In Archaeology, what is Repatriation?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
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In archeology, repatriation refers to returning cultural objects and human remains to their regions of origin. The issue of repatriation only really began to be raised in the 20th century, when many nations which have historically been exploited for their archaeological treasures began to request that some or all of these artifacts be returned. Advocates for repatriation argue that removing objects from their region of origin deprives people of their cultural heritage, while people who do not support repatriation believe that all people are entitled to appreciate the rich history of the human race.

There are a number of issues bound up with repatriation. One of the biggest issues is that of looted art and antiquities. Looting has been occurring for centuries, making it very hard to establish the provenance of artifacts. This is especially true in the case of artifacts which have been held for centuries by private owners or venerable institutions like the British Museum. The argument is that when objects are forcibly removed or sold in questionable circumstances, it deprives native peoples of their heritage and governments of potential control over such objects.


Another issue surrounds grave goods and human remains. Archaeologists find grave sites to be rich in cultural artifacts, allowing them to learn a great deal about ancient peoples, but in some cases, descendants of these people object to the study of grave sites, arguing that it violates the dead. These people would rather see such sites left undisturbed, or studied and then restored, and they object very strongly to the removal of grave goods and remains. This has been an especially large problem in the United States, where a special Repatriation Office handles concerns about American Indian remains.

Archeology has also been plagued with issues historically. Prior to the development of ethical codes in archeology, objects were often forcibly removed or stolen, especially from colonial subjects, and they were sometimes poorly handled and preserved. Advocates for repatriation argue that looted and stolen artifacts belong to the regions they came from, even if the cultures which created them are long dead.

Repatriation is also wrapped up in social and political issues. After the end of the Second World War, for example, a commission was established to restore objects of art looted by the Nazis to their rightful owners, and the commission uncovered a number of instances in which the provenance of the art was unclear. Citizens of developing nations argue that they have been essentially stripped of their culture as antiquities are removed and displayed in the developed world, while some people suggest that such artifacts are safer in the developed world, implying that the developed world is more politically stable and better equipped to handle the artifacts safely. This attitude can seem very patronizing to people who are trying to preserve the heritage and culture of their regions.

Arguments over repatriation can sometimes get violent. Protests have been staged around the world to advocate for the repatriation of especially treasured artifacts, and archaeologists have been arguing over the topic behind closed doors for decades. As a general rule, both sides want to see objects preserved, studied, cataloged, and sometimes displayed, but they disagree over who has the right to archaeological objects.


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