Sunday, May 25, 2008

Publishing Looted Material

I was thinking about this issue while driving through the Sonoran desert today, and I can't resist the opportunity to post from Navojoa, Sonora! When will I have another opportunity like this?

Back when I was Book Review Editor for Latin American Antiquity, the editorial board was interested in having more detailed and explicit guidelines about whether or not to publish articles that may describe or analyze looted or unprovenienced objects. The SAA (publisher of LAA) is pretty strict about this, in contrast to journals such as Mexicon, who regularly put a photograph of a pretty object from a private collection (almost certainly looted) on their cover, and who have no qualms about publishing looted objects

The LAA board asked for a volunteer to draft some guidelines on publishing questionable objects, and since I regularly teach this topic in seminars I offered to do put together the first draft. What I did was take the ideas of Alison Wylie and put them into a checklist kind of format. I submitted my draft, and the board promptly forgot all about it. But I think these issues are important and should be discussed more widely. So here are the guidelines I put together:

Notes on the publication of unprovenienced objects.

Michael E. Smith, Revised draft, 10/4/2006 LAA-LootedObjects-REV.doc

These are some of the considerations that can be taken into account in evaluating whether to publish objects without secure archaeological provenience. This list supplements the SAA’s Principles of Archaeological Ethics and Editorial Policy by providing concrete examples to help editors and reviewers evaluate individual cases. They are based on the general approach to the use of questionable data described by Wylie (1995, 1996).

Under each category, options are listed in a rough rank order, from good at the top (no barriers to publishing) to bad (there should be serious reservations about publishing the object).

A. Initial Rcovery of the Object

  • Excavated or collected though documented legitimate archaeological methods.
  • Excavated or collected through poorly documented or undocumented legitimate archaeological methods.
  • Obtained through unknown methods.
  • Obtained through looting.
  • Obtained through illicit sale or theft from a legitimate archaeological collection.

B. Transport to Another Country

  • Exported with valid government permission
    • Permanent export permit
    • Temporary export permit
  • Exported without valid government permission:
    • Date of the export (in relation to laws and international conventions) ?
    • Exported by a scholar or official
    • Exported by a dealer or collector

C. Present Location

  • Federal or state government facility (in whatever country)
  • University or college
  • Major public museum
  • Small private museum (is the object likely to be deaccessioned ?)
  • Private collection
  • Commercial art dealer/gallery

D. Public Knowledge of the Object

  • Has been published fully
  • Located in a public facility
  • Its existence is mentioned in a publication
  • Never been published

Some text from Wylie 1996:179

The burden is on individual researchers “to justify their weighing of benefits and costs in quite concrete and local terms. For example, those who endorse the publication of looted data will bear the burden of demonstrating, with reference to specific contexts of practice, not only that they are operating within the law and that the data they would salvage offer insights which cannot be gained by any other means, but also that their use of these data does not, in fact, put archaeological resources at greater risk of destructive exploitation than they already face.”

Wylie, Alison

1995 Archaeology and the Antiquities Market: The Use of "Looted" Data. In Ethics in American Archaeology: Challenges for the 1990s, edited by Mark J. Lynott, and Alison Wylie, pp. 17-21. Society for American Archaeology, Washington, DC.

1996 Ethical Dilemmas in Archaeological Practice: Looting, Repatriation, Stewardship, and the (Trans)formation of Disciplinary Identity. Perspectives on Science 4:154-194.

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