[Ancientartifacts] Who Owns the Past?

James Cuno contends that antiquities from great cultures belong to humanity,
not nation states that emerged centuries later


Unprecedented global travel and cultural exchange help make the world a
smaller place but, ironically, they also stir national pride. Nationalism,
combined with business calculation, now threaten to segregate antiquity that
belongs to all of the humanity.

Most nation states have cultural property laws that restrict the
international movement in archaeological artifacts found within their
borders. But some antiquities are undocumented, lacking evidence of
archaeological circumstances or removal. In the current debate over the
acquisition of undocumented antiquities, the world's archaeological
community has allied with nationalistic programs of nation states.

Nations can and do bring charges of possession of, or conspiring to possess,
stolen property against people and institutions holding objects covered by
the relevant ownership laws, as seen with the Republic of Italy's charges
against the former J. Paul Getty Museum curator, Marion True, or Peru's
charges against Yale University with regard to contested Machu Picchu
artifacts. More often than not, such laws are perceived as free of politics
- the stuff of objective, reasoned best practice and indifferent government
regulations. Nothing could be farther than the truth.

Government serves the interest of those in power. Once in power, with
control over territory, governments breed loyalty among their citizens,
often by promoting a particular identity and history. National culture -
language and religion, patterns of behavior, dress and artistic production -
is at once the means and manifestation of such beliefs, identity and
loyalty, and serves to reinforce governments in power.

Governments can use antiquities - artifacts of cultures no longer extant and
in every way different from the culture of the modern nation - to serve the
government's purpose. They attach identity with an extinct culture that only
happened to have shared more or less the same stretch of the earth's
geography. The reason behind such claims is power.


Sadly, the public discussion about nationalist retentionist cultural
property laws focuses on their role, which foreign governments and the
archaeological community promote, as a means of protecting the integrity of
archaeological sites. It's argued that the laws inhibit looting and
consequent illicit trade.

But this is only partly true. Over the decades in which they've been in
place, strengthened by international conventions and bilateral treaties, the
looting of archaeological sites has continued. In fact, many archaeologists
claim it's increased. The real purpose of such laws - and this is what we
should be arguing about - is to preserve nation states' claims of ownership
over antiquities found or presumed to have been found within their
jurisdiction. This happens just as the world is increasingly divided along
nationalist, sectarian lines.

The alternative to consigning the protection of our ancient heritage to
national jurisdiction is the United Nations, specifically its cultural body,
UNESCO. Sadly, UNESCO's Achilles' heel is its grounding in nation-state
politics and its respect for nationalism. For example, relying on its
charter, the organization maintained that it could not prevent the
destruction of much of the Kabul Museum's extraordinary collection in 2001.
This occurred in the aftermath of the destruction of the monumental Buddhas
at Bamiyan, led by Taliban forces who ran the Afghan government at that time
and thus had sovereignty over Afghanistan's cultural property. The UNESCO
special envoy to Afghanistan had discussed the edict with the Afghan foreign
minister before the destruction, but in the end UNESCO only condemned the
actions, watching as the collection was attacked.


Ironically any state can denounce a UNESCO Convention "on its own behalf or
on behalf of any territory for which territorial relations it is
responsible" and simply ignore it altogether.

To date, 30 years later, the convention has failed because it cannot
contradict the authority of member states. Meanwhile, the world is losing
our common ancient heritage through theft and destruction, poverty,
development, warfare and sectarian violence. No amount of international
conventions and agreements that proclaim to respect the "collective genius
of nationals of the State" can overcome the obstacle of nationalism, the
age-old route out of international agreements.


Nations that have hosted excavations depend in great part on the work of
foreign archaeologists for the raw material of their nationalist ideologies,
not to mention the tangible property that fuels their tourism economies.
Archaeologists, especially those who benefit from working in host university
museums, should examine their support of nationalist retentionist cultural
property law. Many collections could not have been formed since the
implementation of these laws.

Archaeologists should work with museums to counter the nationalist basis of
laws, conventions and agreements, and promote a principle of shared
stewardship of our common heritage. Together we should call attention to the
failure of these laws to protect our common ancient heritage and perversion
of that heritage by claiming the archaeological record as a modern nation's
cultural property.
The recent rise in nationalist and sectarian violence and the pervasive
misunderstanding, even intolerance of other cultures, adds urgency to the
need of resolving these differences. Ignorance of the interrelatedness of
cultures overlooks that we all have a stake in their preservation. One need
only consider the loss of the Gandhara sculptures in the Kabul Museum -
which bore reference to the region's historic place at the crossroads of
Asia, where Greek, Chinese, Indian, Pagan, Buddhist and Hindu cultures
influenced one another over centuries - to recognize what we lost in their
destruction: sublime evidence of the basic truth of culture: It's always
mongrel, made of numerous and diverse influences from contact with new and
strange experiences. This was as true in antiquity as it is as today.


Dave Welsh
Unidroit-L Listowner


Yahoo! Groups Links

<*> To visit your group on the web, go to:


<*> Your email settings:
Individual Email | Traditional

<*> To change settings online go to:


(Yahoo! ID required)

<*> To change settings via email:

<*> To unsubscribe from this group, send an email to:

<*> Your use of Yahoo! Groups is subject to:


Amazon Video

bUy dvds OnlInE