Wednesday, April 9, 2014

For Richer or Poorer: Commentary on The Economics of Cultural Property Laws

The Economics of Cultural Property Laws” presents a controversial study that attempts to wed archaeology--a knowledge-gathering discipline focused on exacting evidence collection, thoughtful research, and a deep concern for heritage preservation--to a production-based enterprise evaluated only by the many spectacular objects it can generate.

The article, which offers more sophistry than careful study, appears in The Indonesian Journal of International & Comparative Law, Volume 1, Issue 1 (January 2014). It has gained notoriety after being published in a Los Angeles Times op-ed piece this week, albeit in an abbreviated fashion and with a muted accentuation on economics. The op-ed is titled "The Archaeology Paradox: More Laws, Less Treasure."

The study's author laments in the LA Times that the world today is "culturally poorer" because major archaeological discoveries are made less often, singularly blaming "rigid cultural property laws" as the apparent reason why there are fewer spectacular excavations.

A careful reading of the underlying Indonesian Journal article suggests an undertone that archaeology is akin to a mining operation whose primary mission is to produce fantastic raw materials for consumption. Indeed, the author openly advocates for what he calls "the [archaeological] source nation's comparative advantage in raw antiquities."

To prove the hypothesis that "[c]ultural property laws ... reduce the source country’s archaeology market and drive up excavation costs," the author employs commercial terms that are ill-suited to the discipline of archaeology. For example, the author writes that "[archaeological] [s]ource nations can maximize their comparative advantage by selling future interests in buried artifacts to archaeologists with the resources to excavate them."

Statements like these cause one to wonder whether the harvesting of consumer-driven heritage is under discussion rather than authentic archaeology. Indeed, the author ultimately--and wrongly--measures the richness of cultural heritage by simply counting the number of sites par excellence that the archaeologist's trowel has excavated, those found on UNESCO's World Heritage List. The other thousands of sites spanning the globe are overlooked, their information about the past evidently discarded as insignificant to the richness of humanity's heritage.

The study should acknowledge that archaeology is not really archaeology when the discipline is transformed into a shovel-ready enterprise that simply waits to employ diggers and equipment for the purpose of generating the choicest inventories. Archaeology's purpose, by contrast, is to "preserve, protect, and interpret the precious record of the human past by employing the highest ethical, professional, and intellectual standards," a goal aptly stated by the Archaeological Institute of America's vision statement.

Do cultural patrimony laws instigate cultural poverty as the study's author suggests? The truth is that cultural poverty begins when non-renewable heritage resources are ripped from the earth without proper scientific documentation and study. We are culturally poorer when knowledge of the past is irretrievably lost because looters and vandals have knowingly or recklessly tampered with the hard evidence preserved beneath the ground. Cultural poverty persists when stolen artifacts are smuggled, fenced, and unlawfully purchased. That is why cultural patrimony laws, which help hold criminals accountable and which aid in separating wrongdoers from their illegal profits, enjoy a highly ranked place in heritage preservation.

Neither the law nor authentic archaeology can divorce themselves from serious cultural heritage protection measures.

Photo credit: Russell Hugo

By Rick St. Hilaire Text copyrighted 2010-2014 by Ricardo A. St. Hilaire, Attorney & Counselor at Law, PLLC. Blog url: Any unauthorized reproduction or retransmission of this post is prohibited. CONTACT INFORMATION: