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St. Louis archaeologists still split over last year's controversial antiquities sale

Archaeologists and crew members from the Illinois State Archaeological Survey work at an East St. Louis dig site.
Véronique LaCapra | St. Louis Public Radio
Archaeologists and crew members from the Illinois State Archaeological Survey work at an East St. Louis dig site.

A year-old fracas in the St. Louis Society has left the city’s archaeology community fractured. 

“What we’ve seen over the past year is a fragmenting of what used to be a really robust group here in town into smaller communities who are allied around the issues that they’re concerned about,” said Douglas Boin, assistant professor at Saint Louis University.

The issues at stake are defined by different approaches to preserving artifacts from ancient civilizations.  The St. Louis Society, the local chapter of the Archaeology Institute of America, became the center of a controversy early this year when the leadership and board attempted to sell Egyptian antiquities. Many members of the society felt the sale betrayed their mission of protecting artifacts and respecting the cultural heritage of the objects. This criticism was bolstered by some local museum administrators and those with a more general interest. 

The national organization eventually got involved and demanded the board step down and the leadership be replaced as a result of the sale. A vote at a national AIA conference supported these measures.

The St. Louis chapter leadership agreed to comply under protest and denied any wrong-doing.

Now, what has changed? Representatives from the national organization declined to comment but one former official said they were looking to put the events of last year behind them.

At press-time the chapter’s current president declined to comment and redirected inquiries to the organization’s press releases. The chapter’s officers and board have been replaced.

The conflict caused some members to lose faith in the St. Louis Society’s ability to fulfill its mission.  Although the sale was stopped, they could no longer support the organization. 

“I think that a lot of us here in St. Louis were really disappointed by the leadership both of the local organization and, quite frankly, the national organization who came to the sale of the antiquities really rather late in a really rather haphazard fashion that led from behind,” said Boin.

The fall-out included the decision of some former St. Louis Society members to resign from the organization. These people have worked to provide other intellectual and academic archaeological opportunities to the public without the umbrella of the local AIA chapter or the national organization. Boin said these independent events are aimed at heightening the conversation surrounding cultural heritage and preservation throughout St. Louis. 

“I think that’s a sign of things to come. We’re going to see more local initiative to bring archaeology in a responsible way to the people of St. Louis,” Boin said.

He hopes these events provide an alternative to the local AIA lectures.

The artifacts that initially came under scrutiny as part of the proposed sale were acquired by the Metropolitan Museum in New York for an undisclosed sum. The current leaders of the organization hope to use the funds to reboot a defunct program aimed at encouraging adolescents to pursue an interest in archeology.

The St. Louis Society’s next event will be in February.  

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