For the last c. 5 decades, as a profession, in much of Europe, we have been dealing with looting, illicit trade of archaeological finds, non-reporting of finds, and ultimately restitution by, mainly, legal prohibitions. Yet, this approach has abysmally failed: instances of looting have become more frequent as technology (especially metal detecting technology has improved), as has illicit trade; and while there are a few successful cases of restitution and prosecutions, cases as often, if not more often, fail rather than end successfully. In this contribution, I will argue that for most of this, we have only ourselves to blame, not because we have not succeeded in making our laws tough enough; but because we have failed to make intelligent laws.
In this paper, I will argue – based on a new proposal I have submitted to the Austrian Minister responsible for matters of Heritage for new archaeological provisions for the Austrian Monuments Protection Law – that there are only two magic moments where heritage legislation matters: the moment an archaeological find is discovered, and the moment its finder decides whether to report it to the authorities or not. I will argue that any laws, to be effective at preventing as much archaeological damage, and create as much archaeological good as possible, must be aimed at, precisely, these two magic moments; and encourage finders of archaeology to act in the ways most beneficial and least damaging to the archaeology as possible.
Blanket prohibitions against searching and trading archaeological finds, and treasure trove legislation, prevent only one outcome: that finds are properly recorded in the first and properly reported in the second magic moment. They ignore the psychology of finders, and thus, ultimately, are counterproductive.