Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the Standing Conference on Portable Antiquities


  1.  The Standing Conference on Portable Antiquities is a delegate body including representatives of all the main British archaeological bodies with a concern for portable antiquities (a list of members is appended to this memorandum[1]). It usually meets annually and is supported by the Council for British Archaeology's Portable Antiquities Working Group which meets more regularly and acts as the executive arm of the Standing Conference. Both bodies are chaired by Dr P V Addyman, Director of York Archaeological Trust.

  2.  The Standing Conference was established in the early 1990s to discuss issues of concern to British archaeologists relating to portable antiquities. Over the years it has concerned itself with the Treasure Bill, later the Treasure Act of 1996; the Portable Antiquities Recording Scheme; European regulations on the import and export of antiquities; underwater finds of portable antiquities; the incidence of metal detecting and numerous other subjects. Recently it has noted with increasing concern the growth of the illicit trade in antiquities and has made representations to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on a number of occasions with the recommendation that the United Kingdom Government should adopt various international instruments designed to combat this trade—notably the 1970 UNESCO Convention and the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention.

  3.  Since the call for evidence by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee the Portable Antiquities Working Group has met and prepared this submission. The submission will be discussed by the Standing Conference at its next meeting on 30 March 2000. The results of that discussion will be conveyed to the CMS Committee but the statement below stands as the view of the Portable Antiquities Working Group.


  4.  It is clear from the large number of antiquities evidently of British origin appearing in catalogues, sales and collections abroad, and for which no record of an export licence can be found, that antiquities of importance to the understanding of the archaeology and history of the people of the United Kingdom are being lost to the nation.

  5.  By way of example we draw the Committee's attention to the case of the Icklingham Bronzes, which were bought by the Ariadne Galleries of New York and shipped to the United States without any export licence being issued; the similarly disquieting fate of the Salisbury Treasure, much of which was dispersed internationally through a chain of dealers and for which not a single export licence application was made; and the systematic looting of a hoard of Iron Age coins from Wanborough in Surrey, from which it is believed that 9,000 coins were sold abroad, and only 1,000 were recovered and are now in the British Museum. We are also disturbed by the growing number of metal-detectorists coming to the UK from the USA on commercially organised guided treasure hunting tours, which when organised by less enlightened operators, can lead to the systematic looting of archaeological sites and the unlicensed export of archaeological artefacts from the UK.

  6.  The concern of the Standing Conference is twofold. First, and most seriously, the growth of this trade encourages the wanton and careless removal of artefacts from the archaeological context—that is the irreplaceable archaeological layers—in which they are preserved, and in so doing irreversibly diminishes the ability for this and future generations to gain an informed understanding of our shared cultural heritage. This is against the public interest. Secondly, many of the artefacts are of intrinsic interest in their own right; arguably they should not leave Britain; but if they do there is a public interest in their existence and data about their nature, provenance and circumstances of discovery should be recorded to be added to the national record of archaeological finds. This could readily be done at the time of issue of an export licence.

  7.  The Standing Conference has similar concerns about the very large numbers of antiquities of foreign origin which are currently appearing in British salerooms, antiquities shops and collections. These derive from diverse origins including most of the countries containing remains of the main ancient civilisations. British archaeologists realise that the implications of this vast and burgeoning trade is that archaeological sites in the countries of origin are being ravaged to supply the trade, in spite of the fact that it is generally illegal in most of these countries to excavate without permission and to export antiquities. Clearly Britain's lax attitude to this trade is, in effect, ensuring the wholesale destruction of the evidence for many early civilisations. It is becoming increasingly difficult for British archaeologists to hold their heads up high in international archaeological symposia when the activities of their compatriot collectors and dealers, and the failure of their government to sign international conventions designed to combat such illegal trade, are condemning parts of the human story to obliteration.

  8.  Some indication of the incidence of this trade, and its effects on the archaeological record, were obtained from a symposium at Cambridge on 22-25 October 1999 on "Illicit Antiquities: the Destruction of the World's Archaeological Heritage". The report on this symposium (Culture without Context Issue 5, Autumn 1999; Cambridge, 16-24) provides statistics and surveys, from a number of countries and should be required reading for members of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. The Committee should also be aware of the forthcoming ICOM-UK/Museums Association report on the illicit trade.


  9.  It is not an offence to remove artefacts from archaeological contexts in Britain unless they are parts of Scheduled Ancient Monuments, nor does the State claim ownership in England and Wales unless the artefacts qualify as Treasure. In Scotland all archaeological artefacts are considered for a possible claim by the Crown. There is no means, therefore, of regulating the trade internally, and it is licit, except in Scotland. We believe, however, that much can be gained simply by applying more thoroughly the existing requirements for the issuing of licences for all antiquities at the time of export, and adding to it the requirement that archaeological artefacts, whether exported or not, should be recorded to standards now normal in the Government's Portable Antiquities Recording Scheme. Thus, regardless of whether or not artefacts themselves either remain in Britain or go into public ownership, the archaeological requirement is quite clear: that the data should be recorded for the public benefit.

  10.  The Standing Conference has long advocated that nothing would more quickly counter the illicit trade of foreign antiquities into Britain, and stem the outward flow of British antiquities throughout the world, than the UK's ratification of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illegal Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, 1970 and the UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen and Illegally Exported Cultural Objects, 1995 (please see the Resolution adopted by the Standing Conference on 13 November 1997, which is appended to this submission for the benefit of the Committee) *. Since so many countries have adopted these without apparent difficulty despite their very various law codes, and since neither instrument is retrospective, the Standing Conference cannot conceive why the Government has recently indicated it cannot adopt these conventions. At very least the objections, now stated only in the most general terms, should be set out in detail so that work can begin on development of alternatives that would be acceptable to the Government.

  11.  We recommend as a first initiative that the Government should initiate the establishment of bilateral agreements, along the lines of those recently set up between the United States and various source countries of looted antiquities. The United States has been able to reach such agreements because UNESCO 1970 does not require ratification in its entirety. This has allowed the United States to elect to implement only Article 9 enabling the imposition of import controls on archaeological and ethnographic material from countries whose heritage is under threat. Such agreements can be extremely effective, as clearly shown by that signed with Mali in 1997. Import restrictions placed on archaeological material from the Niger River valley region of Mali, including the ancient city of Djenne-Jeno, in conjunction with educational and police work on the part of the Malian authorities, have been so successful that looting in the area of Djenne« has virtually halted.


  12.  We make a clear distinction between the historic collections of museums in Britain and new acquisitions. We do not see it likely that retrospective assessments can be made of historic collections and it is not envisaged that the provisions of the UNESCO 1970 and UNIDROIT 1995 Conventions will be applied retrospectively. We are equally clear about new acquisitions. We support the precepts of the UK Museums Association on the issue and, so far as it goes, the British Museum's policy on acquisitions. Put quite simply, museums should not acquire artefacts for which there is no clear provenance or a long collection history except in the case of the national museums which may act as a repository of last resort for illicit antiquities of overwhelming intrinsic interest to the nation after they have been subject to due processes of law. It is important, if the illicit trade is to be combated, that there should be absolutely no possible legitimate outlet for objects looted from archaeological sites.


  13.  Dr Neil Brodie, from the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre in Cambridge, has recently studied the operation of the European Union requirements relating to the import/export licensing for archaeological objects, which is summarised as part of his own evidence to the Committee in a paper entitled "The Licensing of Archaeological Material for Export from the United Kingdom". We fully endorse Dr Brodie's paper and are appalled by the missed opportunity represented by minimal and undemanding application of the licensing system. We do, however, see that such a system fully applied, and linked to a systematic artefact data recording system, could transform the situation and result in considerable gains in data of the highest public and historical interest.


  14.  We do not believe that it is practicable or desirable to try to apply retrospectively the principles which make sense for present and future artefact finds. This applies especially in terms of prevention damage to archaeological sites. We do not, therefore, wish to present evidence on any of the questions listed under Other Return Issues.


  15.  The Standing Conference, having considered problems of import, export and sale of illicit and other antiquities for a considerable time, has accumulated much data and expertise on aspects of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee's inquiry. It would greatly value the opportunity to enlarge upon its conclusions in oral evidence to the Committee.

March 2000

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