Today I want to discuss a topic slightly off from my intended series on Archeological Preservation. Instead of discussing the issues surrounding the conservation and preservation of a historically significant structure, I’m going to discuss the preservation of a burial site. Today, I will be talking about grave robbing. I will be distinguishing the differences between grave robbing and the legally sanctioned version of it called “research”, discussing the legality of removing artifacts from a site, and the ethics of removing a dead guy from his coffin. Fun stuff right? Not if that dead guy is gonna put a curse on you.
“Grave robbing” is the illegal act of removing artifacts from grave or burial site. Not to be confused with “body snatching” which is the act of digging up a grave site to remove the corpse or remains for whatever purpose. Grave robbers often sell their stolen items via the black market to museums or private collectors for personal profit.
So then why is it that the exact same action – the removal of artifacts from a dig site – conducted by an archeologist is legal and sanctioned? Because its for science! In most cases archeologists have permits and operate within the guidelines set by the State (assuming we’re digging up bones in the US. You want to uncover an Egyptian mummy? That’s a whole different blog entry to write). Even if a grave robber somehow managed to get a permit, the main difference is what the intent is. A grave robber is plundering for personal gain, while an Archeologist is researching in the name of science and knowledge.
One of the big surrounding issues that is discussed is at what point is it ok to call it “archeological research” or “historical research”? Especially if said research intends to remove a corpse or remains to study. It’s pretty easy to say that digging up a mummy is entirely justified in the name of science, but say, what if Archeologists wanted to examine a 50 year old corpse? Odds are it won’t happen – since a given rule is that is has to be between 75-100 years old to be considered historically valuable, and in the US that number is exactly 100 years old. However, what if age isn’t enough? Do we need another justification to examine an ancient dead body other than the fact that its “historically significant”?
There have been examples in history where justification hasn’t just come from age or historical significance, but the scientific benefit of knowledge and understanding that could potentially annex history. Examining the corpse of a long dead Pope to determine how he died, or examining the remains of an ancient human to see how they lived during the Ice-Age are only two of numerous examples of such reasoning. Should this be the logic and justification for disturbing the dead? This is just one of the many ethical dilemmas that Archeologists have to deal with in their field of research, and what makes this such a great Civic Issue topic.
The modern debate of Grave robbing versus Archeology extends into the subject of Shipwrecks and underwater recovery. In light of wrecks like the Titanic or (as seen in my first post) the Queen Anne’s Revenge, artifact removal is simply done without restriction, since the legal limits of archeology have little jurisdiction once a site is in international waters. However, a site like the Titanic, which is home to over 1500 souls who never survived the incident, would be considered a grave site by people of personal relation. And since all of the wreck has been discovered, explored, and salvaged entirely by private organizations like Odyssey Marine Exploration (OME), this would technically make it grave robbing, right?
This is where things get tricky. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (shortened down to UNESCO for everyone’s convenience) Convention of the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage, created in 2001, allows the recovery of artifacts from shipwrecks if they provide a “significant contribution” to the knowledge and research of the site. The issue here is that it was only signed by 23 countries, none of which include the US, Great Britain, Russia, China or other major states. So, since its not actually taken seriously, most countries freely allow marine exploration organizations to freely operate on their own – to plunder or research as they see fit. In the case of OME though, the rationale is that since major universities and research organizations that are non-for profit cant’t fund their own research vessels or missions to the bottom of the ocean, OME can by funding its missions off the artifacts it finds and sells to museums. Its not necessarily a sketchy way of doing business, but its one way to legally call yourself a grave-robber.
In most cases, it would be argued that grave-robbing is not okay. It is often done recklessly, and without care fort he historical site, and denies and scientific benefit of researching the potential artifacts. However, as we’ve seen in this post, there are exceptions that make it a necessary evil.
If you feel that disturbing a 5,000 year old mummy from its resting place just to put it (or its stuff) behind a glass wall in a museum is okay is up to you (and the laws of the country you’re digging in). It is an ethical matter of letting the dead rest in peace, and must be considered very thoroughly. No matter what the plausible scientific benefit.
Personally, I’d really rather not have a curse placed on me. Haven’t any of you seen Raider’s of the Lost Ark?!