Archaeologists, art dealers, art crime investigators, and linguists. These are some of the professions to which the British Army is looking in order to fill the ranks of its newest special unit: the Cultural Property Protection Unit (CPPU).
Creation of this new unit comes as a result of the British government’s decision in 2017 to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention on protecting cultural property during a conflict. According to its founder—and thus far, only member—Lieutenant Colonel Tim Purbrick, the new unit will be comprised of 15 operators drawn from across the British military—from the Army, Royal Air Force (RAF), and Royal Navy (RN). Civilians who wish to enter the unit would have to first join the reserves.
The CPPU will specialize in protecting archaeological sites, anti-terrorism finance and anti-smuggling operations, and intelligence gathering. They will also be responsible for informing commanders about places of cultural importance found inside their area of operations.
“I’m looking for experts in art, archaeology, and art crime investigation—leaders in their field who are able to deploy on operations down to the tactical level,” said Lt. Col. Purbrick. “The idea will be to identify sites so that we don’t drop bombs on them or park tanks on top of them,” he added.
The British officer, however, highlighted an equally important objective of the new unit: anti-terrorism finance. ISIS’ blitzkrieg in Syria and Iraq resulted in numerous archaeological sites under their control. Some they destroyed. Others they pillaged. They then sold the most precious artifacts on the black market in order to finance their operations. The CPPU will aim to counter such actions in the future.
“Looting and selling antiquities has been proven as a fundraising method for terrorist groups. Part of our job is about preventing ‘threat finance’—you have an adversary extracting cultural property from the region you are operating in and then, in effect, sending it back at you in the form of bombs and bullets,” said Lt. Col. Purbrick.
When it comes to the operational function of the unit, Lt. Col. Purbrick said it could range from border security—ensuring that no artifacts are smuggled out of a conflict zone—to tactical operations on active battlefields.
Lt. Col. Purbrick hasn’t revealed if his inspiration for the unit came from the popular “Indiana Jones” film franchise or the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section, an Allied unit in the Second World War that specialized in the protection of cultural property in Europe’s war zones. The unit was popularized in the recent Hollywood film “The Monuments Men.”