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Ethics Committee --

Ethics, E-Commerce, and the Future of the Past

Alex W. Barker

Point. Click. Loot.

Archaeology has long recognized the link between the sale of antiquities and the destruction of sites. As commercial value and opportunities for sale increase, so does the payoff for pothunting and looting to feed the antiquities trade, leaving behind a moonscape of craters and a still more fragmentary archaeological record.

Some of the main players in the antiquities trade have traditionally been art dealers and auction houses. Now they've been joined by a new and powerful forcethe online auction house, led by giants eBay and Amazon. The global reach and instant accessibility of the Internetwhich serves us so well in other areashere has simply served to democratize the antiquities trade. Everyone has access to a dealer or auction house; commercial antiquities dealers and auction houses are never more than a few mouse clicks away.

A variety of antiquities, authentic or claimed to be so, is sold online. On a given day, offerings range from points in frames (of the kind that grace a thousand country stores and gas stations) offered for several hundred dollars, to Mayan geometric painted bowls, Zapotec incense burners, and Moche ceramics offered for thousands; Old World material ranging from neolithic axes to Ptolemaic sarcophagi, and from the odd lot of Roman coins to putative fragments of the True Cross regularly pass through the Web pages of eBay and Amazon. Burial furniture often is advertised and the mortuary association adds to the appeal. And because the economics of online auctions are different than the traditional auction houses, all kinds of items previously considered to be of little commercial value are appearing for saleand as a result, sites are being stripped of every artifact to fuel bulk sale of potsherds. In addition to the main online auction houses (eBay.com, Amazon.com), there are a multitude of specialty sites focusing on antiquities (e.g., www.antiquities.net, www.medusa-art.com, or www.caddotc.com) through either auction or direct sale.

There's another new wrinkle. Online services have begun to use interest in other kinds of information to drive traffic on the online auction sites. The logic is simpleif you're interested in books on a certain item, you are a likely buyer for the item itself. When the public searches for a book on archaeology using Amazon.com, it receives information not only on that particular book, but also offers of antiquities for sale through the Amazon auction house and online shops. Take a concrete example: At the time this was written a search for Robert Mainfort and Lynne Sullivan's Ancient Earthen Enclosures of the Eastern Woodlands (1998, University of Florida Press) also returned recommendations to buy a series of what were said to be Taino artifacts "guaranteed authentic" and dated to A.D. 700­900. Archaeologists' own intellectual products are now being harnessedwithout their knowledgeto support the trade in antiquities.

The complexity of existing laws and regulations regarding the sale of antiquities, not to mention their enforcement, are multiplied in the global world of internet commerce. As a single, self-evident example, trade in antiquities may be simultaneously affected by state, national or international laws or conventions affecting buyers, sellers, and service providers differently depending on whose location is legally considered the point-of-sale, the source of the item, and its current location and ultimate destination. While most online houses have policies against illegal sales, determination of legality is often difficult in the largely self-policed and geographically confusing world of Internet auctions.

The immediate needs are clear. We need to work with the online houses to:

(1) ensure that existing policies against sale of illegally acquired goods are more strictly enforced, and help develop clearer guidelines for assessing legality and appropriateness of sale of antiquities;

(2) develop ways to restrict the traffic in antiquities through Internet commerce, and work with policymakers to create laws and regulations sensitive to this threat to sites and cultural material;

(3) identify vendors continuing to support antiquities trafficking and bring pressure to bear on them, while at the same time offering recognition to vendors adopting ethical positions on antiquities sales;

(4) restrict search linkages that use interest in archaeological books and monographs as marketing opportunities to sell antiquities; and, perhaps most importantly,

(5) use the interest generated by online offerings of antiquities as an educational opportunity.

This may be something as simple as a statement of ethical practice prepared jointly by SAA, AIA, SHA, and AAA and appearing whenever items which may fall into the category of antiquities are proposed for sale on an online service.

The Ethics Committee is preparing a set of recommendations and statements of ethical practice for consideration by the online auction houses. Some of them, at least, have agreed to discuss changes to the ways antiquities are offered online, although there's no guarantee those changes will be implemented. As Sharon Greenspan of Amazon.com noted, "I don't think we have any proof that sale through the z-shops [Amazon.com's online merchandise stores] is raising the value of antiquities." Just as we have a responsibility to educate the public, we also must educate commercial concerns whose legitimate business interests impinge on the past. And we need to do so with a single voice, specific examples of the effects of looting, and viable solutions.

We need your help. Do you have ideas for how the online sale of antiquities can better be controlled? Examples of its effects? Have you discussed the problem with either your colleagues or your classes? Suggestions can be sent to me (abarker@dmnhnet.org) or to the chair of the SAA Committee on Ethics, Karen Vitelli (vitellik@indiana.edu). We need to face the implications of a public increasingly accustomed to seeing the past bought and sold online. Otherwise, the past may become history. ·

Alex W. Barker, a member of SAA's Committee on Ethics, is chief curator at the Dallas Museum of Natural History.

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