Sunday, June 10, 2007

Who Has Authorized Archaeologists to Own the Past?

I have never really identified the ultimate source upon which archaeologists base that moral authority which they believe that they possess over ancient artifacts. Our political leaders derive their authority from the will of the people they govern, as expressed in elections, and in the old days there was even the "divine right of kings." Our religious leaders derive their authority from God. Our legal officials are either appointed by elected officials, or elected themselves. But where archaeologists derive their authority remains an untraceable mystery.

Archaeology, if it can be considered a science in the classical sense, lacking as it does any generally accepted unified theory, actually dates back only some 100 years. That is far less than sciences which archaeology now claims to encompass as subsidiary disciplines - "artifact studies" such as numismatics and sigillography for example. In its primitive beginnings, archaeology was nothing more than an effort to organize and systematize plundering of ancient artifacts.

Early excavations were religiously motivated expeditions or outright treasure hunting, until the second excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum. In 1738, the King of the Two Sicilies hired antiquarian Marcello Venuti to reopen shafts previously dug by looters at Herculaneum. The resulting excavation has been cited as the first example of modern archaeology, although methods employed were horrifically unscientific and destructive by today's standards and the validity of conclusions to be drawn from the results was at best extremely questionable. In this respect archaeology then compared poorly with established sciences whose results could be relied upon and used as stepping stones for further exploration. Mathematicians, physicists, chemists and even anatomists were then making discoveries and drawing conclusions that are still valid today.

Much the same can be said for almost everything that followed, including French explorations in Egypt under Napoleon and the sensational but unscientific exploits of Schliemann, until the investigations of Howard Carter in Egypt and Sir Arthur Evans in Crete. Even these two pioneers have not lacked critics, Carter having at one time been an antiquities dealer who made his living selling looted antiquities to museums and collectors in a manner considered by archaeologists to be unethical nd immoral today, and Evans having reconstructed the palaces at Knossos in a manner now considered to be both unscientific and very inaccurate. Evans also failed to recognize the historical and linguistic significance of the 3,000 baked clay tablets he found at Knossos, which languished unexamined in storage until they were ultimately deciphered in 1952 by the gifted amateur Michael Ventris, in the most important linguistic discovery since the Rosetta Stone.

Let's say then for purposes of discussion that modern systematic archaeology really dates from the opening of Tutankhamen's tomb by Carter in 1925, and publication of his results in 1933. World War II swiftly ensued, so archaeology did not really become very well organized and established until after the war ended about sixty years ago. That makes archaeology perhaps the youngest discipline that claims to be a major science.

By 1970 archaeologists had amassed enough of this mysterious untraceable moral authority to ally themselves with cultural preservationists in states such as Mexico and Peru, resulting in the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The effects of this convention have been far reaching and in the opinion of many museum and art trade experts, very destructive.

Prior to UNESCO 1970, collectors of antiquities and artifacts such as coins had been supportive of archaeology, in many cases even sponsoring archaeological work. After promulgation of that convention, some archaeologists (led by Lord Renfrew) aggressively asserted the viewpoint that context of discovery (provenance) was more important than an artifact itself, or its display in a major universal museum. To such radical thinkers, a collector is an immoral individual, ultimately responsible for all looting of artifacts. Artifacts should instead be kept in the custody of properly trained experts such as archaeologists and curators of local museums whose focus is preserving archaeological context. "Universal museums" such as the British Museum are really repositories of looted artifacts, and if they cannot be made to return their illicitly gotten holdings, should at least be prevented from adding to them. One might characterize this point of view as "Archaeologie über alles."

It is certainly open to question whether Renfrew's famous dictum that "Collecting equals looting" is really true, considering that looting has taken place throughout history, even in times when no one collected antiquities and those caught looting met instant and unpleasant death. The only things that can be said to have provably restricted this looting are the practical difficulties and risks involved. Similarly, close examination of what actually happens in the antiquities trade reveals that looted objects do not necessarily find their way into the hands of Western collectors and museums. The looting presently taking place in Iraq is a case in point: very little of the plunder has appeared in Western markets.

The resulting conflict between radical archaeologists and allied cultural preservationists, and museums, collectors and their supporting art and antiquities trades, now threatens fundamental, long established individual freedoms - freedom to possess private property; freedom to move that property across national borders without undue hindrance; freedom to learn about and appreciate the great cultures and artistic achievements of the past in universal museums; freedom to acquire, collect and study antiquities as an amateur antiquarian and ultimately to donate the fruits of a lifetime of collecting to a museum, where others can appreciate them.

Long established avocations, heretofore always thought of as entirely respectable, eductational and socially beneficial (such as collecting coins and stamps), are now assailed in the interests of cultural preservation and maintaining archaeological context. There is significant educational and social value in these suddenly endangered freedoms and avocations, and our society would be culturally poorer and less well informed were they to be abolished.

It is time to arrive at a reasoned, balanced and impartial perspective between cultural preservation and archaeological context on the one hand, and individual freedoms and the overall best interests of society on the other. Such balance is not likely to result from leaving archaeologists to decide on their own what the scope of their discipline shall be, and how far their mysterious, untraceable moral authority over artifacts shall extend.