Buying grave goods: have we reached the moral limits of the market?

Artefacts deriving from mortuary contexts form a unique group among the vast numbers of antiquities sold on the market each year.

In many cases their sale is legal. But is it ethical, especially when lives (both present and former ones) are at stake?

Can dealers and buyers be sure that an object is from an ‘old collection’ and not a freshly dug-up artefact, especially when information about the objects provenance is hazy? And can archaeologists and policy-makers be confident that the contemporary sale of grave goods is not fuelling the destruction of mortuary contexts across the globe? And more pressing, can we be sure that the trade in grave goods is not causing harm to living people and local communities, for example through the use of child labour in the looting process (

In an age when both grave goods and human remains are increasingly appearing on the antiquities market, is it time to ask whether we have reached the moral limits of the market?

Moral limits of the [antiquities] market

The presence of illicit antiquities sourced from mortuary contexts on the antiquities market, and indeed the sale of human remains, might provide enough basis to suggest that the UK has reached the ‘moral limits of the market’ for antiquities, as per Satz’s (2010) conceptualization of noxious markets.

While not focusing on antiquities as such, Satz has identified four features of markets that make them morally objectionable:

a) vulnerability,

b) weak agency,

c) extremely harmful outcomes for individuals, and

d) extremely harmful outcomes for society (Satz, 2010: 9).

The first two concern the sources of a market: that is, the transactions between individuals. In the context of the antiquities market, vulnerability might arise through, say, subsistence digging, where poverty and the potential of the antiquities market encourages them to turn to looting as a source of income. Similarly, weak agency might be expressed through buyers having poor information about the provenance or authenticity of the objects they are buying. The second two of Satz’s features of a morally objectionable market — extremely harmful out comes for individuals and society are where a market leaves some participants in extremely bad circumstances (Satz, 2010: 9). In the context of the antiquities market this could take the form of crop damage by looters resulting in loss of income for farmers, and the destruction of archaeological sites and contexts. Similarly, it could also include harm to individuals such as the use of child labour during the looting of archaeological sites.

Satz argues that ‘scoring high along even one of the four parameters can push a market into the “noxious” category’ (Satz, 2010: 9), in which the trade in particular goods evokes ‘widespread discomfort’ (Satz, 2010: 3).

It can be argued that the legal sale of funerary objects increases the threat to mortuary contexts by making such items more desirable to collectors. This has been demonstrated by the markets for funerary objects from the United States (Hanson, 2011), Peru (Witkowski, 2017: 5), Mexico (Phelps, 2016), Egypt (Gill, 2015), and Greece (Chippindale & Gill, 1993; 1995), among other popular source-countries.

It is perhaps timely to ask, therefore, whether the presence of grave goods on the antiquities market indicate we have reached the moral limits of the antiquities market?

Published by Dr Adam Daubney

Independent archaeological finds specialist. Research interests in the public discovery of portable antiquities and treasure.

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