are 50 different copies of it. When they fall, these sculptures generally break in a similar way. So, it may well belong to another piece." I was really saddened when I heard that. I jumped on a plane and returned to Turkey just to talk to Professor Jale. I showed her the photos of the two pieces, and she said “Özgen these pieces match perfectly”.

From then on, Jale İnan became the main advocate. The sculpture was returned to Turkey and joined with its lower part. It is on display at Antalya Museum. Interestingly, there are other artefacts and sarcophagi, which I recuperated for Antalya Museum, the treasure of the century is on display at the highest floor, but the populace come to take photos in front of Weary Heracles. That's great, I think.


‘Anatolia is the crossroads of civilizations’


NB: Of course in your news stories, you focused mainly on how these artefacts were smuggled abroad. In Turkey there were different periods in the trafficking of historical and cultural heritage artefacts. There was an explosion in the 1960s, and it's still going on today albeit at a different scale and in a different way. As a journalist who specialises in the matter, could you tell us about the channels that create this market and its dynamics?

ÖA: Of course. Anatolia is usually described as a bridge between the Orient and Occident. In fact that is not very accurate and Anatolia resembles a crossroads rather. We generally tend to forget the traffic between the Black Sea and the Aegean. Humans used all of these paths to migrate. As such, Anatolia stands at a crossroads. There are 3 thousand ancient cities in Anatolia whose names are known to us. There are 20 thousand mounds and 25 thousand tumuli. What a land. The wealth of Anatolia is such that wherever you stop and excavate you will unearth an artefact.

Due to this wealth, at the beginning of the 19th century, Orientalists started to dig the major locations in Turkey, and took what they found to the British Museum, Berlin Museum and the Louvre. This continued until the republic was founded. In the year 1921, the Greek army had reached as far inland as Polatlı, just 90 km to Ankara, where cannon fire could be heard. Given the circumstances, the Parliament in Ankara is evacuated. Ankara is on the move, on top of oxcarts. Under such dire circumstances, Atatürk says to the minister of national education, "Establish a directorate of culture”. The war rages on and Ankara is being evacuated, but the man says, "Establish a culture directorate in Ankara". The task of this directorate is to set up a museum in Ankara. And on top of that, the artefacts from Ankara and environs are collected in front of Hacıbayram Mosque. Many years later, it becomes the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, as is known today. If you go to the museum today, the date of its establishment is inscribed as 1921.

So, Atatürk tried to stop smuggling and protect the heritage. He personally established several museums and initiated excavations in Turkey. For example, he was the one who launched the excavations at Alacahöyük: the first ever excavation by Turks in Turkey. He was lying sick in his bed in Dolmabahçe Palace, and suddenly got up and told his aides, "Prepare my train, I will go visit the excavation”. He was very sick, and the doctors stopped him from travelling.


‘There appeared a cultural heritage mafia’


On to the 1950s. Marshall's plan is on, American aid is coming in. With American support, the building of highways was encouraged and peasants were urged to replace ploughs with tractors. What happened is that the tractors -and also bulldozers for building highways- dig deeper than the plough. As a result more and more pieces were unearthed. Afterwards, these pieces were sent to the Grand Bazaar in the 1950s and 1960s, because the Grand Bazaar was the marketplace for gold and jewellery. So the artefacts first went there, and then smuggled abroad.

For the first time in Istanbul, there appeared a historical heritage mafia. So much so that when a villager found something, he would take it to the jeweller in the district or the province, who would sell it to the mafia in Istanbul, who in turn would smuggle it abroad. This was how things evolved, and then everybody went “He found a treasure, why don't I do the same?”

As for the Croesus Treasure. A treasure was found in the village of Mıdıklı in Uşak by a man called Ahmet in 1965. They robbed a tumulus, found artefacts and shared these among 10 people. They bought themselves cars, and furnished their houses. What's interesting is that, in the meantime, the neighbouring villages were taken aback by the wealth of this village, and their women started to complain to their husbands: "The men of Mıdıklı have bested you; you could not find a treasure." Then those men also began to dig for treasure and that's how the Croesus Treasure was unearthed. This set an example for all the villages in Turkey. It spread through the grapevine, and people thought, "He found a treasure, so can I". That's why treasure hunting and smuggling have spread and unfortunately rage on today.


‘They say, let the villagers make a few bucks’


NB: What trends do you observe today? 

ÖA: Treasure hunters have started to use technical equipment. Instead of the shovel, they now utilise metal detectors. They even go further and install seismic instruments scanning the underground under their jeeps, drive around the landscape, and make digs. Thus, they are equipped with advanced devices.

What's important is to ban the sales of metal detectors. That's crucial. However, you can see tons of ads on the TV and press and there are even dedicated web sites.

By the way, there was an interesting event concerning metal detectors. When ministers of culture change, the relevant department of the ministry of culture submits a bill about detectors to the minister, saying "Sir, please have this bill banning metal detectors approved by the council of ministers".

It is submitted to the council of ministers, and the ministers basically say ‘Let the villagers make a few bucks’. That's why it was rejected by the council of ministers, unfortunately.

They were not satisfied even with that. The treasure hunters not only use special seismic instruments as I've just said, they have also started to set up associations. They set up special associations. The Ministry of Interior should not allow them. The governor's offices and district governor's offices should ban them. They turn a blind eye to treasure hunting, and public property is being stolen. It will be sold away today for a few bucks, but Turkey will have to pay millions of dollars to get it back. 


‘A separate department should be set up within the Police’


NB: What kind of measures should be taken to protect the cultural heritage and prevent smuggling? For example, is the Law No. 2863 on the Protection of Cultural and Natural Assets sufficient? Can further measures be taken apart from this law?

ÖA: First, I have to say this: Museums must expand their staff. Museologists are not archaeologists, I mean, they are trained in archaeology, but they should not leave their posts at the museum for a rescue excavation or something. Their real task is to display the artefacts in the museum, to educate the public and to make publications. Today, most museologists work in the field, doing rescue excavations. It is necessary to establish a separate organization for rescue archaeology. It should operate much like a fire brigade, in case of an emergency, the team in the vicinity should go and excavate. And the museologists should stay in the museums. For this, more personnel should be recruited to the Ministry of Culture. The Ministry does not recruit more than 10 people a year for museums, but the Directorate of Religious Affairs recruits 2 thousand people each year.

Another point about smuggling: Today, many graduates of archaeology departments join the police force. It is necessary to organize such police officers and establish a separate department within the Police. They should work to prevent the smuggling of historical and cultural artefacts. Because, they know the matter, what archaeology is, what historical heritage is: They will be able to keep track. Therefore, we need such an organization within the Police.

NB: Like the special unit in Italy.

ÖA: Yes, but Italians set up a joint department between the gendarmerie and the military. It really is a very important example.


‘Archaeologists dig during summer, the locals during winter’


NB: On the other hand, in protecting archaeological assets and preventing smuggling, the entire focus turns to recovering artefacts from abroad. But, what archaeologists also emphasize is that, illegal excavations destroy the archaeological context and knowledge. The reason for this is treasure hunting. Do you think enough precautions are taken to prevent it? 

ÖA: Actually no precautions are taken at all. In the past, they would dig deserted areas, now they dig archaeological sites. Archaeologists excavate during the summer, and the locals during winter, thinking "I may find something there as well". So, there must be guards in excavation areas, round-the-clock. There are guards only in certain places, some international excavations have the budget for this, but of course it is not enough. 


‘I blame the Turkish media'


NB: The following will be a more journalistic question. As you had told me before, a treasure hunter appeared on a very popular mainstream TV channel and gave tips about treasure hunting, as if it were a profession. Detectors were promoted in the program. The press also published a news story about the foundation of a treasure hunters' association. As such, what is your take as a veteran journalist on the usage of such encouraging language by the media?

ÖA: To be frank, I blame the Turkish media for this: They are so ignorant of the matter. Not only do they invite treasure hunters to TV programs, they explain that Abraham had broken the idols and then target the ruins of Göbeklitepe. Now ignorant people living over there may go destroy the "idols" in that archaeological site. Television channels and the media commit many such errors. For example, newspapers publish stories about how the gendarmerie or police catch smugglers. The smuggler would get at most 10 thousand TL for a stolen item; however, the newspapers' headlines read, "The police captured pieces worth 2 million TL." This incites the populace to dig. They say, "The man found pieces worth 2 million. He was such a sucker to get caught." It encourages people to dig. They wouldn't make 2 million TL, say, at most 10 thousand TL.

NB: Who can put a price tag on these items, right?

ÖA: Exactly. There is another factory at play here: I think that the police officers who catch the smugglers are given a bonus, which is calculated according to the supposed worth of the items. So, if you exaggerate the price tag, you may have the chance to get a higher bonus. 

NB: Do you have any advice for archaeologists or journalists?

None for archaeologists, since they are scientists. I may have some for my colleagues: I recommend that they visit the museums in their province together with their family, go to archaeological sites and see what's happening over there. The population of Ankara is 5.5 million, but I don't think that even 55 thousand out of that 5.5 million have visited the Ankara Museum of Anatolian Civilizations. My colleagues may have visited the place for some press conference; but otherwise they show no interest. Therefore, journalists must contribute to the safeguarding of the historical, cultural and religious heritage in their province by first visiting these museums and historical sites, and keep an eye on publications on the matter.