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


Memorandum submitted by Sir John Boardman FBA

  This is a response to the invitation for submission of evidence to your inquiry. I am a retired professor of classical archaeology and art (mainly Greek, but also Near Eastern and Indian) and member of several non-British national academies. I have excavated (Greece, Turkey, Libya), worked in a museum (Oxford), taught, and published for both academics and the public. A number of the topics I raise here may seem only tangentially relevant to your problem, but need to be aired in this context. Not all archaeologists will agree with all I write here, partly on what they believe to be ethical grounds, partly from self-interest, though I believe that many in the non-English-speaking world do, including those in source countries (with which I have many academic links).

  1.  Cultural property is not the same as national heritage, yet it is deemed so in your paper since this speaks of "return" which implies "return to place of manufacture or display". "Cultural property" relates to the history of man and must be guarded; the reasons for this need stating (below) and are paramount. "National heritage" begs too many questions—what is a "nation"?—what of an Islamic country destroying or neglecting or allowing to be marketed pre-Islamic remains because they are not of its heritage (Afghanistan)?—what of a Christian country destroying or neglecting or allowing to be marketed Islamic remains for the same reason (Greece, Bulgaria)? Should that property that escapes by whatever means be shunned, or should it be rescued by the more enlightened nations concerned with preserving the cultural property of man? "National heritage" can be interpreted at will, moved by sentiment (sometimes politically motivated) or possessiveness, and is seldom as obviously identified as the Stone of Scone; compare attitudes to a marble group by an Italian artist made for a special setting in England, but removed and sold by its owner—hardly still "national" yet clung to (Canova's Graces).

  2.  The rape of museums and ancient sites by thieves is illicit; this should be enough, but the law must be more rigorously enforced. Objects proved stolen must be returned, but, in accordance with common justice, identity must be satisfactorily proved: not easy, but generally possible. For some objects presumed stolen the presumption can be very strong indeed, such as might satisfy a jury (the Sevso treasure); anything less would be unjust. There is a very great deal of cultural property which has been licitly acquired but is "on the loose" and undocumented. So it should be a matter of "innocent until proved or very reasonably presumed guilty"; this is not generally the case.

  3.  A great many antiquities are found casually, and always will be. A majority are of minimal archaeological value, being divorced from their context, but of great potential teaching and display value. To remove these from the market serves no purpose whatever since it cannot prevent accidental discovery, and will simply force any trade in them underground. There is nothing immoral about collecting—it is a basic animal activity—and has proved to be the resource for major educational projects, as well as being the foundation of all national collections.

  4.  Whom do you trust for advice? Archaeologists (I am one, but not a collector) are on the whole rather jealous and greedy creatures. They are quick to cry out against illicit trade, and against those other scholars who may make academic use of objects from what are taken to be illicit sources (but now in museums or collections), in which case some try to impose a despicable form of censorship (USA). There can be a measure of hypocrisy or even guilt here. All excavation, licit and illicit, is destructive. We dig for information, not objects. No little cultural property is lost through the very common failure of archaeologists to publish what they have found (which is more than objects). And their jealous "squirreling away" of what they have found, so that it can serve neither other scholars nor the education of the public who have paid them, has been described recently by a senior archaeologist/art-historian as a form of necrophilia. A number of the objects stolen recently from Corinth (and recovered in Miami) were found in the 1930s, yet were only published in photographs once they had been stolen! A British archaeologist (whom you will hear), now vociferous against the trade, has himself published (thereby enhancing the value of) a large collection of wholly illicitly excavated objects, and has also excavated material which has long remained unpublished. The testimony of archaeologists (including me) needs to be treated with as much caution as that of collectors, dealers and nationalists. There are some highly misleading statistics around.

  5.  Cultural property is wholly about the history of man and not at all about possession. This is the ethical basis for its protection. We explore and cherish our past because we learn from it about our place in the world, and the place of other civilizations. We (and others) should take pride in what we judge to be our "national" achievement but not to the point of jealous hoarding, and should be as proud and well-informed about the achievements of others. Those who exploit cultural property by methods which destroy most of the information it might convey are worse than mere thieves and should be treated as such; these include both robbers and dealers and non-publishing archaeologists ("academic felons"). Not all archaeologists understand the true purpose of their studies—to record, understand and instruct, not accumulate. [Several source countries and British Institutes abroad have joined in appealing for action against what I call "serial excavators", by withholding permits and funds; the paper is now in the hands of the British Academy and AHRB.]

  6.  The British Government was the first in Europe to buy "for the nation", that is to say for educational purposes, a major complex of antiquities from a private person. These have continued to be a major source of instruction to more millions than they could attract elsewhere (the Elgin Marbles). We too have a proud "heritage" of responsibility towards the educational use of world cultural property.

  7.  Culture and education are worldwide, not national concerns. Total restriction on the movement of cultural property for the education and enjoyment of the public should be repugnant to any modern society.


  8.1  Enforce, and make sure that others enforce, existing laws against the illicit trade and especially the destruction of sites. Penalties should be such that resumption of such activities becomes impossible. Unfortunately the policing authorities in many source countries may be corrupt, dealers are powerful people, and auction houses adept at covering their tracks. Some collectors wield power through wealth or political associations; some scholars can be self-serving.

  8.2  Do not kill the trade by allowing unproved assumptions to be made about origins, nor thereby drive it underground.

  8.3  Recognize that a low-level peddling of antiquities is quite inevitable and that it effectively disseminates educative material as well as satisfies the legitimate aspirations of collectors. This is generally not in the hands of major dealers and auction houses.

  8.4  Recognize that some UNESCO guidelines may be more politically than academically motivated, and may not always be in the best interests of the preservation and use, through display worldwide, of cultural property.

  8.5  To counter the trade: encourage source countries to allow generous long loans of cultural property to museums in other countries. This has been mooted before (in Egypt and Italy) but came to nothing thanks to over-possessive curators. The "deal" in Italy was to be that such objects would be conserved and restored by the borrowers in ways for which the Italian state could not find the time or money. I would be inclined to include sale of duplicates or trivia, to museums or to collectors (some of whom might otherwise seek other sources). Keeping track of where things are is relatively easy these days. This practice would effectively counter much illicit trade.

  8.6  No museum should be required to surrender any object unless proof of theft (from museum or site) is clear, and unless there are undertakings that it will be as well looked after and available for view and study in its new location (unless it is a matter of return to a looted museum; yet there are exceptions—Kabul).

  8.7  National museums should be encouraged, not disbarred, from acquiring objects which reach the market from trouble spots or countries indifferent to any "heritage" not of contemporary relevance to them. Otherwise the cultural property is lost and may be destroyed. Ultimate return is always possible, when judged safe (Kabul?).

  8.8  Cultural property "historically removed". Return to place of manufacture or display should depend on whether its true role will be better served by return, not on "nationalist" or sentimental grounds, and on no account on political grounds

  8.9  Many countries of the Third World might welcome advice on the policing of sites and trade. Dissemination of information about stolen objects needs better international co-ordination.

March 2000

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