Andean & Tiwanaku Archaeology page

Simon Fraser University - Spring 2011       Archaeology 100-D200
Ancient Peoples and Places  
Archaeology and the Study of prehistory


 Week 5    Excerpts from texts by Colin Renfrew and John Boardman.



Colin Renfrew (University of Cambridge)

> Combating the Illicit Antiquities Trade: Progress and Problems. Downloaded on September 10 2010 from
Loot Legitimacy And Ownership. The Ethical Crisis In Archaeology. Duckworth. 2009.
> Looting and the World’s Archaeological Heritage: The Inadequate Response. Neil Brodie and Colin Renfrew. Annual Review of Anthropology 2005. 34:343–61.

Boardman, J. 2006. Archaeologists, Collectors, and Museums, in Robson, E., Treadwell, L. and Gosden, C. (eds.) Who Owns Objects? The Ethics and Politics of Collecting Cultural Artefacts. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 33-46.


Each act of looting represents a disastrous disjuncture, a destructive episode in which the artefacts are illicitly and clandestinely removed from their original context of discovery, with its rich and informative associations. The information crucial to the effective archaeological interpretation of the excavated assemblage is lost in this process: a disaster for any attempt to increase our understanding of the human past. For the interpretive process can only work when the context of discovery can be carefully researched.



The usefulness of the 1970 rule (note: the UNESCO convention on Cultural Heritage)

It is worth noting some of the convenient benefits of the 1970 Rule.  It rule does have the merit of being workable, and it is now followed by such long-standing institutions as the British Museum and the Berlin Museums. If it were universally followed the looting of archaeological sites would suffer a sharp decline. For, in theory at least, its application should make recently looted antiquities completely unsalable.

Of course by definition it says nothing about such famous cases as the Parthenon marbles, removed by Lord Elgin more than a century earlier, or the Benin bronzes seized by Britain at the end of the nineteenth century, both  understandably matters of concern for the countries of origin. But the issue of restitution is not at all the same as the need to put a stop the ongoing destruction of archaeological sites through looting.

And the 1970 Rule has other merits. For instance under the law of several countries including England a so-called ‘good faith buyer’ (i.e. one who acquires goods having confidence in the vendor and without having cause for suspicion that the goods have not been obtained legally) can acquire good title to the goods once they have been in his or her possession for a specific number of year, sometimes six years.  That is the case even if the goods are later shown to be stolen or looted. It is implicit here that the good faith buyer has acted with ‘due diligence’ – that is to say has not had cause to doubt the credentials and honesty of the vendor or the propriety of the merchandise.  When the 1970 Rule is applied, however, the ‘due diligence’ required of the good faith buyer goes beyond the law and requires more than the absence of dubious circumstances. Following the Rule, the buyer actually has to see and scrutinise documentation that the antiquities in question had been unearthed before 1970 or see a very detailed account of their provenance following excavation if they were excavated after that date.



From the standpoint of the archaeologist or anthropologist, it is not simply the artifacts themselves that are important, but the information which their study and publication can offer when taken into consideration along with the detailed circumstances of their discovery. By rewarding the looters through the acquisition of “unprovenanced” material, museums are directly subscribing to the ongoing process of clandestine excavation and hence to the destruction of the contextual information which is the central component of the world’s archaeological heritage. By allowing the acquisition of such material, museum directors and trustees are betraying the principle that archaeological heritage should not be destroyed, and, as Gerstenblith (2003a) has recently suggested, they are also failing in their duty to the institutions they serve.

It must—one hopes—be unusual for curators or trustees actually to have before them documentary evidence indicative of looting at the time of purchase of the apparently “unprovenanced” antiquities. That is a special feature which gives particular and deserved notoriety to the Lydian Treasure case. More often, when the acquisition of unprovenanced antiquities is contemplated, there is simply no direct evidence of the specific find circumstances of the objects in question, which have been deprived of all context by the long sequence of transactions in the “antiquity transfer chain” mentioned above.



Something is wrong somewhere. How is it that the professional view has not prevailed How is it that a group of art museum directors, supported by a number of wealthy collectors, can work against the evident long-term interest of the world’s archaeological heritage in this way? And why is not the entire academic community in the United States expressing shock and horror that a group of museum directors can claim to be representing all U.S. museums in filing their amici curiae (circle of friends) brief in the Steinhardt case? How is it that the Schultz conviction does not make them feel that something is wrong somewhere when the recent President of NADAOPA, from whose members the museums which they direct have been purchasing antiquities for many years, is jailed for an offense relating to “unprovenanced” (in fact, stolen and falsely provenanced) antiquities?

Although the major U.S. museum organizations are clearly not exercising an adequate leadership role, it is likely that they would take a lead from the public, if the wider public subscribed to and supported a well-defined ethical policy. And here the focus of attention must turn to the educationalists.

Yet somehow the voice of professional archaeology, effectively and authoritatively expressed in this way, has not yet prevailed. This must in large part be the consequence of the failure of the professional archaeologists and the ethically-based museums, such
as the University of Pennsylvania Museum, to persuade museum directors and trustees in the United States that there is a significant problem here which can only be addressed by codified acquisition policies that follow the 1970 Rule, as advocated by the AIA.