My Archaeology: Issues Around Repatriation

I have decided to make a blog in response to Doug’s Blog Challenge, which asks the question: What are problems with your archaeology?

Problems with my archaeology have to do with contemporary repatriation. I am very proud of my Greek heritage and it saddens and disgusts me to know that many of the treasured Ancient Greek artifacts are situated in the British Museum. At a time when Greece was oppressed under Ottoman rule, Lord Elgin received permission to remove many of the marbles from the Parthenon and around the Acropolis in Athens. These artifacts had no cultural resonation with the Ottoman Turks, and although they had legal precedence to permit Lord Elgin to remove them, they had no cultural basis. Greece has sought to re-obtain cultural heritage that unquestionably belongs to them, but have been met with much resistance by the English. This is a problem that is much bigger than Greece and their marbles. Indigenous populations within Canada and the US have had similar issues with repatriation. Due to cultural differences, they have had difficult times proving to their respective government, and to other indigenous groups that specific aspects of their culture belong to them.

Both Canada and the United States have taken steps towards the repatriation of indigenous heritage. The US established the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGRPA) in 1990 with three ways in which an indigenous group can claim remains or artifacts: Lineal descent (a direct ancestral line), Indian tribe (a tribe, band, or nation recognized by the US Government), or cultural affiliation (there must be a link reasonably traced between a present-day tribe and an identifiable earlier group). This within itself is problematic; what are the standards for proving descent? Does the United States Government recognize every single tribe, band, and nation? What about those that aren’t recognized? These and other issues were brought up in the discovery of the Kennewick Man.

Kennewick Man
Photo of the remains of the Kennewick Man, the cause of Native American repatriation controversy.

Although the United States has taken steps towards making repatriation of Native American culture a smoother process the flaws within their system are evident and still hinder many groups from access to their own artifacts. Canada has taken a bit of a different approach towards repatriation. The first treaty to have provisions for repatriation of indigenous artifacts came into effect in 2000, returned to the Nisga Nation of British Columbia. In the beginning of repatriation, it was the museums which had obtained these artifacts that worked with the indigenous groups to return them. Currently (as far as my research tells me) there is no Canadian equivalent to NAGPRA and each instance of repatriation seems to be on a case-by-case basis.

What happened to the Greeks could have happened to any other group, another example being the Jews in Israel. When Jerusalem was under Palestinian rule, the Palestinians could have sold ancient Jewish artifacts to any museum in the world – they have the legal right to do so. However, now that Jerusalem is under Jewish law once again, they would have been facing the same problems as the Greeks. There are many issues around repatriation that need to be addressed.

Politics is complicated, so I don’t expect there to be any straight forward answer.  The recent economic crisis in Greece is further cause for speculation that Greece is unable to maintain and care for their cultural heritage. However, if given the opportunity I do not doubt that they would maintain care of them just as they are currently taking care of all the artifacts they currently have in their possession. In fact the Acropolis Museum has spots waiting for the caryatids upon their return.

Erechtheion caryatids
Image of the Caryatids of the Erechtheion on the Acropolis in Athens, Greece

The hesitation the Greeks and Native Americans are being met with by the respective governments is like a cultural colonization. The resistance to return these artifacts is a backwards step in societal progression. This is an example of the continued commodification, and in the case of the Indigenous groups, westernization of other cultures. These artifacts are seen and treated, essentially as objects without meaning. Yes, I’m sure that the museums that currently house the Greek and Native American heritage understand their importance, but it is very difficult to understand their meanings without displaying and treating them exactly as their respective cultures would.

It seems to me that those same cultures and groups are being tossed aside by the respective governments’ lack of care regarding the meaning of these artifacts to these groups. These same items that are seen as a commodity and objects of desire to the cultures and nations which possess them have a deeper historical, cultural, and patriotic meaning to the cultures from which they come. My archaeology, the issues of repatriation, although having had steps taken towards rectifying, has a long way to go.

 

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