by Ursula Kampmann
translated by honeycutshome
December 18, 2014 – The images were appalling: excavation sites riddled with holes, tombs destroyed as well as hundreds of objects confiscated. Not just the representatives of the German Archaeological Institute were shocked but everyone present. You see, the worst aspect is, that, in order to find a couple of economically rewarding findings, many square meters have to be burrowed through in a potential excavation area.
Nobody would really object to the conclusion that we must find a way to stop the looting of the archaeological heritage. The question is which approach we should take.
The failure of the national states
The UNESCO Convention from 1970 has found unmistakably clear words to enjoin the signing nations to take care of their cultural heritage. Article 5 obliges them to organize the supervision of archaeological excavations, to ensure the preservation in situ of certain cultural property, and to protect certain areas reserved for future archaeological research. However, not only the states in areas of conflict fail to meet this requirement. No nation – except perhaps Great Britain – provides sufficient means in their national budget to properly protect its cultural heritage. Infrastructural projects take priority over potential excavation areas. Museums and archaeologists fault increasing cutbacks in funding.
During the congress, though, nothing of this came up. On the contrary, the general statement made by official representatives from Syria, Egypt, Nigeria and Greece – to name only a few – can be summarized as: We are helpless in our own country. We ask the German Government to take action.
The view of most of the speakers the German Archeological Institute had invited was no more differentiated either. They, too, restricted themselves to reaching the mono-causal conclusion: if there was no trade in objects with undetermined provenance, all illicit excavations would stop. For them that was the reason why the trade in all ancient objects with no secure and conceivable provenance had to be put to an end right now. How long the provenance should go back was a matter of dispute. While some liberal speakers favored the date of the UNESCO Convention from 1970, others called for a date prior to the introduction of national laws on antiquities in the relevant countries. Another point was clear: there mustn’t be anything like a value limit for the objects in question since likewise the search for smaller objects, like coins, prompts looting.
To facilitate criminal prosecution, speakers demanded that new legal principles had to be introduced, based on a reversal of the burden of proof. One had to stop considering the achievements of the Civil Code as something unalterable, with the tax office having similar rights and possibilities.
Museum objects that were acquired illegally – not in terms of the German laws but in terms of ethics – should be returned. The main goal should be to work with and document the museum’s own collections. Scholars agreed that German museums do not need any new objects.
Private collections were not expressly mentioned, but these demands imply that a major part of all objects in such collections would be unsaleable because particularly the coins in the lower price ranges often lack a provenance. Besides and for the same reason, this would result in a legal uncertainty bordering on arbitrariness.
The invited speakers were hand-picked. They did not offer different perspectives, which was not really a surprise as all had been known for their conformable opinions concerning cultural property issues. Critical voices on vital aspects of the hosts intended to convey to politics and media were neither desired nor welcomed.
In the run-up to the conference, therefore, some associations of dealers in art and antiquities as well as the German Numismatic Society had faulted the imbalance in the choice of speakers. Finally, at the last minute, an invitation reached a spokesperson for the trade who got a chance to speak at the concluding panel discussion.
It was to be expected that suggestions for improving the co-operation would not be welcomed, but the strict statement of the Director of the German Archaeological Institute Cairo he would never do anything that would promote the trade was rather surprising considering the fact that a member of IADAA merely made the suggestion that there could be a closer cooperation concerning early warnings on stolen objects.
This discussion with all its unpleasant excesses revealed that the trenches that separate archaeology and trade are not only still there, but they are deeper than ever. Most of the Institute’s representatives were not interested in finding solutions. Rather, the goal was to abolish the trade as we have know it. The problems seemed to be that some politicians tend to take the perspective of these vocal, publicly funded minority as the point of view of all parties interested in the past. This is all too tempting for a politician. While Siegmund Ehrmann, Chairman of the Committee on Cultural and Media Affairs in the German Bundestag, promised to work on a law designed to remedy all shortcomings for good, he became more reserved when the topic of national funding of the protection of cultural property came up.
Sign of hope
There were, however, a few signs of hope for a reason-driven discussion. Most speakers drew a clear line between the legal and the illegal trade although they generally seemed to believe that, in Germany, foreign law and German law are applying equally. Apart from that, the trade in ancient objects was hardly mentioned in the same breath as terrorism anymore.
Apparently, the big numbers are off the cards. So Neil Brodie, in his public evening lecture, didn’t want to give any numbers for the illegal trade’s revenues.
Probably the most promising result of the conference was that the host, Herman Parzinger, in his closing speech, expressed the hope that there might be a way to co-operate in the future after all.
One thing has to be clear: with the new laws, the trade in ancient objects won’t be the same. These new laws, however, have to be formulated first. The associations will have to make sure that a wise compromise takes both the – in part justified – demands of the archaeologists as the – at least equally as justified – demands of collectors and dealers into account.
The collecting of ancient objects is the foundation of our knowledge about the past. Collecting was the starting point for any historical research, source criticism and archaeology. Objects from collections have not only changed mankind’s perspective, they have made politics and inspired artists to come up with new conceptions of the world.
Collecting constitutes as much a cultural heritage as the pyramids in Egypt or the Achaemenid Palace in Persepolis. We should perhaps file a motion in 2015, for collecting being inscribed on the list of intangible cultural heritage. Today this centuries-old tradition seems to be endangered.