What is Archaeological Repatriation?
Repatriation of archaeological discoveries is a hot button question that doesn't yet have an easy answer. Archaeology will always be important for understanding the overarching history of humankind. But who is in control of the artifacts that are found? This is an ongoing debate within the archaeological community.
Who should be the keeper of archaeological artifacts?
The debate continues to rage about where our artifacts belong – should it be with the location where they are found or those who discovered them?
Many archaeologists are advocating for the repatriation (returning of an item to its homeland) of artifacts across the world, though it looks different in every country.
Repatriation in the United States
In the United States, the term ‘repatriation’ has come to be associated with returning Native American heritage items to their respective tribes. In 1990, the U.S. government passed the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in order to return Indigenous artifacts and preserve their traditions.
Whilst this act is helping Indigenous people reclaim their cultures and is extremely important, a large barrier in returning artifacts and human remains lies in identification. Scientists possess the technology to date different remains but cannot ensure what region or tribe they once belonged to, leading to many museums holding on to the remains instead of returning them to those who claim descent. Speaking at a congressional hearing held on March 9, 1989, Robert McCormick Adams, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, stated, “I would stress from the point of view of the Smithsonian, that its collections are valuable scientific material for the study of the past, and we will not willingly and with abandon turn those materials over to people who may not in fact be descendants of the people whose remains we have.” Disheartening as it is for some to hear that large museums are withholding their relics, it is relieving to the scientific community that priceless heritage items are being protected and only redistributed when there is a clear destination.
Times they have a-changed
On a more global scale, historic pieces that were taken in a time of war or imperialism are being demanded back by their original countries. Whilst public approval is largely in favor of returning these artifacts to their rightful homes, many of the recipient countries do not have the facilities necessary to care for the items. Large institutions, such as the British Museum, are denying repatriation requests from countries that do not have the same level of technology and displays as the current exhibition halls. One prominent example is the British Museum's refusal to return Egyptian artifacts to Egypt. In a sense, the Egyptian government "bowed to pressure" and built the new Cairo Museum, a state-of-the-art repository for these important finds. However, many other countries with who have “lost” their artifacts are unable to build new museums. So, their priceless artifacts remain housed in other countries.
Nevertheless, these claims of protection from established museums are somewhat dubious. For example, over the past few years, the British Museum has suffered the loss of over 2,000 small, uncatalogued artifacts, outraging countries like China and Benin who were denied the return of their property because of the Museum’s so-called higher protection. In this case and many others, people begin to question whether the artifacts really are safer with these large museums, or with their home countries.
No Easy Answers
Truth be told, there’s no easy answer to the repatriation debate. and it’s sure to continue to be contested for years to come. Regardless of beliefs, archaeologists, governments, and museum-goers alike can all agree the most important thing is to continue to discover and preserve our history together.
If you want to help discover more of our history as a citizen scientist, you can learn more about available archaeology digs through Ancient Odysseys
House Committee, National Museum of the American Indian, 17. Statement of Robert McCormick Adams, Secretary, Smithsonian Institution