A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
New guidelines may help preserve sites
For decades there has been a bitter debate over looting and its relationship to the buying and selling of artifacts. Archaeologists have argued that the antiquities trade fuels illicit digging and the destruction of sites, while museum curators have seen the acquisition and public exhibition of artifacts as fundamental to their institution's mission. Articles in magazines and newspapers have made it seem as if the two sides would never be able to agree on anything. One year ago in this column, I wrote about the evolving relationship between archaeologists and museums, and expressed hope that the two groups would find areas of agreement. A major step in that direction has just occurred: in a new report, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) has established guidelines for buying artifacts that incorporate many principles long advocated by the AIA.
The AAMD report acknowledges that museums have an obligation not to acquire ancient objects in a way that will provide a direct incentive to looting. More important, the AAMD has now accepted 1970--the date of the UNESCO Convention on Cultural Property--as a cut-off date. The guidelines state that artifacts removed from their likely countries of origin after 1970 can be acquired only if they have legal export documents.
If enforced, the new AAMD guidelines will remove some of the market incentives for plundering sites in the future. That's good news for all of us. We lose crucial information when artifacts are ripped from the ground rather than excavated carefully. Even if they are recovered from looters or smugglers, such as the 929 Precolumbian objects recently returned to Mexico from the United States and Canada, they can tell us far less about ancient peoples than if we knew the context in which they were found.
Not all archaeologists I've spoken with feel that the AAMD guidelines go far enough, and a few curators have argued that they go too far. But the groundwork has been laid for further discussion between the AIA and the AAMD, and we intend to establish a joint committee to identify programs to which we both might contribute. Even though there are topics on which it may be difficult to find unanimity, there is great potential for a profitable collaboration focused on the preservation of the world's archaeological heritage.
C. Brian Rose is the president of the Archaeological Institute of America.