Dr Neil Brodie Keynote - ARA Conference

Dr Brodie addressed a theme that has particular resonance in the archaeologyworld but which has a direct relevance to both conservators and archivists:the provenance of material that the sector acquires and the ethical, moral,reputation and legal questions that this creates.

Summary of Dr Neil Brodie’s Keynote, 01/09/17 – ARA Conference 2017

brodie 300x3001Dr Brodie addressed a theme that has particular resonance in the archaeology world but which has a direct relevance to both conservators and archivists: the provenance of material that the sector acquires and the ethical, moral, reputation and legal questions that this creates. The list of institutions that have had their reputations damaged by their seeming rush to be associated with ‘new finds’ or ‘missing pieces of the story’ – perhaps in an attempt to enhance their academic or public standing is long. They include some prominent universities and research bodies in Europe and North America.

In a sobering and thought-provoking talks, Dr Brodie focused on the transporting of antiquities from West Asia, North Africa and the Near East in particular. Generally speaking, he said, public bodies have ‘reasonably rigorous’ acquisitions policies. But, using several case studies, he showed how easy it was in theory for looted items to end up – via bad private dealers - in private collections and then ‘validated’ by scholars in the mainstream public universities. Calling this ‘passive engagement’ in looting (ie, not directly acquiring illicit items), he also made the case that researchers that work with illicit antiquities and documents can stimulate further looting, production of fakes and the loss of understanding of provenance.

Dr Brodie gave specific examples. One case involved a private collector using academic researchers – that had validated the authenticity of material. That validation enabled the collector to ‘mark up’ the value of the acquisition nearly twenty times more than they had paid for it, and then writing the amount off against tax at the higher rate when they later donated it to a university. 

On the ethics side, Dr Brodie challenged researchers to think about their moral right of authorship if they were to produce work – and burnish their reputations – based on material acquired illicitly. There was no doubt that any complicity with illicit smuggling was a social harm – there was clear evidence of looting leading to murder (eg, of customs officers in Iraq), money laundering and funding of insurgent/terrorist groups. In the UK, it was also illegal under the 2002 Proceeds of Crime Act to benefit from goods acquired illegally.

The solution? Dr Brodie thought institutions of all shapes and sizes needed to take a much closer interest in the cost-benefit of being associated (even innocently) with looting and smuggling. The risk to reputations was high. There needed to be a much stronger culture of verification, by carrying out thorough due diligence. Above all, there needed to be a culture change at the heart of the academic and research community.

Jon Elliott
ARA Head of Public Affairs
September 2017