For the average person, archaeology and legal issues may not seem to have an obvious connection. Tales of archaeological discovery evoke feelings of adventure and connection to our fellow humans past and present. Not so much for the legal system. Yet there are potentially a mountain of legal issues that could put a stop to any excavation. Kimberly Alderman tackles these topics in her blog Cultural Property & Archaeology in an approachable yet substantive way.
[Note: This blog is currently inactive, though Kimberly still works in this field]
Where did your interest in archaeology and law originate?
My undergraduate degree is in Art History and Archaeology. After university, I was doing contract archaeology work when I had the bright idea to go to law school to study “archaeology law.” I had no idea at the time what that meant, and as it turns out there’s really no such program. But I was able to fashion myself an education in the subject by taking seminars in which I could choose archaeology law-esque paper topics.
What’s the mission of your blog?
I started blogging to better position and educate myself as a scholar in cultural property law. They say there’s no better way to learn about something than by writing about it. Also, I’ve met a lot of people with similar interests through the blog. I feel like I am now part of a community of people who are dedicated to the scholarship of cultural property law, even though they aren’t all “scholars” in the traditional sense of the word. The mission now is simply to maintain a high-quality blog dedicated to this very specific subject area. There are others focused on similar subject areas, but mine is topically unique, as are theirs.
How did you decide blogging was the right tool for you?
Two years ago, I was living in remote Alaska, feeling fairly disconnected from the scholarly and legal communities. The day I got satellite internet set up, I signed up for a WordPress blog and started “reporting.” I scoured the news for interesting articles, and typed up little summaries as best as I could figure out how. I subscribed to a bunch of blogs that were topically related, and I started to get to know the other people who were blogging. Voila! The Cultural Property & Archaeology Law Blog was born.
Why is it important that legal issues are addressed in the conversation regarding archeology and cultural heritage?
It’s one thing to have a fascination with ancient objects, but without an understanding of the meaning of those objects, they’re just pretty trinkets. It is equally important to have an understanding of the modern significance of those objects, whether as political tools, legitimizers or something else. The study of cultural property and archaeology law is a quest for sustainability. The physical manifestation of our past is finite, and if illegal excavation or exportation goes unchecked, then those artifacts and sites will be destroyed without having extracted the full possible social value from them. Put simply, there could be no heritage community without legal protection for that heritage.
Your blog made a list of “50 Best Blogs for Archaeology Students.” How did you feel about that?
The only comment I would have on this distinction is that I think its good to educate archaeology students on the more pragmatic aspects of the discipline. Traditionally, the study of archaeology has focused more on historical meaning than present meaning, even though both are important. In art history, I learned that a painting created in 1750 about biblical times can tell you far more about life and society in 1750 than it can tell you about Judas or John in whatever biblical setting is pictured. Similarly, how our modern society and legal system approaches the protection of ancient objects, and which objects are given preferential value over others, is sometimes more revealing than studying the objects alone.
Describe the big legal issues that arise in archeology/cultural property.
One of the biggest points of discussion at present is the international dispute over repatriation of objects seized in the past (quite often, in colonial times). Less “hot topic” legal issues include looting, theft, the illicit trade and protecting sites of historical value in the face of development. There is also significant discussion over where the burden should lie when dealing with unprovenanced antiquities — should museums and private collectors require that objects have paperwork proving they were legally excavated and exported, or should the burden be placed on source countries to stop these objects from leaving the country or post notices on the international databases of missing objects? A topic that I’ve been getting increasingly interested in as of late is intangible cultural property. Sometimes people (particularly indigenous groups) can inherit a “cultural property interest” in something that is intangible — an old song melody, a dance, even a sunrise. This is taking us out of the property model altogether and that’s fascinating. In terms of my role, I’m just an observer. I report my observations via the blog, but whether the world cares or not, well, that’s up to them.
Where do you draw inspiration for your content?
I read a lot of other blogs, my favorites on similar areas being those by Tom Flynn, Derek Fincham, and Paul Barford, each for very different reasons (Tom’s insightful and witty, Derek is always right, and Paul is mind-bogglingly prolific.)
I also have Google News set up to give me an RSS feed on critical keywords (“cultural property,” “UNESCO,” things of that nature). I sort through a lot of junk via those feeds to get to the interesting and relevant stuff, and that’s what makes the blog valuable. I don’t purport to present *everything* of value on my subject area, but I try to make sure everything I post has value.
How has social media helped you share your interests?
I have no doubt that without blogging I never would have connected in the way that I have with other people who are interested in my subject area. By utilizing social media, I’ve been able to create a virtual network of friends and colleagues who have helped me tremendously in terms of staying involved and progressing in my scholarly pursuits in this fairly narrow subject area.
What is your advice to someone interested in learning more about heritage-related legal issues?
In terms of starting a blog, that is very easy: write. Getting involved with heritage related issues is another thing, and depending on your area of expertise there are a lot of organizations which would serve as great starting places. A couple that come to mind include the AIA (Archaeology Institute of America), ARCA (Association for Research into Crimes Against Art), LCCHP (Lawyers Committee for Cultural Heritage and Preservation), and SAFE (Saving Antiquities for Everyone). There are also groups on the other side of the fence in terms of political views, including the ACCG (Ancient Coin Collectors Guild). You have to figure out what your personal goal is (preservation at all costs? context over commerce? repatriation of objects to source nations? protection of traditional notions of property rights?). Whatever your philosophical disposition when it comes to ancient objects and sites, there’s an organization to suit your needs.
What is planned in the future for your blog?
I intend to keep doing what I’m doing to the best of my ability. Recently, I’ve started to focus more on multimedia sources of information (promoting audio and video on other sites), as that seems to be the thing. I’m also always open to readers making suggestions as to what they’d like to see more or less of, whether in regard to content or delivery. That’s one of the great things about blogs; they are dynamic. They are easy to change when you yourself change, as you grow as an individual or as a scholar.
What is your blog’s ultimate goal?
My blog’s ultimate goal is to promote the scholarship of cultural property law in a fairly impartial way. Not impartial in a way that I’d hesitate to say if I think a particular argument espoused in a book, article, or on another blog is rubbish, but legally impartial. In my opinion, there is so much morality loaded into cultural property and archaeology law perspectives at present that a lot of the reporting is spoiled by preconceived bias. The Cultural Property and Archaeology Law Blog strives to provides a middle ground, where the strengths and weaknesses of all sides’ positions can be considered with the impartiality of a legal observer.
“Justice” teaser graphic by mindgutter on Flickr