Property Rights

Old Elites

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Archeological finds, we're constantly advised, must be left to experts. For example, under the American Antiquities Act of 1906, permits for "the excavation of archeological sites, and the gathering of objects of antiquity" on government land are to be granted only to "reputable museums, universities, colleges, or other recognized scientific or educational institutions, with a view to increasing the knowledge of such objects, and that the gatherings shall be made for permanent preservation in public museums." Ancient artifacts, building sites, shipwrecks, tombs–all must be preserved from hoi polloi who would treat them with insufficient sensitivity, or from looters who might (shudder) sell things to private collectors. These days, people are arrested for picking up bullets on Civil War battlefields.

Do such protective efforts actually work? The Bureau of Land Management is responsible for sites and artifacts on federal lands. According to a recent report by the Department of the Interior's inspector general, the BLM has surveyed only about 5 percent of its 264-million-acre domain and has recorded only 221,000 significant sites out of more than 4 million. It has issued permits allowing accredited experts to remove more than 20 million objects to BLM-approved repositories, but it has no system for keeping track of the items. Nor does it maintain the inventories required by law.

In short, the system is almost perfectly perverse. It assumes that every site and artifact is "significant"–which is ridiculous–and then hogs them for the BLM and the experts. It removes any incentive for private citizens, who may actually have considerable skill and knowledge, to look for things, thus leaving many items unfound and unappreciated by anyone. And it fails in its alleged purpose, which is to ensure an orderly structure for archeological activity.

Meanwhile, the storerooms of America's museums are stuffed with items that are duplicative of or inferior to the pieces on display. There they repose, gathering dust, unseen by anyone.

Perhaps a little democratization is in order, along with the recognition that not everything old needs to be treated with reverence, and that a museum should hold only the exemplary items it needs. Why shouldn't there be a brisk trade in historical artifacts, even those found on that national commons better known as federal lands?

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