Home > Events > Who Owns the Past? An Archaeologist Looks at Stakeholders, Tourism, and Cultural HeritageThis lecture is part of the Who Owns Our Species? Past, Present, Future Lecture Series.


Who Owns the Past? An Archaeologist Looks at Stakeholders, Tourism, and Cultural HeritageThis lecture is part of the Who Owns Our Species? Past, Present, Future Lecture Series.

by SKeira Jul 15, 2015
When Jan 24, 2008
from 7:00 PM to 8:00 PM
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Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Barbara

Brian Fagan studied archaeology and anthropology at Pembroke College, Cambridge (B.A. 1959, M.A. 1962, Ph.D. 1965). After graduation, he spent six years as Keeper of Prehistory at the Livingstone Museum in Zambia, Central Africa. He came to the United States in 1966 as Visiting Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign in 1966–67, and then Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), from 1967–2003. He is now Emeritus Professor of Anthropology there.

Fagan is a leading archaeological generalist, with a recognized expertise in the broad issues of human prehistory. At the same time, he has specialized in teaching, writing and lecturing about American and general archaeology to the public since coming to the United States. He is now regarded as one of the world's leading archaeological writers, having authored or edited more than fifty books.

Brian Fagan was an Exhibitioner at Pembroke College, Cambridge, 1958, a Guggenheim Fellow, 1973, and a National Sigma Xi lecturer, 1989. His book, The Rape of the Nile, won the Commonwealth Club Medal for Non-Fiction, 1975. He was Lorenzini Lecturer, Houston Museum of Fine Arts, 1988, and won (with George Michaels) an EDUCOM Award for Curriculum Innovation in a Large Class for Introductory Archaeology, 1990. He was awarded the Society of Professional Archaeologists' Distinguished Service Award in 1996, for his "untiring efforts to bring archaeology in front of the public." He was also recipient of a Presidential Citation Award from the Society for American Archaeology in 1996 for his work in textbook, general writing and media activities. He received the Society's first Public Education Award in 1997 and a Distinguished Teaching Award from the UCSB Academic Senate in 2000. Beyond archaeology, Fagan's interests include cruising under sail (upon which he has published several books and cruising guides), bicycling, kayaking, good food, and cats.

Who Owns the Past? An Archaeologist Looks at Stakeholders, Tourism, and Cultural Heritage

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Abstract: Brian Fagan examines some of the trends in archaeological and cultural tourism and the complex ethical issues that arise over ownership of the past and what is commonly known as the "archaeological record."

Summary: The Elgin Marbles of the Parthenon. The treasures of the Tomb of Tutankhamum (King Tut) in Egypt.  The Moche portrait heads of Peru.  Angkor Wat Temple in Cambodia.  These rank among the greatest treasures of human antiquity, and today, thanks to a thriving tourism industry, millions of people across the globe have unprecedented access to them.  But who owns these artifacts?  Whose are they to look after?  Whose are they to profit from?

These are some of the controversial questions posed by Brian Fagan during his January 24th lecture, “Who Owns the Past? An Archaeologist Looks at Stakeholders, Tourism, and Cultural Heritage” – the fourth in a series of talks entitled “Who Owns Our Species?  Past, Present, Future,” sponsored by the Rock Ethics Institute.  Addressing a packed house in Ballroom C of the Nittany Lion Inn, Professor Fagan guided his audience on a fascinating stroll through some of the thorny issues surrounding the emerging field of archaeological ethics.

Fagan, a renowned anthropologist and Professor Emeritus at The University of California, Santa Barbara, explained to the audience that issues of conservation and ownership are now taking center stage within archaeology, as the archaeological record continues to vanish at an alarming rate, and as tourism exerts ever more pressure on this fragile archive.

Fagan began his lecture with a vivid survey of the long and distinguished history of archaeological acquisition. “It can safely be said that Archaeology began as treasure hunting,” he noted.  Beginning with an account of Lord Elgin and his famous seizure of the Parthenon Marbles on behalf of the British Museum in the early 1800s, Fagan led his enthralled audience through the modern history of some of the world’s most famous archaeological treasures, many of which now reside in  museums far from their geographical origin.

A large portion of these findings were moved in the nineteenth century and through the early twentieth century before there was any real debate about issues of acquisition and ownership.  Even now, Fagan remarked, it is startling how little literature there is on ethics in archaeology.  Characterizing the study of archaeological ethics as “right at its infancy,” Fagan called for “a detailed analysis of ethics” within archaeology, and for the application of ethics within the training of future archaeologists.

Within a generation, Fagan predicted, the face of archaeology is going to look very different that it does today. Tourism is a major reason for this anticipated change.  Fagan cited the Valley of Kings in Egypt, the “mecca of meccas” for archaeological tourists, and site of the famous Tomb of Tutankhamum.  In 1969 when he first visited the Tomb, Fagan was one of a small group of people comprising 2 tour buses – and this at high season.  When he returned in 2006, he explained, there were dozens of tour buses.  “Ancient Egypt is literally being loved to death,” he remarked.

One problem is that tourism has become for many countries a staple of the economy.  Popular demand for the sites is on the rise and the countries need the dollars.  To illustrate the scope of the problem, Fagan cited Angkor Wat Temple in Cambodia.  Just ten years ago it was “an adventure” just getting there, he noted.  Today, the Temple is a standard item on cruise ship and tour package itineraries.  By 2020, it is estimated that 4 million visitors per year will visit the Temple.  And yet, there is no money to repair walkways or to provide necessary protective measures to counter the inevitable wear brought on by millions of annual visitors.

Ethically speaking, “archaeologists have an agonizing debate in front of them,” Fagan explained.  How do we prioritize conservation of the past given the overwhelming demands of tourism?  Cambodia, for instance, is a very poor country, and the revenue that tourism brings in is vital to the livelihood of its residents.

Near the end of his lecture, Fagan shifted his focus to the question of conservation, which he called “the most fundamental ethic of all archaeology.”  Conservation, he noted, is “not for tomorrow, it’s forever.”  Therefore, we must not think of conservation in terms of just mending pots or lifting a single burial, he warned.  Rather, “we are stewards of the past – not for ourselves, but for those who come after us.”  Indeed, the vanishing of the archaeological record is “the silent elephant in the archaeological room,” Fagan concluded, “and it is an elephant that treads softly, but we’ve only barely begun to listen to it.”

-- Christopher White, for the Rock Ethics Institute