Monday, June 23, 2008

Witch Hunt on Against Coalition Soldier Who Sought to Donate Afghan Antiquities to Museum

A number of archaeological blogs and lists have condemned a Norwegian soldier who tried to donate artifacts from Afghanistan to an Oslo Museum. For an article about the incident, see: Until information is developed that shows otherwise, I think it is wrong for them to assume the worst and attack this soldier in such a fashion.

The information posted to date does not indicate how the soldier came by the artifacts, but from other stories I have heard, I suspect he likely bought them quite openly from poor farmers who found them. Indeed, before first the Communists and then the Taliban took over Afghanistan, small artifacts like coins were sold quite openly in markets in Kabul. It would not shock me if they still are.

In my opinion, those who do not want to give this soldier the "benefit of the doubt" are themselves guilty of applying their own knowledge and prejudices as archaeologists to others who are not likely to be as "sophisticated" as themselves in such matters. Certainly, the soldier's efforts to donate the items to a museum do not suggest he knew what he was doing was "wrong" (if it indeed was wrong under Afghan law). In this regard, it is interesting that the Afghan museum official quoted in the article does not condemn the soldier, based on the information at hand. Yet, that is just what some members of the archaeological community are all too willing to do-- even without any hard information about the underlying facts.

There is a recurring story here. People buy things quite openly in source countries. They bring them back to the West and try to sell them or donate them to museums. If this becomes known somehow to archaeological fanatics, these unsuspecting individuals find themselves crucified on the archaeological blogs. The information then finds its way into the press. Then, it's only a matter of time before government officials get into the act to seek repatriatons or even prosecutions for the return of '"priceless" cultural property. This is what is "wrong" in my opinion.

The US has already committed billions of dollars to various economic development programs in Afghanistan. Rather than crucifying this Norwegian soldier who risked his life for the Afghans (and by extension us), doesn't it make more sense to support funding a pilot program in Afghanistan that will encourage the locals to report their finds to the authorities, allow the government to have a right of first refusal for such finds, and get the finders a fair price that will help allow them to feed their families? Such programs have proved extremely cost effective in Britain and Wales. I can only assume they would be even more so in an undeveloped country like Afghanistan, given the fact that artifacts like coins are probably sold for only little more than melt value (if that) there by impoverished Afghan farmers.

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