Burial sites have been a focus for grave robbers as far back as ancient Egypt and such robbery continues today with illicit excavation being carried out in many countries around the world. Unscientific excavation – recklessly digging a hole to uncover objects sought by collectors mainly in Europe and America – disrupts the surrounding area and destroys valuable contextual information. As long as there is a market for the world’s antiquities, this kind of looting will continue and, to avoid directly stimulating such activity, the AAMD has issued guidelines (Report of the AAMD Task Force on the Acquisition of Archaeological Materials and Ancient Art, 2004) for museums that collect antiquities.
Because the remains of ancient civilizations are located in many different countries, the situation with regard to archaeological materials and ancient art is extremely complex and involves many different laws, regulations, and bilateral agreements. The DIA, which actively collects antiquities, endorses the AAMD report and adheres to the procedures recommended when considering an acquisition with a suspicious or incomplete provenance. Such procedures include: rigorous research into likely origin, history of ownership, and publication and/or exhibition history; concerted efforts to obtain complete export and import documents; prominent publication, with illustration, on the museum’s web site; and establishment of a minimum number of years that the work can be demonstrated to have been out of its likely country (or countries) of origin. The DIA uses 20 years as a rule.
Many archaeologists vehemently oppose collecting antiquities altogether on the grounds that such activity is, by its very nature, an encouragement to robbers, and that objects deprived of their archaeological context are rendered meaningless. In the firm belief that aesthetic qualities and other information can be found in objects deprived of archaeological context, and that such “orphaned” objects are more likely to be given the exposure that enables potential claimants to come forward, the DIA will continue to acquire works of art from ancient civilizations.