A few days ago the New York Times online ran another article discussing the Hiram Bingham controversy.
In this case, I have a hard time imagining an argument against Peruvian control over the artifacts taken from Machu Picchu in the early part of the 20th century. But, ownership can be a tricky thing. At some point, it seems to me, archaeological remains become a patrimony of humanity, not simply the modern nation-state, a form of sovereignty just 200-250 years old, where the artifact happened to end up. My initial reaction would be to say that artifacts should reside in close physical proximity to their places of origin, but as patrimony of humanity, access to those artifacts for scholarly purposes should be sacrosanct. The same goes for the documentary record.
My own family has a farm in south-central Virginia, on the banks of the Nottaway River that has substantial indigenous artifacts dating at least to 6000 BCE. I spent much of my childhood summers walking the fields after a rain or after a plow following the rows, head down, looking for a newly up-turned projectile point. Our family always felt a sense of ownership over those old pieces of worked rock, which as I got older left me with greater, and greater unease. Cactus Hill, one of a handful of pre-Clovis sites in the Americas, is just 10 miles away. Though family interests have worked against it, I’ve always wanted a professional dig done in the sandy peanut soils of our farm. Part of this is simple curiosity, peaked more after the discovery of Cactus Hill. But part of it is a lingering feeling that the gorgeous projectile points, axe heads, and the like that formed my early Neolithic imagination were part of a patrimony that stretched beyond my family, beyond the arrival of Europeans to Virginia’s shores, and even beyond the sedentary groups of indigenous people who were ravaged by disease, warfare, and social disruption in the years leading up to and after those Europeans’ arrival.
Photo credit: Moises Saman for the New York Times.
Update: More on the controversy here.