Friday, March 11, 2011

Recent News of Interest...

This is a quick post about a few recent news items of interest which once again have come to my attention through Museum Security Network. It is in advance of a post on the SAFECorner blog which will detail my own personal participation in the "hand back ceremony" for several looted Iron Age bronze artifacts, many still containing human remains, that occurred two days ago at the Cambodian Ambassador's residence here in Canberra, Australia. Lead-in information can be found here, and in this blog post by a friend and co-attendee of the ceremony, Mr. Noel Hidalgo-Tan, also of the ANU. More to come on this!

The first article of interest appeared in the New York Times March 10th edition, and details how the members of three separate archaeological organizations (unnamed in the article) have written to the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution to express concern over its planned hosting of an exhibition centred around the artifacts recovered from a 9th century shipwreck of an Arab dhow, sunk in the Java Sea, but "salvaged" by a German company called Seabed Exploration GbR, according to the article. The critics attest that, due to this company's alleged faulty methods, valuable information was lost in the 'salvage,' as opposed to what can be gained through more controlled excavation, even in a challenging underwater environment. Issues surrounding methodology and ethics in shipwreck archaeology are not new concerns. Furthermore, the article attests that most of these artifacts were sold to a private company in Singapore for $32 million, and the exhibit just happens to now be on display in the ArtScience Museum there. A panel meeting to discuss the archaeological community's concerns is scheduled to occur in advance of a final decision to display the exhibit.

The next article concerns the repatriation of the skeletal remains of 138 Indigenous people, likely from Torres Straight Islanders, although only 19 individuals have been thoroughly provenanced to "one of the Torres Straight Islands," according to the article. The rest are believed to derive from either the Torres Straight, southern Papua New Guinea or northern Cape York Australia. The exact details of the 'testing' done to confirm this prior to repatriation is not stated, but from the range of possible points of geographic origin, I would assume that minute samples of tooth enamel have been tested for isotopic 'signatures' of the elements strontium and/or oxygen; a by-now common means of 'sourcing' skeletal remains, although not without controversy.

From ethnographic accounts, none of the remains are posited to be more than 200 years old, and most were collected from caves, although a few "trophy skulls" are part of the assemblage. I personally feel that good points were raised on both sides as to why repatriation should eventually occur, but also why and how new developments in archaeological and bioarchaeological science (my field, after all) can continue to shed light on ancient remains. The state of mutual cooperation and agreement reached in this case is arguably the best possible outcome, but one that still occurs far too infrequently when debating repatriation cases. All parties involved should be commended on reaching such an equitable decision!

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