Sunday 28 June 2009

US Laws Inadequate to Protect Archaeological Heritage

In contrast to the „dig-em-up and sell-em-off” attitudes of the pro-collecting lobby, independent filmmaker Gray Warriner writes that in the United States “Current laws are inadequate to protect antiquities” (Salt Lake Tribune 26th June 2009). In a well-written essay he argues that “demand powers the antiquities market; driven by auctioneers, wealthy collectors and a global clientele”. He points out that “we are about the only civilized nation in the world that allows this unrestricted, unrepentant erasure of history. Inadequate laws have created a thriving business in backhoe archeology and looting on both public and private lands”. [It must be added that they are behind the attitude of total disregard for the erasure of the archaeological record of other regions by commercial artefact mining that we see in the words of US collectors and especially dealers]. Warriner points out that “Some may not feel archeological preservation laws are important, but like all laws it is not our personal liberty to pick and choose which we obey or ignore”, but that is exactly what collectors do.

Describing the pulic/private land loophole in the current law, Warriner asks:
Why is it consistently so hard to muster a little public backbone and say enough? We've done it before. In the early 1900s, songbirds were being slaughtered to provide colorful feathers for women's hats and feather boas. Entire species teetered on the edge of extinction. At that time, we the people said no to fashions that kill because we could see the eventual outcome. If we can save songbirds and eagles by enacting clear, unambiguous laws that just say no, we can certainly do the same thing for prehistoric artifacts. Artifacts and ruins are finite, and the story they tell is in danger of being lost and gone forever. The overarching truth is that our antiquities laws are political compromises and doomed to fail. It is time to declare artifacts off-limits for private possession, period. This century-old cat-and-mouse game (requiring expensive law enforcement, sting operations, and prosecution dollars) won't slow down until the money flow diminishes or until all of our artifacts and history are stolen. At present, the laws are almost unenforceable in the vast canyon country of Utah and the Southwest. Professional diggers systematically work this giant loophole for treasure, buying and exploiting properties and then moving on to the next ruin. Call it what it is; legalized theft. It needs to be addressed, once and for all, or we will never be able to protect our past from ourselves.
Let us hope that other voices will be found to address this problem. By all means let us also hear the collectors argue their case for their position that this kind of exploitation of the archaeological record should be totally legalised and bring the collectors' "dig-em-up-regardless-and-sell-them-to-me" attitude into public scrutiny in the US.

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