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We have searched in vain for a clear expression of opinion by an official body relating to the moral issues which recreational and entrepreneurial digging for archaeological artefacts raise. We suspect that in Britain at least no such formal opinion has been published since the activity is legally sanctioned but also subject to recommended but purely voluntary preferred parameters, both implying a toleration of multiple and conflicting behaviours, this being a logical absurdity that cannot be expressed as a single moral position.

To fill the gap, and to provide a basis for discussion, we have produced our own. We should be pleased to receive comments or suggestions for amendments at or in the Comments section.


A Portable Antiquities Charter

1. Archaeology, whether static or portable, is a physical manifestation of History.

2. Consequently, while physical archaeology may be owned individually or collectively it also has an abstract component, knowledge, which is a common inheritance and therefore collectively owned.

3. Physical ownership can be conveniently defined by laws. Knowledge cannot be. Hence, knowledge is indisputably owned but cannot be effectively asserted by its owners, which is the antithesis of ownership. It follows that if society’s claim to ownership of its own history is not to be surrendered it must be actively asserted, if not in law then as a moral principle.

4. From this moral principle flow the following moral assumptions which society has a duty to itself to declare and act upon in relation to the knowledge unearthed during the deliberate recovery of buried portable antiquities by any individual or group, whether motivated by pleasure, interest, profit, conservation or scholarship:

(I) No single individual or group can morally lay claim to, annexe, conceal or destroy it.

(ii) Any deliberate unearthing or removal of buried archaeology, irrespective of legal rights, ownerships or permissions, cannot be held to be moral unless it is done with the consent of and in a manner approved by wider society including the delivery of any and all knowledge relating to the act which society may require.


March 2009

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