Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Antiquities Trade, Museums, Legislation,and Borders: Central America as a Case Study
While archaeologists value context as an essential framework for site interpretation, art historians often pay scant attention to it. Since many museums have had policies of acquiring antiquities without much concern for context, this has effectively encouraged the antiquities trade, which runs directly counter to the interests of both archaeologists and the host countries of archaeological sites. One of the most acute examples of this is the illegal trade in Maya stelae (see below).

The looting of archaeological sites throughout the Maya region is consequently of grave concern. It is through regional education and more broad reaching legislative efforts that we can combat this illicit activity. Central America makes a good case study for a critical analysis of looting and the respective legislative efforts precisely because the culture most often touted – the Maya – is not confined to one modern nation state. . .

Long article on looting in the region and possible solutions.

Key paragraph: While some have argued that the trade in antiquities would be eradicated if regional poverty declined (Matsuda 1998), I have argued that the trade is endemic, able to flourish precisely because the collecting community values aesthetics over context (Luke and Brodie 2006; Luke 2006; Luke and Kersel 2005; Luke and Henderson 2006). In fact, an analysis of the sale of Maya materials at Sotheby's from 1970 to 1999 (Gilgan 2001) confirms that archaeological context (the horizontal and vertical position of an artifact) has never been a consideration for the trade: objects are bought and sold regardless of whether their archaeological context is known. Contrary to growing talk of the value of context by the trade, there does not appear to be a higher market value for objects from the Maya region.

I'd not really read anything much about collectors valuing context, though I've posted a few times about cooperation between US "relic hunters" and archaeologists, with the former doing more to record the locations of their finds. It strikes me as sensible that context doesn't matter nearly as much, if at all, to people who buy and sell this stuff.

UPDATE: And speaking of which, here's something on looting going on where the Iceman was found:
He said that mountain climbers and hikers would be asked to report any finds to the task force rather than removing them.
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“An object removed from its context loses 90 per cent of its historical importance,” he told La Repubblica, the Italian newspaper.