Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Treasure, this time in a Margarine Tub and 'The Right People'.

Another year, another launch of a Treasure report, more silly narrativisation of selected finds to shift attention away from the wider issues (Mark Brown (Arts correspondent), ' Forgotten statue kept in a margarine tub is 2,000-year-old treasure' Guardian Tue 11 Dec 2018)
The British Museum on Tuesday revealed the details of 1,267 finds across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, more than there has ever been since the Treasure Act was passed in 1996.[...] About 78,000 archaeological objects, some of it treasure, were recorded in 2017 on a voluntary basis with the portable antiquities scheme. Metal de[te]ctorists found 93% of the items, with the biggest numbers in Norfolk, followed by Lincolnshire and Suffolk. Lewis said the rising figures were down to greater engagement between archaeologists and hobby detectorists, two communities which have not always got on. In the 1970s and 80s there was a campaign by some archaeologists to stop metal detecting. Lewis said:
“There was a misunderstanding on both sides about what the other was up to. There was an idea that metal detecting was all about finding things for financial gain and ruining archaeology. Over the years it has been realised that there are a lot of people interested in the past, quite happy for the objects to go in to museums. We’re still on a journey, don’t get me wrong … it is very important that the right people are doing metal detecting.
The finds by metal detectorists were welcomed by the heritage minister, Michael Ellis, who has announced a consultation on how the system could be improved.
Mike Lewis tells only half the story, the concerns about collection driven exploitation of the archaeological record were not all focussed on the monetary aspect, but the conservation issue - damage to the archaeological record by random hoiking of collectables with no proper recording of associations and context of deposition, and the artefacts ending up in scattered ephemeral personal collections without proper documentation. Those two problems have still not been solved, but Lewis skips around admitting that by simply ignoring the problem, turning his Bloomsbury back on it. That's the kind of dumbdown and under-informed public that gets you a Brexit.

The fact that more and more Treasure found each year means only one thing (because we are constantly told that the "vast majority" of those engaged in Collection-Driven Exploitation of the Archaeological Record are law abiding, so illegal non-reporting cannot be the explanation). It means that on the PAS watch the number of people going out there and searching sites for such objects (in their 'interest in the past') is quite rapidly increasing. That means the damage to the finite number of accessible sites is also increasing at the same rate, from year to year.

Mr Lewis seems not to have told the journalist how the PAS intends to fix it that with all the people coming into this hobby, only the 'right people' have access to the machines and land.
Mr Lewis says these history-hunters are 'quite happy for the objects to go to museums'. He forgets two things, first of all the ultimate decision in the case of non-Treasure items is not that of the finders but the landowner's and theirs alone. Secondly in the case of Treasure it is clear that the only thing that makes collectors 'quite happy' to part with 'their' Treasures is in the (vast) majority of cases - whatever the Treasure Registrar may for some reason best known to himself pretend is the situation - is a ransom equal to its full market value.

Official: US, France Excavating Sites Illegally in Northern Syria

 A senior Syrian official says the US and France are carrying out illegal excavations in ancient sites in northern Syria with the help of Kurdish militants (Press TV, ' Official: US, France looting artifacts in northern Syria'', Mon Dec 10, 2018) 
Much of the digging work is conducted on the Um al-Sarj mountain near Manbij, head of Syria's Directorate-General for Museums and Antiquities Mahmoud Hammoud told SANA news agency Sunday. Manbij is controlled by Kurdish militants who are heavily armed and supported by US and French troops illegally deployed to northern Syria. According to SANA, the Um al-Sarj mountain in the northern countryside of Aleppo is rich in artifacts. US troops and their allies, it said, are carrying out similar excavations in the ancient souk of Manbij. "The excavations, looting and robbery are also taking place in the archaeological tombs in the eastern side of Manbij," he said. Hammoud said the diggings are a criminal act and a violation of the Syrian sovereignty. His department, he said, is contacting international organizations to condemn the looting of Syria's cultural heritage.
The US has been conducting airstrikes against what it calls Daesh targets inside Syria since September 2014 without any authorization from the Damascus government or a UN mandate.

Monday, 10 December 2018

UK Artefact Hunting: Most of it Already Robbed Out

Note this is a site under permanent grassland, most likely unploughed in recent times, yet even here some oik has hoiked as many of the diagnostic and other artefacts out that they take a fancy to. And where are they (and any  records they made) now?:
PeaceHavens published 19 mar 2011
Metal detector hints. Even in the wilderness I am walking in the footsteps of some detectorist who has been there before me ... but with a bit of lateral thinking I find a new site that they missed ... nothing spectacular ... but new sites are still out there ... but it ain't easy.
"Someone's had a dig virtually everywhere" (Yorkshire dales 2011). So, in fact, if we were to STOP metal detecting tomorrow and concentrated on getting ll those old dug-up finds and their findspot details documented, we'd still be getting a lot of information about new sites, just the ones that have been dug-over by previous detectorists and not (yet) reported. The Ixelles Six (on pp. 323-34 of their recent joint article) claim that this hoiking on sites like this and the non-reporting of the material and information from them is "not cultural damage" because all that knowledge is not lost, it is just zero-gained, it's not been retrieved from them yet. The FLO says (The Foucault of Baz Thugwit?)  that the 'liminal potential' of these data has yet to be actively utilised through the application of 'the complex of relationships that comprise the 'discursive formation' of Archaeology'. The FLO says that non-recording is not a final denial. Let's see. Time to put those words to the test. Responsible detectorists - all of you - let's get the unreported material on record before any of you dig up and pocket any more!

Is the Crown Estate now Supporting Artefact Hunting?

Searching history....for the Crown Estate.


Sunday, 9 December 2018

The Archaeological Values of the PAS Database (VI): Hauntings, Heads on Poles, Imaginary Data and Clipping, Reporting Archaeological Artefacts PAS-Style

The PAS dumbdown of archaeological outreach continues on the British social media. Several FLOs seem to feel that Brits really need to know the biographies, family relationships and Daily Mail style showbiz tidbits about those fascinating Roman emperors in far-off PASt-celebrity land. There is no end to this superficial show-and-tell using ancient coins to illustrate their gossippy potted histories. Here is one of them from up North:
"A rather haunting portrait of Western usurper Emperor Eugenius on this silver siliqua He ruled for just 2 years, AD392-4, until defeat in battle and execution led to his decapitated head being displayed in the camp of victorius Eastern Emperor Theodosius I" PAS record: DUR-4D6A9E
Yup, just the gory bits folks. Of course the FLO will claim that Twitter character limitations did not allow him to mention the more important features of his reign, as he and the Battle of the Frigidus were not without significance in the wider picture of things. But that is not what the FLO dumbdown version gives you - not even a wikipedia link. Just the 'bloody severed head on a stick' version of the history of Theodosian times.

The first question is why? Why does Joe Bloggs the Twitterer need a picture of 'the head-not-yet-on-a-stick on this coin I've got' to make a tweet to say, 'hey there was this emperor, right and he's really cool, but in the end he got his head cut off and there was blood everywhere'? Why is the coin there? Is it just so you can see what he 'looked like'? Why is this portrait said by the archaeologist to be "haunting"? Is the FLO Twitterer doing this because "I've got a computer full of pictures of other people's artefacts, what can I say about them? I know, a silver coin, the proles will like that", is that it? What is this actually about?

But to come back to that PAS record, here's a thing:
A clipped and worn silver siliqua of Eugenius AD 392-394, Reece period 21. The obverse shows a diademed and draped bust of Eugenius facing right. [DN EVGENI]VS P[F AVG] The reverse shows Roma seated on a cuirass, facing left, holding Victory on a globe and a reversed spear. [VIRTVS RO]MA[NORVM]. RIC IX, 106d: RSC 14b possibly from the Trier mint. Thickness: 1.11mm Weight: 0.7g Diameter: 13.04mm
Then further down we get a duplication of much of the same information, labelled 'coin data (numismatics)' [sic - the reason for that qualifier is unclear] - except there the place of minting becomes 'probably' Trier (not possibly), we get the information that the spear (if we could only see that since both ends are missing on the discssed object) is 'reversed', the issue is stylistically a regular issue (though that's a bit of an odd term in the case of a usurper), the die axis is 12 o'clock and the 'Degree of wear' is 'worn: fine'. And in the section 'Coin references', the reader is told ' No coin references available'. Translated that means, 'I cannot be bothered to explain to you proles why instead of writing in longhand in a public database so you understand, I use the abbreviations above "RIC IX, 106d: RSC 14b", and if you don't know what that means, it means you are unworthy to know, hoi polloi, eff off'. That's how it reads to me (even though I know what those abbreviations mean).

 I'd like to go back to this description of an archaeological find, and look at it as such. Look at the photo. Where do you see a cuirass? Despite what the description says, the guy on the coin in front of us has a neck, but no cuirass. His bust (which we cannot see) is 'draped'. What an odd description of what we see on that coin. What's he 'draped' with? an old curtain, a towel, bedsheet, or flowers? Or is he draped over an imaginary chaise-longue in his imaginary cuirass? An odd verb to use in any context (I presume its supposed to refer to a military cloak or regal stole but these are worn, not draped) - but especially so as no 'drapes' are visible on the object being described. What we have here is a description, not of the object in front of the recorder but an imagined idealised type. This is a coin catalogue entry (in fact the missing parts of the inscription are probably copied from one) rather that an objective record of what the observer can actually see - this is not preservation of that object by record. So what is the point?

The issue becomes more annoying when it comes to the one place in that record where the actual object in hand differs from the idealised iconographic 'coin-as-it-should be' that the recorder has written about. One word, in the description. 'Clipped'. From the photo one can see this, there seem from face-on to have been six cuts, five straight and one smoothly curved. That's what it looks like, but only the recorder who had the coin in his hand can confirm, and document, that. The corners between the straight cuts are rounded. Is this due to wear, or were they filed down, or both? The 'wear' the recorder notes in passing, did it happen all before, both before and after or all after the clipping of the coin? We cannot tell from his photos, but a careful examination of the edges of this coin would probably have revealed this, which is again important information. Again, the recorder should be looking at the tool marks and recording the full biography of this, specific, object - the one in their hand. That's what a description of an archaeological object is, an actual description not an imagined idealistic picture like Inigo Jones' rectangular Stonhenge, becase 'everybody knows' Roman temples were not (generlly) circular.

Numismatists, not karaoke ones, have been discussing this clipping, how when and why this was done. Here is one piece in the puzzle, where an archaeologist had the coin in their hands, and failed to properly observe and record this phenomenon. This means that this object fails to supply the information about this aspect of its use - but this is not because that evidence is missing, but because the recorder did not look, observe, and document it. This coin is now in some unknown private collection - divorced from the fact that it was found (somewhere) in assocition with material that we will never know about in Richmondshire in North Yorkshire. Heap-of-coins-on-a-table numismatics, based on the myriad decontextualised items they use for their tabletop studies, might say something about clipping of Theodosian siliquae but without recording of items like this in their geographical and archaeological context, no progress will be made in knowing the contexts of this activity. A wasted opportunity by the Durham FLO and his team to make a contribution to the knowledge of this phenomenon. This is by no means an isolated case, the PAS database is full of skimpy descriptions where the opportunity was not taken to look at an object more carefully before handing it over to private collectors.

And in the PAS dstabase, can anyone show me the kind of tool that was used to make those cut marks? Nah, or course not because collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record is about kings and battles, named groups, and rusty old iron tools are just not collectable. Do a search for Roman Iron Tool on the PAS database and see how many search results you get out of nearly a million and a half collected artefacts. About as many as you'll find offered by most antiquities dealers. That's what trying to 'do archaeology' through the medium of harvesting information from Collectio-Driven Exploitation of the Archaeological Record gets you. Nothing.

I queried the dumbdown presentation of this coin (its often coins, archaeologists in the PAS seem to spend a lot of time fondling coins) writing:
But volunteer"PAS5970ADF70017BD's"description is a copied and pasted version of the cataloge entry for the type, not actually a detailed description of the current form of that particular object you (plural) are 'recording' before it disappears again into private hands. 'Draped'?
I got the reply
It's a standard coin record. This is how those coin people like them. You'll find most will be similar.
but of course the PAS records are not made only for use by one class of people, an elite that dictates what the rest of us cn have and not have. They are supposed to be a public medium for archaeological outreach and archaeological data gathering, not yet another resource for coin fondlers like Wildwinds, OCRE, Coinproject and all the rest. Coins are archaeologicl artefacts and should be treated by an archaeological organization like PAS as such. The fact that other FLOs are doing the same as we see here is really no comfort. There are 660,948 coins on the PAS database (about half the database!) . If it is true as the FLO says that 'most' are the same kind of description of an idealised imaginary 'type' ('how those coin people like them'), rather than a truthful objective description of the actual piece of metal in front of the observer, that means that potentilly a large part of teh PAS database contains imaginary 'data'. That's food for thought. Rather more than what happened to Eugenius's head.

Never mind the Bollocks, What Happened in Skeeby in 394?

Trier Virtus coin of Eugenius (Wildwinds)
A PAS FLO deems it fit to fob off his public audience with tales of celebrity life in distant Vienne 1090 km to the southeast in his show-and-tell of an archaeological find from a charming place called Skeeby in Yorkshire. I think what the aim of (real) archaeology is instead to tell about the lives of the people in the past community living in that region, around the bloke that carried that coin around on his person at the time the emperors were battling each other and (if we are to believe the tales), the elements on the river Frigidus,* ten years after the earlier bid for power of Magnus Maximus.

We all know the book history, the FLO can use his scissors and paste to put the coin in the context of kings and battles histories. But the objects dug out of the archaeological record are far more than trophy items that can be used to illustrate an external history. They tell their own story, through the material evidence that derivs from their presence, use, reuse and deposition as part of cultural processes. It is the task of archaeological methodology to read that evidence to interpret the material correlates of those past behaviours. That is what archaeology is. 'Artefact hunting' cannot do that.

The world of the man who had that coin in the 390s was not the book-history that the FLO sees. Whever he was, he may have no knowledge of who currently was emperor in Vienne, or Milan, Rome or anywhere else.  He probably had no concept of where the Frigidus river was, even if somebody had told him that 'his' emperor had lost a battle there and was soon to be replaced by a ten-year old boy who'd nominally be in charge of Britain and its interests for a while. But then, did he know that, did he feel the need to know that? The Daily Mail 'celebrity interest' and a feeling of wider-than-local identity are features of our own times. At some stage that coin crossed the La Manche channel and arrived in northern England. How long did it circulate there and how, before it was dropped? At some stage that coin was clipped, somewhere. Who had done that and what did they do with the silver clippings? It was worn and clipped, but nobody was much bothered by the fact they could not read the inscription. When the coin was finally lost in northern Britannia, how had the lives of the Skeeby community changed since the times when it was minted? What was happening there, precisely there in this formative period?

Archaeology - when properly done - could tell us.

Metal detecting cannot, it only destroys the archaeological assemblages that are our only source of information. Why does the PAS FLO not tell that side of the story?

* the Vipava Valley in Slovenia, a pass between the Friulian lowland and central Slovenia.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

The Great Damascus Antiquities Bust?

Two days ago, there was a lot of Internet traffic about a reported major new discovery with regards to antiquities trafficking in Syria. These reports came from the leaders and media of the Syrian opposition, and they stated that a government raid had discovered 'two metric tons of antiquities' in a house in the Mezzeh 86 neighborhood of Damascus belonging to Brigadier General Suhail al-Hassan, the commander of the Syrian Army’s elite Tiger Force unit. Several archaeobloggers helped disseminate this information, but I decided not to (despite the claims of those this blog discomforts and who have no other arguments, I do not deliberately peddle "fake news"). I held off because this news was unconfirmed and aroused my suspicions. Now it seems that I was correct to do so. Christopher Jones (Department of History - Columbia University NY) considers on his "Gates of Nineveh" blog  (8th December 2018) this "Great Great Damascus Antiquities Bust?" and concludes that the reports were a propaganda gambit. In his text he details the role of militias in today's Syria and says that 'the story remains interesting for what it can reveal about the inner workings of the Syrian regime and the role played by archaeological artifacts in the war in Syria'. He sees this report as an attempt to discredit Suhail al-Hassan by his rivals
Due to his popularity, in order to take him down, his rivals must first take down his reputation. Allegations of criminal activity are a good way to do that. Allegations that he is profiting from the destruction of the ancient past while Bashar al-Assad has presented himself as fighting to preserve civilization against the forces of barbarism are even better. The fact that many members of the regime are likely profiting from the same sorts of enterprises is irrelevant – those who survive will cover it up while those for whom the knives are out will have their misdeeds exposed.
Jones states the fact of which we are all aware, that it is 'entirely likely that senior members of the Assad regime are trafficking in antiquities as well as weapons and oil'.
Many sites in regime-held territory, most famously the site of Apamea, have been looted. A great deal of antiquities trafficking takes place through Lebanon, which almost entirely borders territory held by Assad loyalists for most of the war.
He points out that even though the civil war in Syria is becoming less newsworthy as it reduces in scope and intensity, the militias remain a problem and a cause of conflict between the old and new guard in Syrian society as individual militia leaders struggle to retain influence 
The trafficking in antiquities and other looted property may well be one part of these power struggles. Financially, the impact of antiquities will be small, but as a propaganda weapon it may have an effect many times greater.
I think though that the 'small' financial impact of any antiquities smmuggled out of Syria today may have, they are still conflict antiquities and should not be being bought by any 'responsible collectors'.

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