Janet Ulph on Acquiring Fossils

A Seymouria Fossil , from the California Academy of Sciences, via.

Professor Janet Ulph of Leicester Law School has written a handy and concise discussion of how fossils fit into the overall picture of cultural heritage crime.

This article explains why museums should avoid acquiring fossils which lack sufficient provenance and where the circumstances are suspicious. It argues that, regardless of whether one considers fossils to be cultural property or not, the Museums Association’s Code of Ethics should be followed not only in order to maintain public trust in museums but also to ensure compliance with current laws

Ulph, J. 2018. Acquiring fossils: a complex picture. The Geological Curator 10 (10): 657-670.

Using Injunctions to Stop Fossil Hunters in England

The Jurassic Coast in Devon

Carolyn Shelbourn, a Senior Lecturer at the Sheffield University School of Law has forwarded on a couple of interesting stories on the use of injunctions to prevent the taking of fossils in England.  In England, fossils have very little legal protection, and authorities have had to resort to injunctions, because the criminal provisions which apply to certain classes of antiquities do not apply to fossils. 

Recently the National Trust and the Charmouth council won an order banning a Somerset man from extracting fossils out of cliffs on the coast.  The National Trust has said:

The man has been involved in extracting large numbers of fossils by digging expressly against the wishes of the landowners and the guidance of the West Dorset fossil collecting code of conduct. His actions have also placed the public, including walkers and families, at risk from falling rocks.

Another injunction was made against “unknown persons” from digging in the area.  Fossils may still be collected from the beach, but not the cliffs.  The wholesale, perhaps even commercial taking was causing damage, and these injunctions were perhaps the only way to prevent these takings.  Shelbourn notes that this “persons unknown” injunction is a recent development in the law, first used perhaps to prevent a pre-publication of one of the Harry Potter books.  She notes also that “[t]hey have also been used here to try to prevent planned environmental protests . . .  The [National Trust] appear to have had to use civil law because of the lack of legal protection via criminal law.”   

  1. Jurassic ban for fossil diggers, BBC, March 25, 2010.
  2. Diarmuid MacDonagh, Rogue fossil hunters banned from Jurassic Coast section (From Dorset Echo) (2010) (last visited May 4, 2010).
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AP: Antiquities Trade "Growing problem at US Ports"

Tamara Lush has an overview of antiquities coming through US ports:

_ On Monday, federal authorities will repatriate some 1,000 items, including a rare temple marker worth $100,000, to Iraq. On June 7, 2001, ICE agents in New York received information from the Art Loss Register that a Sumerian Foundation Cone, buried under a Babylonian temple, was being sold by auction at Christie’s New York. ICE New York agents seized the artifact from Christie’s and discovered that it, and several other items in the U.S., had been stolen from the Baghdad Museum and other locations at the end of the first Gulf War.

_ In May, four tons of fossils from Argentina — including 200-million-year-old dinosaur eggs, egg shell fragments, petrified pine cones and fossilized prehistoric crabs — were seized by federal agents in Tucson, Ariz. Authorities said a corporation based in Argentina had brought the fossils into the country. No arrests have been made, but the fossils were repatriated.

_ In February, an Army pilot was arrested and charged with stealing 370 pre-dynastic artifacts from the Ma’adi Museum near Cairo, Egypt, and selling them to an art dealer in Texas for $20,000. The artifacts, dating to 3000 B.C. and earlier, were originally discovered during excavations in Egypt in the 1920s and 1930s. The pilot, Edward George Johnson, pleaded guilty in June and is awaiting sentencing.

Lush does not follow her argument to its logical extension though. She notes the new AAM and AAMD guidelines, as well as the difficulty ICE agents and others have in establishing criminal wrongdoing. She fails to note looted antiquities can still slip through this patchwork regulatory framework because of the paucity of accurate provenance information given in antiquities transactions.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com