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


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 rings—possibly the regalia of the royal family of the Iceni in Norfolk—which 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 among nations."

  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 concerned?

  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.

March 2000

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