Tuesday, July 9, 2013

What if you bought an artifact in a shop, and then published it as a great discovery?

The earliest bird? Or the latest looting scandal?
Does that sound bizarre and unlikely? That is what paleontologists are doing increasingly, according to a news story in a recent issue of Science ("Authenticity of China's Fabulous Fossils gets new Scrutiny," by Michael Balter, Science 340 (June 7, 2013), pp. 1153-54). A recent paper in Nature announced the discovery of Aurornis, a new species that supposedly resolves many issues about the origins of birds from dinosaurs.

*** Godefroit, Pascal, Andrea Cau, Hu Dong-Yu, Francois Escuillie, Wu Wenhao, and Gareth Dyke,  2013,  "A Jurassic avialan dinosaur from China resolves the early phylogenetic history of birds." Nature advance online publication. ***

The article itself doesn't mention exactly where the fossil was found or how it was excavated. But in the Supplemental Materials the authors admit that it was purchased from a fossil dealer. Oh, and perhaps the proposed dating is off by 35 million years because they had to guess what deposit it came from. As the supposed first bird, this unprovenienced find has made headlines around the world.
Purchased fossil featured in Nature

Evidently the use of purchased fossils has become commonplace in paleontology, to the point where there is now a craft industry in China producing fake fossils. Some scholars propose that any purchased fossil get a CT scan before being published, to prove that it is not bogus. Others think this is going too far.

I am a bit surprised that paleontologists don't seem to think this kind of thing is unethical or at all scandalous. If you transpose this situation to archaeology, it becomes an big ethical issue. Unprovenienced artifacts (frequently looted) are a real problem. Some journals will not publish them, while others do. (Smithsonian Magazine publishes looted objects.) Some archaeologists work with looted objects all the time, whereas others refuse to have anything to do with looted objects. Archaeologists have heated debates about these issues. We have ethical principles that ask us to protect the archaeological record and guard against the commercial sale of artifacts.

The Rosetta Stone
I blogged about this situation a few years ago, where I outlined a proposed scheme that journals could use to evaluate whether to publish objects of questionable provenience. I followed the lead of some papers by Alison Wylie, who writes about the trade-off between benefits to knowledge (what can we learn from the object?) and potential damage to the archaeological record (will publishing this object stimulate looting and the commercialization of the archaeological record?). In general I am firmly set against publishing artifacts that have been looted. But what if some dealer came up with the "Rosetta Stone" of Mesoamerican scripts and sold it to a collector, who offered it for study to an epigrapher? If this allowed the decipherment of, say the Zapotec script, would it be acceptable to publish the object?
Zapotec inscriptions

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.

Sorry about the hiatus in posting. I am finishing up three hectic weeks of lab work in Toluca, Mexico, and madly finishing up a paper I will present in two weeks.

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