Archaeology through the lens of Law

Despoina Markaki, University of Crete

Keywords:  archaeological law; documentation; colonial; science

Archaeological documentation consists a sine qua non factor for the production of accurate archaeological knowledge. However, this aspect is usually overlooked, thus creating an inconsistency between the legitimate and the actual reality in the scientific process. A great number of ancient objects across the world are presented, studied and published as if they were properly documented. Universal museums and private collections are full of unprovenienced archaeological artefacts associated with impressive narratives about their past which are not accurate of course. Those narratives are constructed in order to serve specific interests and they are often correlated even with the properly excavated artefacts, thus misleading the public as well as the scholars. Is this legal or customary or not? In any case, is this tactic morally accepted or not?

According Muscarella the difference between artefacts with and without context should be considered as an epistemological one since their function as empirical data is lost and even their authenticity can be questioned. At the same time the disregard of the scientific method of documentation and study by scholars permits archaeology to be viewed as an anti-epistemological discipline (Muscarella 2000, 10, 18). In this respect archaeologists are responsible for this intentional deception of the public with their act or omission to tell the truth.

In this paper the main focus is given to the Greek legal framework of archaeological practice considering however the wider political, social and economic background in which this framework has been developed. The reception and the presentation of archaeological knowledge through the lens of law are discussed, as well as the legal obligation for their accurate study and publication. Ancient objects, monuments according the Greek law, are not protected for their aesthetic or economic value but as public goods, important for the public interest as scientific information providers. Through research projects they become part of social life since their testimony is getting closer to its recipient that is the public. The analysis of the Greek archaeological law will be the main methodological tool so as to identify the scope of this legal protection. Moreover, theories of materiality and anthropology of agency is used for the construction of the theoretical basis for this discourse (Hamilakis 2007; Olsen et al. 2012).

While the law is the omnipresent regulator of archaeological process its role in the formation of this process is rarely the object of theoretical discourse. The legal aspect of archaeological praxis is used as well, as a methodological tool aiming to a different approach of archaeology. The case of Greece for the application of such a conceptual analysis is particularly interesting because archaeology was used to construct the national narrative to support the national identity of the newly established Greek State. This kind of archaeology is also a kind of heritage for Greeks that can still be traced in archaeological praxis. Moreover, archaeological discoveries and past material remains were also used to support western modernity desideratum for a cradle of western civilization, thus having also a “continentalist” function (Hamilakis and Yalouri 1999; Morris 1994, 8–11). It will me clear though that the Greek legislator aims to define its object while trying to avoid the improper use of ideological or aesthetic criteria. Consequently, there is no reference to the aesthetic, artistic or even scientific value of past material remains, as such a distinction would be irrelevant to the spirit of the law.

The Greek law states in its first article that the protection aims at the preservation of historical memory in favor of the current and future generations, and the improvement of cultural environment. This explicit declaration of its scope consists a useful tool as it offers the basis for understanding the spirit of law that leads to its better interpretation and implementation since it clarifies that it is not just about the protection of property rights over the objects. Instead, this wording emphasizes mainly on our duty as successors of ancient remains to transfer to the future generations a world full of meaning and representations. Such a socio – functional character however requires their proper study free of stereotypes or uncritically adopted practices. At the same time it is important to keep in mind that this obligation before future generations and past matrial remains does not mean that archaeologists don’t belong to this world and they don’t serve people today {Citation}.

The impact of the law in the perception of archaeological remains not only for the public but also for the archaeologists will be taken into consideration as the principal approaching method. Carman suggests that the laws are a vector of moral change of archaeological remains (Carman 1996, vii) in order to underline its crucial role. In this respect the law can be seen as a tool for the application of several rules on archaeological remains while at the shame time it is the mean for the establishment of these rules (Carman 1996, 39–40). The Greek archaeological law as well as the archaeological practice reproduces the well-known, traditional concept of archaeological record by adopting the concept of ownership towards the material remains of the past. At the same time, the constant danger of looting together with the recent development of antiquities trafficking as an aspect of transnational organized crime has led to a very strict legal framework with an adverse impact on society and the archaeological method and practice.

In this framework it is important to take into consideration the role –usually unnoticed- of legislation on the formation of archaeological habitus and praxis. Through education and empirical experiences the law is embedded uncritically. Yet, this also an important parameter that defines archaeological science and even more the social perception of archaeology as process, profession and science.


Carman, John. 1996. Valuing Ancient Things : Archaeology and Law. London; New York: Leicester University Press.
Hamilakis, Yannis. 2007. “From Ethics to Politics.” In Archaeology and Capitalism: From Ethics to Politics, edited by Yannis Hamilakis and Philip Duke, 15–40. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.
Hamilakis, Yannis, and Eleana Yalouri. 1999. “Sacralising the Past: Cults of Archaeology in Modern Greece.” Archaeological Dialogues 6 (2): 115–35.
Morris, Ian. 1994. “Archaeologies of Greece.” In Classical Greece : Ancient Histories and Modern Archaeologies, 8–47. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press.
Muscarella, Oskar White. 2000. The Lie Became Great: The Forgery of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures. Studies in the Art and Archaeology of Antiquity 1. Groningen: Styx.
Olsen, Bjørnar, Michael Shanks, Timothy Wemoor, and Cristopher Witmore. 2012. Archaeology: The Discipline of Things. Berkeley: University of California Press.