Written by Denis Byrne.

The trafficking of Southeast Asian antiquities continues to flourish after decades of effort by archaeologists and heritage advocacy groups to stop it and despite export of antiquities being outlawed in the countries of the region. Underlying this issue, however, lurks a problem with the way we have framed antiquities trafficking as primarily a flow of objects from archaeological sites in Southeast Asia to private and institutional collectors in the West. In this construction, Asia is depicted as both a source region for objects destined for Western antiquities collections and as a victim of Western collecting practices.

The West’s self-image as modern, actively progressive and freedom loving came into view via a long tradition of portraying the Orient as archaic, passive, unchanging, and despotic. It fits this habit of alterity to see Southeast Asia as the passive victim of Western antiquities collectors, an asymmetric model of agency that has come to seem natural.

Without doubting the reality of large-scale illegal exports of antiquities to Western countries or the damage this has inflicted on Southeast Asia’s archaeological sites, it is important we appreciate that even if unlicensed antiquities exports were throttled off, a flourishing demand for these objects among the rapidly growing middle class of Southeast Asia would ensure that the illicit excavation of pre-modern burial sites and other archaeological deposits would continue, as would the tearing of stone sculptures off the face of ancient monuments. Such objects would be trafficked internally.

Since the seminal work of the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in the 1960 and 1970s we’ve known that the possession of antiquities is a pathway for individuals to accumulate cultural capital and thus enhance their social status. In countries like Thailand and the Philippines, well known collectors among the social and political elite serve as models for those among those in the middle class who are money-rich but status-poor. These high-status exemplar collectors include members of the Thai royalty and, in the Philippines, members of the Senate. They help set the value of their country’s antiquities as cultural capital, but it can even be argued that the display of antiquities in national museums heightens their aura and stimulates the market for them among citizen collectors.

As powerful symbols of good taste, antiquities possess an aura and agency which works independently of the individual who happens to own them at any given time. The mere presence in a Bangkok living room of a 14th century stone Buddha image or a Bronze Age Ban Chiang pottery jar announces the good taste and connoisseurship of the householder, even when he or she is sadly bereft of either. In a wicked nexus, this situation seems aggravated by the efforts by the governments of Southeast to promote the protection their national heritage.

Time and again in interviews I conducted with private collectors in the Philippines and Thailand, they styled themselves as protectors of their nation’s heritage, claiming that if they hadn’t “saved” these things from avaricious foreigners they would be now be resting on the glass coffee tables of Paris and New York. It is my view that the more international heritage agencies and anti-trafficking activists stick to the simplistic and erroneous model of Southeast Asian countries being mere sources of antiquities rather than, increasingly, being markets for them, the longer the region’s citizen-collectors can escape social condemnation by posing as heritage saviours.

The popular press in Southeast Asia thrives on reportage of ancient ceramics, sculpture and jewellery fetching hefty prices at international art auctions. The simplistic narrative of rich Westerners plundering the heritage of the poor Asian countries often glosses over the fact that increasingly the buyers of these objects are citizens of those same countries. But even where this becomes known, it merely provides the citizen collector with another opportunity to pose as a rescuer of national heritage.

Certainly, there can be no doubt about the negative effects of antiquities trafficking, whether the traffic in question is internal or external. In Southeast Asia, the excavation of antiquities specifically to supply collectors seems to have been negligible until the 1950s. But by the 1960s it was widespread in the Philippines and by the 1980s every major site there with Asiatic trade ceramics was said to have been wholly or partly destroyed by looters.

In the early 1970s in Northeast Thailand an outbreak of digging by local people targeted Bronze Age graves containing distinctive Ban Chiang ceramics which had begun to fetch high prices in Bangkok. At the height of this outbreak people were digging tunnels under village streets and houses in search of the pottery.  By the 1980s such illicit digging at archaeological sites was common across the country. One archaeologist claimed that as many as 90 percent of the ancient monuments in Northeast Thailand had been severely damaged by looters. Local people were digging for antiquities in Cambodia by at least 1973 and by today the number of archaeological sites there that have been potholed runs into the thousands. Some of these sites resemble images of the battlefields of the First World War.

Casting the East is a more-or-less passive victim of the agency of Western collectors has not helped. With a few anomalies–Greece, for example, is characterised mainly as a source country and Japan as a collector country–what is depicted is a unilinear east-to-west flow of antiquities. In reality, apart from internal trafficking to domestic collectors, there is a clear and significant traffic of antiquities from the poorer Southeast Asian countries, such as Cambodia and Myanmar, to the wealthier, especially to Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia. The collecting confraternity in the West harbours no illusion about collector desire in Asia – they are only too familiar with being out-bidden at Asian art auctions by cashed-up collectors from the region.

So why is the east-to-west model of antiquities trafficking so ingrained? I argue that part of the explanation lies in the West’s habit of alterity, in terms of which the West has helped find its identity by casting Asia as its other. The West’s self-image as modern, actively progressive and freedom loving came into view via a long tradition of portraying the Orient as archaic, passive, unchanging, and despotic. Edward Said’s Orientalism is still the best-known explication of this process.  It fits this habit of alterity to see Southeast Asia as the passive victim of Western antiquities collectors, an asymmetric model of agency that has come to seem natural. But it stands in the way of finding real solutions to the traffic in Southeast Asian antiquities.

Denis Byrne is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University. He is an archaeologist and heritage specialist whose work focusses on Australia and Southeast Asia. His research interests include the heritage of transnational migration and the history of archaeological heritage management in Asia. His books include Surface Collection: Archaeological Travels in Southeast Asia (2007) and Counter Heritage: Critical Perspectives on Heritage Conservation in Asia (2014). Image credit: CC by Jean Marie Hullot/Flickr. 


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