Must Looted Relics be Ignored?

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2 May 2006 (New York Times) – Not SEA Archaeology, but a broad issue that bears some highlighting. In this part of the world, little has been set up in the protection of artefacts from looting. Most SEA countries don’t even have sufficient legislation to deal with archaeological finds.

Must Looted Relics be Ignored?

Inscribed on Sumerian clay tablets more than 4,000 years ago, the Code of Ur-Nammu may be the earliest known recorded set of laws in the world: dozens of rules written in cuneiform about commerce and taxes, family law and inheritance.

But many scholars won’t go near the one largely intact version of the code, and the top American journal of cuneiform research won’t publish articles about it. The reason? The tablet was bought by a private Norwegian collector on the open market and does not come from a documented, scientific excavation. According to the ethics policies of the leading associations for antiquities scholars, that means it is off limits.As scholars grapple with the reality that a growing number of important works — like the Ur-Nammu tablet and the recently unveiled Gospel of Judas — lack a clear provenance, those ethics policies are the focus of heated debate.

On one side are archaeologists and other experts who say that most objects without a clear record of ownership or site of origin were looted, and that the publication of such material aggrandizes collectors and encourages the illicit trade. On the other side are those who argue that ignoring such works may be even more damaging to scholarship than the destruction caused by looting.