Archaeology, Cultural Heritage, and the Antiquities Trade.  Neil Brodie, Morag M. Kersel, Christina Luke, and Kathryn Walkter Tubb, eds. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006. 368 pp.

Reviewed by Helaine Silverman    

This superb, valuable, and balanced volume is comprised of a well presented selection of case studies (St. Lawrence Island, Honduras, Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan, India); papers offering strong and cogent condemnation of the role played by art museums in the perpetuation and increase in looting (Neil Brodie’s Introduction; Colin Renfrew, Chapter 13); two interrelated studies about the emotional appeal of artifacts (innovatively presented by Kathryn Tubb, Chapter 16) and the social and cultural contexts of collecting (Neil Brodie and Christina Luke, Chapter 17: “collectors use archaeological heritage as symbolic capital to gain social status and prestige”); an idealistic defense of the universality of cultural patrimony (Paula Lazarus, Chapter 15); a fascinating analysis of the pathways through which antiquities move from the ground to foreign markets with consequent conversion from illegal to legal object (Morag Kersel, Chapter 9); and four chapters that deal with U.S. and international law. These legal chapters are so important that I devote most of this review to them.

Marina Papa Sokal (Chapter 2) reviews aspects of current U.S. law regulating the international trade in antiquities; she also summarizes the history of political struggles and compromises that ultimately shaped the 1983 U.S. Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA); and she offers suggestions for how to improve the CPIA. She argues that no amount of correction to the CPIA and the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property will suffice to meet their goal of deterring the illicit trade in antiquities until museums are forced to demand that each antiquity have a documented provenance back to a specified cutoff date. Such a regulation would mean that any object without this documentation is illicit.

Patty Gerstenblith (Chapter 3) argues that the theft of artifacts—whether robbery of public and private collections or looting of sites—constitutes a major international crime. She condemns the museums and private collectors as complicit in the looting of sites because of the financial incentives they provide for this destruction. By showing recent progress in the legal regime to protect cultural heritage—such as the outcome of the McClain and Schultz trials—she contends that “the legal system in Western market nations is one essential element in the attempt to reduce the losses that result from these illegal activities” (p. 69).[1] Here one of the key advances in favor of cultural patrimony protection has been U.S. recognition that “property taken in violation of national ownership law is still stolen property, even after entering the United States” (p. 71).

Peter Watson (Chapter 4) discusses what we can learn from the cases of convicted dealers. His most chilling observation is that the antiquities appearing at auction constitute only a small fraction (“perhaps as low as 6.25 percent”) of the material on the market at any one time, and the “best” antiquities rarely appear at auction but, rather, go directly to museums and private collectors.

Robert Hicks (Chapter 6) provides the most exciting contribution in the volume, presenting a workable protocol for investigating and prosecuting looting. Appendix A informs readers about how to tell if a crime against archaeological resources has been committed. It includes a checklist of the information that should be gathered/documented on site and the questions to, and observations about, a suspect that should occur. Appendix B details the actions to be taken by an archaeologist who is called to an archaeological crime scene by law enforcement officers. Appendix C offers an extraordinary practical exercise in criminal investigation: students “portray a team of crime solvers, including police officers, crime scene technicians, photographers, and archaeologists [who] respond to the complaint of witnesses who have seen someone digging up artifacts without permission” (p. 327). Hicks explains the objectives of the exercise, the materials needed, the rules, a full description of the scenario with biographical background information for each role (including the looter), topics for discussion at the imaginary site, and follow-up discussion guidelines.

Before closing I want to single out one case study for comment because the situation described is so different from the usual one. Julie Hollowell (Chapter 5) discusses the two Alaska Native corporations that own St. Lawrence Island, including its subsurface archaeological resources, which they mine for sale to a legal market. The archaeological ivory and bone raw materials that they dig up, as well as the occasional carved  piece, provide these food-gathering subsistence natives with an important source of cash. Hollowell observes that because the objects recovered by the Alaska natives are legally obtained, they have coveted provenience and the natives are able to more directly control the circulation of their antiquities, thereby losing less money to middlemen and being able to perceive a much higher percentage of the artifacts’ end-value in their negotiations with art dealers in Pacific Northwest cities. Hollowell recognizes the conundrum that “almost everyone feels a sense of loss and concern that so many unique cultural objects leave the island [while] subsistence digging is an integral part of economic and social life on St. Lawrence Island and certainly part of the heritage of the islanders” (pp. 122-123). She argues, reasonably, that digging will stop only when opportunities for a more reliable income exist. Like the other authors in the volume, Hollowell does not condemn subsistence diggers. And she suggests that “substitutability—the ability to transfer demand to other goods—will play an important role in any consideration of how to remove archaeological goods from the commodity stream” (p. 125).

The unifying message of this volume is that until the day of massive pro-local development dawns, archaeologists and their allies must continue to press for enforcement of existing patrimony preservation laws, passage of stronger laws, and closing of loopholes. And they must pressure museums and collectors until collecting of illegal antiquities is regarded widely as both unethical and unfashionable.

This outstanding volume is a must-read for any scholar interested in museums, cultural heritage, and the traffic in illegal antiquities. It should be adopted for classroom use as a mandatory text in any capstone undergraduate course in archaeology and certainly in graduate archaeological training.


1. For information on McClain and Schultz trials, see:, accessed April 23, 2007.

Helaine Silverman is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she also co-directs the Collaborative for Cultural Heritage and Museum Practices (CHAMP) and is coordinating the establishment of a new interdisciplinary graduate certificate program in Museum Studies. An archaeologist, her research has focused on the Central Andes before European contact, particularly the non-state societies of the south coast of Peru. Recent research has focused on archaeological heritage policy. Among the fruits of these efforts is the edited book Archaeological Site Museums in Latin America (University Press of Florida, 2006).