Friday, 5 October 2007

The Rising Love of Loot

In the first of two interviews on the ownership and display of antiquities,the newly installed director of the American School talks about the destructive effects of private collections 

"AT THE University of Cincinnati we passed a resolution in our department, which is strongly focused on archaeology, that we would not accept the donation of any antiquities from private sources into our department, and that we would not accept funding for archaeological projects from collectors.

We all had been in situations where we had witnessed terrible looting of archaeological sites. Often the amount of devastation to an archaeological site is really disproportionate to the loot that's recovered. People will do huge damage to a site just to walk away with some coins, destroying sometimes the whole history of an area in an evening with a bulldozer. There's hardly a field archaeologist alive who hasn't seen that. 

Some of us have been in situations where we've had to post guards with guns over archaeological sites at night, especially if we're digging in or around the cemetery. These things because there's a market, there's a demand for antiquities, and that market is largely fed through the introduction of new antiquities, which pass up in a chain of transmission from small farmers encouraged by higher level exploiters, who feed these finds into overseas networks. 

I think we need to attack small-scale operations like eBay. You find thousands of hits for illegal antiquities on eBay every day. Those may not be coming out of Greece now, but they're coming out of certain Balkan countries; they're coming out of Russia, the Near East. The business in Iraq and Afghanistan led to a real flood of antiquities from those places into western markets. 

An unbelievable range of things is now being collected that was never collected before, with huge values attached. Things that one used to be able to acquire for hundreds of dollars are now on sale for tens of thousands of dollars. 

The antiquities laws in America are, in my view, ridiculous. They permit the private ownership of archaeological sites and the exploitation of those sites. If I am a farmer and I own an American Indian cemetery, something Late Mississippian, 13th or 14th century after Christ with beautiful artefacts, I can dig it. They're my property. I can sell them just as private property. There are no restrictions whatsoever.
So we do what we can do. We have a couple of organisations in the States that exist to raise money to buy private property on which archaeological sites are located - the Archaeological Conservancy. We buy sites and set them aside just to protect them for the future. 

There's something of value in almost every place. In a country like Greece that's been occupied for thousands and thousands of years, it's impossible to dig and not find something. This is a matter for citizens and education and sociology, not for law enforcement. We each need to be educated and take ethical positions. 

I remember when Jackie Kennedy started her Every Litter Bit Hurts in America campaign and I thought, "Yeah right, people are going to stop littering." And they did. It took a couple of decades, but they did. And that was through public awareness, constant bombardment of the public message. 

I've read the documents from the 1820s when the [Greek] government was trying to organise the archaeological service. What they were doing - and it was somewhat successful - was appeal to national pride. It didn't work with everybody, but there were people sending antiquities to form the national collection established initially on Aegina. 

At the same time, work on the other end of the equation - make it harder to sell by cracking down on law enforcement in the receiving countries. And that requires a change in American attitudes. 

It used to be possible to take your antiquities into a local university department, talk to a professor and say, "What is this? Is this real?" We don't do that anymore. We tell them that we have no opinion. It's not our business. We refuse to partake in the process. This is a role a person like myself can play to make the process of commoditisation more difficult. I want a buyer to have doubts about the authenticity of [an object]. It's the official policy of the Archaeological Institute of America, which is the parent institution of the American School in Athens. 

There's an argument to be made that it's better for an antiquity to stay in the country of origin through purchase by a private collector than for it to leave. At least you retain it in Greece. But that's different from what goes on in America and Britain. 

Museums form support organisations - friends of the museum - and those are encouraged to collect to buy. The purpose is that the museum, rather than directly buying the objects, which they don't have the money to do anyway, can deny the responsibility for the acquisition because it's purchased by the buyer. And the private buyer then ultimately wills it or donates it to the museum and receives tax benefits for so doing. So, in effect, everybody feels good. 

I think some of the most avid collectors are paying the highest prices and are fuelling demand; they're driving the market. I don't want to see archaeological sites destroyed. I want to learn as much about the past as possible. 

My personal feeling is that antiquities are best held by people for whom they offer the most meaning. It's not just the Parthenon Marbles. Bulgarians have raised issues about silver plate that's held in Greece. A big issue for Albanians is the helmet of Skanderbeg held in Austria. Where is the helmet of Skanderbeg most naturally displayed - in Tirana or Vienna? You can make an argument that it's a part of the history of the Austrian empire and its expansion into the Balkans, but I think that it doesn't have the emotional charge that it has for the Albanians, and it seems a crying shame that there has to be a model of it in the museum in Tirana. Where do the Parthenon Marbles look best? Where do they derive the most meaning?"

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