Colin Renfrew

Archaeologist honored for his efforts to educate the public about looting and the black market trade of antiquities.

“Crisis is not too strong a word to use when we speak of the predicament which today faces the historic heritage in nearly every country on earth. The world’s archaeological resource, which through the practice of archaeology is our principal source of knowledge about the early human past, is being destroyed at a formidable and increasing rate. It is destroyed by looters in order to serve the lucrative market in illicit artefacts through which private collectors and, alas, some of the major museums of the world, fulfil their desire to accumulate antiquities. Such unprovenanced antiquities, ripped from their archaeological context without record (and without any hope of publication), can tell us little that is new. The opportunity is thereby lost for them to add to our understanding of the past history and prehistory of the regions from which they come, or to our perception of the early development of human society.”

—Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership: The Ethical Crisis in Archaeology (2000)

Few can speak with Prof. Colin Renfrew’s authority on the grave impact looting has had on humanity’s understanding of its past. Early in his storied career he focused on the study of Cycladic figurines, virtually all of which have been looted with few clues remaining to their provenance. Despite this imposing challenge, his work on the Cycladic Islands added immeasurably to not just our knowledge of the fi gurines, but of the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age people who created them. Now, after decades of ground-breaking research that has ranged from re-writing Aegean prehistory to pioneering cognitive archaeology, he is one of the world’s most eloquent champions of ethical museum acquisition policies and has publicly and forcefully campaigned against the link between museums and the illicit antiquities trade.

2009 Beacon Award posterColin Renfrew was born in 1937 in Stockton-on-Tees in North East England, and was educated at St. Albans School. After serving a stint in the Royal Air Force from 1956 to 1958, he received his B.A. in Archaeology and Anthropology at St. John’s College, Cambridge in 1962. As a research student there and at the British School of Archaeology at Athens, he wrote “Neolithic and Bronze Age cultures of the Cyclades and their external relations” and in 1965 received his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge. He was elected a Research Fellow at St. John’s College and took up a post as lecturer at the Department of Prehistory and Archaeology of the University of Sheffield.

In 1972 Renfrew joined the University of Southampton as Professor of Archaeology and Head of the Department. In 1981, he became Disney Professor of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge, a post he held until he retired in 2004. That year he also became Head of the Department of Archaeology and Fellow of St. John’s College. In 1986 he became a Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, where he served as Master from 1986 to 1997. In 1990 he was appointed the first director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research and the next year was made a life peer, choosing the title “Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn.” In 1996, with Dr. Neil Brodie, he helped create the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of numerous popular and scholarly books, including Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership: The Ethical Crisis in Archaeology (2000).

Among his many awards are the Lucy Wharton Drexel Medal of the University of Pennsylvania Museum (2003) and the European Latsis Prize of the European Science Foundation, Strasbourg (2003). He has been awarded honorary degrees by the University of Sheffield, the University of Athens, the University of Southampton, the University of Liverpool, the University of Edinburgh, the University of St. Andrews, the University of Kent at Canterbury, and the University of London. He has served as a trustee of the British Museum (1991-2001), as Council member of the British Academy (1997-2000) and as Vice President of the Prehistoric Society (1979-1983), the Council of British Archaeology (1979-1982) and the Royal Archaeological Institute (1982-1984). He currently serves as a trustee of the Antiquity Trust.

In addition to helping define “processual archaeology” and making critically important conceptual breakthroughs, including his paradigm-shifting theory of the origins of Indo-European peoples, Renfrew is no stranger to fieldwork, and has a long history of excavations. He directed archaeological digs at the Neolithic site of Saliagos in the Cyclades from 1964 to 1965 and from 1968 to 1970 he excavated at the Neolithic and Bronze Age site of Sitagroi in northeastern Greece. He then focused on the United Kingdom, supervising excavations at the Neolithic passage grave of Quanterness on the Mainland of the Orkney Islands from 1972-1974.

He later returned to the Cyclades Islands, digging at the Bronze Age cult center of Phylakopi in Melos (1974- 1977). From 1987 to 1991 he continued to work in the Cyclades, and was co-director of excavations at the Early Bronze Age fortified settlement of Markiani in Amorgos and at the ritual site of Dhaskalio Kavos on Keros, where Renfrew discovered signs of heavy looting as a graduate student. He returned to Dhaskalio Kavos to excavate from 2006 to 2008. Renfrew’s illustrious career, made up of both important excavations and dramatic theoretical insights, stands on its own as a powerful answer to the crisis posed to the world’s historic heritage by the antiquities trade. His dedicated campaigning against that threat only amplifies the critical role he has played in the struggle against looting.


A ripple of anticipation moved through the large crowd filling the ballroom of the downtown Marriott. This gala reception and awards ceremony was being held to honor Professor Colin Renfrew for his outstanding efforts in the fight against the illicit trafficking of antiquities for profit. Midst loud applause and popping flashbulbs, Professor Renfrew received a hero’s welcome as well as the prestigious Beacon Award presented to him by SAFE president, Cindy Ho, and Richard Leventhal of  the Penn Cultural Heritage Center, which co-sponsored the event.

A hush fell over the room, as this world renown archeologist began his timely and revealing talk, “Combating the Illicit Antiquities Trade: the 1970 Rule as a Turning Point (or How the Metropolitan Museum lags behind the Getty).”

Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership by Colin RenfrewBecause of the 1970 UNESCO Convention, provenance of antiquities should reach back to at least that date. “Many great museums,” says Renfrew, “including the Metropolitan, have chosen to overlook this ruling.” A fairly recent example is that of the Euphronious krater at the heart of a three decade tug-of-war between the Met and the Italian government. During Montebello’s 30 year tenure as Director of the Met, many antiquities with questionable provenance were acquired. Some purchased by the museum itself, and some were gifts, most notably of Met trustee Shelby White, a wealthy private collector. Professor Renfrew urges the Met’s new Director, Thomas P. Campbell, to set new standards in antiquities acquisitions, as well as to question the origin of gifts from its patrons. This is one instance when it is important to look a gift horse in the mouth. The Met, as one of the world’s most prestigious museums, exerts great influence when it comes to setting good practices. “I have every confidence that the Met will step up and do its best to be an inspiration to other museums in this regard.”

Renfrew praised The Getty Museum “for showing good will both in the adoption of its own impressive version of the original UNESCO guidelines and its willingness to return known looted antiquities, well over 40 pieces, back to their countries of origin. Museums and individuals alike must be held accountable for under writing the illicit antiquities trade and the theft of cultural identity.”

Icing on the cake for this memorable evening, was the raffling off of prizes, which included a private lunch with Professor Renfrew for three lucky people. At the conclusion of the lecture, attendees sipped wine and purchased copies of Professor Renfrew’s book, Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership, which the Award winner signed for them. Guests seemed reluctant for the event to end, staying on to chat with Professor Renfrew and each other about the challenges that lie ahead.

I felt somewhat smarter when I woke up on Sunday than the day before.Collin O'Brien, one of the 10 FREE ticket winners to the SAFE Beacon Award Lecture & Reception


Saturday January 10, 2009, 6:30PM – 9:00PM
Marriott Downtown Hotel Grand Ballroom, Salon G1201 Market Street Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

2009 SAFE Beacon Award Souvenir Journal

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