A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Money, Money, Money
by Heather PringleJune 19, 2009
On a radiantly clear, late summer day in 1991, two German hikers were descending from the summit of a mountain in the Italian Southern Tyrol, when they spotted something odd protruding from the ice in the distance. Helmut Simon, a caretaker from Nuremberg, and his wife Erika, wondered if it was a discarded doll, but as they pair wound down the slope, they realized that it was a human being. “We thought it was a mountaineer who died here,” recalled Erika Simon later in a conversation with the late Konrad Spindler, an archaeologist at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg. “We were shocked and didn’t touch the body.”
The Simons reported their find, and the cadaver proved to be that of a 5300-year-old man, later dubbed Oetzi—the oldest known naturally preserved mummy in Europe. Since then, Oetzi has become the subject of hundreds of major scientific papers and books, the star of countless newcasts and television documentaries and the prime exhibit in a major museum in Bolzano, Italy. And as I discovered in a fascinating little news story this week, the find was also the subject of a 15-year legal battle launched by Gert and Erika Simon. The two mountaineers wanted a cut of the enormous revenue generated by Oetzi.
Mummies, after all, are big business. The bodies of the everlasting dead—whether they are bog bodies, Egyptian mummies, or Scythian princesses—draw large, fascinated crowds when exhibited in museums. It is one thing to read about the ancient cultures or marvel at the beauty of their architecture and statues: it is quite another to gaze at the face of a long-dead pharaoh or an Iron-Age teenager. As humans, we daily read the faces of the strangers we encounter for hundreds of subtle clues about who they are: many of us want to do the same with the ancient dead.
The Simons’ determined legal battle shed light on something rarely openly discussed in the museum community: how the discovery of a major new mummy can bring millions of dollars annually into a city or town. According to estimates that the Simons filed in court, restaurateurs, hotel owners and souvenir sellers in Bolzano alone rake in nearly $ 5.5 million annually from the visitors who travel to the town specifically to see Oetzi. And this does not even begin to account for the revenues from museum ticket sales, books, documentaries, sourvenirs, and website advertising. (To get a sense of how extensive these can be see http://archive.archaeology.org/online/features/bog/exhibit.html )
The court has decided that Erika Simon will now receive a finder’s fee of some $210,000, and authorities in Italy have agreed to pay up. (Simon’s husband Gert died five years ago in an accident.) The decision, of course, raises many ethical issues. Should museums be in the business at all of displaying the bodies of the ancient dead? Who has the right to determine what should happen to these cadavers? Descendants? Governments? Archaeologists? And should finders receive any payment at all for turning over such bodies to authorities?
I think we need to continue to debate and think about these issues. I personally think that paying a finder’s fee to Erika Simon was a big mistake. It sets a legal precedent, one which may further encourage looters to go out and look for other similarly preserved human remains.
This entry was posted by Heather Pringle on
Friday, June 19, 2009.
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10 comments for "Money, Money, Money"
Yes I believe individuals who locate ancient objects should be rewarded – you might get a few you had not expected. Also, their luck has meant financial gain for both the community and the museum (and I have never noticed that a museum has rejected money). If knowing they would be rewarded, more people might tell of finds instead of just looting and everyone would be better for it.
A slightly different, but related, controversy arose when the so-called Kennewick Man was found in the Pacific Northwest of the USA. In this case, it was tradition, not money, that caused the ruckus.
Local Indian groups claimed the skeleton, which was being studied by scientists from several universities, and insisted it should be given a traditional burial. It came down to a legal case involving scientific data (in this case radio carbon dating and physical morphology) vs. religious mythology (the claim that native people had been in the region since the world was created, and thus Kennewick Man was one of them).
The courts ruled in favor of the scientists, and the skeletal remains are currently on display at the University of Washington.
While the court settled this particular case, the legal question of “when does a body become an artifact?” remains to be answered.
Very interesting post, Heather. I agree we need to debate and think about this a lot more. It would be interesting to know the court’s legal reasoning in this particular case, as I would imagine that different circumstances would lead to different results.
To be merely logical, we should begin with the question if displaying ANYTHING in museums for money is ethical.
Some people do think it is, some do not. I was happy to visit UK where most museums are free. In many countries, museums do not get enough financial support from their goverments, so they have to take money from the visitors (in Russia, they even make foreign visitors pay twice as much as native citizens!). So, it is only logical if a person who sees that a museum has gained some profit from his/ her find, says: “Well folks, let’s share!”
A perfect solution would be if all the museums could be free-access. But there are more things than education… financial crises, for instance.
And yes, I DO think that selling T-shirts with pictures of Oetzi or other mummies (that is, dead men in fact!) is unethical. This is the kind of commerce that must be made illegal.
I recall a relative asking me, “how would you feel if YOU were dug up after several hundred years, studied and put on display for everyone to see?” Honestly, I doubt I’d mind, and I’d hope future archaeologists, anthropologists, pathologists and other experts would be able to learn a lot about me and my culture. I do understand the arguments on spirituality, and if it can be proven that a mummy is a member of a people that practices a specific spiritual discipline, then by all means leave the mummy alone! Otherwise, if provenance can’t be easily proven, I’m all for scientific inquiry. Think of the questions that may be solved, the mysteries brought further to light!
I think that if people are paid a finders fee they should be obligated to report it to the authorities and not disturb the site. If they do not follow this rule, they get paid nothing. If they destroy the site, they get fined. This would encourage people to report rather than loot and would allow more discoveries.
Shouldn’t the work of archaeologists be free of money issues? They provide knowledge about our past, an important work.
Thoughtful post and well written. Please write more on this if you have time.
“how would you feel if YOU were dug up after several hundred years, studied and put on display for everyone to see?”
….well, thanks to my mother’s instruction I’d certainly be wearing clean underwear.
Seriously, I fail to see the “unethical” argument. Would it lead to some sort or crime or evil. Is it just a queasy feeling. Is it a reverence issue for deists? Would it foster a cheapening of humanity? I would see our interest as a mark of respect. I think there was a parallel antipathy to the study of human blood in early medical studies.
I think she should be given a finders fee. She did everything she was supposed to. She didn’t loot the site or in any way disturb it. She reported the find to authorities. From past stories, I believe she also led them to the site. The scientists got what they wanted from the find, the town gets alot from it, as does the museum; so why shouldn’t Erika? It seems to me that ignoring her claim to some part of this sends the message that I shouln’t report any find, but rather I should look the other way or even loot. Most people are going to do what’s right anyway; but to improve chances of this, you can’t cut out the finder. To further discourage looter a heavy fine should be imposed.Make it clear that reporting a find equals gain, looting equals loss.
Heather Pringle is a freelance science journalist who has been writing about archaeology for more than 20 years. She is the author of Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust and The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead. For more about Heather, see our interview or visit www.lastwordonnothing.com.
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