Bringing Them Home: The Repatriation of Priceless Human Remains and Artifacts to Cambodia

The atmosphere was one of cordiality, but also marked anticipation, as a small crowd of Australian and Cambodian government officials, Embassy representatives, dignitaries, scientists and concerned citizens gathered in the private residence of His Excellency, Cambodian Ambassador Chum Sounry, on the morning of March 10th, 2011. As refreshments were served and the crowd mingled and exchanged pleasantries, everyone’s attention was eventually drawn to a small table positioned along one wall of the spacious lounge room on which was arranged a black tablecloth and several objects that, from a distance, looked like they might belong on display in a museum. However, on closer inspection, one realized that these artifacts, brazenly looted from one or more prehistoric cemetery sites in Cambodia, likely sometime within the last two years, bear stark witness to the most reprehensible side of the world-wide, multi-million dollar antiquities trade. The green bronze bangles, bracelets, arm braces and earrings on display this morning were still partially covered in corrosion, or filled with concreted soil. Furthermore, the majority of the items still contained the partial or complete bones of the individuals on whose arms and legs they were placed in preparation for burial some 2,500 years ago. The most shocking examples present were a nearly complete left-right pair of tibiae/fibulae (i.e. the lower legs, without the feet), completely covered in bronze bangles (see photo above left)! The photo is courtesy of my friend and colleague Noel Hidalgo-Tan, who has also blogged about his participation at the ceremony here.

Forever separated from the skeletons and burials to which they belonged, almost everything we could have learned about their lives is now lost, and for what? So a private collector can display these disembodied remains on their mantle piece or coffee table?! While I admit that most examples of antiquities sold or confiscated do not involve human remains, those that do are all the more repugnant for it! Knowing that willing dealer(s) in such macabre “pieces” exist is almost as shocking as knowing that there is anyone out there so desperate for the perceived ‘status’ that the private display of antiquities would allegedly bring them that they would willingly purchase fragments of a people’s ancestors (in this case, the Khmer people), even if their original ‘attraction’ to the ‘piece’ was the ‘aesthetics’ of the artifact itself. While the ‘supply’ side of the world-wide antiquities trade certainly requires continued outreach and educational efforts to stop looting before it starts, it is cases like these that demonstrate how rapacious the ‘demand’ side has become. Therefore, sharing some details of the case below is warranted. As a practicing Southeast Asian archaeologist and representative of both the Australian National University and Heritage Watch, I and several colleagues were cordially invited to witness this final, very positive, culmination of months of work.

This investigation started with a press release by the Australian Archaeological Association regarding the attempted sale on eBay of two of the above-mentioned arm braces, in clear violation of international law and eBay’s own policy. Although the items were quickly pulled off eBay, further investigations showed the advertisements to directly connect to a well-known Melbourne, Australia based antiquities gallery. This matter was first brought to my attention when I was sent a link to the online catalog entry for one of the braces, priced at several thousand dollars. As I had very recently begun contributing to and blogging for SAFE, I broke this story there on April 3rd, 2010, with two follow-up posts. As a result of this, I was contacted by staff from the Cultural Property division of the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts who administer the Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage 1986 (PMCH Act). I readily agreed to help where able, firstly by establishing contact between the government department and my colleague Dr. Dougald O’Reilly, the founder of Heritage Watch itself, with many years of on-the-ground excavation and anti-looting outreach experience in Cambodia.

After investigations, Cambodia lodged a request with Australia to seize and return the artifacts. The generally high profile nature of this rather gruesome defilement of a nation’s cultural heritage, therefore, reached a fitting end in this repatriation ceremony. Once the crowd had gathered, official speeches could commence. The ceremony opened with His Excellency, Ambassador Chum Sounry, welcoming one and all and expressing his great pleasure that these priceless artifacts and human remains were rescued in time, and with the full cooperation of Cambodian and Australian authorities. Other delegates spoke on behalf of the Australian government, stressing the fact that the fortunate chance confiscation of this material merely enforced the need for constant vigilance by all involved, and the need for continued cooperation between legal and archaeological professionals to combat the trade. Finally, Dr. O’Reilly spoke, reminding all present that what was being returned was only the tip of the iceberg, and that the more looting and illicit dealing is allowed to continue, the less we can know about humanity’s collective past. With the speeches over, free discussion and casual viewing of the artifacts was allowed until the ceremony concluded approximately two hours later.

Although these specific artifacts will now be promptly returned to Cambodia, most likely (in my opinion) to be stored or displayed at the National Museum, perhaps the most lasting effect of this case in regards to Australian law is that these artifacts and remains now serve as a ‘case study’ within a new Australian government promotional campaign targeting collectors, dealers and importers. With the slogan “Make Sure It’s Above Board,” its goal is to highlight all relevant laws separating licit from illicit antiquities trading in Australia, with relevant examples of confiscations and repatriations made when these laws were violated. Distributed in poster, brochure, and online PDF formats to all port authorities, art dealers/associations (such as AA&ADA), and Customs itself, this program shows real promise in proactively curtailing demand by hopefully getting people to think twice about what they try to import, sell, or buy. To my knowledge, this represents one of the few such programs anywhere in the world. Although undoubtedly looting across the Asia-Pacific region will continue, every such action is another strike against the trade. I, and all involved, remain exceedingly pleased to have assisted in this effort, especially given its rarity and its positive outcome.

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