So who owns the past anyway?

I've been asked to provide an opinion on the ethics of collecting ancient artifacts. In my case it's not that I was turning a blind eye to the issue so much as that it's one that's already been covered to death in the press that serves this community. Rather than just predictably justifying the side of those in favor of preserving the rights of collectors (noting how after all I am heading a company that deals in ancient coins!) perhaps I can pose the question more broadly and make its answers both more informative and introspective. First, for the benefit of those new to the debate, the trade of antiquities is a business mired in controversy. There are two opposed camps and both have spokesmen making an effort to shape public opinion. On the one extreme there is a coalition of scholars and politicians who for differing reasons lump any and all those owning or otherwise doing business in antiquities as though they were the lowliest members of the seamy underbelly of society. At the other end is an equally vocal, equally intransigent, group who view any and all proposed revisions in the way antiquities are traded as stalinist encroachments on our constitutional freedoms and couch any dissent, from within even, in the language reserved to reproach the vilest of tyrants. And those with more moderate views are generally ignored or regarded with contempt or condescension by both sides alike.

So what fuels this rage anyway? The passion is rooted in a subject as ancient as the artifacts collectors crave: the rights of ownership. In the 18th century , a philosopher named John Locke first analyzed what it meant to "own" something and on what grounds he may claim this right in a moral sense. His thesis came to the conclusion that rightful ownership rested on the expenditure of labor. To use the model most accessible in his vision, an unclaimed plot of land begat an owner once it was farmed and tended. The work invested was by itself the action that conferred the deed. No outsider, and in pointed reference Locke includes a government, may strip the worker from his land without first compensating him for his investment. In everyday commerce you and I rarely run into problems since we buy and sell goods whose ownership is never in question. There is seldom the case, as it were, that we come across abandoned property which through our labor we may enhance its value because, unlike in ancient times or even the 18th century, pretty much everything out there either already has an owner or is quite inaccessible (outer space, the bottom of the ocean).

The accepted paradigm, of course, breaks down once we come across an ancient artifact. The typical artifact has been abandoned for hundreds or even thousands of years. The controversy springs from the lack of a framework with which we may comprehend this concept. Does it belong to the nation upon whose soil it was found, does it belong to the finder or does it belong to "everyone"? This is the real question to ponder and in each case the proponents have both flaws and merits to their position.

The nation may provide a compelling argument that its cultural identity belongs with the understanding and the caretaking of the possessions of its ancestors. But rarely is the case that the ancestral lands bear a tangible and exclusive link to the people that now occupy the lands and define this nation. A viking artifact recovered from Canada may belong as much to Canada as it might to Scandinavia - or even the Indian ancestral lands upon which it was first deposited. The detritus left behind by the Romans cannot be said to be the patrimony of Italy, the chief but still only one of many of its provinces. And so on.

Likewise, an archeologist may make a good case that despoiling a site of its treasures robs the collective of an important puzzle piece to decoding the past. Yes, this much may be true but does it constitute a legally valid argument in and of itself? We can, to use Locke's analogy, surely detest the farmer for razing a desirable structure on his lands to replace it with some tacky substitute but we stop at gritting our teeth for we recognize his prerogative. Artifacts pried from a protected site with ongoing excavations is one thing and a bunch of coins plowed up in a nondescript farm somewhere is quite another - yet the archeological community makes of the two no distinction.

The finder's case is as crass as it is unwavering: it's mine 'cause I found it and that's that. His selfishness aids no one but himself and through his act convincingly imperils our ability to understand the past. But on what weighty grounds may we contest his claim? Can we furthermore punch holes in his position if he has already invested the labor of conservation upon his recovered artifact? In the end it's often the law that steps in to redress the grievances laid out by groups representing the interests of the archeologists and those, of course, that represent the lawmakers (the nation again) but it should hardly be surprising that the law follows political lines and these respond better to the needs of the few than to the needs of the individual - especially so if an outsider! And so we find that the finder often doesn't get to keep but instead has his finds confiscated under any number of statutory faults and its reasonings need not even be airtight (that's for the courts to decide later) but let's be candid and remember that the law and ethics are two separate things that must not be equated.

And I did say, didn't I, that despite my personal leanings that there is more room left for introspection than there is benefit in just adding more partisan heat onto this powder keg. The subject should be interesting even to those who are not directly affected either way and, so, hopefully points like these can help form a more balanced opinion - and thinktank ways to overcome the impasse.