Illicit Traffic of Antiquities and HeDAP

Durham University also coordinated a specific training focused on the issue of the worldwide illicit traffic of ancient antiquities, during week 4 (24th – 30th July 2017) in Mahres, Tunisia.

Training team

Morgan Belzic (Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes)
John Brennan (Durham University)


One of the aspect of the training is the opportunity to train the expert archaeologists in the fight against the illicit traffic of antiquities and provide them with a tool which allows them to quickly record materials in storerooms and sites.

This aspect of the training was seeing as particularly important for the current situation in Libya, where the archaeological objects are constantly under risk of looting and many of them have already reached the international market for sale.


Illicit traffic of antiquities

For all the participants, this training was an absolute novelty and they were initiated to a new world of problems, issues and resolutions.

The issue of the illicit traffic was addressed by Morgan Belzic, who has been working for few years with the international police and ICOM to stop illicit traffic especially from Libya.

The first part of the training was therefore devoted to the explanations to the course participants of the system used for the illicit traffic of antiquities.

They were instructed in the way in which the materials are sent through different countries, to hide their original provenance, they change name and provenance several times, until finally a fake certificate of provenance is created. They appear on auction catalogues often with different photographs, and they are often very difficult to be identified, if someone is not a specialist.

The next step was to explain the participants in what ways can the international illicit traffic can be stopped and how the police can support them in their work of protecting their objects and materials.

This knowledge is essential in the work of the expert archaeologists who are involved in the protection of the antiquities and it was essential to move to the next step of the training, where they were required to use the HeDAP, provide feedback, but also work on the structure of the APP, its vocabulary and its functions.


The HeDAP was created in 2014 with the aim to support a tool useful to fast record objects in store rooms and sites, providing accurate information to be stored in a second phase into the database with embedded the image recognition process, which will be included in the GIS.

The HeDAP had key challenges. The first practical session was at the Marabout at Iunca, where the trainees familiarise with the APP and tested it. After the first session a few issues, both technical and scientific were discussed. These were addressed and corrected immediately a two second practical sessions took place at the Museum in Sfax and at the site of Thenae.

The major issue that emerged was the Arabic vocabulary and a lot of the discussion was around the use of words in Libyan and Tunisian Arabic. It was a great opportunity to have Libyans and Tunisians working together.

The use and different meanings of the words of the two languages generated a very lively debate. The focus was particularly on the vocabulary for the sculpture (both Statuary and architectural materials); pottery and parts of the vessels; and the addition to the APP of a specific set of records for manuscripts and inscriptions, which are often preserved in store rooms.

The training for the use of HeDAP was directed to a small group of staff members of the Heritage sectors of Libya and Tunisia. The restricted choice was dictated by the need to provide advance training, not only on the use of the app, but also on its management. Moreover, the APP has been used since 2014, but is still developing. One of the major issues in the past has been the vocabulary and its translation into Arabic.

The training also included a series of lectures on the illicit traffic (especially from North Africa), its organization and the medium to fight against it.

The feedback indicates that the 87% of the participants found this aspect of the training of great interest and also absolutely new for them. They pointed out how this training was fundamental for them, since they have to deal constantly with issues of stolen objects, and they had never received specific training on this aspect. The 100% of the respondent indicated how this training changed their understanding of the issues of illicit traffic and its prevention.


The 100% of the respondent rated the course excellent and indicated that the whole activity was a great experience for them all for many reasons. They appreciated the opportunity to work in a small team. This gave them the chance to develop numerous discussions, curiosities and allowed them to improve the APP and shape it around their specific needs. All the respondents indicated this as a great added value to the whole experience. They found it extremely formative and it boosted their motivation and interest in the work with the materials to prevent their looting.

The APP was known to the Libyans participants, but it was a novelty for the Tunisians participants. The 100% of the respondent indicated that the APP and the training had changed their perception and their understanding of the importance of object recording and the actions to be taken in order to stop the international illicit traffic. They all engaged with the process of creating a shared vocabulary between Tunisians and Libyans and a common instrument that could be shared between the two countries.