An op-ed on cultural patrimony laws in today’s Los Angeles Times has done a great disservice to the public by misrepresenting the purpose, history, impact, and very definition of such legislation.
In “The Archaeology Paradox: More Laws, Less Treasure,” Adam Wallwork argues that “tight restrictions on export and ownership of artifacts is leaving the world a poorer place.” Mr. Wallwork is not the first to call for a return to “the age of piracy,” in which tomb raiders could plunder archaeological sites with abandon (to borrow a phrase from Thomas Hoving, the Metropolitan Museum’s former director). But he is the first, at least in a leading publication, to use this argument:
I surveyed 90 countries with one or more archaeological sites on UNESCO‘s World Heritage Site list, and my study shows that in most cases the number of discovered sites diminishes sharply after a country passes a cultural property law. There are 222 archaeological sites listed for those 90 countries. When you look into the history of the sites, you see that all but 21 were discovered before the passage of cultural property laws.
On average in art-rich countries, discoveries that landed on UNESCO’s list diminished by 90% after these laws were passed. To illustrate: Italy has seven archaeological sites on the World Heritage list; five were discovered before its 1909 cultural property law, but only two after.
Many variables may cause a drop-off in archaeological discoveries country by country, but statistically speaking, it’s nearly impossible that the decline shown in the data isn’t also related to the passage of cultural property laws.
This is a textbook case of mistaking correlation for causation. Yes, there are fewer archaeological discoveries in today’s world, especially of major ancient sites. However, there are fewer and fewer blank spaces on the map, too. And in fact, who can say that anyone ever “discovered” the Pyramids at Giza, the Acropolis in Athens, the Great Wall of China, or the vast majority of World Heritage nominations?