Cultural artifacts and property rights

In the November/December 2016 issue of Biblical Archeological Review (which is available only to subscribers), Huntington University Professor Mark Fairchild published an article entitled “Turkey’s Treasures in Trouble”. While the article meanders, it ultimately focuses on the conflict between scholars and local inhabitants on how cultural artifacts should be excavated and treated.

Dr. Fairchild concludes his article by presenting the conflict in a manner that clearly puts scholars in a far better light.

Simply put, Turkey has vast treasure buried undergound. In the past, Turkey scarcely realized the value of its hidden treasures and was ill-prepared to excavate them. Today, however, Turkey’s universities are training the next generation of historians and archeologists who are eager to explore Turkey’s past. In recent years, a few new digs have begun at some sites around the country. But Turkey’s resources are limited. Meanwhile, scores of ancient sites are left unprotected and are being ravaged by locals who are hoping to hit the jackpot.

Given this blog’s love/hate relationship with memes, his position can be summed up thusly.


A professor walks into a tea house…

To put Dr. Fairchild’s characterization of locals seeking to “hit the jackpot” into context, perhaps it helps to read a particular encounter he had with locals:

On one trip I came to Balkis, a small village in northwest Turkey in search of the ruins of the ancient city of Kyzikos. As I turned off the road and pulled into the lot of a small cafe, the eyes of a dozen men stared at me. In Turkey men commonly gather at the village cafe and sip çay (tea) at tables outside. I was a stranger, and they don’t typically see many strankers in Balkis. After a few customary greeting, I was invited to sit offered çay. I don’t like çay, but I drank it anyway, knowing that I was making a connection with the villagers.

How magnanimous of him to sit down with the common folk.

He continues:

Whatever discussions the men were having prior to my arrival were now suspended, and I was the focus of their attention. In short order, the questions came: “Where are you from?” and “What are you doing here?” I explained that I was a professor at an American university, and I was interested in examining the ancient ruins of Kyzikos. Most of the men were not familiar with the name Kyzikos, but I explained that I was looking for an ancient city located in the woods and surrounding countryside. Most of the men knew of ruins that existed out in the brush, but they didn’t know anything about them. After a bit of discussion, the men determined that Ahmet (not his real name), one of the men, should accompany me to the ruins.

At the end of the day, Ahmet insisted that I have dinner with him and his family. Ahmet actually lives within the Roman baths of Kyzikos. Before dinner Ahmet introduced me to his neighbor, who had returned from prison about a year previously. His neighbor had been caught trying to sell antiquities on the black market. He explained to me that he had dug up a frieze with a beautiful relief of winged charioteers. He broke up the relief panel to smuggle the pieces out of the country, but he was caught and jailed. As we were talking, it dawned on me that I had just seen a frieze similar to this at the Bandirma Museum the day before. I was puzzled when I viewed the objects because the frieze appeared to have fresh breaks, and the separate pieces had newly exposed surfaces. I pulled out my camera and flipped back to the shots I had taken a day earlier. As I showed the photos to Ahmet and his neighbo, they affirmed that this was the frieze that Ahmet’s neighbor had uncovered. Undeterred, Ahmet’s neighbor continued his clandestine activities. To him, the rewards far outweighed the risks.

The curse of cultural patrimony

Dr. Fairchild’s day in northwest Turkey is an excellent illustration of Steven Vincent calls “cultural patrimony,” or deciding “who has the right to own and exhibit mankind’s aesthetic and archaeological treasures.” In essence, countries such as Turkey that have extensive, but yet-to-be excavated, cultural artifacts have proclaimed all such objects as state-owned. They do so primarily to protect a nation’s identity and sense of self-determination. Governments then issue excavation permits to archeologists, who are restricted in how found artifacts can be examined and displayed.

Unfortunately, such restrictions merely create black markets for valuable goods such as cultural artifacts. They create unnecessary tension between scholars who want to increase knowledge about a particular culture, locals who want to earn a living finding and selling artifacts, and collectors who want to preserve them.

Currently, antiquities laws favor scholars who develop close ties to governments handing out excavation permits. One can call it crony archeology.

However, these laws prevent collectors who cherish these artifacts from lawfully purchasing and preserving them. As one antiquities dealer put it to Vincent, “A strong market assures a free flow of antiquities and acts in the best interests of everyone–archaeologists, collectors, and the people in source and market nations.” In fact, governments who restrict the excavation of cultural artifacts frequently value them far less than scholars and collectors. For example, a 5,000-year-old burial site in central Anatolia (Turkey) was “covered over with concrete and turned into a recreational area.”

How property rights can protect cultural artifacts

If governments truly want to protect cultural artifacts in their borders, they would allow people to not only buy and sell them freely, but also buy and sell the real estate in which these artifacts are currently buried. Everyone, except for cultural warriors, would benefit. Locals would be able to buy property they believe holds artifacts that are valuable to scholars and collectors. Scholars would be able to interact more freely with locals and collectors alike, each of whom are incentivized to know where antiquities may be and why they are significant. (They might even be able to avoid drinking çay in the process.) Collectors would have a far greater selection of artifacts from which to choose. Finally, the public would benefit from the increased selection, distribution, and knowledge of these artifacts.

Given the current state of affairs, governments are not going to privatize the collection of artifacts anytime soon. However, that does not mean that such a privitization would not be of great benefit to everyone.