22 December 2013

The many dimensions of artefact theft

The Archaeological Department has a splendid history.  The work of the Department has gone a long way in tracing the history of this nation, piecing together the many story-strands, corroborating the narratives embedded in the less tangible such as folk lore and those that are hotly contested such as the written word.  Glorious as this history of excavation and scholarship is, what happened to that which was recovered from various sites is a sad story. 

Priceless archeological treasures recovered with great effort by the Archaeological Department have been ferreted away from sites as well as museums.  Then there have been treasure hunters who have pillaged archaeological sites located in remote parts of the island and poorly protected. 

Years ago a distinguished archaeologist observed wryly that if we cannot protect artefacts then they are probably safer unearthed.  He had a point.  The Department is stretched to protect the sites and museums are not safe either. 

This is why it is valid for some to counter demands that artefacts taken away by colonial powers should be returned by saying ‘we can’t even protect what we have; they are probably safer in England’.  Theft, though, is theft; stolen goods, whether obtained by theft, purchase or gift, are stolen goods.  A crime.  Punishable. 

The right thing for government of countries whose museums or private collections have such artefacts to do would be to recover them and return to country of origin.  No argument there.  Someone robs your car because you were careless, the police once recovering the vehicle cannot hold on to it claiming you are can’t be trusted to leave it unattended and open to re-theft.  

On the other hand, the would-be recipients of such treasures must be equipped to receive. It’s not that there is some kind of condition for returning loot but things that belong to the nation belongs to the people, and that which is held in the public trust must be safe.  If it is best to leave unearthed that which, if excavated, we might lose forever, the same logic applied to the business of recovering loot.

Pillage is older than the Archeological Department.  Pillage, moreover, is not always an outside job.  Neither is the ‘inside story of theft’ a recent phenomenon; the early excavators were not persuaded only by scholarly intent.  This does not mean that the Department should be shut down.  We’ve had nidan horu.  Treasure hunting earns headlines often.  Museum robberies too.  What we rarely hear about is recovery.  Typically new thefts take the public eye away from old ones. 

Perhaps contemporary society firmly believes that all things depreciate in value over time; the older, the less worth.  But what is a nation without a history?  Sure, it is version or a discourse about version, but without artefact, without text, there’s no argument.  That suits those without history and those who find history a bit uncomfortable due to lesser historical endowment.   This is why destroying archaeological evidence by way of bulldozing sites or building over them is as or more pernicious than blasting statues and temples to look for treasure.  The same goes for burning texts.   

The colonial powers did it not to erase history but erase a civilizational code, but the person who ferreted from the Department of Archives the document detailing the first national census of persons wanted in all probability to erase a non-history of a particular community. 

There are then several dimensions to this business: vandalism, theft and historiography. 

If we don’t know where we came from, we will find it hard to figure out which of the available paths would lead to a better future for all citizens.  Artefacts are an important piece of that story that we will have to visit and re-visit as our ancestors have and as generations yet to come will have to. 

The Department has to be strengthened with resources and personnel.  The holding facilities must be secure.  As of now, there doesn’t seem to be any interest on the part of those whose job it is to attend to these things.  It is hard to believe that they don’t understand the importance of such things.  If corrective steps are not taken, then it will be hard to stop people from thinking that some people want things to stay this way.  The answer to the obvious follow-up question, ‘why?’ will also be obvious.  Someone is benefitting. Someone powerful is benefitting.  The beneficiary or would-be beneficiary has checks to cash.