Renfrew's Hypothesis: Are Collectors the Real Looters?
Colin Renfrew (Lord Renfrew, Baron Renfrew of Kaimsthorn) is a famous British archaeologist who has many seminal publications to his credit and is best known for research into the origins of European civilization. In 1987 Renfrew advanced the then revolutionary view that European civilization originated in Anatolia, and that beginning in the seventh millenium b.c. farming culture spread into Europe replacing its previous hunter-gatherer culture. That assertion is known as the Anatolian Hypothesis, sometimes also referred to as the "Renfrew Hypothesis."
The subject of this article is another hypothesis generally attributed to Colin Renfrew (although it may actually first have been asserted by Ricardo Elia), most commonly encountered in the form "Collecting = Looting." There is no evidence that Renfrew (or Elia) ever asserted this viewpoint in those precise words, although his 1993 article [ "Collectors Are the Real Looters:" Archaeology 46(3)(1993)16-17] does seem to amount to the same thing. This hypothesis will (for the purposes of this article) be referred to as the Renfrew Hypothesis on Looting.
Why are ancient coin and antiquities dealers and collectors concerned about the Renfrew Hypothesis on Looting?
Renfrew's hypothesis asserts that looting of archaeological sites through clandestine excavation by individuals interested in selling their finds is motivated by antiquities collectors who provide a market for these finds. This hypothesis is the most significant justification presently cited by those who assert that collecting of unprovenanced portable antiquities is unethical. Their point of view is controversial because it has become the primary motive for asserting that restrictions on collecting of portable antiquities (cf. the 1970 UNESCO Convention) or an outright ban on such collecting would effectively control looting of archaeological sites.
Is there an unproven assumption involved in the Renfrew Hypothesis on Looting?
Yes. This point of view neglects a significant alternative possibility, that those who loot archaeological sites actually do not depend upon antiquities collectors in nations observing international laws (such as the 1970 UNESCO Convention) for a market to sell their findings. It is an unfortunate fact that many antiquities "source states" are pervaded by official corruption, and that their antiquities laws are widely regarded as legal devices providing opportunities for corrupt officials to extort bribes. While there is no real evidence that motives for such laws actually included facilitating official corruption, there is good reason to think that enforcement of antiquities laws in many "source states" has been weakened by official corruption (and general inefficiency) to such an extent that these nations are (for all practical purposes) unable to effectively enforce their antiquities laws. Since these nations and their inhabitants do not, according to this viewpoint, actually observe the 1970 UNESCO Convention and related international agreements despite formally subscribing to them, it is argued that closure of Western antiquities markets would not eliminate looting of archaeological sites, and probably would not noticeably diminish the extent of such looting. The alternative hypothesis is that collectors in effectively nonobservant states would acquire these antiquities, or that they would alternatively flow into other channels (e.g. the "melting pot") offering profitable disposition to finders.
Has the Renfrew Hypothesis on Looting been proven?
No. No scientifically verifiable evidence has yet been advanced to support this hypothesis, conclusively proving a chain of causality between looting of specific artifacts and their subsequent acquisition by collectors in nations whose access to antiquities can effectively be controlled by law. Arguments in its favor, to date, instead appear to focus upon the extent of looting and acquisition of unprovenanced antiquities by collectors, without considering alternative explanations.
Is there reason to think that the Renfrew Hypothesis on Looting may be mistaken?
Yes. The most often cited argument against this hypothesis is that looting of ancient sites is by no means a recent phenomenon, but has been continuously carried on since time immemorial, provably dating back at least to the days when the Pyramids were constructed. There is very convincing, perhaps conclusive archaeological evidence to the effect that tomb robbing was a major, essentially uncontrollable problem in those days. At that time no one collected antiquities, and those caught robbing tombs died speedily and unpleasantly.
A second significant argument against this hypothesis has recently surfaced, in that artifacts from the deplorable uncontrolled looting of archaeologicalsites in Iraq (following the invasion of 2003) have not surfaced to any significant extent in Western art and antiquities markets. It is alternatively argued that these artifacts are instead flowing into channels that cannot be controlled by international law. There has not yet been any rebuttal to that point of view.
Can the Renfrew Hypothesis on Looting be proven?
I intend to find out. A new discussion list (RENFREW-L) dedicated to investigating that hypothesis has been created. Its charter is to arrive at a definitive answer to this important question.