Memorandum submitted by the Standing Conference
on Portable Antiquities
1. The Standing Conference on Portable Antiquities
is a delegate body including representatives of all the main British
archaeological bodies with a concern for portable antiquities
(a list of members is appended to this memorandum).
It usually meets annually and is supported by the Council for
British Archaeology's Portable Antiquities Working Group which
meets more regularly and acts as the executive arm of the Standing
Conference. Both bodies are chaired by Dr P V Addyman, Director
of York Archaeological Trust.
2. The Standing Conference was established
in the early 1990s to discuss issues of concern to British archaeologists
relating to portable antiquities. Over the years it has concerned
itself with the Treasure Bill, later the Treasure Act of 1996;
the Portable Antiquities Recording Scheme; European regulations
on the import and export of antiquities; underwater finds of portable
antiquities; the incidence of metal detecting and numerous other
subjects. Recently it has noted with increasing concern the growth
of the illicit trade in antiquities and has made representations
to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on a number of
occasions with the recommendation that the United Kingdom Government
should adopt various international instruments designed to combat
this tradenotably the 1970 UNESCO Convention and the 1995
3. Since the call for evidence by the Culture,
Media and Sport Committee the Portable Antiquities Working Group
has met and prepared this submission. The submission will be discussed
by the Standing Conference at its next meeting on 30 March 2000.
The results of that discussion will be conveyed to the CMS Committee
but the statement below stands as the view of the Portable Antiquities
4. It is clear from the large number of
antiquities evidently of British origin appearing in catalogues,
sales and collections abroad, and for which no record of an export
licence can be found, that antiquities of importance to the understanding
of the archaeology and history of the people of the United Kingdom
are being lost to the nation.
5. By way of example we draw the Committee's
attention to the case of the Icklingham Bronzes, which were bought
by the Ariadne Galleries of New York and shipped to the United
States without any export licence being issued; the similarly
disquieting fate of the Salisbury Treasure, much of which was
dispersed internationally through a chain of dealers and for which
not a single export licence application was made; and the systematic
looting of a hoard of Iron Age coins from Wanborough in Surrey,
from which it is believed that 9,000 coins were sold abroad, and
only 1,000 were recovered and are now in the British Museum. We
are also disturbed by the growing number of metal-detectorists
coming to the UK from the USA on commercially organised guided
treasure hunting tours, which when organised by less enlightened
operators, can lead to the systematic looting of archaeological
sites and the unlicensed export of archaeological artefacts from
6. The concern of the Standing Conference
is twofold. First, and most seriously, the growth of this trade
encourages the wanton and careless removal of artefacts from the
archaeological contextthat is the irreplaceable archaeological
layersin which they are preserved, and in so doing irreversibly
diminishes the ability for this and future generations to gain
an informed understanding of our shared cultural heritage. This
is against the public interest. Secondly, many of the artefacts
are of intrinsic interest in their own right; arguably they should
not leave Britain; but if they do there is a public interest in
their existence and data about their nature, provenance and circumstances
of discovery should be recorded to be added to the national record
of archaeological finds. This could readily be done at the time
of issue of an export licence.
7. The Standing Conference has similar concerns
about the very large numbers of antiquities of foreign origin
which are currently appearing in British salerooms, antiquities
shops and collections. These derive from diverse origins including
most of the countries containing remains of the main ancient civilisations.
British archaeologists realise that the implications of this vast
and burgeoning trade is that archaeological sites in the countries
of origin are being ravaged to supply the trade, in spite of the
fact that it is generally illegal in most of these countries to
excavate without permission and to export antiquities. Clearly
Britain's lax attitude to this trade is, in effect, ensuring the
wholesale destruction of the evidence for many early civilisations.
It is becoming increasingly difficult for British archaeologists
to hold their heads up high in international archaeological symposia
when the activities of their compatriot collectors and dealers,
and the failure of their government to sign international conventions
designed to combat such illegal trade, are condemning parts of
the human story to obliteration.
8. Some indication of the incidence of this
trade, and its effects on the archaeological record, were obtained
from a symposium at Cambridge on 22-25 October 1999 on "Illicit
Antiquities: the Destruction of the World's Archaeological Heritage".
The report on this symposium (Culture without Context Issue
5, Autumn 1999; Cambridge, 16-24) provides statistics and surveys,
from a number of countries and should be required reading for
members of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. The Committee
should also be aware of the forthcoming ICOM-UK/Museums Association
report on the illicit trade.
9. It is not an offence to remove artefacts
from archaeological contexts in Britain unless they are parts
of Scheduled Ancient Monuments, nor does the State claim ownership
in England and Wales unless the artefacts qualify as Treasure.
In Scotland all archaeological artefacts are considered for a
possible claim by the Crown. There is no means, therefore, of
regulating the trade internally, and it is licit, except in Scotland.
We believe, however, that much can be gained simply by applying
more thoroughly the existing requirements for the issuing of licences
for all antiquities at the time of export, and adding to it the
requirement that archaeological artefacts, whether exported or
not, should be recorded to standards now normal in the Government's
Portable Antiquities Recording Scheme. Thus, regardless of whether
or not artefacts themselves either remain in Britain or go into
public ownership, the archaeological requirement is quite clear:
that the data should be recorded for the public benefit.
10. The Standing Conference has long advocated
that nothing would more quickly counter the illicit trade of foreign
antiquities into Britain, and stem the outward flow of British
antiquities throughout the world, than the UK's ratification of
the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing
the Illegal Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural
Property, 1970 and the UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen and Illegally
Exported Cultural Objects, 1995 (please see the Resolution adopted
by the Standing Conference on 13 November 1997, which is appended
to this submission for the benefit of the Committee) *. Since
so many countries have adopted these without apparent difficulty
despite their very various law codes, and since neither instrument
is retrospective, the Standing Conference cannot conceive why
the Government has recently indicated it cannot adopt these conventions.
At very least the objections, now stated only in the most general
terms, should be set out in detail so that work can begin on development
of alternatives that would be acceptable to the Government.
11. We recommend as a first initiative that
the Government should initiate the establishment of bilateral
agreements, along the lines of those recently set up between the
United States and various source countries of looted antiquities.
The United States has been able to reach such agreements because
UNESCO 1970 does not require ratification in its entirety. This
has allowed the United States to elect to implement only Article
9 enabling the imposition of import controls on archaeological
and ethnographic material from countries whose heritage is under
threat. Such agreements can be extremely effective, as clearly
shown by that signed with Mali in 1997. Import restrictions placed
on archaeological material from the Niger River valley region
of Mali, including the ancient city of Djenne-Jeno, in conjunction
with educational and police work on the part of the Malian authorities,
have been so successful that looting in the area of Djenne«
has virtually halted.
12. We make a clear distinction between
the historic collections of museums in Britain and new acquisitions.
We do not see it likely that retrospective assessments can be
made of historic collections and it is not envisaged that the
provisions of the UNESCO 1970 and UNIDROIT 1995 Conventions will
be applied retrospectively. We are equally clear about new acquisitions.
We support the precepts of the UK Museums Association on the issue
and, so far as it goes, the British Museum's policy on acquisitions.
Put quite simply, museums should not acquire artefacts for which
there is no clear provenance or a long collection history except
in the case of the national museums which may act as a repository
of last resort for illicit antiquities of overwhelming intrinsic
interest to the nation after they have been subject to due processes
of law. It is important, if the illicit trade is to be combated,
that there should be absolutely no possible legitimate outlet
for objects looted from archaeological sites.
13. Dr Neil Brodie, from the Illicit Antiquities
Research Centre in Cambridge, has recently studied the operation
of the European Union requirements relating to the import/export
licensing for archaeological objects, which is summarised as part
of his own evidence to the Committee in a paper entitled "The
Licensing of Archaeological Material for Export from the United
Kingdom". We fully endorse Dr Brodie's paper and are appalled
by the missed opportunity represented by minimal and undemanding
application of the licensing system. We do, however, see that
such a system fully applied, and linked to a systematic artefact
data recording system, could transform the situation and result
in considerable gains in data of the highest public and historical
14. We do not believe that it is practicable
or desirable to try to apply retrospectively the principles which
make sense for present and future artefact finds. This applies
especially in terms of prevention damage to archaeological sites.
We do not, therefore, wish to present evidence on any of the questions
listed under Other Return Issues.
15. The Standing Conference, having considered
problems of import, export and sale of illicit and other antiquities
for a considerable time, has accumulated much data and expertise
on aspects of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee's inquiry.
It would greatly value the opportunity to enlarge upon its conclusions
in oral evidence to the Committee.
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