JAIC 1997, Volume 36, Number 1, Article 4 (pp. 49 to 58)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1997, Volume 36, Number 1, Article 4 (pp. 49 to 58)




What is the responsibility of the conservator? Is it to the individual artifact in question, or is it to material as yet unplundered? Unfortunately, the codes of ethics of the various national and international conservation groups do not specifically address this issue (Tubb and Sease 1996), leaving it up to the individual conservator to decide.

By undertaking the treatment of an antiquity to ensure that such treatment will be performed following accepted conservation practice, a conservator could be seen to be acting professionally and ethically. Our training has conditioned us to regard the safety and integrity of the artifact, object, or painting to be of paramount importance. For example, according to the Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material's Code of Ethics (1986, 4), “All actions of the conservator must be governed by an unswerving respect for the physical, historic and aesthetic integrity of the object.” While the AIC (1994), IIC-CG (1989, 5), and UKIC (1995, 1) have substituted the term “cultural property” for “object” in their codes of ethics, it is clear that the intent remains the same. Like physicians, most conservators find the idea of turning away a patient, especially one in dire need, not only difficult to accept but difficult to do. We have set ourselves up as being advocates for objects and have a tendency to think in terms of “this object needs me.” Looked at in this light, to treat the object would appear to be the moral way to proceed. No matter how moral this attitude might seem, however, it does have potentially serious legal implications that, while not directly relevant to this discussion, must at least be acknowledged. By treating a looted artifact, the conservator could legally be considered an accessory and, therefore, be prosecutable.

Archaeologists are presented with a similar dilemma when faced with publishing looted, or unprovenanced, material. In the archaeological community, this issue has been and continues to be the focus of considerable ongoing debate. Many archaeologists feel that because of the manner of its recovery, the publication of looted material is unethical and, therefore, does not serve the needs of archaeology. Others have put forward persuasive arguments in favor of publishing such material. They feel not only that it can be done ethically but that it must be done to get the material into the archaeological record. Interested in all objects no matter how they have come from the earth, these individuals feel that if qualified scholars do not examine looted artifacts they will be lost forever to science, most likely disappearing into private collections. Oscar Muscarella, an archaeologist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, argues that by the very nature of archaeological inquiry, which encompasses in theory a regard for the totality of the available data, exclusion of individual or classes of objects is not possible. To choose to exclude from examination those objects that legitimately disturb us because of the process by which they come to our attention would signify incompleteness of the data, and consequently incompleteness of cultural conclusions (Muscarella 1984, 64).

Using a similar argument, a conservator could decide in favor of treatment on the logic that if the artifact is not treated and consequently disintegrates through the devastating action of soluble salts—or if it is irretrievably damaged through improper treatment, as with the Cypriot mosaics—the record is similarly lost. This argument in favor of treatment seems analogous to that given by many museums and other institutions when defending the acquisition of material known to be plundered: “If we don't buy it, someone else will.” Wylie (1995, 18) refers to this rationale as the “salvage principle.” Based on the premise that some data are better than none, this justification has been used repeatedly over time as a defense for looting and stealing (Akinsha et al. 1995). This rationale is really just another way of saying, “If we don't buy it, a private collector will and the artifact will go out of the public domain.” But does having a looted artifact in the public domain negate the fact that it is plundered or make up for its loss of context? Philip Ravenhill, curator at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African Art, appears to think so. In defending the purchase of a looted Djenné artifact, he stated, “There is a big difference between public and private collectors. We do not gather this material as a profit-making investment, but to foster understanding of African culture. In museums like ours these items remain available for study and appreciation” (quoted in French 1995). Does the end justify the means, especially when it entails the irretrievable loss of knowledge? Many archaeologists would disagree with this argument, feeling that the salvage principle should never override considerations of how antiquities were acquired. They would argue that “more than legality of export and possession is relevant in judging whether material has been acquired in a manner appropriate for research purposes” (Wylie 1995, 19).

While the argument in favor of treating an artifact can be seen to be consistent with ethical conservation practice, it ignores the larger issues involved. It is hard to overlook the significance of the damage looting does to the archaeological record. The conservator who works on archaeological material must understand how loss of context is equated with loss of knowledge. Just as the conservator is concerned about the integrity of the artifact, so should she or he be equally interested in the integrity of the disciplines of archaeology and archaeological conservation.

Certainly, the most compelling argument against treating looted material is recognizing that any conservation treatment it receives will increase its value, rendering it more salable. As prices rise, so do the incentives to bring more artifacts onto the market through looting. While archaeological conservators do not generally think of artifacts in their care in monetary terms, others have no such scruples. Although many collectors are prompted by a sincere appreciation of the artifacts, most of the middle-men are inspired solely by the profit motive. As Sir Thomas Browne, an antiquarian in 17th-century England, sadly noted when examining a looted site, “Where profit hath prompted, no age hath wanted such miners” (Browne 1964, 106). Unfortunately, not much has changed in the intervening 200 years; Meyer (1973, 3) reminds us that “the growth of the antiquities market has outpaced that of almost every other area for risk capital.” It is a sad reflection of our times that archaeological artifacts as well as works of art perform better than most large multinational corporations. What is even more distressing is that in the intervening 24 years, the antiquities and art markets together have burgeoned beyond all comprehension.

We cannot fool ourselves into believing for a moment that any single refusal to treat a looted artifact in and of itself will bring about an end to the antiquities trade. The fact remains that for every ethical conservator there will always be someone willing to undertake the treatment. Even membership in AIC or its sister organizations does not necessarily prevent conservators from treating looted artifacts, no matter how high-minded and stringent the codes of ethics of these organizations might be.

For any isolated refusal to even begin to be effective, one first must believe that it can have an effect. It must also be part of a larger effort, for only through a concerted effort with other conservators, archaeologists, and art historians can such attitudes affect the trade of antiquities. After all, one has to start somewhere, and small, grass-roots efforts can grow into significant and effective movements. Such efforts, for example, were successful in the case of the Djenné figurines from Mali. In 1991, the Oxford Research Laboratory changed its policy on testing in response to the hue and cry from archaeologists outraged at the destruction of archaeological sites in all of West Africa to satisfy the demands of antiquities dealers for terracotta figurines. The laboratory now will only test figurines recovered from lawful archaeological excavations or those from the collections of recognized museums. It will no longer carry out analysis for private individuals, salesrooms, or commercial galleries (Inskeep 1992, 114).

But what about the already-looted object? Is it fair to doom it to destruction so that others might maintain their context? Even if its context is gone, one could argue, it still remains an artifact and as such is worth something, as evidenced, ironically, by the antiquities trade. In response to this argument, one could contend that sometimes the long-term picture justifies taking difficult, short-term measures. In other words, it is better to lose some data than to actively contribute to the wanton destruction of the archaeological record. Archaeology is not solely about the recovery of data but is also concerned with larger issues of preservation and the integrity of the resource base consistent with the concept of stewardship. Just as archaeology is involved with issues beyond any individual artifact or site, archaeological conservators cannot afford to be concerned solely with the individual artifact. In this respect, archaeological conservation has much in common with ecological conservation. The loss of our archaeological and cultural heritage can be likened to the loss of plant and animal species through overpopulation, urban development, and conspicuous consumption. All are nonrenewable resources whose loss will greatly diminish our lives and the lives of those who come after us. It is interesting to note that while we in the Western world agonize over the loss of wildlife, we do little about the loss of our own cultural heritage. As Meyer (1973, xv) states, given the pace and rapacity of looting “we face a future in which there may be no past beyond that which is already known and excavated. Or equally sad, what is left may be so ruinously multilated as to afford only a forlorn fragment of a vanished legacy.”

Copyright © 1997 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works