Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Bleg? and Finders Keepers versus Cultural History

A friend of mine needs help with her dissertation. She needs people to take a survey about public opinion regarding the use of bones in Archaeology. If you have the time, please help her out by taking the survey. Please only fill out one survey and please be serious, it's only her future on the line.

I was flipping channels on the RSS the other day and I saw something on the Discovery feed about some people finding an estimated $500 Million in silver and gold coins. The discoverers, Odyssey Marine Exploration (OME), claim that the find was in international waters and refer to the wreck as the Black Swan. They are keeping the location secret for obvious reasons. The Spanish government is claiming that the coins must have come from one of their ships sunk some time in the 17th, 18th or 19th centuries. As an anthropology student, I found this situation to be an interesting ethical dilemma. There is a substantial dollar value associated with the find but there is also a substantial historical value. For the sake of argument, we will allow that OME found the wreck in international waters. We will also allow that it is definitely a Spanish ship. International salvage law is a little murky in this situation, if you'll pardon the pun, so let us also assume that international salvage law states that derelicts are the finder's. The UK's Merchant Shipping Act 1995 says that all property remains the property of the original owners. If the wreck were in British waters, I guess this would apply and the wreck would belong to the original owners. These owners are long dead and I don't know if the ownership would transfer down 2-400 years. This point is further muddied because the cargo may have been owned by someone else, the Spanish government for example. We have two sets of regulations that are allowing each side to claim the treasure as their own. OME did all the work in finding the wreck and deserve the fruits of their labor. Spain has a cultural heritage to protect and possible legal protections. The location of the wreck greatly influences the argument. At what point does a cultural heritage override a salvage right? Does twelve miles really matter?

In the US, we have NAGPRA. NAGPRA has been helping Native Americans regain their looted past. All federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funding, like Beloit College, are required to abide by the act. Complying with the act can take years and decades for some collections, simply because they are so damn large. These collections contain a fascinating wealth of information on cultures that the US did everything it could to destroy*. The act allows for a period of study after a repatriation request, as long as the cultural connection can be established. 12 to 18,000 years is a long time and many cultures rose and fell in North America long before Columbus strolled along. Kennewick Man (KM) was found in less than ideal circumstances in Kennewick, Washington and has stirred up an endless controversy with several native nations claiming a cultural connection. There is a lot more to this controversy than that but I am interested in the border between a group's historical and mythological claims and the scientific community's claims. There is a lot to learn from KM because he is so old and so odd, for lack of a better term. I met one of the Army Corps of Engineers curators of KM when I was still in school and she was fascinated by the find and frustrated by the legal wranglings. The early period of human exploration of the New World is largely unknown. An almost complete skeleton can tell an archaeologist a lot about the context of its life,specifically about this period in human history. However, if the Umatilla's can claim that KM is an ancestor, then NAGPRA will require the remains be returned to the tribe. The Umatilla's claim may or may not be valid, I am not a judge nor am I an expert in their history or their legal case, but if it is should the scientists and researchers simply hand over such a valuable find without and adequate period of study? Where does the scientific value of a find override the cultural claims of a people?

* An issue for another time.


mdhatter said...

The law of the sea be different than the law of the land matey! Yar!

If the Spanish government can show a pattern of recovering their ships from around the world, regardless of content, then the salvage company should get about 20% of the haul for their efforts. Otherwise, finders keepers.

The British question has everything to do with the king having dominion everything in the sea. Robin hood needed the kings permission to hunt his deer, fisherman need his permission to go out to sea. That's consistent. see above.

as for KW, he shouldn't have wandered so far away from the boat.

my 2 dubloons.

BOSSY said...

According to the jellyfish Bossy saw while swimming yesterday, the sea can keep its belongings thank you.

Chuckles said...

God is just an enormous, ubiquitous even, jellyfish with a diamond in the center.

You know it to be true, bossy.

Snag said...

When should a scientific claim trump a cultural one? I'd say treat them the same as copyrights. At some point, the rights of the public outweigh the rights of the heirs, and the fact that claims are based on religion or culture doesn't change that equation.

I'm willing to concede a bit more time for cemeteries (200 years? 300?, but that's because I still have enough superstition cloaked around me that I don't like the idea of a free for all over a grave site.

I took your friend's survey. If I win the prize, can I collect in beer?

Peter N. Jones said...

NAGPRA is very important, for it does not force anything, but it simply makes science place indigenous peoples' knowledge on the same page. In Respect for the Ancestors there is an extensive discussion of NAGPRA, its benefits, and how it can be used to not only return cultural objects to tribes, but also help science understand the past. I've also recently done a post on NAGPRA on the Indigenous Issues Today news blog in case anyone is interested. Good luck with your friends survey, I'll go fill one out now.

Jenny said...

I don't know that it's necessarily about science "trumping" culture, but I think there's definitely a point where all claims become equal - when you go far enough back and cultural ties have become so amorphic that they're unrecognizable in comparison to practices in the present day. Whether that's 100, 1,000, or 10,000 years back is just a matter of perspective.

Maybe the issue doesn't seem as contentious over here in the UK because there aren't any living descendents of subjugated indigenous groups like Native Americans or Australian Aborigines. The closest thing that compares is modern-age Pagan groups who claim affinity with people in the past and demand reburial on those grounds. Current policy, not even law, (which is supported by the CHurch of England, I might add) states that unidentifiable human remains over 100 years old are pretty much fair game as long as they are treated with respect and not exhumed indiscriminantly.

Personally, I think that's fair. I do think there's a point where the dead "lose" their rights, so to speak, especially if they have no living family to speak for them or object. If that weren't already the case in some respect, wouldn't the sale or transfer of property belonging to the saame dead people be tantamount to theft?

Shout out to fellow Colorado-an! Woo hoo!!

Chuckles said...

That is pretty much my opinion too, Jenny. I think the arguments are interesting.

From an archaeological perspective, you might feel forced once a nation has made a NAGPRA claim against your research, Peter. Again, I find it an interesting question and not one for which I am preaching a resolution.

Kathleen said...

this post is so informative!!

Jenny said...

I don't think this is an issue that can ever be resolved, if only because it's strikes so deeply to the heart of personal beliefs and the idea of where we go once we're dead. I can't tell you how many times people ask me if I'd feel the same way if it were me getting dug up - I don't think they quite expect it when I say that I've already made it clear to my family thaat I don't want to be cremated like the rest of them 'cause I want to be SURE someone can dig me up in a few hundred years if they want to!

But the validity of the other side of the argument has to be acknowledged, and there can't be some blanket law favoring anyone. Hello! DIctatorship. As long as lines of commincation remain open and compromise and respect is exhibited on both sides, I think it's all good.

Sorry if I'm going all preachy. Can you tell I've been writing about this a lot lately? :P

Chuckles said...

That is why I wrote this Jenny, so we could talk about it with others. Keep on preaching!

I am not worried about my body after I die. I am sure that I will be resurrected through science to continue my excellent work in helping others improve the human species through education.