Who owns archaeological artifacts?

By: Charles W. Bryant  | 
Who owns archaeological artifacts varies depending on where you dig them up.
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The archaeologist and his team have been hard at work excavating an ancient site, digging deep into the sand of Egypt's Valley of the Kings. As the sun fades on the 120th day, a shout is heard near the dig's center. A hired hand has unearthed the entrance to the undiscovered tomb of an ancient pharaoh. The burial room is large and filled with a treasure trove of artifacts. After the initial euphoria over this cultural jackpot fades, a burning question sets in: Now what? Luckily for the archaeologist, there are a host of laws that spell out exactly what should happen next, laws that any legitimate archaeological team is bound to by an even stricter set of personal ethics.

The question of "who owns archaeological artifacts" isn't one that's easily answered. Each country and each region within each country has its own laws regarding the right to cultural property. Most of these laws have a set year established that draws the line between which objects belong to the state or country, and which are essentially "finders keepers." For instance, in New Zealand, all items found after April 1, 1976 are property of the Crown. The Antiquities Act of 1975 states that anything found must be reported to the Ministry of Culture and Heritage within 28 days. Then the ministry decides what to do with it. If the item was found before 1976, then it belongs to whoever found it.


Sweden has some of the most aggressive and specific laws pertaining to cultural finds. If more than one object is found at a single site, it must be reported to the government. The government encourages this by attaching a finder's reward to the object. If someone finds only a single object, they have to report it only if it's partly made of precious metals or copper alloy. If it's an ancient wooden bowl, then it's the finder's to keep, sell, or do whatever he or she would like to do with it. Here's where it gets tricky in Sweden: The actual land owner has very few rights. And since there are no laws in Sweden that forbid trespassing on private property, a person may cross through someone's yard, find an artifact and lay claim to it. And if you find that you have a genuine archaeological site discovered on your land, you may as well be a renter from the government.

In the United States, the National Historic Preservation Act and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act work hand in hand to both preserve and claim artifacts found on U.S. soil. These acts spell out what constitutes a historical site or archaeological resource site. For the latter, the site must be at least 100 years old, and remains must be related to past human life or activity. The acts also spell out strict penalties for persons found executing an excavation without a permit.

Legitimate archaeologists are in favor of these kinds of laws because they help protect the integrity of the site. Professionals in the field do not keep, sell or trade artifacts they uncover. Their goal is to record history, plain and simple, and if possible, move the objects as a collection for research and display. Anything found is property of the public, and it's the responsibility of the finder to care for the item for the sake of the public. If you aren't an archaeologist and you happen to stumble upon an artifact in the United States, then you must report your finding. Each state has an office of historical preservation or archaeology, as well as a state archaeologist. They're great resources and the perfect place to start if you find something that has cultural significance.


History or Art?

In recent years, there's been a trend where countries have laid claim to artifacts that museums have had in their possession for decades or even hundreds of years. It all started with the Culture Minister of Italy in 2006, when he decided to mount a campaign to have dozens of archaeological finds returned to their country of origin, Italy. Other countries that zealously guard their cultural heritage have since jumped on board. For example, Egypt asked for the return of the bust of Nefertiti from Germany, and Peru demanded artifacts from Machu Picchu from the United States.

Now the questions are these: Are objects found on archaeological digs art or history, and are these objects the property of the country of origin or humanity as a whole? Art museums have firmly voiced that the objects are art and should be displayed for the broadest possible audience. In other words, museums want to keep their worldly collections intact. Museums aren't the only ones vulnerable to losing items from their collections. The Italian cultural minister went after a private collector for one piece and got it back. It should come as no surprise that the countries with the richest bevy of ancient history are the ones leading the charge. The 1970 Unesco Convention established a set of international standards for the rights to cultural property, and while there's no requirement to join the convention, more than 100 countries have ratified it. Under the convention, the rights to these objects have fallen on the side of the source country.


For legitimate archaeological teams who conduct business on the up and up, this is all good news. These laws and conventions help to reduce what has become a serious problem -- looting and black market sales. Some archaeologists have labeled the current looting problem an international crisis. When archaeological sites are looted, not only is it impossible to know where the artifacts have ended up after a profitable sale, but the site itself is also usually destroyed in the process. With archaeology, it's important to not only find the object, but to also analyze the state and placement of the object to determine its age.

Archaeologists contend that the many laws to help protect these sites have essentially failed. Both private collectors and museums have been guilty of buying looted items in the past. Archaeologist David Gill, from Swansea University in Wales, examined Egyptian artifacts that were sold at auction between 1998 and 2007, and discovered that 95 percent of them could not be traced to their place of origins. This doesn't mean that they were all looted, but Gill believes that a great deal of them likely were.

In the field of archeology, there's a general hope for a shift from the treasure-hunter-for-hire model back to digs sanctioned by, or operated in conjunction with, the host country or state. Some people have proposed other means of sharing finds between countries, like leasing programs. Another idea is partage, a system that worked pretty well up through the first part of the 20th century. With partage, the countries where the artifacts are found keep the lion's share of the objects, and the finder is permitted to bring a small share home to the university or museum that sponsored the excavation. These days, the host country gets to keep nearly everything, regardless of who's footing the bill for the dig. No matter which way the archaeological field goes, it's clear that the market for antiquity, or who owns history, is still ambiguous.


Frequently Answered Questions

What is an archeological artifact?
An archeological artifact is an object that has been created or used by humans in the past.
What are examples of archeological artifacts?
A few examples of archeological artifacts are tools, pottery, and jewelry.

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