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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. Read the rest of this entry