As a writer, most of my work is done in a bubble. I do what I do, hand it onto those who craft the words into tangible form, be that a TV series, a book, or a news article. Then comes the odd pat on the back from family and friends when those things make their debut. That’s usually the end of it.
It’s unusual to hear about the things I make having an impact of any sort. And that’s quite OK. The reason for doing this is because I bloody love it. Counterintuitively, what with all the red carpets and gala premieres, it’s never been the career to get into if you’re expecting curtain calls and bouquets.
But today was different. I was listening to the wonderful Jacinta Parsons on ABC Melbourne. She asked her listeners to call in with stories about treasures they’d found. And a woman called Jackie rang in. She’d been working as an aid worker in Cambodia, and decided she’d like to take home a souvenir or two. So, she headed back to Australia with some Khmer antiquities. But since watching my series, Loot, on SBS Viceland, she’s had a change of heart. Now, Jackie wants to return them to the Cambodian people.
To know that a little TV series I’ve pushed hard to get on screen could change the way somebody thinks about an issue I feel so strongly about has knocked me for six. That the answer to Jackie’s dilemma is not an easy one is another question altogether. That’s another problem, for another day.
What I always hoped to do with this series is to convince people to stop and think before they buy antiquities. Because if demand dries up, the looting will stop. It’s that simple.
This series has done its job if it changes even a single person’s mind. So, I guess that means – job done. Thank you, Jackie. From the bottom of my heart.
Though if any of you want to convince me that it’s been worth doing – and worth keeping on doing (with a second series pending… fingers crossed!) – I would love to hear from you.
Yeah – LOOT is up against the Eurovision Grand Final at 7.30pm tonight. I mean, that’s quite a choice. Even I’m feeling rather conflicted.
But if you feel like some meaty and mind-blowing TV tonight, tune in to SBS VICELAND to see the fight against the rape of Egypt’s ancient past in the first hour, followed by the story of billionaire Evangelical Christian, Steve Green, and his holy crusade to buy up tens of thousands of antiquities from the Middle East to line the shelves of his Museum of the Bible.
No prizes for guessing how that one’s going to end up. It’s another chapter in the life-story of the Hobby Lobby billionaires who launched a successful court action against Obamacare’s mandate to include contraception in employee health plans.
But if you can’t ignore hamster wheels and octogenarian folk singers (and, let’s be frank, who can?), you can catch up on SBS ON DEMAND.
Yep. So much work. So little sleep. And it was all worth it. Every time I see these stories… even though I know them upside down and back to front now… it makes my blood boil. To know that they’re out in the world now, where they might make a difference – that’s why I do this.
If you missed out tonight and are in Australia (or have an SBS account, or are lucky enough to have an internet wizard who understands all those VPN doo-dahs and owes you a favour), episodes one and two are now up on SBS On Demand… https://www.sbs.com.au/ondemand/programs/documentary
Enjoy. Kinda. At the very least, let me know what you think.
Sounds like the perfect thing for a wintery Sunday evening, right? Well, “Loot” will certainly make your blood boil, so there is that.
Tune in to SBS VICELAND at 7.30pm AEST on Sunday 8 May for the gut-wrenching tale of the looting of the Iraq Museum as US forces advance on Baghdad.15,000 irreplaceable antiquities are stolen from one of the world’s most precious collections of ancient artefacts, and the race is on to try and get them back.
In the second hour, take a trip to the dark side to see how cash from western buyers poured into the coffers of Islamic State from the sale of antiquities stolen from Syria – money they used to fund their murderous regime, and launch bloody attacks on the west.
Spoiler alert… there’s no happy ending.
I promise, this is one hell of a ride. These are stories that will take your breath away.
Spread the word. Because something’s got to change. And this is one of those times that the power’s in your hands.
Right about now, I’m not quite sure whether I want to throw up, hide under the bed, or humiliate the children by punching the air and doing a victory lap around the living room. Colour me rather conflicted.
Why the churning stomach? Because this one is my baby.
Here’s the thing… I’ve primped and preened plenty of things that have had a public airing. And although there’s always an adrenaline rush when the big debut is looming, this one’s different. Loot is special because I care so damned much about the subject matter.
And next Sunday, 8 May, from 7.30pm AEST, it will be making its Australian debut on SBS VICELAND (for those who want to stop reading now and just want the vital information, Loot will also be available for catch-up on SBS, and there are two episodes airing each week, back-to-back). If you’re not on Antipodean shores, Beyond International has sold it internationally, so tune in for screening info.
The episodes? Well, in no particular order:
Robbing the Cradle: The Looting of the Iraq Museum
Blood Antiquities: Islamic State in Syria
Behind the Mask: the Rape of the Pharaohs
Though Shalt Not Steal: Hobby Lobby and the Museum of the Bible
Dealing with the Devil: the Getty Goddess
Risky Business: Michael Steinhardt and the Greek Gold
The Killing Fields: Douglas Latchford and the Khmer Treasure
Hitler’s Museum of Stolen Art: Nazi Art Dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt
** (and if you’ve clicked on the link and watched the trailer, yes… you do know that voice. It’s BEYOND thrilling that Robert Lee… he of Mythbusters fame… signed up as narrator for the series).
This is the documentary series I’ve wanted to get on air for years. Why? Well, the best way to explain is by relating a couple of stories. Feel free to skip to the end if the glut of words that follows makes your brain hurt.
OK – so, I worked as an archaeologist in the Middle East for many years. No secrets there. And looting was the bane of my existence.
Case in point… I was working in eastern Turkey with the legendary Tony and Claudia Sagona from the University of Melbourne when we uncovered an undisturbed Bronze Age burial at a site called Sos Tepe. For those who care, it’s a spot just outside the city of Erzurum, on the road to Pasinler.
Anyway, it was a pristine burial of a girl who was probably in her early teens when she died about 4,500 years ago.
Once we discovered the grave, the clock was ticking. Because we knew that anything we didn’t document and preserve during the day would be gone when we returned to the site the next morning.
There’s never much in the way of valuables found in Bronze Age deposits like these, if you’re talking gold and precious gems. But despite all you’ve seen in Indiana Jones, that’s not what archaeologists are searching for. We were in eastern Turkey because it’s an important way-station on the great Indo-European migration that carried Caucasian language, and culture, into western Europe from Central Asia… and the information that a grave like this could tell us about the people who gave birth to western civilisation was invaluable.
So to a looter, the grave would most likely be next-to worthless. But to an archaeologist? Priceless.
Trouble is, looters equate all tombs with gold… because, yes, some do contain the precious metal. But not many.
We worked like maniacs into the dusk until the last light was gone, to excavate and photograph everything we could. We probably found everything that was there. But we’ll never really know, because—sure enough—the next morning, we returned to a gaping pit.
Whatever other stories that girl and the people who buried her might have told us, were gone forever. Worse still, by digging into the other layers of cultural material below the burial, anything found in the vicinity lost its context and became, in an archaeological sense, meaningless. That’s because archaeologists aren’t looking for objects… they’re searching for knowledge.
In terms of the damage that was done, the best way to understand it is to think about an archaeological site as a rainbow cake with chocolate (as the oldest level) at the bottom, vanilla in the middle, and strawberry (as the most recent level) on top. If you find something identifiable – say, a coin you can date – in, let’s say, the chocolate level, you’ll break a tooth. You can also say with some certainty when that level was created, and you know how old everything in the chocolate layer is, give or take a year. But if you take a spoon and dig down in the centre of the cake till you hit the chocolate level and take out a big scoop, you end up with a big, pink, white and brown mess. Worst of all, that dated coin may end up in the vanilla or strawberry level. So then you don’t know which level the dated coin belongs to.
That’s what happens on an archaeological site when looters get to work. When stratigraphy—or layering—is messed up, any certainty about dating goes out the window, along with everything an archaeologist holds dear. That’s why archaeologists hate looting. It’s not about the great stuff they lose. It’s about the history that’s destroyed.
As for the local villagers, well, they blamed the Syrians. Never mind that the Syrian border was over 400kms away.
So, yes. I have experienced the damage looters can do… first hand. And I have always condemned the trade in stolen antiquities, in the strongest possible terms.
Right. Second story. After I stepped back from the whole archaeological fieldwork thing, I took up a spot as the manager of an art department at an auction business here in Melbourne. While I was working there, a tiny Hellenistic drinking cup turned up in one of the small weekly auctions. I couldn’t quite believe it. It was absolutely lovely, and cheap as chips. There was nothing to suggest it might have come out of a museum or other collection, so I presumed it had probably come into the weekly auction from one of the many deceased estates the business handled.
But what path had it taken to find its way to Australia? It was made in the Western Mediterranean in 300BC or so—so it’s a fair guess to say it didn’t find its way to our shores by accident. “Well,” I thought to myself. “Perhaps it was found in the desert outside Beersheba by a WWI veteran … Or it could have come from a collection put together by a local antiquities enthusiast.” That’s right. A perfect example of what Donna Yates, who has dedicated her life to fighting the war on the trade in looted antiquities, would describe as “plausible deniability.”
So it went to auction, and I bought it. Cost me about A$80 and change. A steal.
Thing is, in retrospect, that is exactly what it might have been. A steal. Not that I entertained that thought for a moment. Even if I’d been at the receiving end of looters’ efforts on more than one occasion, at the time, ‘antiquities theft’ meant, for me, the big stuff. I never thought looters would bother with the countless tiny archaeological objects that turn up every day on sites around the world. Or that buying them from a commercial business is no guarantee that they’ve ended up on the market through legitimate avenues.
The truth is that little things like my cup are the collateral damage that occurs when looters are searching for the things that will give them a big payday. They’re the bread and butter of the looting business. High volume, low yield.
It was only when I started looking into it all in more detail, and following the legends in the field… Neil Brodie, Amr Al-Azm, Monica Hanna, Patty Gerstenblith, Roberta Mazza, Christos Tsirogiannis, Alison Betts, Donna Yates, Mark Altaweel… that I came to understand that even when you buy the ‘bric-a-brac’ of the stolen antiquities world, as Neil Brodie describes things like my cup, you’re potentially funneling money into the hands of crime gangs and terrorists.
These objects may be cheap, in a monetary sense. Small and not at all uncommon, certainly. Yet stolen, just the same. Not all of them, certainly. It may well be that my Hellenistic cup ended up here legitimately. But I’ve no way of knowing. And what it may represent—the theft and desecration of a culture that’s not mine—well, that turns my stomach.
This is a classic supply and demand problem. Stop the demand. And the supply will dry up.
So what I’ve tried to do in Loot is to show how the smallest decisions can have the gravest consequences. Butterfly wings and all that. And, yes—I am preaching with the fervour of the converted, and do so without apology.
It’s a huge story that will, I hope, challenge some of the things you hold dear. I know it certainly did for me.
Massive thanks are due to Greg Quail and Brendan Dahill of EQ Media for seeing the potential in the series. I’m on board as creator, writer and producer. But it wouldn’t have happened without the efforts of EQ and Beyond International, who have done a stellar job producing Loot. Justin Corbett and David Alrich led the production team on a punishing schedule under COVID restrictions… no small task!
And the biggest highlight? Providing a platform for a group of people who have been fighting for change for decades. I owe them a huge debt of gratitude… not just for their participation in this project, but for helping me see the world differently.
With any luck… if the gods of international sales are on our side… we’ll be back with more stories to tell in a second series.
Speaking of which, if you know of a tale that must be told… drop me a line.
Earlier this year, the fine people at Bolinda approached me about writing some pieces for their new website. In keeping with their passionate and thoughtful approach to what they do, they wanted to showcase new ideas and fresh ways of looking at the world in general.
They gave me free rein – always a little dangerous. But it meant I could wander off into some bigger picture ideas about where the world seems to be heading, and how we’ve ended up here. Long and short of it – I’m having a blast.
Today, they published the first of these journal articles. It’s primarily an interview with the inspirational Robin Whitten, founder of AudioFile magazine. But it includes a potted history of the origins of human storytelling, and a new way of thinking about the eternal audiobook vs. printed book argument (spoiler alert: audiobooks come out on top.)
If you find yourself with some time on your hands, have a peek. And let me know what you think.
Audiofile’s Robin Whitten, and the rise and rise of audiobooks in 2021
That’s right. Jack Irish series three. My brilliant husband’s labour of love, along with the contributions of some other hacks… Andrew Knight, Matt Cameron, and Alli Parker, starring Guy Pearce and made under the always sharp eye of Ian Collie.
I snuck a sneaky peek at the rough cuts over the husband’s shoulder. And it’s an absolute pearler of a series. Even if I am a little biased. Guy Pearce is at his absolute best (and, yes, before you ask, he really is as good a bloke as you’d imagine), and all the people you’ve grown to love over the past ten years or so are back and in top form. It’s a beautiful coda to a very Melbourne story and a nostalgic journey into some themes that tweak the heartstrings and talk about the inevitability of change. Plus, it’s a cracker of a story.
And, yes, that is a “Prince of Prussia” bottle of wine in the photo. Those of you who are fans will know what that means. The second photo shows the “tasting notes” on the back of the bottle. Andrew’s contribution to the crew gift at the wrap of the first telemovie. “… aftertaste that endures like an incurable taste of herpes.” 😂 Anyways – 4 episodes, starting tomorrow night at 8.30pm AEST on #abctv and iView after that.
A call-out to my brilliant brethren in Sydney. I need your help (And please feel free to share this round. The more, the merrier).
Well, further to my last post, I love my job, in part because I never really know what I’ll be doing from one minute to the next.
Case in point. A producer in LA has asked me to help out on a new international series. Can’t reveal more, or I’d have to kill you. Actually, strike that. I can say a little more, because that’s where you come in. Problem is that I have to be all cloak and dagger and can’t give many specifics. Non-disclosure agreements and all that. So—I am calling for suggestions for completely brilliant, innovative small businesses in Sydney that (and this is important) fit the parameters below. Yes, they need to tick all the boxes.
Being as how the Emerald City is full of makers, doers and all-round legends, I’ve got plenty of candidates in mind. But I’m keen to see your hitlist!
* Be Sydney-based (or max 2 hrs from CBD), or have a strong connection to Sydney * Have approx. 10 – 500 employees
* Embody innovation—I’m looking for world-changers here, peeps
* Preferably be tech or product-based
*Be headed up by a charismatic front-person/people who isn’t/aren’t shy about appearing on camera
But they should not:
* Focus solely on alcohol sales
* Be a business that focuses mainly on music or entertainment (licensing issues and all that)
* Be a restaurant… mixed businesses, though, are OK.
Triple points if they’re pushing for sustainability and diversity.
Thank you. Can’t wait to see what you come up with!
Good Question. Well, here’s a taster. And it might give you a sense of why I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.
Exhibit 1: For the past month or so, on ABC Australia, I’ve been re-watching the TV series I co-wrote: ‘The Pacific (etc. etc. longest title ever conceived – and not my choice) with Sam Neill.’ “Good times… great memories”? Criminal understatement. Working on it, and writing the book to accompany the series for HarperCollins, was a life-changing experience.
Exhibit 3: Somewhere in between all that, I interviewed the “god-like genius” (Trent Dalton’s words), producer, director, actor, and audiobook narrator legend, Stig Wemyss… Though the man I encountered was closer to what someone on the interwebs described as: “child-friendly Billy Connolly meets Metallica.” I was speaking with him for an article to appear on Bolinda audio’s soon-to-be-launched new website, but we gas-bagged for so long and covered so many topics, it didn’t feel like work at all.
Exhibit 4: Filling the gaps in between? Research for BlinkTV’s broadcast of this year’s Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras for SBS Australia. I’ve done this for the past few years, speaking with the organisers of the floats – everyone from Oceanic Pups and Handlers, to Dykes On Bikes, Deaf Rainbow NSW, Harbour City Wrestling Club, Haka For Life and everyone in between. And every year I hear stories that make me weep with admiration for a pretty awesome bunch of people who band together every year to show us what the world can be if we all open our hearts to diversity and tolerance. Plus, glitter, sparkles, and beats to die for. Kudos, people.
So. That’s why I love my job. Never a dull moment.