The New York Times is correct to observe that the widespread destruction of cultural heritage in failed or failing states has lead to a quiet reevaluation in senior museum circles of the current policy bias in favor of national retention and reflexive restitution. (Islamic State Destruction Renews Debate Over Repatriation of Antiquities, March 30, 1015.) Western archeologists insist that antiquities remain in the nation where they are found to keep them off the market and reduce site looting. This misses the point where the threat to cultural heritage is iconoclastic; that is, ideologically driven destruction of cultural objects viewed as apostate. We need to rethink the bias towards national retention by taking into account the quality of national stewardship, especially where there is a clear and present danger to cultural heritage (including excavated sites, objects ex situ, objects in situ and related stratigraphic context). When cultural heritage is demonstrably at risk of domestic iconoclasm, the issue is whether objects ex situ must remain in country and at risk because of inflexible adherence to the principle of universal national retention. For example, it would make sense in principal to let international organizations rescue endangered objects and hold them in trust for safekeeping pending restoration of stability. Ricardo Elia, an archeologist at Boston University, misses the mark badly by stating that “It was only a matter of time before some in the art-collecting community tried to turn this cultural nightmare to their own advantage.” Elia’s reflexive hostility towards any form of antiquities collecting causes him to blame Western collectors, who favor preservation of objects, rather than the iconoclasts, who favor their destruction. Similarly, Allison E. Cuneo, a doctoral candidate in archaeology at Boston University, appears to believe that solutions favoring preservation over retention are “neocolonialist.” This is sloganeering and fails to address the issue. Archeologists are right to protest when unrestricted market demand drives looting and destruction of stratigraphic context. They are wrong to insist on universal national retention when to do so ensures the destruction of heritage sites and objects already out of context. Rescuing cultural heritage from the iconoclasts will require flexible thinking. I do not see that coming from the archeological community which seems content to blame old enemies instead of coming to grips with new ones.
New York, New York
The presumption of archaeologists (such as Ricardo Elia) in assigning blame to collectors for all evils afflicting archaeology (and cultural heritage theft) is breathtaking, and is not sustained by any real or conclusive evidence linking illicit excavations in source states to activities of Western collectors.
There is, instead, historical evidence indicating that channels for sale of the spoils of illicit excavations exist apart from their sale to European or North American collectors.
While sale into these channels may be somewhat less lucrative than sales to channels reaching Western antiquities markets, no known factual evidence demonstrates that this becomes any significant disincentive to illicit excavations.
The eagerness with which archaeologists blame Western collectors for problems in controlling cultural heritage theft in "source states" may be ascribed to two causes:
First, there is the ideological bias of many archaeologists against private collecting of antiquities, and the trade that supplies it.
Second, archaeology is not a "hard science" and the standards of proof required in the physical sciences are not regarded as necessary for an archaeologist to draw conclusions.
While this leads to many interesting and informative conjectures regarding interpretation of data (excavated artifacts and their context), such conclusions are not proven in the way interpretation of data is proven in the physical sciences.
As a result there is a tendency for "weight of opinion" to become the standard for acceptance of a thesis. But "weight of opinion" can be wrong. I believe that to be the case with regard to the as yet unproven conjecture that European and North American antiquities collectors are the root cause of illicit excavations in the Mideast and other source nations.
Surely the vilification and attacks now being aimed at realizing the goal of regulatory suppression of antiquities collecting demand a more solid foundation than this unproven conjecture.
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