During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, when archaeology was in an early phase of its development, the Western World was ruled mostly by monarchies and governments who were anxious to exploit resources found elsewhere in the world. Under the system of exploitation of foreign lands known as 'colonialism' the leading political countries at that time took resources from undeveloped counties in the name of progress and superiority. It might not be surprising that around this time countries such as England, France and Germany filled their museums with priceless artifacts from less powerful or undeveloped counties such as Egypt, Greece, Iraq, India, and a host of other counties that were rich in archaeological treasures. The mission of most of the early archaeological researchers was to save the last remnants of history left by the great Empires of the world. There were no classes taught at that time in conservation of the past, however most of the first men and women archaeologists sought to help humanity understand its past. While those early archaeologists are known for their groundbreaking discoveries, they are also considered the ones who exploited the nations that today have inherited the cultural heritage of those discoveries.
What has been seen as a romantic era of historic discovery, was to many another example of exploitation, or colonialism. I do not agree, since exploitation was never a goal of the nations who benefitted from those early archaeological discoveries and they the archaeologists were working in the sake of science. Since those early archeologists were making discoveries in the name of preservation of history, I do not think that they relics that they took, and are housed in museums today should be repatriated.
The fact that many of the world's archaeological treasures are found in a few western countries is a huge ethical problem today. The countries of origin from which those artifacts came from have begun to demand repatriation, but were those early archaeologists right in what they did? Were they right to take treasures from the undeveloped peoples who lived among the ruins of past empires? Where they right to bribe officials or take treasures back to their home counties knowing that what they were doing was to save it's historic significance? In other words, were those early archaeologists doing science or were they taking part in a system of colonialism?
I tend to think that because their motives were pure, and aimed at conservation and research, I think that what they did was admirable. While the actions of those early archaeologists was indicative of colonialism at it's worst, they were, in fact, doing what needed to be done to salvage the archaeological resources that were at hand for future generations.
By the way, I do not support looting of the archaeological record in any way and believe strongly that it should be left to experts to decide what to do with archaeological remains when they are discovered today.