A rather high profile case of looting is hitting headlines today, as US Attorneys seek the return of a Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton from a Texas based auction firm back to Mongolia.
This case seems pretty clear cut. Somebody went to Mongolia, dug up a dinosaur, and sold it. All parties involved seem to still be alive and can have some good banter over the dispute in a courtroom. What makes it easier is that Mongolia’s law on the matter seems quite clear cut.
Far more interesting to me are the cases of looting/exploitation/opportunism/excavation/productive economic activity that results in some treasure being transported from one part of the world to another. When you throw nationalism into the mix, the banter becomes quite a bit more fun.
Notable cases that pop into mind include:
I have written about this idea of cultural debt/national memory before and I don’t think the argument holds too much water. Likewise, I don’t see a particularly strong obligation for the current owners of cultural relics to deliver artifacts to the descendants of previous owners or, in some cases, people who happen to live in the same parcel of land.
Notice how I phrased that statement. I didn’t use the world “return.” I also didn’t use a concept of peoples or nations and instead referred to individuals or groups of individuals.
I just don’t see ancestral or geographic similarities as being particularly strong appeals to property ownership. As far as I see it, an artifact that is generations removed from its creator or creators and has entered into the status of a historical relic belongs to nobody and no group in particular. It simply becomes a leftover, an artifact of human history and civilization. Where it is placed isn’t entirely relevant so long as it is accessible to the public.
This T-bataar case, though, is still dodgy. You can’t just go to another country, dig up an artifact which that country has clearly laid claim to, then sell it.
Should the skeleton be returned to Mongolia?