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Amendment on Cultural Property

Background

By Roger Bagnall

At the Toronto annual meeting in 2017, the SCS and AIA hosted a joint session discussing the problems posed by antiquities lacking a well-documented legal provenance. John Miller, who was then Vice President for Professional Matters, represented our Society at this discussion. After he reported to the Board of Directors on the discussions, there was a sense in the Board that the current statement on the matters in our ethics document was neither very clear nor comprehensive, and that it ought to be reexamined. President Nugent appointed an ad hoc Committee on Cultural Property, which I chaired. The other members are Carla Antonaccio, Rebecca Benefiel, John Bodel, Sebastian Heath, Todd Hickey, and Joseph Rife. The committee thus includes a cross-section of classicists closely engaged in issues of cultural property: four papyrologists and epigraphists, one numismatist, several field archaeologists including three excavation directors, specialists in the digital humanities, teachers at large and small institutions, and almost all members of both the SCS and AIA. After a fruitful discussion we submitted to the Board a recommendation for new language to replace the current statement. At its meeting on January 4, the Board decided to submit the revised document to the membership for a period of comment, as we did with the revisions to the statement on working conditions for contingent faculty last year. During the comment period, which ended on March 15, only a few comments were recieved and the ad hoc committee made no revisions. The proposed new language will now appear on the summer 2018 ballot for vote by the membership

Current Text in Statement on Professional Ethics, Section III

"Classicists working abroad have an obligation to respect the laws and regulations of foreign governments and institutions and to honor any conditions of permits granted. Members of the profession should abide by the 1970 UNESCO convention on the means of prohibiting and preventing the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property (including monuments, artifacts and manuscripts), and should not cooperate with institutions that do not respect this agreement. At the same time, however, the objective of advancing knowledge about classical antiquity demands that scholars challenge unnecessary restrictions on research and publication."

Proposed Amendment To Replace the Current Text in Section III:

"Material culture makes an essential contribution to Classical Studies and has been a concern of the Society for Classical Studies, and the American Philological Association before it, since the 19th century. But the destruction of sites by war and looting, the antiquities trade, online commerce, and social media have all altered the environment in which we think about material culture and our engagement with it in our professional lives. Artifacts of all sorts, and particularly objects bearing texts, such as inscriptions, papyri, and coins, play central roles in our studies. Questions about their provenance and history can arise in many areas of scholarly work, including first publications of objects and texts and the management of institutional collections. Moreover, the study of the histories of objects has much to contribute to Classical Studies, especially in understanding the full context of the creation and use of objects, and in reception history. Accordingly, members should always be aware of the impact that their professional practice will have on the creation and preservation of information about ancient objects, and should exercise due diligence by thoroughly studying the history of the object(s) under study.

Due diligence will often involve investigation of the legal situation of artifacts, but it may also necessitate understanding institutional policies (those, for example, that prohibit agreements restricting the publication or public disclosure of information about research) and thinking carefully about questions of prudence in the public space created by social media. In all cases, members should avoid activity that contributes directly or indirectly to the illegal handling of antiquities. In particular, members should avoid activity that increases the commercial value of illegally exported objects or which can, even indirectly, lead to further looting. Members should not normally use the annual meeting of SCS or any of its publications as a venue for the first publication or announcement of unprovenanced antiquities; exceptions should require serious ethical reflection about the objects in question and consultation with experts, and should foreground questions of provenance. Similarly, in selecting images for use in presentations and publications members should take advantage of the many repositories of open-access digital images with full metadata, rather than using undocumented images and artifacts found online.

The UNESCO convention of 1970 provides an essential point of reference for avoiding involvement with insufficiently documented antiquities, but members should also be aware that individual countries have applicable laws that pre-date the UNESCO convention, concerning the export of antiquities. It is these laws that define objects as stolen and make their possession subject to prosecution. Even objects legally exported well before 1970 can benefit from the investigation of provenance. It is also incumbent upon members to be transparent in all publications about the sources and collection histories of all objects they work with and publish. Members are encouraged to incorporate discussion of these issues into their teaching and public outreach and to seek informed professional advice when complex issues arise in their work. They should teach their students to consider questions of provenance in any scholarly work concerned with ancient objects."


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