Sunday, July 27, 2008

Licit Markets and Archaeologists

Peter Tompa has described the presentation made by a representative of the AAMD in relation to a request by Honduras to renew the MoU concerning import restrictions on pre-Columbian archaeological material from that country. To quote Tompa:
Josh Knerly, an attorney who represents the AAMD, made the most interesting presentation. He suggested that Honduras should create licit markets for duplicate archaeological artifacts as one part of a scheme to protect Honduras' culture.
The AAMD seems to be pushing this idea. For example, its recent report on the acquisition of archaeological material:
Affirms the value of licit markets for the controlled sale of ancient art and archeological materials as an effective means of preventing looting.
I am an archaeologist and respond to the idea of a licit market as someone with a professional interest in the matter. I do not think it appropriate for me to carefully record and publish artifacts that will then be sold into the private possession of individuals or institutions. Rather, I do my work so that the material I document is kept for future study using ever-new techniques and in the pursuit of ever-more knowledge of antiquity. I understand that the nations that currently care for that material can and may chose to sell it. This is not likely to happen to any of the objects that I have worked on, however. I am sure that many archaeologists would agree that public funds, such as those from the NEH and the NSF in the United States, should not be used to pay for archaeological work that supplies commercial goods to the antiquities market.

The idea of licit markets is currently so ill-formed that I express the above only as a concern. But if the AAMD membership is really looking to acquire "duplicate archaeological artifacts," I do have to ask whom they think is going to collect and prepare this material for them? Programs such as the UK's Portable Antiquities Scheme may seem to be one source, but the AAMD's membership usually has its eye on larger objects than are registered by the PAS.

Bottom line... it is not the job of archaeologists to provide services to the private market, we work for the accumulation of greater public knowledge.