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Blog: Draft Statement on Research and Cultural Property

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. The Committee on Professional Ethics will be asked to take part in this commenting process. This period will end on March 15. The ad hoc committee will then revise the proposed statement to take account of these comments, and if the Board approves the revised statement at its June conference-call meeting, it will appear on this year’s election ballot for the membership to vote on.

Read more about the work of the committee

Proposed new language on Cultural Property and Scholarship (including instructions for commenting)

Additional Recommendations

The Work of the Committee

It was already clear when I talked with John Miller before the Toronto meeting that this issue is one with which many SCS members are not particularly familiar; many of us do not work directly with actual objects in the way that archaeologists do, although epigraphists, papyrologists, and numismatists certainly do. The Board therefore felt that in offering the statement for member comment we should also provide a longer document explaining why the committee both thought that the issue was of importance to our membership and made the specific recommendations that it did. That is what we shall attempt to do in what follows.

The committee began by reflecting on just why the SCS has an ethics statement. Although we do have a process for handling complaints of violations, it is our conviction that the SCS can best serve both its members and the cause of protecting cultural property through education rather than quasi-judicial processes. Our revised statement is therefore more oriented to explanation of issues and concerns than to detailed rules. In part, this orientation is a reaction to previous statements on the subject by other organizations, which, with memberships more attuned than ours to these issues, tended to assume the rightness of the cause and the policies adopted. We think that our members need to understand why any of this matters and how it could affect them, not only the possible impact of collective individual decisions on the world at large.

The starting point of many approaches to the subject has been the assumption that restricting the antiquities trade and driving out from it all unprovenanced antiquities will lead to a reduction in illegal excavation and outright looting. This may be true; indeed, we hope that it is. But the antiquities trade and looting are complex matters, and there are other reasons as well why classicists should care about this issue, some of which are more closely related to the professional lives of many of our members, and in some of these cases we believe that the linkages between dubious provenance and both risks and benefits to classicists are clearer.

We have thus focused on situations our members face: authentication, publication, teaching, management of collections, acceptance of donations, and decisions about purchasing. In large institutions, particularly some of the older and wealthier ones, many of these tasks fall on specialist curators and museum directors, thus keeping these issues out of the sights of many classicists, but this is far from universally true. In smaller institutions, classicists in any field of specialization may face particular pressures to deal with objects about which they have limited expertise and which may pose significant problems of provenance.

In a paper last fall at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research, Roberta Mazza argued that we should move away from highly specific rules and instead focus on the concept of due diligence. We agree that this approach is likely to be more flexible, relevant, and useful than overly rigid and complex rule-oriented ways of handling the issue. But it is important to recognize that due diligence demands more, not less, care, attention, and thought from the individual scholar. For example, even objects with an apparent pedigree before 1970 and the UNESCO convention cannot be considered free of risks. What are the risks that both the individual and the institution may face in these situations? They include embarrassment (at authenticating or displaying fakes, for example), broader reputational harm, possible association with criminal elements involved in selling looted objects, lawsuits from the countries of origin (it is their laws that have underlain most prosecutions), and potentially even prosecution for handling stolen property, although we do not know of a certain case of a scholar being prosecuted for publishing a stolen object. Still, the law continues to evolve, and we do not think this eventuality can be excluded. The recent rise of social media as a means to attack academics has created risks of the rapid destruction of reputations, and has led even to threats of violence. We believe that the SCS can best serve its membership and act in accordance with its capacities by providing counsel rather than adjudication of formal actions.

We also think that it is important to emphasize that engagement with provenance issues has a positive side. It can lead to the discovery of important aspects of the origin and context of objects, and it can contribute importantly to studies of the reception of antiquity in the nineteenth and twentieth century, and indeed in the entire period from the Renaissance to the present. We see this issue also as an opportunity to engage substantively with our colleagues in AIA; there is of course significant overlap in SCS and AIA membership (six of the seven members of our committee are members of both). We have therefore also offered some proposals for concrete initiatives to be undertaken jointly with AIA. These could create a forum for discussion of some of the issues still under debate.

In thinking about all these issues, we were reminded that a blanket condemnation of the market in antiquities and of institutional acquisitions can readily be interpreted as a form of protection of the privileges of older institutions, which acquired their collections long ago, against the interests of newer institutions. The fact that looted antiquities were acquired a hundred years ago rather than ten years ago does not really change the ethical status of collections. This is ethically difficult terrain and requires real thought. If we are to say to younger institutions that it is not all right to buy freely today, we need to think seriously about ways in which faculty and students at these institutions are given access to those collections built in more free-wheeling periods. Ownership of great collections confers not only privileges but responsibilities.

Finally, the committee has a strong sense that it is not just objects but images that we need to concern ourselves with. We see serious problems in the use of undocumented images, often drawn without compunction from the web, and in the reproduction of images of illegal antiquities. Once again, we believe that the best way forward is a positive approach,  rather than policing. We need to give our members as much information as possible about where they can find legitimate images of objects and sites and how they should document the sources of such images. I heard several papers at the Boston meeting in which young scholars gave exemplary source information about the images they showed, and SCS could help encourage and define such behavior.

Despite our best efforts, we are aware that many of the issues discussed here may seem abstract to many members of the SCS. During the comment period we will be adding to this blog a number of reflections by committee members on specific situations they have encountered and how one might think about the challenges they face. We will be grateful for your thoughts as we move toward a final version of the revised ethics statement.

Proposal of the ad hoc Committee

Members may comment on the text of the statement below, and on the additional recommendations, between January 29 and March 15 by emailing the Executive Director (  The Executive Director will pass on all comments to the Chair of the ad hoc committee, Roger Bagnall.  Members may request that the Executive Director anonymize their comments.

Revised text proposed by the ad hoc working group on cultural property for the SCS Statement on Professional Ethics:

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. 

Additional Recommendations to the SCS Board

1.                  The SCS, in cooperation with the AIA, should create a standing committee to provide guidance about issues of provenance to members and institutions. This committee would be strictly advisory but able to help members address relevant issues that come up in their professional work. Its membership should represent different fields (such as papyrology, epigraphy, numismatics, field archaeology, and museum management and studies).

2.                  The SCS should, again in cooperation with the AIA, conduct a survey of the membership to determine how many members are involved in the management of institutional collections of antiquities and the issues that arise in the course of this management. This survey should be followed up by a joint panel on this topic at the annual meeting.

3.                  The SCS website should incorporate relevant resources for understanding the laws that pertain to cultural property. It should also update the online resources about sites offering open access images for ancient objects.

Roger Bagnall's picture

Roger Bagnall, a past president of the SCS, taught at Columbia and New York Universities before retiring in 2017. He is a papyrologist and historian of the Hellenistic to Late Antique East. Alan Cameron was his long-time colleague at Columbia and one of his co-authors in Consuls of the Later Roman Empire.

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