Crates of 15th-century objects found at Machu Picchu in the early 20th century today are housed at Yale University, and Peru plans to sue to get them back.
The so-called Elgin Marbles were removed from the Parthenon in the early 19th century and taken to London, where they have been displayed ever since. Athens' new Acropolis Museum has a wing sitting empty, awaiting their return.
Nearly a decade of litigation followed the discovery of 9,000-year-old skeletal remains near Kennewick, Wash., as American Indian tribes and scientists disputed ownership based on "cultural affiliation."
And the former curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum is on trial in Rome, accused of handling illegally excavated antiquities.
Stanford's archaeologists and other scholars who study the old objects we call "art" or "antiquities" frequently find themselves intervening in such controversies. The past decades have seen a booming international antiquities market in the context of sharply defined sentiments of nationalism and ownership on the part of former colonies. Violent upheavals such as the ongoing wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, all sites of remarkable ancient treasures, fuel the market. National and international bodies, most notably UNESCO, have tried to curtail the illicit trafficking. But still, the world's museums are full of objects that many people think don't belong there.
There are some, such as Stanford Law School Professor Emeritus John Merryman (88 and still teaching), who say what's done is done. In his view, archaeologists, including those at Stanford, are too inflexible.
"They say, 'Collectors are the real looters,'" he said, shaking his head. "They won't concede any role to collectors and dealers."
Merryman, generally credited with establishing the field of art law, is interested in the distinction between heritage and property. To his mind, heritage is fuzzy and intangible, and therefore more easily manipulated by source nations and their champions. Claims of "cultural heritage" do not suffice, in his mind, as ownership claims. (The term cultural property first arose with the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property after the massive destruction of World War II.)
Archaeologists criticize Merryman for condoning the buying and selling of unprovenanced antiquities, a market he considers logical given what he calls "the human appetite for antiquities." He is the author of an article arguing that Lord Elgin's acquisition of the marbles was legal and ethical for its time, and therefore should not be overturned now.
On the other side is Neil Brodie, cultural heritage resource director at Stanford's Archaeology Center. He is the former research director of the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre at the University of Cambridge and an international expert on looting and the trade in unprovenanced artifacts.
The ownership-heritage argument can be tricky: One could say that pre-Columbian art, for example, belongs to all of us as humans and therefore should not necessarily remain in, for example, Guatemala; or, instead, one could argue that pre-Columbian art is part of Guatemala's specific heritage, even though Guatemala as such did not exist in the 15th century, and should therefore remain there.
One of the more prominent participants in this debate is the director of the Art Institute of Chicago, James Cuno, who argued in a recent book that stewardship and broad access should take priority over legal ownership, given that most countries claiming objects—Greece, Egypt, India, for example—are recent creations.
"That's fine," Brodie replied rhetorically to Cuno's argument, "but I'd add that there wasn't any 'art' as we know it until the 18th century either. It's equally constructed. Objects removed from their context become 'antiquities.' The real question is sovereignty, not ownership, the right of a country to have its heritage laws respected by other countries." This is also his objection to what he calls Merryman's "object-centered discourse of ownership." Instead, he said, let's look at knowledge, at heritage.
"Everyone in this room has seen evidence of looting, I'm sure," Stanford archaeologist Daniel Contreras recently told an audience at the Archaeology Center. "I'm not sure I've ever been at a site where there hasn't been looting."
After the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, archaeologist Elizabeth Stone, who teaches at Stony Brook University, wanted to quantify anecdotal information about the pillaging of the "cradle of civilization." Funded by a variety of sources, she obtained satellite images of some 1,800 sites in southern Iraq taken before the invasion. By studying before and after shots, she was able to identify looting patterns that revealed what was being taken and from where.
There are some who insist that reports of looting in Iraq are the result of deluded journalists echoing scholars with an agenda.
Brodie will have none of that. "There is no debate about the looting," he said. "We know what happened. Media like to think we don't."
Inspired by Stone's example, Brodie and Contreras wanted to do something similar for the approximately 9,0000 square kilometers of Jordan. The problem was that satellite images like Stone's would have cost around $1.6 million, far beyond the resources of the Archaeology Center. So they asked, what about Google Earth? They could pay $400 a year for the deluxe version, put those images next to data gleaned from a good database and then trace the damage.
"We wanted to see if Google Earth would be good enough for this task," Contreras explained. "Up until now, the evidence has been anecdotal. This will be more systematic. We'll be able to get a much better idea of how many pits there are. And if people say there's no looting in Jordan, now we'll be able to say, 'Oh yes there is.'"
Above all, they wanted to have evidence to counter those who insist on "chance find" stories—tales of solitary villagers who discover the odd pot here and there and sell it to feed their children. Those stories can't explain how the antiquities markets were flooded with Jordanian Early Bronze Age materials in the 1990s, said Brodie, who believes the looting is an organized response to a market, not the other way around.
Archaeologists are increasingly being trained in geospatial techniques, and there is an active Geographic Information Systems (GIS) community at Stanford. Archaeologists here have used GIS for projects in Mexico and Peru; the Spatial History project, led by historian Richard White, comprises several research paths using GIS; and staff at Branner Library and academic technology specialists are helping scholars in many disciplines incorporate GIS into their research. Contreras, a Stanford PhD and a lecturer in the Anthropology Department, teaches a course called Digital Methods in Archaeology.
Contreras found that Google Earth was more effective if used in conjunction with GIS software. So he exported the geo-referenced Google images of Jordan into ArcGIS, which makes it possible to precisely estimate the extent of looted areas. Looting is detected by the appearance of swaths dotted with pits that from the air look like pockmarks.
"It's almost like a smoking gun," Contreras said, if an area near known Bronze Age sites is pockmarked and shortly thereafter the catalogs start advertising those items. "John Merryman says enforcement will never stop the market, and he is partly right. But there is educational potential on the demand side. If buyers were shown these images of damage, then they couldn't have in their head the image of a poor farmer who sells a single pot to feed his children. Instead, there are photos of large-scale, systematic looting, and buyers are participating in the destruction."
He showed an image of one of the Jordanian sites, Safi, that has suffered the most looting. "This was industrial scale," he said, "and the material was headed straight for the antiquities market. So this can be a tool to stimulate policy."
In theory, Brodie and Contreras say, using Google Earth for tracking looting could be an open-source project. People could add information and photos, monitor particular areas or issue alerts as images reveal possible pillaging. Such a project also could be combined with a comparative pixel analysis of remote sensing images of pitted landscapes.
The drawbacks to using Google Earth to monitor archaeological looting are, principally, two: The images are not always good, and you have to know what you're looking for. You can't just scan the globe in hopes of finding pits. Brodie and Contreras chose Jordan because they had a good database with which to compare the images. Contreras will next apply the technique to Peru, his area of expertise, for which he also has a lot of data. So it's not perfect. But, he said, "I reservedly recommend it."
One of the chief arguments for removing antiquities from their site of provenance is safety.
"When people say, 'It's safer with us,' I always reply, 'Look at 9/11.' There is no guarantee of safety in this world," said anthropology Professor Lynn Meskell. Beyond the fallacy of physical security, Meskell and others detect (and condemn) elitism in the assumption that an old bowl is better off in my city than in your backyard, or in my climate-controlled museum than in your shabby building.
But there are cases that stand out, and Afghanistan obviously is one. By 1996, after the Soviet withdrawal and when the country was torn apart by internal warfare, its archaeological sites were ransacked, and it was feared that the Kabul museum's collections had gone missing. (In fact, museum staff managed to hide and save much of the holdings.) Few archaeologists or scholars would argue that in the case of intentional destruction or bombing, artifacts should not be removed. (Where they should be held in safekeeping can be a matter of controversy; the Hoover Institution garnered some unwanted headlines last summer when it was revealed that it was providing a temporary haven for Baath Party records taken out of Baghdad.) Brodie's position, also that of the profession in general, is that museums or other institutions may hold endangered objects in safekeeping, but no money may change hands.
Since the 1990s, and especially after the Taliban blew up the giant Buddhas at Bamiyan in 2001, professionals both inside and outside Afghanistan have struggled to ensure the survival of manuscripts and artifacts. Paul Harrison, the George Edwin Burnell Professor of Religious Studies, is one of the editors of a remarkable collection of ancient Buddhist manuscripts held by the Schøyen Collection, headquartered in Oslo, Norway. That collection also has been the subject of controversy.
Some of the manuscripts—all of which Schøyen asserts were legally obtained—were found in caves. They are among the earliest known Buddhist documents, written in two scripts, Brahmi and Kharosthi, dating from the second century AD onward.
Learning to read the scripts, Harrison says simply, was "painful," and thousands of fragments remain to be identified. Through these pieces, he said, "we have learned a new language we had only hypothesized about."
Using carbon testing, colleagues in Berlin and at the University of Washington have dated similar Buddhist manuscripts recently discovered in Afghanistan and Pakistan to the first century AD, said Harrison, a philologist by training. "So the dates have been pushed back, and this is very exciting, very big news. Our knowledge of the Buddhist canon is increasing enormously. There was a huge amount of literary activity; we've even found fragments of a play."
But the discovery of such remarkable texts was possible only because someone dug them up and sold them on the black market. How they got to Europe is a mystery.
"These objects have no clear provenance," Harrison said. "They were accidentally unearthed or dug up by fortune hunters, and there are no records. The objects were smuggled from Afghanistan to Pakistan, and somehow ended up in London. The collectors have had the sense to make them available to us. Our view is that ownership is one thing, but the information belongs to everybody. But, honestly, there is a certain moral unease about the whole thing which is not easily resolved."
Contreras and Brodie's position, that it is the market for antiquities that ensures that looting will take place, has echoes in Afghanistan.
"Do researchers owe their discoveries to the smugglers?" Harrison asked rhetorically. "That's right, you're in the position of helping create the market. There's a terrible problem across Asia with people smuggling pieces, including things that are used in temples, and then they show up in yuppies' apartments in New York. I mean, dealers come to our [scholarly] conferences. There's an unholy alliance between dealers and scholars. Partly this is because of all the political upheaval; people flee to the caves, they explore, they find things."
Theft and looting may be hard to pin down, but no one would argue that theft is legal. That, at least, is clear cut. More murky is the matter of history itself. Who can lay claim to Etruscan art? Should Muslims inhabiting formerly Buddhist lands care about the ruins around them? Do the Elgin Marbles belong in Athens? Should objects be shipped back where they came from?
Figuring out the ethics of heritage involves weighing the value of the object's context against the value of the viewer's gaze; the village versus the museum.
"The value of antiquities is the story of their culture and their use, and when they're treated only as objects, they lose that," Contreras said. "Ownership, context and use add up to a very interesting pattern of behavior that tells us about trading, culture, society, gender and so on. One pot out of context doesn't tell us that."
Meskell, whose work is in southern Africa, is adamant. "We know nothing about these objects outside of their context," she said. "We look at their design, and they might as well come from Ikea. We look at objects from Mali and we 'recognize' them because we have seen them in Ikea. We look with a colonial, imperial gaze. We don't recognize. We don't know who made it or why.
"There should be more of an exchange, partnership. It's not our stuff, and we shouldn't have it just because we can."
But sorting it out is not simple. Cuno, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, has proposed a system of partage, whereby objects of universal value would be shared by the source nation, even if the nation did not exist when the object was created, and the metropolis, which generally finances the exploration.
"I think Cuno is disingenuous," said Tom Seligman, director of Stanford's Cantor Center for Visual Arts. "Partage is fine; I have no objection to that. But then he throws in that nation-state stuff. In the absence of Etruscans, you have to speak with Italy. Whom else would you negotiate partage with?"
So, send the stuff back? "Some people say if you return things, they'll be lost forever," Seligman said. "Maybe." He shrugged.
Or maybe not. Who's to say where objects are better off? Referring to Africa, Meskell said artifacts "must remain with the communities of connection, the most impoverished people. They believe money would flow in if they had them, and maybe they're right. They could be used to rebuild the country [through tourism] and help those who most need it. They care about these objects, they know them. People in Pretoria and the cities don't."
In North America, the most obvious instance of this debate takes place around American Indians and the 1990 federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), under which certain objects with "cultural affiliation" to certain descendants and tribes must be returned by museums. At Stanford, anthropologist Michael Wilcox, himself an American Indian, recently was on a task force of the American Anthropological Association that commented on new modifications of the law. Though he supports NAGPRA, he also is troubled by its implications.
"Indian people must demonstrate connections to a past that has been created by a professional and theoretical dialogue that has explicitly excluded them," Wilcox wrote. "Indians are asked to demonstrate our relation to the static cultures that archaeologists and museums have affirmed, reproduced and codified in professional journals."
The web of interests and claims enveloping these shards, bones, sculptures and masks is dense indeed. Law, the legacy of colonialism, aesthetics, human history, property ... it's not easy to sort out.
"With cases like the Kennewick Man or with the Elgin Marbles, the most important thing is to wrestle with the ideas," Contreras said. "I don't have an answer. But at least let's think about it. There are hard-liners on both sides."