To begin with, just a few words about what I have in mind here…
My primary interest here is in discussing the collection of archaeological artefacts (so-called ‘portable antiquities’, among which I of course unhesitatingly include coins) and its effects on the archaeological record (rather than antiquities, antiques and art objects looted from existing collections).
In the form in which it exists today, personal collecting of archaeological artefacts is an activity of extremely questionable legitimacy. Above all, it has at best an erosive, at worst completely destructive effect on the archaeological record which is the common heritage of all of the citizens of the countries whose finite and fragile archaeological record is exploited to provide so called ‘portable antiquities’ for other people’s entertainment and (especially) profit. I don’t think it should be that way, I don’t accept that it has to be that way, and I certainly do not think there is any reason to shut our eyes to the problem. Neither do I see any reason whatsoever why there cannot be frank, open and civilized debate on the topic with the informed involvement of members of the communities affected, archaeologists and heritage professionals, ethical and responsible collectors and honest, ethical and responsible dealers.
There are now quite a few blogs, forums and discussion lists and websites in English about various aspects of cultural property collecting and heritage policy. They fall into two quite separate groups. The first are those of antiquity collectors (and especially dealers) which tend to seek and propagate like some form of protective mantras the justifications they have dreamed up for personal artefact collecting. To the second group belong those of individuals and groups which query, criticize and oppose them. It is to the latter group this blog unapologetically belongs.
Even a perfunctory perusal of the websites, “discussion” (sic) lists, forums and blogs of the advocates of a (‘leave us alone’) status quo for portable antiquity collectors will reveal that they have a number of common characteristics. There are a canon of justificatory mantras which portable antiquity collectors tend to repeat to each other as some form of self-affirmation of identity and personal faith. There are usually some perturbing views expressed, for example on what is ethical and responsible basically comprising little more than an ‘it’s legal innit?’ argument. If it goes beyond that, collectors concentrate attention on the isolated object rather than the information its original archaeological context comprised. They see personal artefact collecting as a matter of personal rights rather than the conservation issue that it is. They demand free and easy access to any cultural heritage that may take their fancy and most of their explanations of the difficulties that are put in their way involve conspiracy theories, and they cast themselves in the role of innocents unfairly victimised. Another tendency is to engage in attacks on a generalized “(radical) archaeology” to which the dealers in undocumented ‘pieces of the past’ ascribe all the blame for any problems that are put in the way of an unrestricted flow of easily accessible antiquities to their collections.
On these forums there usually operate somewhat ‘specific’ standards of openness of discussion. In particular when they feel their protective mantras are challenged by critical scrutiny, collectors as a group feel threatened and strive to manipulate the discussion to deflect scrutiny and criticism of certain issues. Most frequently (I assume for lack of any other arguments) an aggressive and accusatory stance is adopted, with a noticeable tendency to try to bring the debate down to a personal level, to deflect the argument by provocative remarks and personal attacks on their polemicists.. On ‘pro-collecting’ forums there is usually a completely variant idea of what comprises a moderated discussion or what constitutes common courtesy and fairness in the right to reply. Worst of all in this respect are British metal detectorists and US coin dealers. It seems to me that there is little point in trying to engage in any kind of discussion under such conditions. Hence this blog.
It should be stated clearly, anything I write here reflects my own personal views and not those of any organization to which I am affiliated or associated, was in the past, am in the present or will be in the future. Neither, despite the conspiracy theorists, do I anticipate any foreign government will be paying me to write any of this.
Finally, in an effort to make some of this more palatable and visually more attractive than pages and pages of rant, I will try and insert a few pictures and vignettes or quotations from other sites where they seem appropriate. While every attempt will be made to stick to the principles of fair use (this after all is just edutainment, not a commercial site) and identify the source and copyright, should anyone feel that the use of any material infringes their rights, they are invited to contact me and I will endeavour to sort out the problem to mutual satisfaction.