Thursday, February 28, 2008

China complains about U.S. role in antiquities trade

The Chinese government has publically reprimanded the U.S. about its role in the market for antiquities. This is a good opportunity to give a brief primer on the antiquities market and how it is "regulated." (Quotes added for good reason).

Most countries have restrictions on exporting items of cultural significance, defined differently everywhere, but generally speaking including art objects and artifacts from the past. In some cases, this can be done but only after getting approval from the government in question, in others, it is effectively impossible.

Countries like the United States, who historically have been net importers of art objects (and where, for example, the sale of Native American artifacts abroad was not a major concern until recently) tend to have weaker laws on the export and import of objects. And therein lies the rub. Just because it's illegal to export an object from, say, Malaysia, doesn't mean it's illegal to import that object into the United States. The U.S. in general doesn't undertake to enforce the laws of other countries. There is international law on the subject, most notably the 1970 UNESCO Convention, which seeks to import the sale of stolen cultural objects, but that Convention only has force in the U.S. when put into effect an enabling law. Such is the 1983 Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act.

Under that act, countries can negotiate import restrictions with the U.S. Part of the problem has to do with the qualifier "stolen." It is often difficult to prove that an object was taken illegally out of a given country (under U.S. law, it's incumbent on the plaintiff to prove the object was stolen, not on the defendant to prove the object wasn't stolen). If I purchase a Greek vase on the open market, it might have come from Greece or Italy, and so neither country really has grounds to challenge the sale.

Now, under the 1983 act a country can briefly close down trade in certain kinds of artifacts if it can show that there is an acute and ongoing looting problem within its borders. However, that is only a temporary measure. A nation can also negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the U.S. that seeks to regulate trade in certain artifacts. That is what China is seeking with the U.S., and which many museums and art collectors are opposing. Even if a MOU is negotiated, not all is well as some kinds of objects (particularly coins) are often exempted and thus freely importable. A recent hotly-debated amendment to the MOU with Cyprus added coins to the prohibited list, after much acrimony. But that is an exception.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Archaeology vs. Pseudoarchaeology

(Photo from Instituto Nacional de Cultura, Cuzco)

At the same time that archaeologists were reporting the discovery of a 5500 year-old complex in Peru, another "discovery" in Peru has turned out to be false.

Earlier this year, media outlets in Peru reported the discovery of a lost Incan city deep in the Andes. Initial photos (like the one above) appeared to show carved stone blocks of the kind the Incas used to make cities like Cuzco and Machu Picchu at a place called Manco Pata. There was talk of declaring the site a National Heritage site as well as the possibility of touristic development.

Once professional archaeologists arrived at the site, however, it became clear that these were not artificial structures. There were no accompanying artifacts. There is no sign of tools used to shape the 'blocks,' nor were they arranged to form structures. What are they, then?

The 'blocks' are simply local sandstone that has fractured along right-angled planes. Such geological formations are not uncommon. However, they create great confusion for archaeological amateurs looking for lost cities. Beach rock, another formation that tends to fracture at right angles, has been mistaken for the Lost City of Atlantis. Formations similar to the one in Peru have been found off the coast of Okinawa and mistaken for another "lost city."

Somehow, I don't think this definitive judgment will deter those who are looking for evidence of aliens or Atlanteans. Certainly the possibility of tourist dollars may have led to local over-enthusiasm. Expect to see "Manco Pata" cropping up in pseudoarchaeological literature from now on.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Oldest Monumental Structure in Peru discovered

(Photo from El Comercio/Reuters)

As reported Sunday in the Peruvian newspaper El Comercio, and related in several English language sources, archaeologists in Peru have discovered a circular architectural complex at Sechin Bajo, on the Peruvian coast north of Lima dated to approximately 3500 BC. That makes it one of the oldest examples of monumental architecture in the New World.

The oldest remains of complex civilization in South America come from the Peruvian coast, where the remains of mud-brick platforms known as huacas are found grouped symmetrically around a large open plaza or plazas. The earliest of these sites date before the discovery of ceramic technology, at a time when the economy was based on cotton agriculture (as well as peanut and squash) and the exploitation of the rich offshore fishing grounds. Archaeologists not surprisingly call this period the Cotton Preceramic. The usual dates span approximately 2500 to 1500 BC, but discoveries like those at Sechin Bajo are pushing the start of complex civilization earlier and earlier.

These centers probably had populations up to a couple thousand or so. Attention has focused on the large mud-brick huacas, which probably had a ceremonial (and perhaps also a political or social) function, the precise nature of which is unclear, since we lack written records. The platforms were topped by buildings consisting of a series of courtyards and rooms constructed in stone. Some of these structures have painted or sculpted decoration, which is difficult to interpret. Our knowledge is still very limited however, and much remains to be discovered.

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