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on 5 December 2001
The ownership of archaeological remains has for centuries been an expression of power and dominance over past civilisations. Whether we take as an example Venice's wholesale transportation of architectural features from Byzantium in the 10th century, or the colonial powers of France and Britain relocating foreign archaeological finds to public and private collections in Europe, the display of ancient objects has been a method by which political and social ideologies can be expressed.
Colin Renfrew's book explores the debates of looting and cultural appropriation today. He relates the looting, distribution and the market for these finds as being explicitly linked to Western foreign and domestic policy. Discussing a number of examples from South East Asia to Persia to Africa to Europe, Renfrew explores the problems encountered by archaeologists in the face of increasing looting and illicit sale of material to private collectors and museums in the West. He exposes the way in which American museums - who are able to draw an audience through displaying these objects even if a contextual examination has not taken place - continue to fund the trade in looted artefacts. He then asks whether it will be possible to implement educational programmes in areas such as Iraq where more pressing social problems exist. How can the population of countries such as these be persuaded that in the future, a complete, carved temple will be of far more economic benefit than the destruction and sale of parts of it? Renfrew unequivocally states the looting of Nineveh in Iraq as being a direct consequence of sanctions imposed on the country which bring many in rural areas to the point of starvation - and therefore desperation to find any income they can.
Renfrew then asks whether the West is doing enough to halt the sale in looted artefacts. This is an extremely important book which highlights the deficiencies of a worldwide system where culture costs. Unprovenenced archaeological finds can be bought on the internet daily. It is a highly relevant, readable argument which puts the recording and preservation of archaeological finds as high a priority as the protection of animals endangered with extinction.
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