The Morality of Property and Cultural Patrimony

Peruvian looters' pit (image Nathancraig, Wikipedia)

Peruvian looters’ pit (image Nathancraig, Wikipedia)

This week an FBI art crime team announced that it is investigating a collection from central Indiana that includes a vast range of material things from all over the world, ranging from World War II items to stone tools to human remains.  I have absolutely no connection to this project that happens to be in my neighborhood, but archaeologists and FBI officers who have surveyed the collection have publicly confirmed that it has astounding global and temporal scope and includes thousands of objects.  For archaeologists and observers committed to preservation, the most important implications of the investigation are perhaps not about the specific things in the collection and their ultimate disposition.  Instead, we might be more alarmed by the public response to the investigation, which has rallied to defend the legal footing for such collections, attack the role of the government and archaeologists patrolling artifact trade, and ignore the moral dimensions of human remains as collectibles.

After a news conference this week, the blogosphere theatrically lit up with property rights defenses, conspiracy theories, racist xenophobia, and attacks on the President.  Rather than illuminate how materials such as human remains and mortuary artifacts might be best preserved under genuine museum conditions or returned to legal descendants, the press and blogosphere have fixed on painting the state—and allied archaeologists—as a step away from raiding all our coffee cans of arrowheads.  This is probably an emotionally satisfying response to creeping wariness of the state, but it avoids the moral issues at the heart of this and many more cultural patrimony cases: human remains, mortuary artifacts, and unique culturally specific artifacts have been reduced to the status of property no different than any other thing and accorded no dignified treatment or preservation that is informed by descendants.  During a week that many people raced to ensure that National Geographic did not air a show with World War II German soldiers’ remains, the Indiana investigation has been greeted by a contrasting defense of personal property and nearly no commitment to the dignity of human remains now claimed as collectibles.

In 1987 about 650 graves were looted over two months from this Kentucky prehistoric site (image from Trafficking Culture).

In 1987 about 650 graves were looted over two months from this Kentucky prehistoric site (image from Trafficking Culture).

Much of the resistance to the Indiana investigation explicitly or implicitly rejects the suggestion that some material things cannot be purchased or otherwise appropriated by others.  Human remains have typically been considered inappropriate to trade in marketplaces, and much of the world has codes against the sale of human bodies outside very specific medical and educational training settings.   Despite online commentators who suggest the FBI’s investigation is “overcriminalization,” most contemporary audiences decry the collection, exchange, and marketing of human remains, which are clearly revealed in public videos from the Indiana investigation.  Archaeologists once trafficked in human remains with some imperialist arrogance, but since the 1970s the ethics of human remains research have quite dramatically turned toward respect for descendants and rigorous recovery, analysis, and repatriation plans when human remains are encountered or must be excavated.

A view of the Indiana investigation scene including archaeologists, conservationists, and the FBI (image from CBS News)

A view of the Indiana investigation scene including archaeologists, conservationists, and the FBI (image from CBS News)

Much of the commentary hostile to the project has fixed on the state’s oppression of a collector:  91-year old Donald Miller has served the country admirably, lived a fascinating life including a role in the Manhattan Project and international missionary work, and by all accounts been a model community member, including his apparent cooperation with the FBI.  Spectacular images of tents and FBI vehicles outside Miller’s home have fueled dramatic pictures of the FBI marching an innocent elder to jail: for instance, one twitter observer concluded “Jack-booted thugs legally assault aboriginal art collector.   #Law=Power,” and a commenter on The Daily Caller concluded that “This is OBAMA’s goon squad.”  Radley Balko complained in the Washington Post that the “oddly aggressive” Indiana investigation was symptomatic of “overwrought police actions that are ensnaring people who may have bought artifacts at a time when doing so was legal.”

Such contrived hysteria makes Miller a shallow symbol for a variety of property rights and personal freedom positions that are less about “small government” than they are about individual government; that is, many of the critics seem intent to completely remove the state from marketplace supervision and trust that individuals will recognize moral order without federal laws codifying “common sense” ethics.  However, the persistent trade in human remains suggests that such an idealized laissez faire marketplace is likely to always be plagued by buyers and sellers who violate seemingly self-evident community ethics.  Ebay, for instance, technically restricts trade to educational use, but the site has an extensive range of human skeletal material hawked to buyers who are not compelled to demonstrate their credentials (sold by sellers who do not need to acknowledge how they obtained the materials).  In contrast, Etsy forbids the sale of human remains.  The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) regulates the exchange and possession of indigenous American human remains, but surprisingly few laws govern the disturbance of graves and the trade in non-indigenous human remains (compare the United Kingdom’s 2004 Human Tissues Act and Cultural Property’s Legislation Factsheet [Word file]).

Mimbres pottery from the Arizona-New Mexico region is one of prehistoric America's best-known pottery traditions, but every site has been looted (image from Trafficking Culture).

Mimbres pottery from the Arizona-New Mexico region is one of prehistoric America’s best-known pottery traditions, but every site has been looted (image from Trafficking Culture).

Anti-government sentiment complements the interests of the contemporary collector community and artifact dealer networks, whose immensely lucrative business persistently skirts artifact trade laws.  In 2011, a Homeland Security official indicated that “the illicit sale of cultural property is the third most profitable black market industry following narcotics and weapons trafficking.”  Saving Antiquities for Everyone (SAFE) estimates that the legal antiquities trade alone nets $200 million each year, and the illicit trade is in the billions of dollars (compare Looted Heritage’s crowd-sourced map of global looting sites).  Global artifact collecting is governed by a vast patchwork of preservation codes and lax or non-existent regulations in many places, and while museums have become increasingly unwilling to accept artifacts without documented proveniences, archaeological looting remains a well-organized criminal enterprise and antiquities collectors exploit numerous loopholes in international law and regulation.

Miller has collected things from an astounding range of places over a very broad range of time.  It remains to be determined if he acquired illegally excavated artifacts in good faith, with sellers perhaps misrepresenting them to him; video certainly suggests at least some items were excavated, but excavations of certain sorts of goods might well have been perfectly legal in particular places and moments.  Nevertheless, knowledgeable collectors realize that the lack of documentation for an artifact’s origins often conveniently conceals its recovery by destructive if not outright illegal means.   The Trafficking Culture project calls such objects illicit artifacts, a term that describes artifacts that are in the ambiguous divide between legal and illegal collecting that conceals the circuitous paths they took to reach a collector.

The illicit artifact trade reaches beyond archaeological sites.  In 1984 this Pakal mask from Palenque was among 124 artefacts stolen from the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City (image from Trafficking Culture).

The illicit artifact trade reaches beyond archaeological sites. In 1984 this Pakal mask from Palenque was among 124 artefacts stolen from the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City (image from Trafficking Culture).

There is almost certainly nothing that society would gain by prosecuting Miller, and he seems to have a genuine commitment to preserve and share the materials he has collected.  From the perspective of conservation alone, excavated items begin to break down immediately outside a stable subsurface context, despite numerous looters suggesting they are “saving” artifacts from their deterioration in a stable subsurface context.  Preservationists and archaeologists are certainly working with the FBI team to stabilize fragile items and those that will inevitably disintegrate.  No matter how much any collector cares about their things, many of these artifacts are centuries if not millennia old and have almost certainly begun an accelerated deterioration that may not yet be visible to an untrained eye; not even the most predictable home heating and air conditioning system can meet the standards of a museum environment.

The state has the legal role and moral responsibility to monitor the preservation and dignity of the dead and enforce international laws regulating mortuary material culture and items of unique cultural patrimony, which includes monitoring archaeologists as well as people who collect artifacts and skeletal material.  Critics often argue that some human remains cannot be repatriated because we cannot identify descendant peoples, and the web of cultural and national identities across time and space is indeed complicated.  Nevertheless, those of us still above the surface have a moral responsibility to the dead, especially the anonymous people from our distant past who now find themselves in a lost grave or on a collector’s shelf.  We rushed to defend the bodies the “Nazi War Diggers” were tearing from their eastern front graves; archaeologists dignified the African Burial Ground with a respectful scientific study and reburial; scholars have examined the World Trade Center site as a mortuary artifact; and field excavations at the Florida School for Boys have accorded a rigorous study of the remains of young men who were abused and in some cases murdered over the breadth of the 20th century.

The dead we examine in these places are nearly all now anonymous, whether captives in colonial New York, young men in state custody in Florida, innocent victims of 9/11, or soldiers who met untimely ends on the eastern front, but science provides a measure to recognize those lives, document the stories their bodies reveal, and accord them a dignified resting place.  It is difficult to conceive of such a resting place as a collector’s basement where a human’s remains are reduced to a traded curiosity.


For more research on archaeological looting and antiquities trafficking, see the thorough bibliography at Trafficking Culture.  Broad coverage of illicit antiquities trade can also be found at Conflict Antiquities and Illicit Cultural Property.



Aerial view image from CBS News

Looters’ pit at Rontoy, Huaura Valley, Peru (2007) image by Nathancraig from Wikipedia

Mimbres ceramic image from Trafficking Culture

Pakal Mask image from Trafficking Culture

Slack Farm image from Trafficking Culture


Posted on April 5, 2014, in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I’d just like to know what LAWS — not moral codes or ethics or personal preferences — the collector is suspected by government to have violated, and why that suspicion is taken by government to justify such a massive response.

  2. Its his property and its not of your business how he acquired it, I find it amusing that suddenly the nations that he found these objects in want their so called property back only after they figured out it had value. We have 1,000’s of unsolved crimes in this country, let those worthless federal employees go solve them before they waste my money on nonsense like this.

    • It is not the monetary value, these countries plan not to sell, but to display, keep safe, preserve or to return to the rightful owner. This man may not have done anything wrong himself, but the artifacts may have been taken in an illegal way. The only way to stop illegal looting is to take care of the known cases, then eventually piece it together to get back to who is looting or trading. Which by the way is often organized crime, so in a way this is exactly the FBI’s job. Maybe you missed the human remains thing, but if your ancestors bones were taken from a grave and moved to a random individuals house, I am sure you would be asking the authorities to bring those back.

  1. Pingback: The Morality of Property and Cultural Patrimony | BLACKWATER LOCALITY #1

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