A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Stemming the looting of sites by cutting off a major market
In an effort to slow the plundering of its rich archaeological heritage, China has asked the U.S. to restrict imports of archaeological materials under the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act. The State Department's Cultural Property Advisory Committee held a public hearing on the request this past February. (For more on China's request and the legislative background, see the Department's website at www.exchanges.state.gov/culprop/.)
At the hearing, Cindy Ho, director of Saving Antiquities for Everyone (www.savingantiquities.org), presented some 500 petitions from members of the general public supporting China's request, and several others spoke in favor of it. Others, including myself on behalf of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), sent in letters of support (see www.archaeological.org for some of the texts). Fifteen people, mostly dealers and collectors, spoke against it.
According to Robert Murowchick, director of the International Center for East Asian Archaeology and Cultural History at Boston University, the study of archaeology in China has developed dramatically in recent years. "It is ironic," Murowchick wrote the committee, "that this new 'golden age' of scientific archaeology in China comes at a time when [its] cultural heritage...increasingly falls victim to the...highly destructive looting of sites that feeds the...insatiable international market for antiquities." In recent years, Murowchick has seen many Chinese sites that were destroyed by looters, and has noted increasing quantities of undocumented antiquities in the art galleries of Hong Kong, New York, and other cities.
He Shuzhong, 2004 winner of the AIA's Outstanding Public Service Award and director of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Research Centre, has long been involved in documenting the extent of looting in China, such as the "excavation" of tombs with bulldozers and dynamite, and the theft of bronzes, gold ornaments, jades, and inscriptions. Invariably, the plunderers leave behind a sorry trail of unsaleable broken and scattered pottery and human remains.
China recently strengthened its Law on the Protection of Cultural Relics (2002), vesting ownership of all cultural relics in the state and prohibiting the sale and permanent export of newly excavated archaeological objects. At the same time the law encourages temporary export of cultural objects for museum exhibitions, allowing the public in the United States to view and enjoy them. This undercuts the argument made by dealers and collectors that people won't be able to see these objects if there are import restrictions.
China is making efforts to enforce the law, recently intercepting, for example, a shipment of more than 2,200 antiquities headed for the U.S. But the problem of looting is just too vast, and China needs help. U.S. import restrictions would go a long way toward cutting off one of the biggest markets for stolen Chinese antiquities. The AIA strongly supports China's request.
Jane C. Waldbaum is the president of the Archaeological Institute of America.