What is at stake for China?

China’s history and archaeology is key to our understanding of development of human society and civilization. Most of the information about ancient Chinese history has yet to be excavated. Objects uncovered in their original contexts and properly interpreted provide insight into the way our ancestors lived, what they ate, how they farmed, how they thought and what they did. Illegal excavations rob everyone of this knowledge.

These bilateral, government-to-government agreements have proven to be effective in curbing looting of ancient sites by making it harder for smugglers to bring looted artifacts to market in the United States. From Cambodia to Italy to Peru, they have been credited by archaeologists, law enforcement, and government officials with helping to bring the problem of looting under control. An agreement with China could help greatly to curb the demolition of ancient sites to feed the antiquities trade. Read here for more information.

Our ability to study and appreciate Chinese antiquities will be enhanced, because when artifacts are properly excavated, studied and displayed to the public, objects are no longer simply “pretty but dumb”, (Stealing History by Roger Atwood, St. Martin’s Press, 2004). What import restrictions will diminish is the incentive to loot in order to satisfy the urge to possess yet another piece of Chinese porcelain in a rich man’s home.

There is no shortage of Chinese antiquities in the U.S. museums and institutions. Currently, there are 47 museums with collections of Chinese antiquities. Between 2000 and 2004, there were 15 museum exhibitions focusing on China alone and in 2005, 30 more are planned.

The burgeoning popularity of international loan exhibitions of properly excavated antiquities shows that this is a profitable alternative —both in the monetary as well as the educational sense—for museums to pursue, as the best way to bring the wonders of the past to a broad public audience instead of the continuing acquisition of objects with no provenance.

The US is a leader in the market for Chinese antiquities, SAFE believes that it should lead in the efforts to protect the cultural heritage of the people they belong to: all of us.


Case study: A set of 65 bells from the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng (d. 433 BC). Height 8’ 11”, length of long arm 24’ 7”, excavated in 1979. On permanent display in the Hubei Provincial Museum in Wuhan at Suizhou, Hubei province

Excerpt from the February 2 2005 statement by Robert W. Bagley, Professor, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University in support of China’s request for import restriction of certain Chinese antiquities into the U.S (read full text here).

They have gold-inlaid inscriptions about music theory; the text is spread over the bells and continues on the wooden rack. These inscriptions are the earliest known Chinese writings about music theory. Moreover each bell is labelled with its pitch, and the bells still sound their original pitches, so the musical scale of the 5th century BC is written out for us on an instrument that can still play that scale. And the scale is a surprise: it is a chromatic scale, in other words it is exactly the same scale that we tune our pianos to today. This set of bells is by far the oldest chromatically-tuned instrument known anywhere; it is older by almost 2000 years than the earliest Western instruments tuned chromatically.

If the bells had been looted, Professor Bagley continued,

…nothing would survive of the orchestra but the bells, and the bells would survive only as scattered individuals, not as a tuned set.

If that had happened, what would we have lost? We would not have a date for the objects that survived; only one object in the tomb has a datable inscription, and once the other objects were separated from it, they would be undatable. Worse still, there would be no record of where the bells were found or how many were found together; we would not know what the set originally consisted of, we would not even be certain that the bells we knew of were components of a single set. Not having all the inscriptions, we would be unable to make sense of the ones we had. And we would never suspect that the set plays a chromatic scale. Instead of being the greatest discovery in the history of musical archaeology, this tomb would just have supplied some pretty bells to a few collectors.