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"The Acquisition of Undocumented Antiquities": A Diversion From Real Arguments?

I am looking forward to reading James Cuno's new book, Who Owns Antiquity? [Princeton UP, 2008] [WorldCat]). He has issued a short essay: "Who Owns the Past? Antiquities from great cultures belong to humanity, not nation states that emerged centuries later", YaleGlobal, 21 April 2008.

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
Cuno states: "the world is losing our common ancient heritage through theft and destruction, poverty, development, warfare and sectarian violence."

Where we probably disagree is over the following:
  • does collecting encourage looting?
  • does the UNESCO 1970 Convention discourage the acquisition of recently surfaced objects?
Cuno also questions the integrity of (some) archaeologists.
  • "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."
Is he suggesting that (some) archaeologists only speak out over the issue of looting to gain access to choice sites or a pick of objects to publish from national collections?

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:
The failure has not been in the "laws to protect our common ancient heritage", but rather in the ethical frameworks and standards employed by (some) acquiring museums (and [some] private collectors). (See Brunilde Sismondo Ridgway's sensible comments quoted in "The time of illicit acquisitions is long gone".)

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.


David- I suspect Jim Cuno agrees that preservation of context is desirable, but he would also say that the reflexive nationalism of many source countries stands in the way of addressing cultural property issues in a sensible manner, like Britain and Wales have done.

The power that source countries have over excavation permits provides a major disincentive for members of the archaeological community who might otherwise question the wisdom of the "state owns everything approach." In the United States, this manifests itself time and again at hearings before the Cultural Property Advisory Committee. In my opinion, the most troubling example of this phenomena was at the 2005 CPAC hearings on China's request for import restrictions. There was substantial evidence introduced at that hearing that the Chinese government has continued its campaign to destroy Tibet's cultural heritage to this day. Yet, a number of representatives of the archaeological community spoke in favor of China's rights to absolute control over Tibetan cultural artifacts. This was particularly troubling to me given the Dalai Lama's recognition that collectors have been instrumental in preserving that cultural heritage from destruction.

Under the circumstances, I think you discount the archaeological community's overt support for the nationalism of source countries and its negative impact on moving forward on these issues too much.


Peter Tompa
David Gill said…
Thank you for this response. My concern is that Cuno generalises about the "archaeological community". Does he have a specific institute or grouping in mind?
You also raise, as did Cuno, the deliberate destruction of cultural property for political or religious reasons. Again we are on common ground.
I look forward to reading Cuno's sustained thinking on these issues.
Best wishes

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