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On The Newsstand: Who Owns History?

Do historical artifacts belong to humankind, or to the countries they come from? This question, along with a bunch of property-rights laws, is at the center of the current custody battle over historical treasures.

This week's Time magazine outlines the dispute, which entangles nations, museums, and archeologists. Source nations — think Italy, Greece, Egypt, China — consider products of their ancient civilizations as national property. But "universal museums" — think the Louvre, Met, British Museum — counter that the artifacts are the heritage of humanity.

Enter archaeologists. They criticize museums for facilitating a black market and want laws that discourage looting. Yet, many laws prevent archaeologists from bringing any artifacts from their digs home to their universities or museums.

Entire museums would be emptied if source countries retained rights to everything, so how far back should claims go? If pieces are located around the world, does that allow more people to experience history? How can we tell harmonizing stories of history that focus both on the artifacts' significance to a specific civilization and to humanity as a whole?

Join The Conversation
Cadet Cadet 9 years
Haha, oh I know. I have a good friend who's an archeology major. But since it really isn't my forte, he and I just joke about how everyone thinks he's going to be like Indiana Jones. I never got deeper than cultural anthropology and linguistics, myself. Artifacts aren't my thing. And Indy can do anything! Have you seen him? He's my hero...
CaterpillarGirl CaterpillarGirl 9 years
I think that if a country does not have the means needed to dig and preserve the artifacts than a foriegn nation who does should do so, but not have ownership, think of it as a "loan" of sorts.
JessNess JessNess 9 years
Indiana Jones is not an archaeologist. He is more of an antiquarian but with better morals. If archaeology was as easy as Indiana Jones makes it seem everyone would be one. Although is a little bit of jealousy of Indiana Jones because everyone wants to find those glorious sites full of treasures (although that is a very dangerous thing to find these days thanks to armed looters)
Cadet Cadet 9 years
What about wealthy private collectors? Should they be forced to relinquish items that they may have purchased illegally? I know there are several private museums in addition to the big, world renowned ones. The western world sure does seem to have a lot to be ashamed of. Where's Indiana Jones when you need him?
JessNess JessNess 9 years
BTW Time magazine way to join the debate super late. I havent read the article yet but I wonder if they mentioned the fact that the U.S totally screwed up in terms of the major museums in Iraq. Under law invading countries are suppose to protect museums and the U.S did not do this and now there are tons of artifacts missing. Also this debate does not stop at artifacts. A lot of times sites are actually at debate of who owns them. A great example is Stonehenge. There is a debate as to has the right to claim it- the new age "Druids" who claim to have worshiped there forever :oy:, the country, the archaeologists, etc. Battle of the Beanfield represents this issue of ownership well
JessNess JessNess 9 years
saucymegstar- ". If they are funded by a museum/university whatever that group should certainly have a say" This actually does not happen often. Archaeologists working with universities/museums do not have automatic say of what happens, countries have the say. A lot of times what happens is that the archaeologists are allowed to take things on borrowed terms and have to return them to the country later. I worked with an Egyptologist who discovered a tomb of a colonial man who was surrounded by projectile points. He was able to take the projectile points out of the country on borrowed terms. I actually had to draw them for his record so that he could send them back. Also in some countries, like Peru, all work has be done with an archaeologist that is from that country so that the country's interest and history is protected and studied under the law
JessNess JessNess 9 years
I am currently majoring in archaeology and believe me this is a huge issue (among tons of others)that we always discuss. In terms of who owns artifacts, everyone is going to have a different opinion. A lot of artifacts that are in museums now were found before archaeology when people were treasure hunters and there were not regulations on artifacts. Museums that house these artifacts now believe that they should keep them basically because they were taken before there were laws. An example would be the Greek Pantheon in the British Museum which Greece is wanting back now. Countries such as Egypt have control over everything found now. An interesting case is King Tuts tomb. Egypt's law stated that if a tomb was found to be untouched by looters then the country automatically had control over everything. HOWEVER, they found out that looters had previously broken into the tomb (although they did not take much)allowing the archaeologists to take control. This will be a never ending issue. There are more regulations now for modern archaeology but in terms of stuff found during the antiquarian era it will always be up for debate
janneth janneth 9 years
If the Tut stuff had not been removed from its source nation, it would have been destroyed or melted down by the common grave robbers who destroyed most of the ancient mummy treasure. And the Parthenon is in ruins not because it is ancient, but because it was used several times to store munitions in wars, and stray bullets caused explosions. Lucky a lot of it was removed to London.
wackdoodle wackdoodle 9 years
In Art History of the ancient world - we had this discussion years ago and I still feel the same- western archaeologists in late 1800s early 1900s stole those ancient pieces of art. The took them and sold them to the museums were they now rest. They had no permits to dig, they didn't have permission from the government or the people of said country to remove said ancient pieces. What western archaeologists had was money and power of empire and the crass belief that the people of whatever country were too stupid and backward to appreciate their own history. It was a Euro-centric belief that the new centers of culture were superior to the people of the former centers of culture. I remember when I was little probably 6 or 7 and my dad and I were looking at a book he had of ancient Greece. In the book it said that something like 85% of Greece's antiquities had been removed from their country without permission. These weren't tiny pieces either the British and French and German archaeologists had removed entire ancient temples from sacred sites in Greece. The government of Greece tried to put an end to it but it didn't end until a British archaeologists actually proposed removing the Parthenon from its site in Athens because they "Greeks do not appreciate the value of the temple". That proposition was total BS and other archaeologists and historians called them on it- it was Western pillage and soldiers that had tried to destroy the Greek temples and works of art. I still remember my dad traveling to NYC during the late 70s to see the King Tutankhamun exhibit - he came back with tons of photos and said he was excited to see these pieces but not to see them out of context and he was repulsed at the arrogance that put them in the possession of any other country than Egypt. A prime example of this archaeological looting of the ancient world sits in the Pergamon in Berlin. Entire ancient buildings and friezes removed without the permission of the Greek, Egyptian, and Roman government and resembled in Europe. This was donoe so that the privileged class of society wouldn't have to travel to these dirty, foreign, backward uncivilized countries to "see" history. The secondary reason was preservation of said antiquity when in fact the western museums helped to speed up the decay process with their "treatments" . Last time my nephew went to the Pergamon he had just finish his first class in Art History and appreciation and he was appalled that the Pergamon had removed entire pieces of ancient culture from the countries they belong to. He asked the docent who was taking his small group around if the Pergamon had any intentions of addressing the fact that the Greeks and Egyptians wanted their history back. He was told that the German government and the Pergamon were negotiating to return any pieces removed illegally or through early archeology digs and any blackmarket purchases would be returned to their rightful country. It is known to the new breed of museum directors and boards that these works were il-gotten-gains and that the museums have other works that were rightful obtained and/or purchases that can be displayed. Museums won't be empty, they will just represent theft countries better and not show that might and theft of antiquities be continue to be harbored. Just because you paid a thief for something doesn't mean you have the right to possess something that belongs to another.
onabanana onabanana 9 years
It's interesting and I see both sides but I saw with the museum side. They are the heritage of humanity and though the black market situation is very bad and there should be legislation ensuring that proper permits are issued for digs so that source nations are aware. I only with museums such as the Louvre etc. because so often nations have not taken care to reserve the artifacts and in some cases these items are destroyed on purpose to erase the memory/legacy of an unwanted history. For example: the Buddhas of Afghanistan were destroyed by the Taliban. I know the Buddhas were carved into a mountain side and would not have been easily preserved and moved else where but the point is nations and governments come and go, it seems someone/something should be keepers/preservers of "humanity's heritage."
LibertySugar LibertySugar 9 years
I think this is a fascinating topic, too (obviously). After I read the article, I couldn't stop thinking of all the different layers of concerns.
janneth janneth 9 years
The Louvre and the Vatican Museum would have many empty galleries, and the British Museum could pretty much close if every art object had to go back to its source nation. That's true. But if the Brits had not taken the Parthenon sculptures, they certainly would not exist. And look even now how some countries intentionally destroy works of antiquity that don't conform to their religious beliefs. It's a great debate.
Jillness Jillness 9 years
Very interesting topic!
raciccarone raciccarone 9 years
Yeah, we should store the worlds oldest and most treasured artifacts in nations where they were found, that way they can say they were responsible for creating them and then destroying them due to lack of financing and neglect. A perfect circle.
StPat-Jack StPat-Jack 9 years
IMHO, the country of origin from which the artifact has been recoverd should maitain ownership of the item. Of course the museums where the items will be displayed want to use a different type of rationale re "humanity" as the owner but, that is a bunch of bull... I would much rather the museums I visit paying the nation of origin vs. a black market dealer. The fact is most of the places, not all, items are stolen for have already been violated thru colonialism, war, etc,so why should we continue to exploit them?
divinelight divinelight 9 years
I feel like the countries they find them in in should maintain some control over the artifacts. There are certain buildings and structures that are products of ancient civilizations (Colosseum, Mayan ruins, pyramids), and they belong to the country. Rarely do you see structures being dismantled and moved somewhere else to be put in a museum. I don't think entire museums would be emptied if source countries retained rights. I think there might be more variety in museums because exhibits would constantly be changing. For example, Egypt has possession of their country's historical artifacts, which they constantly lend out to museums. Everyone has the right to experience pieces of history but that doesn't make it their history.
saucymegstar saucymegstar 9 years
When archeologists excavate they must have a permit which stipulates the conditions for removing objects. If they are funded by a museum/university whatever that group should certainly have a say. Hopefully the point will be to preserve history and countries, museums and universities will work together to make it happen. I don't want the black market to continue to flourish. That only means opportunity for furthering knowledge and preserving artifacts will be lost. This has been a question from the 1800s when archeology first gained acceptance and popularity. Wow, sorry that was a lot of words!
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