Friday, July 04, 2008

3 Modest Suggestions for Improving Archaeological Site Protection

Derek Fincham suggests that if we want to protect antiquities currently at risk, "we need a cooperative coordinated approach which rests on a transparent market and loan procedure which works in conjunction with law enforcement and customs officials of many nations." This is exactly right, but needs a bit of flesh put on its bones. Here are three steps that need to be taken for this coordinated approach to work:

1. Transparency must be established in a way that satisfies the archaeological community that the provenance of antiquities is clear. That means creating a legally-binding mechanism for reviewing and approving antiquities for sale (presumably a board that would be run by archaeologists). It also means requiring all sales that take place to be registered so that it is known who is buying and selling, and at what price.

2. Sales of approved antiquities could then be not simply tracked, but taxed, in the model of sin taxes or user fees, with proceeds dedicated to a) paying for the provenance-review board, and b) funding programs (probably run out of the State Department's Cultural Heritage Center) that assist anti-looting and anti-smuggling efforts in those countries from which the artifacts originated. A tax of 5% on the Mesopotamian figurine recently sold for $57 million would have yielded a sum greater than the total 2003 budget of the Iraq State Board of Antiquities. Doubling their budget would dramatically improve their capacity to tamp down on site looting.

3. Both the provenance-review committee and the bureaucracy for administering anti-looting and anti-smuggling programs can be paid for from the tax proceeds. Ideally, there would be a governmental agency that would allocate tax proceeds to both these efforts, but the U.S. has no such agency. An oversight board should be created for this purpose.

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