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The Secular Sacred in Archaeological Preservation Ethics: Academic Enclosures, Chimpanzee Artifacts, and Conflicting Epistemologies of Loot

When Apr 24, 2008
from 4:00 PM to 5:00 PM
Where Berg Auditorium, 100 Life Sciences Building
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ROBERT N. PROCTOR

 

Professor of the History of Science, Stanford University

Robert N. Proctor is Professor of the History of Science at Stanford University and the author of several books, including Racial Hygiene: Medicine Under the Nazis, Value-Free Science?, Cancer Wars, and The Nazi War on Cancer. His research coalesces around the history of scientific and medical controversy; he has also written on cancer and environmental policy, human origins, molecular coproscopy, gemstone aesthetics, expert witnessing, the phonesthemics of science rhetoric, and the social production of ignorance (agnotology). He was the first Senior Scholar in Residence at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is now working on changing interpretations of the oldest tools, a book called Darwin in the History of Life, a book on figured stones (Agate Eyes), an edited volume on Agnotology, and a history of the global tobacco trade (The Golden Holocaust). He was the first historian to testify as an expert witness against the tobacco industry, and continues to testify as a witness in cases where "who knew what when" is in question.

The Secular Sacred in Archaeological Preservation Ethics: Academic Enclosures, Chimpanzee Artifacts, and Conflicting Epistemologies of Loot

Antiquities preservation can be seen as an effort to guard against a certain form of pollution in the Mary Douglas sense, meaning matter out of place. Efforts to understand the movement of material artifacts, however, must also recognize that disputes most often center around not just where such items should reside but who should be able to move them. Preservation laws set out rules that only certain authorities should be allowed to move and/or curate antiquities, and that sanctions will be placed against illegitimate transport or curation of such objects. The class of objects considered "antique” or even “of cultural significance” has varied quite a bit with time, however. Age has never been a good indicator of inclusion in such classes, for example, and natural objects have become increasingly viewed as antiquities. Recognition of “nature as artifact” complicates preservation ethics, since choices must be made concerning what kinds of nature—and in what form—should be preserved. Natural objects removed from a particular context can lose much of their meaning (think of the stones comprising an archaeoastronomic alignment). Preservation has also been made difficult insofar as the act of designating a class of objects as “antique” or preservation-worthy tends to increase its commercial value. Amateur collectors are frustrated by the monopolies experts have established over rights to hold or cherish antiquities, as are those “native stakeholders” (aka “first peoples”) who've identified certain practices in archaeology as grave robbery. Scholars, too, though, are divided over how to define and treat the general class of “looted artifacts”—whether artifacts without “proper papers” should be published and/or displayed in museums, for example. That is partly because different scholarly traditions in the field of archaeology rely on different kinds of aggregate evidence, but it is also because of conflicts over whether “experts” (vs. amateurs or natives) should have exclusive rights to handle, transport and curate antiquities.