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.