Wednesday 9 April 2014

A Tale of Three Lawyers: Views on LA Times piece

A controversial op-ed piece by Adam Wallwork, a law student at the University of Chicago, appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Monday: "The archaeology paradox: more laws, less treasure". An abbreviated version of his earlier article in a law journal, it argues that the results of his worryingly dodgy "survey" have led him to conclude that "restrictive cultural property laws" have caused a sharp decline in "new archaeological discoveries".

The piece has predictably provoked an outcry from archaeologists, most of whom point out the flaws in a study based on "factual inaccuracies and logical fallacies". However, let's take a look at the opposing reactions of two non-archaeologists, both of whom are also American lawyers.

The reaction of Peter Tompa, a lawyer lobbying on behalf of American coin dealers, was as predictable as that of the archaeologists, though of course in the opposite direction. Unsurprisingly, in view of the anti-conservationist stance of his clients, he heralded the Wallwork study as suggesting "strict laws that only allow state sponsored archaeologists and cultural bureaucrats legal access to uncovering the past actually diminish discoveries" and at one stage commented that opposition to the piece came from those with an "anti-collector agenda".

In stark contrast to that response, the reaction of Rick St. Hilaire, another lawyer and a professor of cultural property law at Plymouth State University, was utterly in tune with the disapproval expressed by archaeologists. Incisively noting an undertone in the original law journal article suggesting "archaeology is akin to a mining operation whose primary mission is to produce fantastic raw materials for consumption", the law professor questions "whether consumer-driven heritage harvesting is under discussion rather than authentic archaeology".

Rick St. Hilaire rightly quotes the AIA: the mission of archaeology is to "preserve, protect, and interpret the precious record of the human past". Archaeology is about the study of the human past by analysing material evidence; it is NOT only about finding new tourist attractions or digging up loads of pretty objects. Nor is conserving the evidence of the past inherently "anti-collector"; it just doesn't pander to those dealers and collectors who wish to exploit it without consideration for anyone else.


Cultural Property Observer said...

St. Hilaire has been associated with SAFE and the AIA, which explains his biases. Collectors are conservers too-- you should know that given your own oil lamp collection. It's just some of us think that programs that engage the public like PAS are much better than the status quo in places like Egypt, Greece, and Cyprus those who vehemently attacked this study defend.

David Knell said...

Peter, quite apart from either St. Hilaire's associations or your own, I think my empathy with any "bias" shown by St. Hilaire is simply explained by common sense. The type of "conservation" practised by collectors is narrow and involves only the objects they buy. As you well know, that selfish pursuit of acquisition, unless conducted carefully, can so easily conflict with a much wider type of "conservation", that of the resource which benefits everyone.

While the draconian status quo in places like Egypt, Greece and Cyprus undoubtedly has its faults, it broadly serves its purpose. A PAS-like scheme in such art-rich countries would be utterly impractical, not only economically but aspirationally. The purpose of conservation is to protect, not exploit.

David Knell said...

You use the emotive phrase "programs that engage the public". The fragile and finite archaeological record is clearly best explored by archaeology. If you mean a programme wherein the public can engage in properly organised archaeology, then I'm all for it. If you mean a programme wherein the public merely exploits the record to add objects to museums or personal collections, then I deplore the irretrievable loss of information caused by a short-sighted policy.



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