Who owns Archaeology?

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Who owns Archaeology?

Postby CorruptUser » Sun Jan 30, 2011 6:45 pm UTC

The idea for this thread came from another thread.

Anyway, Egypt always claims that its cultural heritage was robbed by the British (and others). The British turn around and claim they were saving the relics from destruction.

The biggest find was the Rosetta Stone. Prior to the British carting it away, the Stone was used as construction material in an Ottoman* fort. Even today, Egypt's museums are not exactly climate controlled, and there is a fear that anything stored there will decay, and be lost forever. The riots themselves are an issue, as civil wars don't always spare the museums.

On Egypt's side of the argument, it's their cultural heritage. Sure, they might want it only for the extra tourism dollars/euros, but isn't that the same reason that Britain wants it?


Egypt is just an example. Who owns the archaeology? The person that discovers it? The country it's found in? What if the civilization no longer exists; for example, can the US claim that any Native American finds are American cultural heritage? Should it go to whomever is more likely to protect it, and share discoveries with everyone around the world?

*Ottoman is practically a swear word in the Archaeological world. Archaeologists still haven't forgiven them for the destruction of the Parthenon.
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby Izawwlgood » Sun Jan 30, 2011 6:51 pm UTC

You can probably more broadly ask this question with a 'who owns scientific knowledge' question, but I concur, archaeology interesting in so far as that it solely exists in one place. That said, say, for example, a cure for a disease is found in a species of plant that only lives in some remote jungle... Who owns the plant, the natives? The country that was ignoring the natives? The scientist that discovered the plant?

I dunno man. Ownership of this shit is weird. I got nothing.
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby Zamfir » Sun Jan 30, 2011 7:12 pm UTC

I'd say this is basically a settled question. Important archeologic finds belong to the local sovereign government. The government is expected to take good care of the finds as representatives of the people (both its own and all people) and for future generations. So even though it is technically the owner, a government can't just sell important finds because it needs cash. A government can delegate this task of care-taking to others, like representatives of a specific group of people, or an organization that has particular expertise in maintaining or researching these sorts of finds.

You refer to controversial examples, like the British Museum and its counterparts in may other countries. But these situations would not be controversial today. For many things the method of acquisition would nowadays be illegal and seen as immoral. They are only controversial because those possesions were acquired before the current laws and norms were established, and projecting laws back into the past is always a troublesome business.
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby Silas » Sun Jan 30, 2011 8:22 pm UTC

Zamfir wrote:I'd say this is basically a settled question. Important archeologic finds belong to the local sovereign government.

That's a tautology, though. Archaeological finds belong to the local sovereign, because the local sovereign says so. I don't see why- other than political considerations- the modern Egyptian government has any better claim to pharaoh-age relics than the British do, other than having most of them and wanting a complete set. If the British had made off with artifacts from Cahokia, back in the 1700s, the modern US wouldn't be able to make much of a case for why they should get them back.
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby Zamfir » Sun Jan 30, 2011 8:34 pm UTC

Silas wrote:
Zamfir wrote:I'd say this is basically a settled question. Important archeologic finds belong to the local sovereign government.

That's a tautology, though. Archaeological finds belong to the local sovereign, because the local sovereign says so.

But that's because you cut out the latter part of my post? Sovereigns are not expected to have full freedom in dealing with archeological finds. They are expected to be owners, but only as caretakers.There are international agreements that describe, and limit, what sovereign countries can do with these finds.

The Council of Europe (that's not the EU) has a range of treaties on this issue for example, based on the principle that cultural artifacts are part of the common European heritage. There are similar, but if I am not mistaken somewhat less strict treaties set up by the UN, under UNESCO

Such treaties didn't exist in the past, and many countries didn't have their own laws or even thoughts on the issue either. Under those circumstances, people could make an argument, justified or not, that they were taking away artifacts for safekeeping or otherwise for the greater good. But nowadays, the existing framework is extensive enough that such ad-hoc measures are not defensible.
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby PAstrychef » Sun Jan 30, 2011 8:43 pm UTC

Perhaps one could more broadly ask the question-who does a culture belong to, if indeed a culture can be owned. ( I contend that it cannot).
The current legal situation surrounding artifacts uses geography to define stewardship. What about groups who are still extant, but no longer in the same place? Think of the Cherokee-now found in the West, but originally from what is now Tennessee. Or the Acadians, who traveled from Nova Scotia to Louisiana and some of whom then went back North.
Are there obligations to protect artifacts, beyond the rights of ownership?
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby Yakk » Mon Jan 31, 2011 5:30 pm UTC

Suppose I'm an Egyptian ex-patriot. Do I have any rights over Egyptian cultural artifacts?

The European "race-right terroir" approach lines up with non-mobile peoples needs and wants. And with Europe having created culture&race-based nation-states (often by force and the like) in the recent centuries, they view this as the default. But there are lots of corner cases.

If most of the "cultural Irish" do not live in Ireland, driven out by economic repression. Do the Irish who live in Ireland now have exclusive rights over 5000 year old cultural artifacts, while the diaspora who left over the last 200 years has none?

Doesn't that mean that anyone, or any people, who dares to move somewhere new is giving up all claims to cultural artifacts? That seems strange.

And how about an area which had a huge population influx -- do the new people there, simply because they live in the area, have rights over the cultural artifacts of the existing peoples?

Then replace the above "do" questions (which implies an appeal to international law and/or what actually happens on the ground) with "should" questions.
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby Gopherus Agassizii » Tue Feb 01, 2011 12:52 am UTC

Great question. Unfortunately lawyers, governments and antiquities traders have been answering it for people for quite some time.

There are clear cut cases such as the recently discussed case of Caligula's tomb where the Italian government should and did step in and take possession of the artifacts that were being carted off by raiders. Other finds are no so clear cut, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls or many Native American artifacts in the U.S. Cultural claims to ancient artifacts are often based on little to no verifiable evidence of a connection to the originating culture. In some cases, the culture claiming priority actually wants to deny examination and study of the artifact to others and wants to relegate them to oblivion. But, then again, the original culture might not have wanted anyone nosing around their burial sites and religious artifacts in the first place, so maybe the wrong people are making the right decision.

What I have seen is a series of competing interests sneaking around at night or fighting it out in court. There are the governments which place legal claims on the artifacts, the tomb raiders and antiquities traders who place financial claims on the artifacts, and then there are the universities who place academic and intellectual claims on the artifacts. I do not think any one of them has a moral right to make any claim, but then again I studied classical civilization and did nothing but read and examine texts and artifacts that I am grateful for having had access to.

In a democratic form of capitalism, people have rights to commodities, but it can sometimes be difficult to determine who has the rights to artifacts that were produced by cultures who did not care for our need to commodify their artifacts.
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby CorruptUser » Tue Feb 01, 2011 3:15 am UTC

Personally, I'm of the belief that scientists, archaeologists, and historians have priority over all else; provided that they share their discoveries with everyone else. As for which country gets the extra tourism/museum cash (because that's what this is always about), there is no clear-cut answer. If the country it was found in is capable of properly managing the site, then that country probably has the legitimate claim. If not, then it should go to a place that can protect it.
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby Me321 » Tue Feb 01, 2011 6:13 pm UTC

The nation it was found in could loan it to a nation who could take care of it untill they are able to.
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby PeterCai » Tue Feb 01, 2011 6:25 pm UTC

Me321 wrote:The nation it was found in could loan it to a nation who could take care of it untill they are able to.


by "loan", do you mean forcingly take it from them?
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby Izawwlgood » Tue Feb 01, 2011 6:41 pm UTC

CorruptUser wrote:Personally, I'm of the belief that scientists, archaeologists, and historians have priority over all else; provided that they share their discoveries with everyone else. As for which country gets the extra tourism/museum cash (because that's what this is always about), there is no clear-cut answer. If the country it was found in is capable of properly managing the site, then that country probably has the legitimate claim. If not, then it should go to a place that can protect it.

Really? So, the sanctity of the item to the indigenous people to whom it is sacred has no bearing on who has access to it?
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby CorruptUser » Wed Feb 02, 2011 2:52 am UTC

Izawwlgood wrote:Really? So, the sanctity of the item to the indigenous people to whom it is sacred has no bearing on who has access to it?


If the local people own it, are maintaining and using it, and so forth, it isn't archaeology; it's an old building or site.
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby PAstrychef » Wed Feb 02, 2011 3:59 am UTC

If the artifact in question is not actually part of the indigenous culture in question. Like some of the early human remains found in the Pacific NW. These predate the current peoples by thousands of years, yet are claimed as ancestral. There is no evidence that these remains are in fact related to the current peoples, and a fair amount that they are not.
But aside from remains, who gets to say what happens to site from vanished peoples, such as the Anasazi? The local indigenous peoples are, again, not related to the vanished-which they state freely.
And I'm not sure one culture's desire for secrecy overrides the rest of the world's right to information.
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby Izawwlgood » Wed Feb 02, 2011 12:20 pm UTC

CorruptUser wrote:
Izawwlgood wrote:Really? So, the sanctity of the item to the indigenous people to whom it is sacred has no bearing on who has access to it?


If the local people own it, are maintaining and using it, and so forth, it isn't archaeology; it's an old building or site.

Uh... What's the difference? If the archaeology is still being used, it's just an 'old building'? What of all the native american artifacts that are in museums? Should they be given back to native americans? Does the Smithsonian have a right to ignore the demands of the people to whom the artifacts belong? Does science trump respect?
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby Zamfir » Wed Feb 02, 2011 12:34 pm UTC

Izawwlgood wrote:
CorruptUser wrote:
Izawwlgood wrote:Really? So, the sanctity of the item to the indigenous people to whom it is sacred has no bearing on who has access to it?


If the local people own it, are maintaining and using it, and so forth, it isn't archaeology; it's an old building or site.

Uh... What's the difference? If the archaeology is still being used, it's just an 'old building'?

If the building is in use, it has a somewhat documented history. That makes it possible to say it belong to X and not Y, just as we do with items that are not of cultural importance. There might still be debate, but there are facts on which to base those debates.

Archeological finds come out of the ground, usually without anything linking them to specific persons who are currently alive. If several people claim to be the current "owner", there is no way to distinguish between those claims. And none of those claims will be based on the kind of facts we normally use to determine ownership.

So that's a real difference. Exisiting buildings have normal owners, apart from their cultural value. The cultural value might be a reason to put limitations on the current owners to protect the building and to make it accesible to public. Roughly because we consider cultural artifacts to be partially belonging to everyone (or at least to more people than the legal owners).

But for new archeological finds, there is no normal legal owner. So the idea that they are culturally important and belonging to everyone becomes the main principle, instead of a side principle.
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby PAstrychef » Wed Feb 02, 2011 8:54 pm UTC

For certain types of finds there are laws concerning what's called treasure trove. Mostly they have to do with finds perceived to be valuable in their own right-gold, jewels, the handwritten story of Jesus-that sort of stuff. A leather sack full of 14C shoe fasteners wold be another question.
Treasure trove laws are mostly concerned with the government getting a share of the value of the goods. Sometimes the government takes the goods and gives the finder a share of the assessed value.
You can look at the remains of European Jewry today-there are places where there used to be a thriving Jewish community that no longer exists. If I find an artifact from one of those communities, to whom would I petition? The descendants of the original owners, if they can be found? The local government? The current residents?
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby Ovaler » Wed Feb 02, 2011 11:36 pm UTC

Everybody is looking at it the wrong way. Archaeology is history. Nobody 'owns' history. That belongs to the human race. Archaeology belongs in a museum (mildly ripping off Indiana Jones here). Any museum.

On the other side of that coin, artifacts should preferably remain in the place where they were found, if its destiny is in question. But, as long as said artifact is preserved in a respectable manner or otherwise displayed for all to see and gain knowledge from, then there shouldn't be any question as to who 'owns' it. Whoever finds it deserves their recognition, surely, but any notion of ownership is silly. Though, I would also say they do have the right to receive compensation for their find from a museum. Basically, if you find something, you can sell it, but the only honorable thing to do would be to sell it to a museum or researchers.

I know if I found a solid gold block with carvings on it that was a link to some lost civilization, I wouldn't be donating it to my local museum. I would sell it to them. Or, maybe I'd keep it as a nice decoration for my living room. These days, gold is about all you can trust.

As a side comment on the whole Egypt thing: I think it is wrong to dig up ancient tombs in the first place (be they Celtic or Egyptian). Whether or not their religious beliefs are true, they deserve to be respected in death. How is it any different from someone going to your local cemetery and digging up your grandfather for 'historical research' on him? The only difference is, if someone did that to us, we'd arrest them and throw them in jail for doing such a thing.

The whole point of them hiding their resting places was for security, yet we modern people think it our prerogative to barge in a loot the place. Is it right to do so in the name of historical knowledge? Maybe, but I would say we have plenty of records about Egypt to go off of. A few more pounds of gold don't add to our understanding of the culture. How old must the tomb be for respect for the deceased to not matter?

Obviously, since they are doing archaeological work in Egypt today, modern Egyptians do not necessarily have any express claims of heritage on any artifacts (clearly they do not have any reverence for the old religions, if they did they wouldn't be digging them up, so they cannot claim them to be cultural heritage). But as I said, artifacts should be displayed where they are found if they are to be found at all. But usually the rule is: Finders Keepers.
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby PAstrychef » Thu Feb 03, 2011 4:22 am UTC

If I had been dead for hundreds of years I wouldn't care if my grandfather was dug up for science. By the time me and mine have become History, we have left the arena wherein we could give an opinion about what's done to us. That's the only way you can claim that no-one owns history, and thus the artifacts of history are up for grabs.One reason for the legal restrictions on artifacts is that many of them only make sense in context, especially the ones that need to be dated. Open site, take the shiny stuff and leave the rest? You've just ruined the very information you claim to be in search of. If history is owned by all, then it must be protected by all, or it will vanish.
Mind you, this is a modern idea. You can find bits of Hadrian's wall in structures all along the border of England and Scotland. It was this beautiful mass of dressed stone-what better use to put it to than in another structure?
And there is Roman paving to be found still under many of Britain's roads.
(In fact, much of the fascination with history seems to have sprung up just as methods of telling just how old stuff was appeared.)
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby Izawwlgood » Thu Feb 03, 2011 4:29 am UTC

I'm glad you wouldn't care about being dug up, but I don't think it's your right to tell other people to also not care.

Native Americans absolutely have a moral right to tell museums to forfeit relics. Whether or not they have a legal right, or are willing to loan relics out is another matter entirely. The material value of the item isn't even the issue here; we have laws pertaining to the handling and respect of the dead, they cut both ways.
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby Ovaler » Thu Feb 03, 2011 11:02 pm UTC

If I had been dead for hundreds of years I wouldn't care if my grandfather was dug up for science. By the time me and mine have become History, we have left the arena wherein we could give an opinion about what's done to us. That's the only way you can claim that no-one owns history, and thus the artifacts of history are up for grabs.One reason for the legal restrictions on artifacts is that many of them only make sense in context, especially the ones that need to be dated. Open site, take the shiny stuff and leave the rest? You've just ruined the very information you claim to be in search of. If history is owned by all, then it must be protected by all, or it will vanish.


I never suggested just taking the 'shiny stuff' from any site. I mean to say that discoverers are entitled to the value of any finds. I'm really not sure what your saying actually.

If I am wrong in saying nobody owns history, then who does? History is a knowledge of the past...are some more entitled than others to understand our origins?

It doesn't matter what my/your opinion is about being dug up after our deaths. It is a simple, age-old law: Respect for the dead. I never understood the justification for digging up the dead. Especially those who believed if they were ever disturbed in death they would be cursed, the Egyptians. Who are we to totally disregard their ideas, even if we don't follow them ourselves? Like I said, in our time its considered a crime to go to the cemetery and dig people up for their artifacts. How is that different from say, digging up mummies?

Again, I contend that nobody owns archaeology. It should never be destroyed or disrespected, reverence for the past is the only way to preserve it.
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby Game_boy » Thu Feb 03, 2011 11:54 pm UTC

Ovaler wrote:It doesn't matter what my/your opinion is about being dug up after our deaths. It is a simple, age-old law: Respect for the dead..


It is an issue on which debate is possible - it is your opinion that respect for the dead is paramount, but by no means obvious to everyone that this is true. Just because something is a tradition or happened a long time ago does not make it right.

So I think it does matter what our opinions are. I'm not seeing this absolute line in the sand.
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby mister k » Fri Feb 04, 2011 9:28 am UTC

Ovaler wrote:
If I had been dead for hundreds of years I wouldn't care if my grandfather was dug up for science. By the time me and mine have become History, we have left the arena wherein we could give an opinion about what's done to us. That's the only way you can claim that no-one owns history, and thus the artifacts of history are up for grabs.One reason for the legal restrictions on artifacts is that many of them only make sense in context, especially the ones that need to be dated. Open site, take the shiny stuff and leave the rest? You've just ruined the very information you claim to be in search of. If history is owned by all, then it must be protected by all, or it will vanish.


I never suggested just taking the 'shiny stuff' from any site. I mean to say that discoverers are entitled to the value of any finds. I'm really not sure what your saying actually.

If I am wrong in saying nobody owns history, then who does? History is a knowledge of the past...are some more entitled than others to understand our origins?

It doesn't matter what my/your opinion is about being dug up after our deaths. It is a simple, age-old law: Respect for the dead. I never understood the justification for digging up the dead. Especially those who believed if they were ever disturbed in death they would be cursed, the Egyptians. Who are we to totally disregard their ideas, even if we don't follow them ourselves? Like I said, in our time its considered a crime to go to the cemetery and dig people up for their artifacts. How is that different from say, digging up mummies?

Again, I contend that nobody owns archaeology. It should never be destroyed or disrespected, reverence for the past is the only way to preserve it.



Because when we are respectful to the dead, we are usually being respectful to people who could be offended. If I started digging up the graves of the recently dead, the recently bereaved would be deeply upset, and I'd be a dick. Give it 6,000 years and theres nothing to stop us. Admittedly if the ancient Egyptians religion is correct we;ve just ruined their afterlives, but I think respecting dead religions may be a tad too much.

I'm certainly inclined to think that nations have a right to their artifacts. One thing that does disturb me when going around the British museum is how many of the artifacts on display have been raided as a piece of colonialism.

I don't think "no-one can own archaeology" is a useful answer. So if I have this ancient sword, who gets to display it? If we leave it in the soil it'll certainly decay, so someone needs to preserve it, and ideally display it. But who should get this honour? It seems like the most sensible solution is one that priveleges local forces provided they have the skill and ability to preserve said artifact.
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby Izawwlgood » Fri Feb 04, 2011 3:00 pm UTC

mister k wrote:It seems like the most sensible solution is one that priveleges local forces provided they have the skill and ability to preserve said artifact.

Unless that artifact was placed there by my ancestors, and leaving it there is something I prefer, out of respect for them.
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby Zamfir » Fri Feb 04, 2011 3:08 pm UTC

Izawwlgood wrote:Unless that artifact was placed there by my ancestors, and leaving it there is something I prefer, out of respect for them.

That's tricky argument for anything over a thousand year old or so. People who lived a thousand years ago have on the order of 2^40 descendants, or a thousand billion. It might be that you personally represent a million of those descendants and I only a thousand, but it is unclear how that gives you a unique claim that others do not have.
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby mister k » Fri Feb 04, 2011 4:17 pm UTC

Izawwlgood wrote:
mister k wrote:It seems like the most sensible solution is one that priveleges local forces provided they have the skill and ability to preserve said artifact.

Unless that artifact was placed there by my ancestors, and leaving it there is something I prefer, out of respect for them.


If said artifact is not going to be degraded by this (for example, said artifact is an air tight stone tomb) then I can see the argument, but if a piece of ancient history is about to be lost because you want to respect someone who died 1000 years ago, then I'd be tempted to intervene. I'm not sure where the cut off would be [I'm aware that there are already strict laws, but for the purpose of this thread it surely behooves us to ignore them, other than to co-opt their arguments. Legality is not directly connected to morality, although it is of course strongly correlated]. If someone has a direct claim to something fairly new, then it probably is theres to do anything with, certainly if they are the creators, or the direct (one to two generations), past that I suspect society would be a lot better off it then reclaimed said artifacts, because individuals are often very bad at preserving history, and as a society I think we are better off with more preserved history.
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby Izawwlgood » Fri Feb 04, 2011 5:18 pm UTC

Cultural heritage. Not many groups can fully claim this, but, say, someone is now immensely interested in excavating the corpses of those buried in Salem to examine burial practices of 16th through 18th century colonial individuals. Surely people who have lived in the area for generations have a right to not have their cemeteries, and potentially, their ancestors, dug up.

Native Americans are the first and obvious ones that come to mind; as I see it, a museums rights to display sacred artifacts extends only as far as regional Native American authorities allow them to.

Obviously there aren't any people today still practicing the brand of culture and religion that ancient Egyptians did (in so far as mummification anyway...), so the Egyptian government has stepped in as a proprietor of their nations history, but we, as scientists or interested citizens of the world have no more right to historical artifacts than the people for whom this is potentially a present day reality.
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby Zamfir » Fri Feb 04, 2011 5:42 pm UTC

Izawwlgood wrote:Native Americans are the first and obvious ones that come to mind; as I see it, a museums rights to display sacred artifacts extends only as far as regional Native American authorities allow them to.

This might be an exceptionally case, with a clarity that is rarely present. There are not that many examples of such a massive take-over of land without much cultural or genetic mixing (in one direction at least). It's just a case that looms large for North Americans.

And note that is a purely negative clarity: it's a situation where there are many people clearly not the "descendants", culturally or otherwise, of the people who used to live there. But it doesn't make clear who otherwise are. "Native Americans" are a rather vague catch-all, whose only commonality is that they are not entirely European. Moving things over to Native American authorities doesn't solve the issue at all, it just passes it on. I am sure you'll find enough people of Native American descent willing to dig up graves for science.

In most cases, the problem starts at that point directly. Everyone in the region can make some vague claim of genetic or cultural descent, and no one can make a direct claim, unless we are talking about very recent stuff, like the Salem example you give.
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby LaserGuy » Fri Feb 04, 2011 6:27 pm UTC

mister k wrote:I'm certainly inclined to think that nations have a right to their artifacts. One thing that does disturb me when going around the British museum is how many of the artifacts on display have been raided as a piece of colonialism.


This is the one that really bothers me. Conquering a country, removing pieces of their cultural heritage without their consent, then claiming that these pieces should not be returned because they're "property of humanity" is pretty immoral in my books.
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby Zamfir » Fri Feb 04, 2011 6:34 pm UTC

LaserGuy wrote:
This is the one that really bothers me. Conquering a country, removing pieces of their cultural heritage without their consent, then claiming that these pieces should not be returned because they're "property of humanity" is pretty immoral in my books.

Yeah, but that's rarely the argument. The argument is more that they were acquired by means that were legal and acceptable at the moment, and are therefore the property of the current holders.

Even if you conquer a country, write the new laws, and then take stuff, you are now the official owner. Unless someone wants to return the US?
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby LaserGuy » Fri Feb 04, 2011 7:01 pm UTC

Zamfir wrote:
LaserGuy wrote:
This is the one that really bothers me. Conquering a country, removing pieces of their cultural heritage without their consent, then claiming that these pieces should not be returned because they're "property of humanity" is pretty immoral in my books.

Yeah, but that's rarely the argument. The argument is more that they were acquired by means that were legal and acceptable at the moment, and are therefore the property of the current holders.

Even if you conquer a country, write the new laws, and then take stuff, you are now the official owner. Unless someone wants to return the US?


Oh, I'm well aware that is how things often work out. That doesn't mean that it is moral to do so.
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby Zamfir » Fri Feb 04, 2011 7:34 pm UTC

LaserGuy wrote:Oh, I'm well aware that is how things often work out. That doesn't mean that it is moral to do so.

Sure, but if you accept a morality in which the British Museum has no rights to most of its property, you also have a morality in which most citizens of the US have no rights to live there at all (and this applies to many other aspects of the world too of course). You can argue that that is indeed true, but then the British Museum is hardly the first institution that should take action to make the world more just.

It's easy to argue that the British Museum should give stuff back, but it is much harder to argue that the British Museum should correct for actions that you now consider wrong, while the rest of the world can keep the gains of similar actions.
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby Izawwlgood » Sat Feb 05, 2011 4:46 pm UTC

Zamfir wrote:Sure, but if you accept a morality in which the British Museum has no rights to most of its property, you also have a morality in which most citizens of the US have no rights to live there at all (and this applies to many other aspects of the world too of course)

Not necessarily; the rules of conquest aren't the same as the rules of academia. To claim that the imperialism of the US's spread of America is unethical is one thing, and it is completely divorced from the notion that science or history have a right to display the potentially sacred artifacts of another culture, without their wishes.
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby Zamfir » Sat Feb 05, 2011 5:09 pm UTC

Izawwlgood wrote:
Zamfir wrote:Sure, but if you accept a morality in which the British Museum has no rights to most of its property, you also have a morality in which most citizens of the US have no rights to live there at all (and this applies to many other aspects of the world too of course)

Not necessarily; the rules of conquest aren't the same as the rules of academia. To claim that the imperialism of the US's spread of America is unethical is one thing, and it is completely divorced from the notion that science or history have a right to display the potentially sacred artifacts of another culture, without their wishes.

I don't see how sacredness comes into play. Claiming something is sacred to you doesn't give you any rights over it. If I buy communion bread and eat it for breakfast, other people may object. But they can;t take them away from me. I have no obligation to consider stuff sacred justbecause other people consider it sacred, or otherwise important to them.

Of course, if artifacts are unique and irreplacable, the current owner can have an obligation to treat them well, or even to make them accessible to the wider public. But that's different from ownership claims.
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby Izawwlgood » Sat Feb 05, 2011 5:32 pm UTC

I think there's a striking and obvious difference between publicly available communion crackers and unique artifacts laid to rest.
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby Zamfir » Sat Feb 05, 2011 5:59 pm UTC

Of course, it just illustrates that sacredness is not in itself a factor we normally use in ownership debates. There are good reasons to have special rules for the treatment of unique, irreplaceable artifacts. But those rules should apply to all such artifacts, not just artifacts that some people call sacred to them.
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby CorruptUser » Sat Feb 05, 2011 9:00 pm UTC

I think an easy solution to the Indian Burial Ground problem is this; if you didn't know where the burial ground was before someone else discovered it, you can't claim it. Similar rules could work for other sites. However, there needs to be some rules of archaeology; destroying a site just to get a few sherds* is practically an atrocity.

*yes "sherds"
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby Ovaler » Tue Feb 08, 2011 7:01 am UTC

Zamfir wrote:
Izawwlgood wrote:
Zamfir wrote:Sure, but if you accept a morality in which the British Museum has no rights to most of its property, you also have a morality in which most citizens of the US have no rights to live there at all (and this applies to many other aspects of the world too of course)

Not necessarily; the rules of conquest aren't the same as the rules of academia. To claim that the imperialism of the US's spread of America is unethical is one thing, and it is completely divorced from the notion that science or history have a right to display the potentially sacred artifacts of another culture, without their wishes.

I don't see how sacredness comes into play. Claiming something is sacred to you doesn't give you any rights over it. If I buy communion bread and eat it for breakfast, other people may object. But they can;t take them away from me. I have no obligation to consider stuff sacred justbecause other people consider it sacred, or otherwise important to them.

Of course, if artifacts are unique and irreplacable, the current owner can have an obligation to treat them well, or even to make them accessible to the wider public. But that's different from ownership claims.


Communion wafers aren't sacred until moments before they are consumed during mass. That is, after they are blessed. Just saying.

I would say there is nothing wrong with the British Museum having all its treasures from around the world - they are respectfully preserving and displaying the artifacts, thus no harm is done in them 'owning' them. It would be all good and well if artifacts were only displayed where they originate, but that is simply not the case.

Still, who of you can say there is an expiration date on respect for the dead? Even if they are 5k+ years old, is it still right to disturb their remains and adulterate their sanctity? What is to be gained, really, by digging up bodies?
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby Lazar » Tue Feb 08, 2011 7:28 am UTC

Ovaler wrote:What is to be gained, really, by digging up bodies?

Depending on the bodies, a hell of a lot of genetic and anthropological information.
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Re: Who owns Archaeology?

Postby PAstrychef » Tue Feb 08, 2011 3:03 pm UTC

Ovaler wrote:Still, who of you can say there is an expiration date on respect for the dead? Even if they are 5k+ years old, is it still right to disturb their remains and adulterate their sanctity? What is to be gained, really, by digging up bodies?

This right here shows how you have missed the point of archaeological excavation.
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