In case you missed the previous posts:
Part One: Another Year, Another Dig: Archaeology Professor Jennifer Ross Writes from Turkey
Part Two: Good Teamwork, Good Archaeology: Professor Jennifer Ross Writes from Turkey
The news story this week that the company Hobby Lobby was fined for illegally exporting looted antiquities from Iraq provides a good opportunity to write about ethics and archaeology, and about the protection of cultural heritage. Concerns about archaeological sites also stand behind some of the recent worries and protests about rescinding the federal protections of sites like Bears Ears in Utah or the archaeological sites on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation where the decision was made to go ahead with pipeline construction.
In places like Turkey, and at archaeological sites across the Middle East, these issues stand in tension with the history of European and American involvement (or meddling, if you will) in politics, and with continuing internal political and economic struggles. Recent looting and destruction of sites in Iraq and Syria by ISIS (about which my colleague Dr. Fred Bohrer has written) have been criticized around the world, but most people are less aware that this looting has provided an income to ISIS fighters, who sell antiquities to middlemen. These objects—including priceless cuneiform tablets, sculpture, and more mundane items like pots—then reach the hands of collectors.
Museums in the U.S. are supposed to abide by the antiquities laws of the countries from which the objects come (the terms of these laws are negotiated by the State Department and international bodies like UNESCO). Although American museums own cuneiform tablets and other items that came from Iraq and Turkey, among other countries, these objects were exported before the international protections went into effect. No museum professional can claim ignorance of these laws, nor can a museum be “unaware” or uncertain of the origin of an antiquity it acquires. Every college and university with museum studies courses and degrees includes extensive instruction in these legal and ethical issues.
Every year, we find at Çadır Höyük tens of thousands of pieces of pottery, dozens of stone and metal objects, and the remains of the hundreds of thousands of meals eaten at the site over the past 7,000 years (including the eggshells we drop during our second breakfast). With very few exceptions, those items stay in Turkey; we study them only while we are in the country, and only with permission of the Turkish government. And that’s how it should be. We are exploring and interpreting the evidence for the long-term history of this place, but it is not our country, nor are the finds our objects. While our work contributes to the understanding of the human past, we must also recognize the sovereignty of the nation and people we become part of each year. There are many conflicting ideas about “who owns the past?” but a good starting point is respect for the people, lands and objects the laws were intended to protect.