Yesterday, the San Francisco Examiner featured an Op Ed by Walter Olson, editor of Overlawyered.com, on the demise of the “innocuous” hobby of collecting ancient or dug up coins. Olson belittles the recent repatriation requests of Egypt, Peru, and Greece, and bemoans the domestic laws that ban the trade of pre-Columbian and indigenous remains and artifacts. He calls the rights of origin countries to their cultural property a “dubious premise”, citing the fact that national governments and modern cultures are often distinct from the culture whose artifacts they want returned. Olson broadly claims that these national governments “often lack the will or the means to conserve fragile artifacts as well as collectors would.” He asks if some sort of property right is at issue, and muses,
“Well, one might conceivably argue that certain artifacts, such as funerary urns and temple friezes, must by their nature be regarded as stolen property since at some point they must have been looted from sites originally contemplated as permanent. However, temples might choose to sell their friezes, dynasties go out of business with no receiver in bankruptcy and so forth.”
However, he believes that coins should be treated differently, stating that they “were meant to circulate”. He ends by asking, “Yet modern antiquities law falls over itself to cater to the wishes of the jealous sovereign, at a cost to both fairness and the interests of conservation. Why?”
I’ll tell you why, Mr. Olson. The trade in antiquities without provenance is condemned and, in some areas, restricted for a reason; digging up artifacts, any artifacts (coins included), without scientific training destroys archaeological context. Without this context, we permanently lose any information the object may have been able to tell us about the specific people and culture that made this object, what the object was used for, how the type of object may have evolved over time, when the object appears and disappears in the archaeological record, etc. Not only is this invaluable information lost forever, but the people who created this object are disrespected and demeaned through the desecration of their culture’s remains.
This holds true for coins as well; if a metal detectorist in England were to find a coin from the Han dynasty in China, the existence of that coin in a certain layer of dirt could be connected to other objects close by that might explain the relationship between England and China in my super outlandish scenario. But if that metal detectorist simply picks up the coin and sells it on Ebay to one of the grandparents of those awestruck kids you mention, the entire meaning behind the coin and its history is irreparably dissolved. When this is repeated a countless number of times to feed a growing market, similarly countless numbers of connections and histories are lost forever. Numismatics is an incredibly important aspect of professional archaeology; the destruction of the archaeological context of coins could forever alter our understanding of the relationships and trade routes between ancient peoples.
On the matter of nations’ rights to their cultural property, who is to say that Western culture has a greater right to everyone else’s ancient objects and cultural patrimony? Who are you to claim that England has a greater right to the Elgin Marbles than Greece, or that Germany has a greater right to the bust of Nefertiti than Egypt? This is a dangerously elitist and colonialist point of view. As a Western culture, we do not have a greater right over other countries to own their cultural objects. Yes, the relative safety and stability of our societies combined with the technology we have available to preserve ancient objects does make our countries particularly well-equipped to hold and conserve many objects. However, that does not secure us the right to have these objects in our care when they were illegally ripped from the ground in another geographic and national region. If you believe the nation they came from has no right to these objects, then technically neither do we.
I disagree entirely with the collectors’ widespread tendency to appreciate ancient objects only for their aesthetic value and faintly mystical historical characteristics, or historicity. Ancient artifacts are much more than their aesthetic value; for many people, they are emotionally, culturally and historically meaningful objects that connect them to their nation’s ancestry, whether that ancestry is biologically or spiritually chosen.
There are so many more ways to approach these issues than to simply draw the lines between nationalist and technological rights, and stand firmly in a camp that promotes such destruction. A lot of problematic birds could be killed with some innovative stones if collectors rerouted their focus from buying individual artifacts to supporting museum, conservation, and archaeology efforts in “origin” countries. Maybe, instead of supporting a system that does very little to improve poverty-stricken economies in “origin” countries, collectors could spend their thousands and millions on cultural and educational centers that would not only provide jobs for would-be looters and dealers, but improve understanding of history and culture in regions that have little access to formal education. Maybe, instead of hoarding all of our cultural and technological knowledge to this one area of the world, we could make greater efforts to empower "origin" countries so they have the economical and technological means to care for their own cultural heritage. Maybe, instead of lamenting the end of this Western “hobby” of collecting the objects stolen from the graves and homes of people more exotic than us, you could use your access to the media to raise awareness about the world-wide destruction of our human history. In the end, those awestruck little kids will be able to maintain their awe if they actually have a history to be awed by.
None of us have the right to deny human beings their cultural and geographical heritage. To do so is a dangerously subtle form of genocide.