Sunday, March 1, 2009

Archaeological Activism and Professional and Pecuniary Interests

There needs to be far more public disclosure of the professional and pecuniary interests of archaeologists in supporting the agendas of cultural bureaucracies in countries like China, Egypt, Greece, Italy and Turkey.

One of the myths of the archaeological blogosphere is that archaeological activists are motivated by nothing more than the public good. This fits in well with their often highly moralistic denunciations of collectors, dealers and museum professionals, but it ignores any possible self-interest of those pursuing an anti-collecting agenda.

Here are some areas that deserve further inquiry:

1. Some of the most strident views come from archaeologists excavating in source countries seeking import restrictions and repatriation of artifacts. Archaeologists must secure excavation permits from the source countries in which they dig. Archaeologists should disclose the terms of those excavation permits and certify that there has been no quid pro quo for supporting source country demands for import restrictions or repatriations.

2. The squeaky wheel often gets the grease, i.e. federal largess. For example, archaeologists who have hyped the looting of the Iraq Museum and archaeological sites have been the recipients of federal grants or government jobs. Other strident advocacy groups have received funding from the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the same State Department body charged with overseeing the imposition of import restrictions on cultural artifacts at the behest of foreign states. One wonders about any relationship between levels of funding and levels of strident advocacy.

3. Source countries like Cyprus have provided at least in kind support to archaeological groups that have pressed for import restrictions and repatriation of cultural artifacts. These groups or their members often work within the same source countries. A well known archaeological blogger who has tirelessly advocated for the repatriation of artifacts from Greece attended a repatriation conference put on by the Greek government. It is unclear whether he paid his own way or whether his attendance was funded in whole or part by the Greek government or a related entity. One wonders if these groups or individuals are in reality acting as agents of influence for foreign governments. Thomas Laird, speaking about China, has indicated that that the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party stressed that one of the main targets for its external propaganda were foreign experts as "propaganda created by foreigners is more powerful" than propaganda produced by Chinese. See: I suspect the same can be said for the efforts of source countries to enlist members of the archaeological community to plead the nationalistic case for import restrictions and repatriation under the guise of protecting archaeological context.

Personally, I don't doubt that many, if not all, archaeological activists have sincere views on the subject of historical preservation, but so too do collectors, dealers and museum professionals. Under the circumstances, before archaeological activists are allowed to claim that the views of collectors, dealers and museum professionals are being motivated by "greed," those activists should be required to provide full disclosure of their own professional and pecuniary interests in supporting demands for import restrictions and repatriation made by source countries.

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