Cuno seems to suggest that nationalism is a major threat and tries to explain the present debate in these terms:
Most nation states have cultural property laws that restrict the international movement in archaeological artifacts found within their borders. But some antiquities are undocumented, lacking evidence of archaeological circumstances or removal. In the current debate over the acquisition of undocumented antiquities, the world’s archaeological community has allied with nationalistic programs of nation states.While it may be true that some archaeologists—but surely not "the archaeological community"—promote "nationalist retentionist cultural property laws", others may raise their concerns about looted antiquities because there is a genuine concern for the material and intellectual consequences for their subject.
There is surely some common ground. We could all agree that looting:
- destroys archaeological sites
- destroys information
- corrupts knowledge
Where we probably disagree is over the following:
- does collecting encourage looting?
- does the UNESCO 1970 Convention discourage the acquisition of recently surfaced objects?
- "Archaeologists go along because they depend on nation states to do their work."
- "Archaeologists, especially those who benefit from working in host university museums, should examine their support of nationalist retentionist cultural property law. Many collections could not have been formed since the implementation of these laws."
Cuno talks about "our common ancient heritage". But do museum curators (and directors) who happily acquire recently surfaced antiquities care about our shared cosmopolitan heritage? And it is misleading to suggest that, as the archaeological record of, say, fourth century BCE Apulia predates the modern Italian state, we should be unconcerned about the wholescale looting of ancient cemeteries in southern Italy to supply the antiquities market.
We need to remember that Apulian pottery has been returned to Italy from four North American collections:
- Boston, Museum of Fine Arts
- Malibu, J. Paul Getty Museum
- New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
- Princeton University Art Museum
Cuno concludes his essay with this challenge:
Arguments between museums and archaeologists over the acquisition of undocumented antiquities are a diversion from real arguments, which ought to be between those who value antiquity and the nationalist governments who manipulate it for political gain.We agree that undocumented antiquities will not regain their archaeological contexts by being returned to the country from which they had been looted.
But losing millions of dollars worth of acquisitions will surely make a museum think twice about acquiring what Cuno calls "undocumented antiquities". (And if there is one thing that the returns to Italy has taught us it is that [some] antiquities that were unknown prior to 1970 do have a habit of appearing in the Polaroids seized in Geneva.)
So let me take a current example.
Do we care about the destruction of sixth century BCE tombs in the Republic of Macedonia to supply antiquities for, say, private collectors?
Not because of "nationalist retentionist cultural property laws" (though I could understand a call by archaeologists working in the Republic of Macedonia for the return of specific pieces) but because looting is destroying some unique and highly significant archaeological contexts—and that destruction is removing part of human knowledge for ever.
Looting has intellectual consequences.