The Valletta Convention was originally signed at Valletta, in Malta, in January 1992. It is a Convention, not of the EU, but of the Council of Europe, a body that preceded the EU, but still exists to deal mainly with cultural affairs.
The Valletta convention to a considerable extent follows the earlier London Convention of 1961 and English Heritage, and particularly Geoffrey Wainwright, its principle negotiator, regards it as a triumph in that it inserted some of the principles of Developer Funding, (known as PPG 16) into the convention. However much, especially paragraphs 3 and 10, is highly controversial, and this analysis seeks to go through the Convention and to interpret what it actually says.
Preamble, and Article 1. There is an obvious objection to the preamble in that it nowhere makes clear that the power of governments should always be limited, especially in fields as intangible as the heritage; and the role of the convention should be to define those areas in which governments could, and perhaps should intervene, and those areas which should be left essentially to the citizens of the countries concerned.
A paragraph could perhaps be inserted into the Preamble along the following lines:
Acknowledging that the archaeological heritage is largely owned by and studied by the ordinary citizen, that the role of the state should be limited to providing a framework rather than trying to direct the study and preservation of the past.
Article 2 represents, to a considerable extent, British practice.
2 (i) calls for the making of lists and schedule, which is precisely the core of English practice.
2 (ii) the creation of archaeological reserves, is vague.
2 (iii), the mandatory reporting is pie in the sky – how are you going to force building labourers to report findings which may lead to delays in the buildings concerned? The English approach, through the creation of the Portable Antiquaries scheme, is far more practical.
Article 3 is the heart of the problem.
Article 3 reads:
‘… each party undertakes … to apply procedures for the authorisation and supervision of excavation and other archaeological activities in such a way as … to ensure that excavations and other potentially destructive techniques are carried out only by qualified, specially authorised persons … to subject to specific prior authorisation, the use of metal detectors and any other detection equipment or process for archaeological investigation’.
This is a remarkably comprehensive statement, calling not only for the licensing of excavations, but also for the specific authorisation of excavators. It also bans not only metal detectors, but also all geophysical surveying equipment, even though these are entirely non-destructive. The Council for Independent Archaeology has sponsored the production of a very effective Resistivity meter, of which over 100 have now been sold, mostly to local archaeological societies. It would appear that these would be outlawed should the Valletta provisions be put into law.
In response to these concerns raised over Article 3 by the Council for Independent Archaeology, the government replied that “The Government do not believe that additional legislation, requiring a licensing system, is necessary to fulfil Article 3” which is welcome, but also suggests that they have not read Article 3 very carefully. The danger is that this interpretation has not been transmitted to the Council of Europe, and is merely hidden away in a reply to a Parliamentary Question. What is needed is an official ‘Reservation’ to be made to the Council of Europe so that they are aware that the British government does not intend to fulfill article 3 and will object should the Council of Europe attempt to do impose it, and that in any future revision of the Convention, this will need to be amended and re-written.
Articles 4, 5 and 6 form the heart of the additions to the Convention inserted into the previous convention at Valetta – they deal essentially with developer funding of archaeology, and what we call ‘PPG 16’. Though note article 6, where paragraph 1 calls for public financial report for research archaeology whereas paragraph 2 by implication proposes developer funding for rescue archaeology.
Article 7 deals with publication – though note that paragraph (1) essentially duplicates Article 2 paragraph 1.
Article 9 – the promotion of public awareness demonstrates well the rottenness at the heart of the Convention. It sets out to acknowledge the existence of the general public, but it does so in a way that is insulting to citizen archaeologists. The article sees the role of the public as being simply people who need to be made aware, – no more. They are not seen as being the major agents in the preservation of the past – virtually all historic buildings for instance are actually owned and lived in by ordinary people – yet the Convention sees their role as limited to being ‘educated’ and to being ‘allowed access’ to ‘important elements’ and ‘suitably selected archaeological objects’. This arrogance is insulting and wholly unacceptable and the whole article needs to be totally re-thought and re-written.
Article 10 deals with illicit circulation. This is the other article in addition to article 3 that has caused major problems, in this case from the British Museum.
The specific problem comes in paragraph iii, which says that Museums under state control should not acquire elements of the archaeological heritage ‘suspected of coming from uncontrolled finds’. Yet this chasing up of casual finds – made perhaps by builders or farmers – is precisely what the British Museum spends much of its time doing and is now the major purpose of the Portable Antiquities scheme. This whole article needs to be re-thought and re-written along the lines of the philosophy that underlies the Portable Antiquities scheme, and making it clear that States should always pay full market value for all objects that they acquire.
Article 12 – Mutual, technical and scientific assistance – looks suspiciously like civil servants underwriting jollies for themselves.
Article 13 – control of the application of the convention. Note that there is a ‘committee of experts’ set up to monitor the application of the convention. They should be formally informed as to the government’s interpretation of article 3, and a formal reservation over both articles 3 and 10 should be submitted. It is also desirable that this Committee of Experts should consist of equal numbers of professional and amateur archaeologists.
The problem is that the Convention mixes the European tradition, that archaeology should be essentially something done by the government, and that archaeological excavations should be forbidden except under licence, with the liberal British tradition. The British tradition believes that the role of the government should be limited, and that archaeology is something that should be done essentially by the citizens of the country concerned, and that restriction on excavation should be limited to certain specific sites. Virtually all historic buildings are owned by individuals, not by the government, and these it is these individuals who are mainly responsible for the preservation of the past. And it is individuals (amateurs), frequently banding together in archaeological societies, who have long played a major role in the investigation of the past. The convention nowhere, except in the arrogant Article 9, makes any reference to the role of the citizens. This makes the whole convention inherently flawed.
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