Ann Gibbons: Ötzi Finders Hit Pay Dirt, and Scientists Fret

Roundup: Talking About History

When I visit researchers in the field, they always bristle when writers compare their search for fossils or antiquities to treasure hunting. Few modern researchers ever profit personally from their discoveries, and in fact they often tell local people that fossils and mummies are worthless in monetary terms. “If you start buying and selling fossils, it will ruin our work,” says paleoanthropologist Elwyn Simons of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who has spent decades uncovering early primates in Egypt.

That’s why I was surprised to read this week that the German couple who discovered Ötzi the Iceman—the oldest naturally preserved mummy in Europe—will be paid a finder’s fee of €150,000 (about $250,000). As they were hiking in the Tyrolean Alps of northern Italy in 1991, Helmut Simon and his wife, Erika, spotted the preserved body of a Neolithic hunter protruding from a melting glacier that had encased it for more than 5300 years, according to a report in Radiology. Ötzi has been far more famous in death than in his short, obscure life—he has been the subject of countless scientific papers, books, and documentaries. He is also the star attraction at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, where he earns about €2.5 million a year (about $3.2 million) in admission fees, according to Mummy Tombs.

Not surprisingly, it didn’t take the Simons long to realize that there was money to be made, and they filed a lawsuit asking to be declared the “official discoverers.” Eventually, they sought $300,000 as a finder’s fee, hoping the museum would settle out of court. But local officials appealed. And after a series of court decisions, including a final appeal by local officials to Italy’s highest court, attorneys for the Simons last September announced a six-figure settlement. Last week, the provincial government of Bolzano finally announced that it would pay the Simons $250,000.

This decision “raises many ethical issues,” writes Heather Pringle in her weekly blog for Archaeology magazine. Not the least is that it creates an incentive for amateurs to search for mummies and fossils at sites worldwide, and it even raises the specter of looting of tombs.

This isn’t far-fetched. Paleontologists have long had problems with locals digging up dinosaurs, such as feathered dinosaurs from Liaoning, China. In one case, local farmers collected legally and then split a dinosaur fossil in half and sold it to two rival museums in China, thereby earning more money but risking damage to the incredibly rare fossil. Researchers add that amateurs who dig also damage the sites, where researchers seek everything from fossilized pollen to animal bones to reconstruct ancient worlds. Antiquities laws in most nations reflect this concern and prohibit the sale of human remains and artifacts, although animal fossils are often fair game.

And yet the Simons won their finder's fee. And that payment comes only weeks after paleontologists were in uproar about the hype over a remarkably complete fossil of a 47-million-year-old primate dubbed Ida, which was bought for an undisclosed six-figure sum. Ida’s discoverers claimed she was a “missing link” between primates and humans, but they were also upset that paleontologist Jørn Hurum of the Natural History Museum of the University of Oslo had bought the fossil, which had been collected illegally. Ida was also split in half, with one part forged and sold to a museum in Wyoming, prompting some paleontologists to wonder if the specimen had been damaged in the process.

They are also worried about the precedent that buying fossils and paying finder's fees establishes. “One thing I’m very upset about is that a huge amount of money was paid for this,” Simons told me when the discovery of Ida was announced. “If collectors are going to divide these fossils and resell them, we can’t study them.”

At the same time, he’s worried that Egyptians who learn about Ida and Ötzi will try to collect and sell the primate fossils he gathers in the Fayum Province. “I’ve told them you can’t sell a jaw for a nickel,” says Simons. “If you start dealing with fossils like this and they’re bought and sold and bring huge amounts of money, this will ruin our chances to work overseas.”

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