Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Vice President of the Royal Archaeological Institute

  I have been asked to reply on behalf of the Royal Archaeological Institute to your letter of 10 February concerning the Select Committee's inquiry into "Cultural Property: Return and Illicit Trade".

  This is clearly an important subject for the archaeological community and one over which opinions are deeply divided. Without having consulted our members, it would be inappropriate for the Institute to offer evidence on all the issues raised in your Press Notice. We would, however, like to make two points which seem central to the debate.

  First, we recognise the prime importance of artefacts (archaeological and art objects) in the definition of group identities amongst all peoples of the world. We therefore believe in principle that effective international conventions are essential in balancing the legitimate interests of the cultures which produced objects with those of individuals and museums which now hold them. We are therefore disappointed with the Secretary of State's recent announcement that the UK will not ratify the 1970 UNESCO Convention which has now been ratified by others, like the USA, who share similar interests to those of the UK.

  Second, we express concern over recent cases in which archaeological sites in the UK have been despoiled by treasure hunters, and cultural artefacts dispersed on the international market. Whilst we warmly welcome the DCMS initiative which supports the recording by museums of material found by legitimate metal-detector users, there remains a problem with a tiny majority who use metal-detectors to supply objects to the market rather than to discover about our common past. The scale of this problem is very difficult to estimate but a series of examples have come to light, including that recently documented in I.M. Stead's book, The Salisbury Hoard. The worst example known to me is undoubtedly the destruction of the Iron Age temple at Warnborough in Surrey. Enormous numbers of Iron Age coins from this site were illicitly exported and access to important cultural information has thus been denied to the people of the UK. This example illustrates the way in which the illicit robbing of sites and trading in antiquities impoverishes the cultural life of the people of the UK and reinforces the view that international collaboration is essential to protect our interests as well as those of other states. In these cases, self-regulation by dealers is evidently not working to protect the citizens' common interest in their cultural heritage.

  I trust these comments will be useful to your Committee.

March 2000

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