My advisor asked our class to write a preliminary Op-Ed piece, to be published in April around the time of the anniversary of the Baghdad Museum looting. We're going to meet throughout spring to solidify our message and what point(s) we really want to make. Here's my submission - certainly preliminary, but I spent a solid few hours this morning working on it, so I'm sharing:
What is Looting?
I/We participated in a class at the University of Minnesota last fall titled “Who Owns the Past?” The course brought together diverse perspectives of law and archaeology. Most of we archaeologists entered the class believing that tragedies such as the thefts of antiquities from the Baghdad Museum and the ongoing disruption of archaeological sites in Iraq should be prosecuted and punished under a legal system. Tougher laws and penalties for dealers and buyers would prevent objects from museums and sites in Iraq from disappearing from public view and scientific study.
One constant discussion point in our course was to define “looting,” commonly described as illegal excavation. In the United States, if you find an arrowhead on your land, you can keep or sell it as you wish. For the law students in our class, that was a sufficient answer – no law, no problem! But many countries, including China, Israel, Egypt, Italy, Greece, and Iraq, do have laws to regulate antiquities. Any object in the ground belongs to the state, not the person on whose property it was found.
Most such laws were passed and continue to be enforced in order to protect archaeological sites. Archaeologists interpret and date objects by associating them with things found with them. This is called “context,” and identifying and documenting every object’s context is the foundation for modern archaeology. For example, a coin of the Alexander the Great found next to a drinking cup means that cup most likely also dates to the time of Alexander. If an archaeologist finds the cup and coin on the floor of a house with elaborate painted walls, they can say that the cup was used for dining. But if instead they are found in a temple, surrounded by ash, it is more likely that the cup had a ritual or religious use. If our hypothetical cup was found in Egypt, but the clay used to make it came from the island of Rhodes, we can infer something about trade patterns and economic exchange. And so on.
Now, say instead of being found in an archaeological excavation, our drinking cup was found by a farmer tilling his field. He’s a little short on money in tough economic times, so he takes it to his local black market antiquities dealer, to whom he sells it for one day’s worth of wages. Many, many deals later, the cup shows up for auction at Christie’s in New York, where it is described as “Fourth Century BC, Eastern Mediterranean.” (Information which, by the way, is based on our hypothetical cup’s similarities to other cups found during scientific archaeological excavations.) It has been completely divorced from its original, irreplaceable context, and it will now be able to add little to our collective knowledge about the past.
So is removing an object from its archaeological context still “looting” if it’s legal, as it is in the United States and Great Britain? What if we change our definition from “illegal excavation” to “undocumented excavation”? After all, the problem with looting is that it destroys the original archaeological context of an artifact. The trouble with looting is that it forever destroys the information about an object which can be gained from context. Destruction of archaeological sites is tantamount to burning books, only no other copies exist.
What I/we came to realize last fall is that looting is not a legal problem, so it doesn’t have a legal solution. Archaeologists wish to gain, preserve and protect knowledge about people who lived before us. The best way to do that is not with laws, but information. Several members of our class have become more involved in non-profit organizations which help protect sites, such as Saving Antiquities For Everyone (http://www.savingantiquities.org/) or the Archaeological Institute of America (http://www.archaeological.org/). Together, we can ensure that our past has a future.