Memorandum submitted by Mr Andrew Selkirk
I would like to submit evidence to the Committee
on Cultural Property: Return and Illicit Trade.
I am the editor of Current Archaeology which,
with a circulation of 18,000 subscribers, is by far and away the
biggest archaeological magazine in this country. I launched Current
Archaeology in 1967 and have edited it since then, seeing
the circulation rising steadily. I am also Vice-President of the
Royal Archaeological Institute, Chairman of the Council for Independent
Archaeology, a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and have served
on the councils of both the Prehistoric Society and the Roman
Society. I am author of a book "Who Owns the Past: a grassroots
critique of Heritage Policy". The readers of Current Archaeology
are essentially amateur archaeologists and those with a keen
interest in the past, many of them members of local archaeological
societies and evening classes.
I would like to begin with one general point;
that here in Britain our system for the treatment of cultural
objects is exceptionally good and despite all the problems with
metal detectorists, it probably works better than in any other
country in the world. The treasure trove system in particular
works extremely well. The two best examples recently are the Hoxne
hoard of Late Roman coins and jewellery worth over a million pounds,
which was promptly reported and properly excavated. Then there
was the Snettisham hoard of Iron Age neck ringspossibly
the regalia of the royal family of the Iceni in Norfolkwhich
was also promptly reported and led to a major excavation by the
British Museum. I think it is vital that we should let the rest
of the world know of our successes, and if there is one recommendation
that I would make, it is that we should publicise our success,
perhaps by preparing a travelling exhibition of the highlights
of these hoards and then sending it round the world to show how
successfully the British and in particular the English system
of Treasure Trove works.
I would just like to answer briefly two of your
paragraphs: firstly methods of counteracting illicit trade.
From the archaeological point of view, the worrying
problem is that of looting of archaeological sites. Here the root
cause is that in much of the world there is no incentive to finders
to declare the discovery of antiquities, or land owners to protect
the antiquities on their land. Indeed in most of parts of the
world, the discovery of antiquities in the course of say building
work is bad news. The antiquities, if reported, are promptly confiscated,
so neither the finder nor the land-owner benefits. Indeed there
is a positive dis-incentive to report finds, for if finds are
reported, the building work is often held up usually without compensation.
The finder therefore is tempted either to conceal and destroy
the objects or to dispose of them on the black market.
The root solution to the problem of looting
is to ensure that there are proper arrangements for the reward
of the finders and to press those countries where looting is rife
to bring their laws and practice into line with those of England.
Trying to tackle the problem by outlawing trade in antiquities
is rather like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted;
it is the countries that encourage the black market by imposing
unsuitable laws that are at fault, and they should be encouraged
to change their laws to something more akin to the English system.
Turning to the question of the "return"
of cultural objects, could I begin by quoting part of the preamble
to the 1970 UNESCO convention.
"The interchange of cultural property among
nations for scientific, cultural, and educational purposes increases
the knowledge of the civilisation of Man, enriches the cultural
life of all peoples and inspires mutual respect and appreciation
This seems to me to express admirably what should
be the aims of the distribution of cultural objects, even if sadly
the remainder of the Convention contradicts the high-minded ideas
of the pre-amble.
As I say in my book Who Owns the Past?:
"Do we want to see Egyptian objects only in Egypt, Greek
objects only in Greece, Totem Poles only in Canada and the remains
of the Ancient Britons only in Britain?" Cultural objects
should be distributed around the world so that we can all learn
to appreciate the objects of all nations. The narrow minded nationalism
at present encouraged by the "return" of cultural objects
should be opposed.
The real problem is how to make this distribution;
there is a parallel problem of the distribution between local
and national: which objects should go to a national museum and
which ones should remain locally? There is of course no rule that
can be applied generally, but it is possible nevertheless to offer
some general principles.
When dealing with the question of cultural objects
one should ask the following questions:
1. Is there a fair and reasonable distribution
round the world of cultural objects originating in the country
2. Does the country concerned have fair
and reasonable laws for the export of antiquities to other countries?
In particular does it allow a fair division of finds with foreign
expeditions operating in that country? No idea of "return"
should be considered unless the country has such provisions in
force and operating.
3. Does the country concerned have a "world
museum" that displays objects from round the world, so that
the objects from its own territory can be properly placed into
context? If not, they should be encouraged to build up such a
"world museum" first, before increasing material of
which they already have an excess.
4. Is the object concerned part of the living
culture of the country demanding "return"? The whole
idea of "return" of cultural objects began when Denmark
donated to Iceland the Icelandic Sagas which had been collected
from Iceland in the 18th Century and which form the root from
which modern Icelandic culture can be traced in a direct line.
However this is not the case with for instance the Parthenon Marbles,
which are monuments of a pagan religion which was specifically
rejected and repudiated by the Christianity which forms the foundation
of modern Greek culture.
5. How far is the object concerned part
of the culture of its present home? A good example is the Stone
of Scone, which should never have been sent to Scotland, because
it had been in England since the 14th Century and had been the
stone on which every English king had been crowned since then.
It was therefore far more a part of English, and indeed British
culture than it was of Scottish culture. (In any case, it may
well have been Pictish in origin rather than Scottish).
6. Security. National museums are increasingly
the object of terrorist attack, and it is desirable therefore
that representative examples of archaeological finds are widely
dispersed round the world.
The "return" of cultural objects is
something that is inherently undesirable, because it encourages
narrow minded nationalism. It encourages the nation to which the
objects are returned to exaggerate and distort their importance,
and to fail to put them into proper context. Demands for return
are often accompanied by nationalistic politics which should be
discouraged. I hope that the Committee comes out resolutely against
any idea of "return" but instead presses for a more
rational distribution of cultural objects round the world.