Well, the mob is out in full cry, brandishing its pitchforks and cudgels, howling for the blood of heretics.
Or to be a bit less picturesque, the archaeological societies of the nation are joining together to expunge from the discipline all those who might be tempted to work with "traffickers" in artifacts. The latest convert, to judge from the Society for American Archaeology’s latest Archaeological Record (September 2007, p. 10), is the Register of Professional Archaeologists. I suppose RPA can't really help itself, since it's the creature of such mob leaders as the Archaeological Institute of America and the SAA. And the RPA's leader, Jeff Altschul, told me in a recent email that there is "overwhelming support" in his organization for a change in the RPA code of conduct to prohibit registrants from participating in commercial ventures. The new language goes like this:
An archaeologist shall not be involved in the recovery, buying or selling of archaeological artifacts for sale or other commercial activity, or be employed by or contract with a company whose stated purpose is to recover archaeological artifacts for sale or other commercial purposes.
No doubt RPA will join its constituent organizations in thundering against commercialism, and then pat itself on its corporate head for its ethical superiority. Maybe this is a good thing; it is at least consistent with the Register's primary purpose of making its registrants feel good about themselves. The fact that it will almost undoubtedly accelerate the destruction of archaeological sites is probably beside the point.
Prohibition is a blunt instrument, particularly when wielded by those with no power to enforce it. We all know what happened when the U.S. tried to prohibit the consumption of alcohol. Many of us have had first hand experience flaunting the continuing prohibition on the use of recreational drugs. These prohibitions have had the full force of the state behind them. I wonder what makes archaeologists think they -- with no power whatsoever -- can prohibit the commercial traffic in antiquities.
If forced to answer this question, I imagine an honest supporter of the RPA prohibition would say that it is not meant to prohibit commercial traffic, only to prohibit archaeologists from participating in it. But if that is so -- if it isn't designed to stop the practice that is actually destroying archaeological sites and data, but only to keep archaeologists from documenting those sites and data as they are destroyed, does this not suggest a degree of counterproductivity?
Nations and international organizations -- no more immune to hysteria than professional bodies -- have of course enacted laws and issued declarations against artifact trafficking, and based on their own statistics may be able to report a measure of success. A collection is intercepted in transit here; an artifact is repatriated there; a dealer or digger is prosecuted someplace else. But are these actions making a dent in the international antiquities market? Since we have no real data on that market, we cannot know, but to judge from what we see in the popular media, it appears not. We're told that antiquities looting is rife in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Peru and Chile; it certainly continues throughout North America. Those looters are not looting just for the fun of it; they have people to whom they sell the stuff, and there is -- must be -- a voracious cadre of collectors who make it worthwhile for such dealers to deal. Prohibition of antiquities trafficking, I suggest, has been no more effective than prohibition of alcohol consumption or the puffing of marijuana.
But who cares, really? What's important to a mob is not whether its cause makes rational sense, but how pursuit of the cause makes its members feel. In generating feelings of propriety, the imposition of ethics like that of the RPA are doubtless highly effective. Everyone can feel so good about themselves, so professional, and that's really far more important than the condition of the archaeological record, isn’t it?
When prohibition of alcohol consumption didn't work, governments re-legalized it and sought to control it through various forms of regulation. Some regulatory measures work pretty well; others don't; there's room for productive argument about how to tweak the rules and systems. The U.S. is gradually shuffling its way toward some kind of similar accommodation with regard to recreational drugs. Debate continues about how best to control access to firearms and regulate abortions. Why, I wonder, can't we try something similar with regard to the private ownership of and commerce in antiquities?
I have no way of verifying it, but I suspect that a substantial percentage of the people who collect antiquities would prefer to do so legally, and would more highly value an object with documented provenience than one without. If this is so -- and again I stress that neither I nor anyone else knows whether it is so -- then it ought to be possible, to some extent at least, to co-opt the commercial market, to dry up the market for illicit artifacts by creating one for those gathered using archaeological methods. But such a market could be created, of course, only if we actively engaged with the traffickers, rather than prohibiting such engagement.
Would engagement be a perfect or complete solution to the problem of looting? Of course not -- any more than engagement with those who traffic in booze is a perfect solution to alcohol abuse. But however shocking and saddening it may be to the moralists at the head of the mob, that's the way the world works. Even with things on whose prohibition there is broad popular agreement -- murder, rape, incest -- we find ourselves having to make nuanced distinctions in order to accommodate the shades of gray with which the real world presents us. Is it all right to kill in self-defense? In war? When is sex consensual and when is it not? How closely related can a given couple be, in a given society, and still be acceptable sexual partners? As ostensible social scientists, we ought to be able to work within such imperfect human systems to achieve our goals. But we are not; we are just as simple-minded as any other mob.
So the RPA will doubtless join its fellow acronymous archaeo-organizations --SAA, AIA, SHA, et al -- in prohibiting its members from dealing with commercial interests, and things will go on as they are. Except every now and then some poor dope who thinks he or she can relate to the real world and still be called an archaeologist will get pilloried. The rest of us, I suppose, will just have to call ourselves something else. Or maybe we can just drop the second “a.”