John Henry Merryman: Archaeologists are not helping debate over collecting antiquities

Merryman, a leading US theorist of cultural property law, argues that archaeologists are failing to acknowledge the complexity of the current debate on collecting antiquities


Stanford, CA

Prominent archeologists announce that they are “at war” with antiquities collectors, museums and the antiquities trade, whom they accuse of market-motivated “rape,” “pillage” and “plunder” (one also encounters “pernicious,” “corrupt,” “tainted” and “grubby”). Less flamboyantly, the Principles of Ethics in Archaeology of the Society for American Archaeology state that:

“The buying and selling of objects from archaeological contexts contributes to the destruction of the archaeological record... Commercialisation of these objects results in their unscientific removal from sites, destroying contextual information...”

In either form, the argument reduces to this: the antiquities market (“buying and selling” and “commercialisation”) causes destruction of the archaeological record and the loss of contextual information. Acquisitors (museums, collectors and the art trade) are the source of the antiquities problem. To be fair, many individual archaeologists, particularly those who work in museums, take a more nuanced view of the antiquities problem, which is real and complex. The archaeological establishment, however, appears to have embraced one or the other form of the reductive argument.

The argument is too easy. It is undeniable that most of the antiquities that newly appear on the market are undocumented and that archaeological sites often are abused, context destroyed and information about the human past irretrievably lost. But it is also obvious that museums and collectors would much prefer to acquire, and the antiquities trade would strongly prefer to deal in, legitimately excavated, properly documented objects. They cannot do so, however, because source nation laws, which archaeologists generally support, have shut off the supply.

The resulting black market in antiquities insures the mistreatment of objects and sites and the destruction of context (as well as other evils). If one set out to encourage harm to the archaeological record, it might be difficult to contrive a more effective way of doing so than the present one. As the cultural property lawyer Quentin Byrne-Sutton has observed, the result is “a ridiculous situation in which regulation nourishes what it seeks to eliminate”.

The antiquities problem, a predictable consequence of the serious imbalance between the small supply of legitimated, documented antiquities and the large and growing demand for them, can be ameliorated only by increasing the supply and/or reducing the demand. Further restricting the supply—for example, by the imposition of more restrictive source nation laws or market nation import controls or more strenuous enforcement of existing controls—would increase the disparity between legitimated supply and demand and further nourish the black market.

Recipes for increasing the supply of legitimated antiquities have been published by Paul Bator, Karl Meyer and other knowledgeable, disinterested observers. Public institutions in source nations could release some of the reputedly large supplies of marketable antiquities they now hold in storage. Source nation antiquities legislation could encourage, rather than penalise, the reporting of finds. Export controls could be amended to permit privately held objects to enter the international antiquities market. The archaeological principles that control professional legitimation could be made less restrictive, and known sites could be more expeditiously excavated, documented and conserved. Despite the apparent reasonableness of such proposals, however, they are ignored or opposed by the archaeological establishment.

Archaeologists have instead chosen to focus on reducing the demand for antiquities among collectors and museums and discouraging dealers and auction houses from dealing in them. Their position allies them with retentive source nations in supporting repression of the antiquities trade. Together they speak with a respected voice and command a sympathetic ear, and their combined influence has affected governmental and organisational policies, particularly in the United States. Still, the demand for antiquities stubbornly persists and the black market flourishes.

The archaeologists’ alliance with source nations in their campaign against the antiquities market has the unfortunate secondary effect of reinforcing exaggerated cultural nationalism, excessive source nation retentionism and the atmosphere of sentimentality, romance and rhetoric that sustains them. This further impedes any effort to increase the supply of legitimated antiquities. It also blocks efforts to raise the level and moderate the tone of discussions about the antiquities problem.

Archaeologists obviously have an interest in studying sites, objects and context and in advancing learning about the human past. That is an important interest, which is shared by most thoughtful people. But other important interests also deserve recognition. These prominently include an international interest, expressed in the Preamble to the 1970 UNESCO Convention and in other international instruments, in the circulation of cultural objects, which “increases the knowledge of the civilization of man, enriches the cultural life of all peoples and insures mutual respect and appreciation among nations” and leads to “a better use of the international community’s cultural heritage.” Collectors also have an interest in possessing and enjoying antiquities; museums have an interest in collecting, preserving, studying and displaying them; dealers and auction houses have an interest in trading in them.

According to one persuasive view of the antiquities problem, all of these interests are legitimate. That they sometimes conflict merely reflects the reality that the antiquities problem is complex and admits of no simple solution. The reasonable course is for the interested parties to seek the best mutual accommodation of their interests, and that requires that the parties recognize, speak and listen to each other.

The prominent archaeologists quoted above project a simpler, adversarial version of the antiquities problem in which they are right; collectors, museums and the art trade are iniquitously wrong; and the international interest goes unmentioned. They are uninterested in a dialogue; there is nothing to discuss. Their attitude both colours and reflects that of their profession. Acquisitors are, in effect, excluded from polite society: they are not invited to participate in seminars, conferences and symposia; they are not encouraged to submit manuscripts to journals; archaeologists are counseled to refuse to consort with them. Even if there were a dialogue, they would be not be admitted to it.

It is unlikely that the archaeologists’ campaign against the antiquities market will succeed. The record of more highly organised and better financed attempts to reduce the demand for and suppress the trade in controlled products for which there is a strong demand (e.g., arms, strategic materials, technology, narcotics, alcoholic beverages) is well-known: disappointing progress toward the primary objective, unanticipated expense and a variety of unforeseen, often seriously damaging secondary effects.

Nor is it clear that the archaeologists’ campaign against the market should succeed.. Archaeologists are an interest group pursuing their own interest. It is an important interest, which most good people support, but I know of no neutral principle that elevates the archaeological interest to a higher level than the interests of museums or collectors or the art trade or the international interest in the circulation of cultural objects or other relevant interests.

None of this is new. Many archaeologists fully understand and, at least in principle, agree. Agreement in principle, however, is relatively easy. The hard part comes in working out a resolution of the contrasting interests in the antiquities problem. That process begins with a dialogue in which the interested parties talk and listen to each other. Forums for a constructive dialogue, including the pages of this newspaper and the International Journal of Cultural Property, exist, and others can easily be created. But little will be accomplished until the politics prevailing within the archaeological community change. No attempt to deal more constructively and effectively with the antiquities problem can succeed without the central, active participation of the archaeologists.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Archaeologists are not helping'