Sep 13, 2012

An Interview with Tomas Michalik, Slovak Lawyer and Archaeologist

Fake antiquities seized in Slovakia in 2010
I recently had a chance to have a conversation with Tomas Michalik, a lawyer and archaeologist working to protect cultural heritage sites in his native Slovakia. Slovakia is a central European nation with an impressive array of cultural heritage sites, but also some unique challenges. Many of the areas I talk about here a lot are the Mediterranean, but heritage protection and preservation is is a struggle in every single nation, and it is good to remind ourselves that other nations need consideration, not just the same usual suspects. Here is an excerpt of our conversation:

What challenges do heritage advocates in Slovakia face?

The first (and in my point of view most important) challenge is the problem with the enforcement of the law. The Act on the Protection of Monuments and Historic Sites (No. 49/2002 Coll. as amended) has generally very good wording, a system of competences and has created legal consequences.  But due to our legal traditions and sometimes even legal thinking which are remnants of the communist era, we face difficulties with the enforcement of the law. Prosecution and courts sometime have very strange interpretations of the Act. Administrative delicts [legal causes of actions or torts] are usually being solved by Regional Monuments Boards or by the Monuments Board of the Slovak Republic, but the most important cases, like the destruction of the 18th century pastorate ("house of the priest") in Žilina, were stopped by the prosecution, under very problematic justification. Another problem is the lack of staff of the Monuments Board of the Slovak Republic. Our colleagues usually do their job very well (at least in Slovak conditions), but they don´t have enough people to control the implementation of the decisions in practice out in the field. And Unfortunately, there is sometime political pressure when the interests of somebody important at local or central level are endangered.

What kinds of sites and objects are at risk of looting in Slovakia?

Mainly archaeological sites are targets of looting. In the past, mainly in the 1990´s, churches suffered thefts, with sacred objects stolen to be sold to collectors, mainly abroad. Thanks to the Ministry of Culture all the important churches and church objects have alarm equipment today, but the loss since the 1990´s is irrecoverable. Since this time we also face the problem with treasure hunters, usually using metal detectors. This problem is huge not only in Slovakia or other countries of Central Europe, but also within the rest of Europe. In 2006 or 2007 Slovakia (specifically the Ministry of Interior, with the cooperation of Ministry of Culture) established a specialized police unit especially to police culture crimes. We have trained them (and later also prosecutors), but its future is not certain. We had also some success, as several cases of metal detectorists were already solved by the court. There are different kinds of archaeological sites which are the objects of looting, mainly castle ruins, prehistoric hillforts, open-air sites, Roman camps or graveyards. Due to establishment of better tools to protect (mainly archaeological) cultural heritage we have enacted more strict legal rules, which came into force atSept. 1st, 2011.
Looting is often blamed on a local population who may not conceive of the value of their heritage. I think this argument often can become problematic, as it quickly justifies looting and illegal export. What can you tell us about local attitudes about heritage?

Unfortunatelly, local people usually do not recognize the value of their heritage. But I think the situation is getting better, and there are some campaigns and a general increase of information. This has caused local people to have much more interest in what they have within their villages and towns. Personally, I have lectured for the students not only in the Department of Archaeology, but also in the village I come from for the children within the Lecture of Regional Education. When comparing with the past, local people now inform the police or their mayor on problematic and suspicious metal detectorist´s activities within the cadastre of the municipality. The ministry of Culture has provided a lot of money to the conservation and restoration of the cultural monuments in Slovak towns and villages so people begin to be proud of these monuments. In 2011 Ministry of Culture initiated program of conservation of castle ruins with the help of unemployed people, which is financially covered not only from our budget, but it is supported also by the European Social Fund. Principle stands on our belief that it is good to motivate unemployed people not only to take a money from the state for doing nothin, but to contribute to the preservation of the local monuments. In 2011 pilot program started with 2 castles (Šariš - and Uhrovec -, and in 2012 the project was broadened up to 20 castles. We presume continuation of the project also in 2013 and probably later. We consider involvement of local people as the most important point in the protection of cultural heritage, because they can help in situ. In my country local people usually do not accept academic attitude - they prefer practical measures.

Can you point to a success story, where an object or site was protected or preserved?

One of the very good points in the conservation is the above-mentioned project of the conservation of the castles with the help of unemployed people. But another special case, based on our long tradition of voluntarism (which is one of characteristic features of Slovak monuments conservation, already since the past) is a project of conservation of the ruins of the monastery of St. Catherine in Dechtice. Young Christian people decided to conserve it in the mid 1990´s and since this time this project became one of the most authentic projects in Slovakia. All the processes and methodology are strictly authentic / medieval. You can find more at, unfortunatelly only in Slovak language, but you can find a lot of short movies there. In the last the year Ministry of Culture supported the effort of the young people, with the help of experts for conservation, archaeology, architecture and other fields. Recently we had some colleagues from Norway here and they were really surprised about the authentic style of the restoration. 
 Another great point is the identification of a workshop, where fakes of archaeological finds were manufactured. This workshop was identified by our special police team in 2010. We presume that the fakes were put in the black market and sold to collectors of archaeological finds. Very impressive pictures which you can see at

I know you are seeking support for your research, in an ideal world what kind of research project would you like to undertake and what do you hope to accomplish?

I believe that cultural heritage belongs to everybody and they should not be owned by the individual, without the access of public. Therefore I would like to compare national approaches to the protection of cultural heritage, especially archaeological finds and archaeological sites. Thank to my professional background - doctor of law and PhD. in archaeology, with experiences in central state administration and at university - I think I can contribute to knowledges and the best practice which should be applied in different regions. Due to the different legal traditions and historical progress of different parts of the world / Europe also the approach must also be different in interest of archaeological heritage protection. I think that the public usually doesn´t recognize real threat connected with looting, becuase the people don´t see the unique objects which were looted. Therefore I would like to continue in my previous work and to compare not only the legal rules (which in some regions are not enforceable in practice), but also practical measures in order to prevent the looting by the work with local public. As the result I want to identify the best practice which should serve as manual for archaeologists, state and municipal administration, museums and potentially for police and prosecution. I would like to connect theoretical presumptions from scientific literature and practical experiences I have.
To learn more about Dr. Michalik and his research he can be contacted at  tomas.michalik "@"
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