European Association of Archaeologists
The illicit trade in antiquities was the subject of a session in this years conference of the European Association of Archaeologists, held at Bournemouth from 1419 September. Several aspects of the problem were presented in a series of papers which once again sought to convey the scale of the damage which is being caused, and argue the case for more effective action.
The session began with papers by Kathy Tubb of the Institute of Archaeology, London, and Paula Kay Lazrus of Boston University, who pointed out the need for education to drive home the message to local communities that it was not only archaeologists, but they themselves who were losing knowledge of their past through the widespread destruction of local sites. It was at this level by recruiting the support of local people that protection on the ground was likely to be successful.
A fuller picture of the trade is beginning to appear from detailed studies of antiquities sales. This was illustrated by the paper given by Vinnie Nørskov from the University of Aarhus in Denmark, who summarized the results of five years research on Greek vases appearing in saleroom catalogues. She approached the question from two angles: the vases which are being presented for sale by the major auction houses from 1953 to 1998, and the acquisitions of material by museums over the same period. Her results show clearly how museum acquisition policies have changed over the five decades in question. A more disturbing statistic is the very small number of vases offered for sale which have any kind of archaeological provenance.
The lack of provenances is symptomatic of the secrecy in which the antiquities trade is enveloped, and in another paper Neil Brodie asked why it was that antiquities dealers were so unwilling to be more open about the sources from which they obtained their material. The very secrecy of the trade has made it vulnerable to thieves who wish to pass off stolen antiquities, and to organized crime, where antiquities are coming to be employed as collateral in money-laundering schemes. Given these developments, it is hard to understand why dealers find it so difficult to accept the need for greater transparency, especially as most of them openly declare that they do not deal in illegally-acquired material; they should therefore have nothing to hide.
A leading issue to emerge from the Bournemouth session was the continuing unwillingness of Britain and several other European governments to subscribe to the 1970 UNESCO and 1995 Unidroit conventions. Tim Schadla-Hall of the Institute of Archaeology, London, made the point forcefully that despite abundant evidence of widespread illicit trade in the UK there is little sign of the Government taking a clear line on reform or on tackling the problem.
This issue was the subject of a resolution which was adopted in the Annual Business Meeting at the close of the conference. The European Association of Archaeologists agreed that further action was needed to stem the flow of illegally acquired or illegally exported antiquities, and accepted that all European governments should sign and ratify the UNESCO and Unidroit conventions as a matter of urgency. The EAA President, Willem
Willems, has undertaken to write to all European governments enquiring about their policy on these conventions. The replies will be brought to the next meeting of the EAA at Lisbon in 2000, where the next stage of action will be discussed.
The final paper in the Illicit Antiquities session at Bournemouth was given by Roger Bland, who is currently on secondment from the British Museum to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. He noted that the legal protection afforded to portable antiquities in England and Wales is both more limited in scope and more liberal in its treatment of finders than in virtually any other country in Europe. The wide toleration of metal detecting in Britain has posed particular problems, and the recent Portable Antiquities Recording Scheme has taken only the very moderate step of encouraging finders to register their finds. Dr Bland reviewed the results of the first year
pilot project of registration and outlined some of the additional information which had been made available in this way. A similarly up-beat appraisal of the Portable Antiquities scheme had been given to the conference the previous day by the Rt Hon Alan Howarth MP, Minister in the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. For many archaeologists, however,
the chief result of the new provisions is likely to be a depressing demonstration of how rapidly and in what numbers portable antiquities in Britain are being ripped from their archaeological contexts. In the absence of political will and of a unified response from archaeologists, museum curators and others, this is a problem which appears unlikely to find any imminent solution.
First posted March 2000; Page design updated September 2006