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Archaeological reforms needed in source countries: Reward the finder, excavate faster, keep what is important but allow a licit market

Laws now are obsessed with the objects rather than the sites

Today we see two powerful forces clashing together. On the one hand there is the national mythology, the sense of identity of the source countries, in many cases constructed around their archaeological past. We all know how people will fight instinctively to protect their sense of who they are. Nations are no different in this, and politicians know how to exploit this ably.

Three years ago an Italian senator proposed a very moderate law which would have allowed archaeological goods out of the country on long-term loan. Professor Argan, a famous art historian and former Communist mayor of Rome said, "And what shall we do if the foreign museums do not give them back; shall we send in the troops?" He knew perfectly well that there was not the slightest risk of the museums doing this, but he played on popular sentiment so as to scotch a proposal of which he did not approve. In political terms, the archaeology laws in most of the source countries can be equated to the gun laws in the US, which also carry such an emotive punch that it takes a brave and secure politician to dare challenge them.

The other side of this Scylla and Charybdis is the human desire to own things. The pleasure of holding even a minor work of art in your hands is infinitely superior to seeing a greater one through glass. Strong financial interests are entwined with this desire and these interests conflict with the protectionism of the source countries.

Crushed between the two is the history, not just of the source countries, but — and it is vital to realise this — of all of us.

I believe that to wish the market in archaeological goods out of existence is to whistle in the wind; you need only think of the failure of Prohibition. Laws which attempt to suppress trade in something for which there is demand lead to a black market and laws which go against the reasonable interests of the citizen will fail to gain the support of the citizen. The laws in most of the source countries are of this nature. I believe that until these laws are reformulated, no amount of international agreements — UNESCO Convention, UNIDROIT Convention etc — will reduce the damage to archaeological sites.

The reason why the earth's surface is being disturbed faster than ever before in the world's history is technological and economic. Metal detectors are generally available, but even their use is as nothing compared to the effects of growing prosperity. Towns expand, roads are built, everywhere bulldozers are sinking their huge blades into the ground. There is an uncomfortable degree of truth in the obviously self-serving argument used by collectors such as George Ortiz that it is the art market that saves many of these chance finds. If these had no value, they would probably be destroyed as soon as uncovered because, as the laws stand in the source countries at present, chance finders would have to act in quite saintly conflict with their legitimate interests to declare finds to the authorities.

When politicians in the source countries bother to look at their legislation in this area — which is not often — talk is usually of strengthening it, rather than of considering whether it is workable or not. And the objectives are wrong. The laws are all about the objects and, in particular, about keeping them inside the national boundaries. If the politicians really wanted to protect their own and mankind's history, the laws' first aim should be anything that helps protect a site. The protection of objects would follow on from this first premise.

So how are we to save both sites and objects? The solution is to make every citizen a potential protector of the archaeological heritage, as he is in Britain. This involves eliminating the confiscatory nature of the existing laws and accepting the principle of fair compensation for the finder.

Another aspect of British law is selectivity. If you want to protect and keep everything, you end up protecting almost nothing. The phenomenon, say, of finding 300 similarly painted vases together and the study of their site are more important than retaining each single one of those vases.

It is vital that the archaeologists recognise the realities of the world outside academe. They have to speed up. It is no good telling someone who is rebuilding a neighbourhood in Beirut and who has the misfortune (as it stands at present) to find something, that it will be fenced off and excavated when the archaeologists feel ready. In the City of London, there are teams of archaeologists who come in at once and finish excavating a major site in three to six months, sometimes with the developers working around them.

Compensation requires money, and fast digs require more, and more energetic, archaeologists. Archaeological protection cannot be had on the cheap, and although some of the source countries, notably Italy, are not poor anymore, the sums of money devoted to their archaeological patrimony are exiguous.

A solution would be to rope in the services of outside countries, whose archaeologists are often only allowed to work in the source countries on sufferance. Partage today is a dirty word, evocative of past exploitation, and yet in a new equal partnership between the archaeologists of the host, source nation and the guests, a selective partage would encourage foreign funds to flow in; more sites would be properly dug and the objects protected. It should be obvious that not every find has to enter the museums of the country where it is found. Again, it is the information about the find that is important to the history of that country, and with proper archaeological methods every detail of an object could be recorded, measured, analysed and photographed before it was allowed out.

Long term loans, as proposed by that Italian senator, should also be allowed. Indeed, it would be a disarming act on the part of museums in the US, one which would defuse the dangerously adversarial situation developing between source nations and "acquiring" nations (see the US museums' lobbying against the UNIDROIT Convention, The Art Newspaper No. 51, September 1995, pp. 26-29), if the museums declared that they would cease to buy unprovenanced antiquities were they allowed good pieces on long-term loan instead.

Lastly, and I am aware that this is the most contentious suggestion of all, a proportion of finds should be sold, perhaps at official auctions or through dealers with an unblemished record of keeping to the Code of Ethics of the International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art. And because provenanced works of art are nearly always more valuable than unprovenanced ones, the items sold with government approval from recorded sites would at once be more desirable to collectors. Thus, just as good money drives out bad, the licit market would squeeze out the black market. Money raised from such sales could help finance more digs and compensate the chance finder.

Is all this pie in the sky? It certainly requires the source countries to adopt a more contractual, not to say more trusting relationship with their citizens than their legal systems at present imply. It requires the politicians to take this issue seriously and not to play politics with it. The last but one Italian minister of culture, Alberto Ronchey, told the owner of The Art Newspaper, Umberto Allemandi, that he was aware that the laws for the protection of the artistic and archaeological patrimony were not working, but that it was politically too dangerous to tackle them.

Perhaps if the leading archaeologists made it plain that they would support new laws, the politicians might become also a little braver.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Reforms needed in the source countries: reward the finder, excavate faster, keep what is important but allow a licit market'