Letters: Archaeology and anti-looting laws

Re “More laws, less treasure,” Opinion, April 7

As an archaeologist with more than 30 years’ experience, I can say that Adam Wallwork’s analysis of laws protecting cultural heritage is misguided. Archaeologists don’t seek “treasure.” We seek information about how people lived in the past to help us better understand our own existence.

Patrimony laws are largely aimed at protecting archaeological sites from destruction by looters. Most sites don’t have the “wow” factor needed to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but they can provide invaluable information about ancient ways of life. There is little correlation between when a site is “discovered” and when it is listed by UNESCO. The locations of most World Heritage-class sites have been known for centuries. The pressing need is to list and protect the ones we know about.

The lack of sufficient funding for archaeological research is partially the result of the global economic downturn and partially the result of Congress’ antipathy toward social science and humanities research. Laws aimed at protecting cultural heritage don’t slow scholarship; the political and economic situation is much more complex.


Cathy L. Costin


The writer chairs the anthropology department at Cal State Northridge.

Wallwork demonstrates the classic logical flaw of confusing correlation with causation when he asserts that enactment of cultural patrimony laws decreases archaeological discoveries.

Many archaeologically rich nations enacted ownership laws throughout the 20th century; it is scarcely surprising that most major archaeological sites, particularly in Europe, were “discovered” before then. Further, many factors, including financial and geopolitical circumstances, determine the pace of archaeological discovery.

Wallwork also fails to distinguish between national ownership laws, which vest ownership of undiscovered antiquities in a nation and may serve as the basis for a restitution claim, and other “patrimonial” laws, such as export controls, which do not. Ownership laws are intended to discourage looting by denying title to the looter and a purchaser while gaining knowledge for humanity through scientific excavation.

This endeavor is not about a race to uncover “treasure” but about preserving knowledge.

Patty Gerstenblith



The writer is a professor at the DePaul University College of Law, where she directs the the Center for Art, Museum and Cultural Heritage Law.


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