People are always fighting over archaeological goods. How do we determine who owns these things? Nations, museums, and private collectors all make claims to goods derived from archaeological sites. Many times these entities are not from the country or culture which manufactured the goods. Not only are the goods removed from place of origin, but they are also bought and sold. How does anyone put a monetary value on history? If it were easy to determine a legitimate owner is it fair (or noble) to make them purchase the remains? Unfortunately, it is not always that easy to determine who owns artifacts.
Example # 1 – The Elgin Marbles
The ownership of these artifacts have been debated for many years now. To summarize, the marbles were rescued from the severely damaged Parthenon by the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the early 1800’s. At that time, Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire and it is alleged that the marble sculptures were allowed to be returned with the ambassador to England by the ruling Ottomans.
Both England and Greece have valid claims to the marbles. England has preserved a part of history that may have been damaged by neglect in Greece over the past 200 years, proof comes from the evidence of pollution damage on the remaining Parthenon fragments. Another good argument is that by having the objects on display in a no admission public museum that ordinary people of western Europe would have access to see the history of classical Greece without having to travel the long distance to Greece itself. There are definitely flaws in that argument, however, it is a wonderful thing that the British government is very supportive of free museums. Opposed to here in America where very few museums are free and even fewer are now because of the recession (the PA State Museum recently had to impose an entry fee due to cut in state funding).
The Greeks claim ownership to the marbles for a very obvious reason- they are Greek artifacts. The Greeks have been busy over the past several years working to preserve the Parthenon and surrounding Acropolis. A new Acropolis Museum has been built to house artifacts, and researchers gladly await the return of the Elgin Marbles. Of all projects I’ve heard of, this one tops them all. There is a very impressive restoration of the Parthenon being carried out. Watch PBS’s “Secrets of the Parthenon” to learn about this restoration. I’ve thought about this at length. All of the Elgin Marbles should be returned to Greece. In fact, many other countries who had marble sculptures from the Parthenon have since given them back. However, for the sake of historical education I think Greece should lend England some for the marbles to display to the British public.
Example # 2 – The Staffordshire Hoard
Discovered by an amateur treasure hunter and his metal detector July 2009, this collection of over 1,500 pieces of Anglo-Saxon treasure was quite the exciting find. Here is a post that details exactly what was found. According to the official press release from http://www.staffordshirehoard.org.uk:
The Coroner for South Staffordshire, Andrew Haigh, is today (24th September 2009) holding an inquest on the find to decide whether it is treasure under the Treasure Act 1996. If it is declared treasure, the find becomes the property of the Crown, and museums will have the opportunity to acquire it after it has been valued by the Treasure Valuation Committee. The Committee’s remit is to value all treasure finds at their full market value and the finder and landowner will divide the reward between them. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent, and Staffordshire County Council wish to preserve the find for the West Midlands.
This is the first time I’ve come into contact with English archaeology laws. On November 25, 2009 the Treasure Valuation Committee valued the collection at £3.285 million pounds ($5.4 million). Apparently when England discovers a great treasure they immediately put it up for sale. According to this article, there are now a number of contenders to raise money for the treasure. Most notably, the Vatican who is said to have given the Anglo-Saxon King Edwin in the first place (I don’t think this is 100% been verified yet). Obviously, the Vatican won’t have any problem coming up with the money. The Art Fund has initiated a race to raise money to keep the treasure in England.
“If we cannot raise enough money to buy the hoard, the Vatican would certainly be interested in acquiring it I’m sure. But so would thousands of other people from around the world, and that is what we have to guard against. The worst thing that could happen would be to have the collection split up amongst private collectors.”
Again, I don’t know much about English archaeology laws, but I’ve read nothing in relation to this Anglo-Saxon treasure which remotely insinuates that anyone believes the laws are bogus. People are definitely putting up the fight to keep the treasure in England, but it seems that everyone accepts the fact that it must be purchased to do so. The finder and the land owner are splitting the money, but remember they aren’t selling it. It is English law to put a monetary value on all treasure and sell it to the lucky and wealthy collector. How do you even put a monetary value on history? It is hard for me to imagine. I think the treasure belongs to the English people and (without a sale) should be kept in England in a public museum.
The Staffordshire Hoard gained worldwide media attention when it went on display at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in September. Almost 65,000 people visited the artifacts, making it the most successful exhibit in the museum’s history.
Distinguishing who owns archaeological artifacts is not a simple process. These are only two examples of what goes on in archaeology today. I haven’t even touched upon the subject of collections of goods housed by private collectors and how it hurts public and academic education and research – I guess I did just add my 2 cents on that subject didn’t I?