I surveyed 90 countries with one or more archaeological sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list, and my study shows that in most cases, the number of discovered sites diminishes sharply after a country passes a cultural property law. There are 222 archaeological sites listed for those 90 countries. When you look into the history of the sites, you see that all but 21 were discovered before the passage of cultural property laws.
On average in art-rich countries, discoveries that landed on UNESCO’s list diminished by 90 percent after these laws were passed. To illustrate: Italy has seven archaeological sites on the World Heritage list; five were discovered before its 1909 cultural property law, but only two after.
Many variables may cause a drop-off in archaeological discoveries country by country, but statistically speaking, it’s nearly impossible that the decline shown in the data isn’t also related to the passage of cultural property laws.
Strict cultural patrimony laws are popular in most countries. But the downside may be that they reduce incentives for foreign governments, nongovernmental organizations and educational institutions to invest in overseas exploration, because their efforts will not necessarily be rewarded by opportunities to hold, display and study what is uncovered. To the extent that source countries can fund their own archaeological projects, artifacts and sites may still be discovered. But the drop in World Heritage Site discoveries after passage of cultural property laws suggests that external sources aren’t as active as they were, and domestic funding isn’t offsetting the loss.
The survey has far-reaching implications. It suggests that source countries, particularly in the developing world, should narrow their cultural property laws so that they can reap the benefits of new archaeological discoveries, which typically increase tourism and enhance cultural pride. This does not mean these nations should abolish restrictions on foreign excavation and foreign claims to artifacts.