A Global Village
Issue 2

Unearthed Yet Unpublished

Delayed Publishing of Archaeological Material

Sujatha Chandrasekaran, Lincoln College, Oxford

From its very beginnings, Archaeology as an academic field has been a global discipline in which international scholars investigate historical sites in a host country. While the highly publicized question of physical ownership of archaeological material was technically clarified by UNESCO in 1970, where it was stated that archaeological material is the cultural property of the host country, another question remains far from resolved: the question of academic ownership of archaeological material. Whose material is it – that is, who has the right to work with and publish works on excavated material? How are these rights defined and regulated internationally? 

This problem – the subject of many a discussion amongst scholars over the last couple of decades – stems from a lack of cooperation between the site excavators and the scholars who later work on the excavated material. It is intensified by a lack of national and international regulation, and the failure to enforce the little legislation that does exist. The result is a substantial publication lag that affects the scholarly community worldwide.

Of Kings and Nobles
A classic case-in-point is the royal tombs of Vergina in northern Greece, excavated in the late 1970s by Manolis Andronikos under the auspices of the Greek Department of Antiquities. The significance of the site is well known: Andronikos uncovered a number of ornate stone chambers containing undisturbed burials accompanied by luxurious grave goods. The close proximity of the tombs to the site of ancient Aigai, the historical residence of the Macedonian kings and birthplace of Alexander the Great, clearly underlines the importance of this site as a likely resting place of Macedonian nobles. Therefore, with great anticipation, many followed the discovery and excavation of the tombs, waiting eagerly for the publication of this rich material.

The excavator-scholar
relationship is very one-sided,
with the latter depending
heavily on the former for
access to sites and material

Some thirty years have passed since the original discovery, yet scholars find themselves still waiting for large amounts of material to be published – very surprising in view of the tombs’ significance. Andronikos himself published the bulk of material now available. In a number of articles from 1980 and a book of 1984, he recounted his experiences at the site and put forward his highly debated interpretation that the interred were Macedonian kings, including Philip II, father of Alexander the Great. Key to his interpretations is the paintings of Tomb I and Tomb II, however these were only published in 2004. Other significant items from the tombs, such as the metal vessels, weapons, the jewellery and the deathbeds, are only now due to be published.

The implications of such behaviour are clear: the author’s interpretations remain sole, and the international academic community is forced to rely on their accuracy without being given the basis upon which to challenge it.

What’s Mine is Mine
So, what accounts for such an enormous delay in the publication of such important material? Various explanations for such a delay have been proposed ranging from insufficient staff, time and money on part of the excavator to insufficient guidelines on publishing or a means to enforce these.

In the case of Vergina, the above reasons seem unlikely in view of the site’s stature as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and popularity. Greek and international funding of the site has been generous, and its importance has continuously attracted the attention of scholars from around the world, many of whom would have been only too willing and eager to collaborate with Andronikos on the material’s publication. Delegation is necessary for this magnitude of find yet this never happened at Vergina. This, therefore, would seem to be the root of the problem, and a rarely discussed one – the unwillingness of excavators to share the material they themselves have not yet been able to publish, for whichever reason.

Morag Kersel, an archaeologist at Brown University, questions such possessive behaviour of principal investigators who ‘become very territorial with the material and do not want to share‘. This is a rather sensitive discussion, as the excavator-scholar relationship is very one-sided, with the latter depending heavily on the former for access to sites and material. Scholars therefore (necessarily) avoid officially naming names and pointing fingers for fear of jeopardizing their collaborations.

Are we therefore
dealing with a case
of the country of
excavation as a whole
trying to keep its
cultural heritage, and
its publication, in its
own possession?

On a small scale, this behaviour most likely reflects the desire of the excavator to keep the glory of publication for him-/herself, wanting the site and its more ‘prestigious’ finds to always be associated with his/her name, and therefore refusing to delegate material even to colleagues or students from his own country. Certainly the name most frequently associated with Vergina, to this day, remains Andronikos’.

National Treasures
On a larger scale, however, could this behaviour stem from the divide existing between excavated and excavating countries? Even though excavations are now carried out in almost every country of the world, the bias is and has always been towards the countries of the so-called Ancient World – those which make up the ancient regions of Greece, the Roman Empire, Egypt, Mesopotamia and the like – in other words present-day Mediterranean countries as well as the Near and Middle East. The majority of excavating archaeologists, however, tend to come from outside the countries of excavation with the exception of Greece and Italy. Are we therefore dealing with a case of the country of excavation as a whole trying to keep its cultural heritage, and its publication, in its own possession?

To understand this, it is necessary to look at the laws that stipulate the duties of the excavator in each respective country. In Greece, excavations are regulated by the General Directorate of Antiquities, which adopted a new law in 2002 on the protection of antiquities and cultural heritage. The new regulations – unfortunately not in effect during Andronikos’ campaigns – seemingly respond to a growing awareness of the publication lag and stipulate that a final excavation report must be submitted within five years following the end of excavation. For long-term excavations, such as Vergina, regular progress reports are required every two years. Other countries such as Cyprus and Israel have adopted similar rules. International bodies such as the United Nations and the American Schools of Oriental Research also cite similar regulations.

The problem today lies in the insufficient definition of such clauses, combined with the lack of enforcement. Few countries’ statutes actually define what exactly construes ‘a reasonable period’ for publication or a ‘final publication’, while others tend to use phrases such as ‘in a timely fashion’ or ‘prompt and complete’. And what ‘reprimands’ are included within these rules? Israeli and Cypriot regulations ‘threaten’ a refusal of further permits to excavators who have not yet published their previous work, while Cypriot regulations go further to stipulate that no excavation may be undertaken by members of the Antiquities Department at least three years before retirement, in order that the member may finish publishing previous material before retirement. How are such limitations and reprimands enforced? Would Andronikos have followed them? And is the degree of enforcement the same for both local as well as foreign archaeologists?

It is often precarious to direct criticism at countries or claim favouritism or negligence on part of the respective antiquities authorities. And it is not necessary. Many institutions worldwide are now reviewing the publication conduct of the excavators under their supervision or sponsorship, with many conferences convened and articles written on the subject. The fact is that archaeologists from all countries and in all countries practice publication negligence – it is up to individual states to collaborate on the regulation and enforcement of publication on a global level. Vergina is not a unique case, but it is a well-known and classic example of the problem at hand.

Sujatha Chandrasekaran is a doctoral researcher in Black Sea archaeology at Lincoln College, Oxford. 

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