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wTuesday, January 13, 2004

AND HE'S BACK, SORT OF: Been a while, eh? Here's a long piece I did for Reason on archaeology and Iraq. I toy with the idea that one of the greatest threats to antiquities may be the archaeologists themselves:

It's unfortunate that the antiquities issue became grist for the domestic squabbles of the U.S., because the controversy obscured a much more interesting and long-running conflict within the profession of archaeology, one with ramifications that are anything but academic. Everyone agreed that what happened in Iraq was a tragedy. With the news that the National’s catalog might have been destroyed, several independent efforts were launched to reconstruct it from records at other museums and post the results on the Internet. But there the consensus splintered into two schools of thought.

A pair of late April op-ed pieces in The Wall Street Journal by Hershel Shanks, publisher of Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) and Archaeology Odyssey, and André Emmerich, a longtime collector of antiquities, made several parallel points: 1) The law would probably not be an effective remedy in recovering many of the looted items; 2) a buyback program should be instituted in Iraq, quickly; 3) internationally, the aid of dealers and collectors should be sought to ransom whatever items make it through Iraq's borders; 4) the "archaeological establishment" is not being realistic about how to deal with this problem; and 5) in the future, archaeology will have to find a way to use markets rather than fight them.

The current approach is vastly different. In the U.S., the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) has urged that Iraq's borders be sealed and that the U.N. and the U.S. condemn the theft and establish a worldwide ban on the trade of Iraqi antiquities. Before the anti-anti-looting backlash, archaeologists were hopeful that the U.S. would finally ratify the Hague Protocols relating to cultural property. These would transfer even more of the burden of protecting antiquities onto invading armies, a prospect that isn’t likely to fly with the Bush administration. University of Virginia archaeologist Malcolm Bell, an AIA officer, strongly urged antiquities collectors to declare the items in their collections now in order to better weather future crackdowns.

To be fair, there was some overlap between the supposedly hidebound AIA and its more market-savvy critics. Most establishment archaeologists supported a limited buyback program, though they are loath to label it as such. "We're calling it more of a rewards program," says the AIA's Herscher in an interview. Even modest cash payments within the bounds of Iraq set off paroxysms of hand wringing. Several archaeologists expressed concern about fueling the dreaded international antiquities markets. In fact, they sometimes seem more concerned about not enriching collectors than about recovering the artifacts. When I asked for a reaction to Emmerich's Journal argument, one AIA member responded with a hissing sound. [more]

posted by Jeremy at 11:11 AM