Monday, 18 August 2008

“Major” and “minor” antiquities?

Portable antiquity dealers insist that “it is essential to distinguish between major antiquities and minor antiquities for practical reasons”. For example “in the case of objects such as coins, of which 95% of those entering the market are unprovenanced, it is simply unreasonable to insist that all acquisitions must be fully provenanced”. One dealer has recently surmised that “a majority even of archaeologists would agree that a "best effort" inquiry should be made, and if the preponderance of evidence supports licit origin, that should be acceptable for objects of such low individual value”.

Is that true would “most archaeologists” believe that there are artefacts which are 'more equal than others' and this assessment would be based on their financial worth on the commercial market? This seems to be a typically antiquitist object-oriented attitude, rather than one in any way derivative of an intention to help preserve archaeological evidence in situ in the archaeological record. The only reason I can imagine an archaeologist would acquiesce to such a view would be indolence.

The problem is that (as every archaeologist will know) an artefact which in commercial terms would be considered “minor” can prove to be of crucial importance as archaeological evidence when found and properly documented in situ and interpreted in the light of surrounding observed facts. I gave an example of one of these earlier in this blog. Even artefact types quite common on the antiquities market rarely have enough information recorded about the contexts in which they are normally found for any archaeological inference to be drawn. In fact whole classes of artefacts are known almost entirely from their appearance on the antiquities market, and very few have come from properly observed contexts in controlled excavations.

The problem is that in all cases the artefact hunter is digging ‘blind’ into sites to get the finds they will sell to a dealer or add to their own collection. Those with spades tend to just dig down, throw the earth up and sift through it, or pull things from the bottom or sides of the hole. In other cases (Iraq for instance) it has been reported that that for speed (to get artefacts out of the ground before site guards or police turn up), mechanical excavators may have on occasion been used, the material loaded onto lorries which are then driven to another location and tipped out so the spoil can be searched at leisure. Metal detector using artefact hunters locate a signal and dig down through whatever intervenes until they find the metal object that was its source. In these processes any kind of observation of where an object was found and in what kind of associations is totally impossible, even if the artefact hunter had the knowledge and training reliably to interpret and document them.

Artefact hunters have however their own criteria of major and minor portable antiquities. For the subsistence digger, the former are the pieces which a dealer will buy from them for a few dollars or maybe more, the rest are items that the dealer will not want to offer them enough to warrant collecting them up and carrying away. The collector also will also sort through the day’s haul from searching a site and only take away those things which might be worth keeping. Thus it is that if one looks around many Native American sites, somewhere near it there will be one or more arrowhead collectors’ “throwdown pile” of damaged and unwanted artefacts showing the site has been “done over” by artefact hunters. In some cases what is left behind may be very indicative of what the artefact hunter was targeting.

In terms of the archaeological evidence destroyed when even a single coin, or even scrap of metal (for example a chopped-up piece of copper alloy scrap of absolutely no interest to the majority of portable antiquity collectors) is dug out of its archaeological context, there is no “major” and “minor” loss to the archaeological record. Or, to be more accurate, this cannot be determined beforehand, before the destruction is done. There is no way an artefact hunter (or archaeologist for that matter) can determine before digging a hole in one place instead of another will produce major damage to a crucial piece of archaeological evidence (the stratification of a site or the pattern of artefacts across it) or whether the damage will be less significant archaeologically.

In particular the phrase “in the case of objects such as coins, of which 95% of those entering the market are unprovenanced” seems to be indicative of this attitude. These coins “entering the market” have all come from somewhere, either from pre-existing collections, or freshly dug from the ground and exported from “source countries”, either legally or illegally. All of these ancient objects had a provenance not long before they “entered the market”, and it would have required little effort for this to be documented by the seller.

To try and convince public opinion community that in reality there are major and minor artefacts which can be measured in terms of commercial value on the market seems to me to be just collector-dealer doublespeak for “I can’t be bothered”.


Picture, Artefacts scattered by looters' holes in Iraq, source: National Geographic

3 comments:

Nathan T. Elkins said...

See also
here

Nathan T. Elkins said...

The link above did not work.
This one does.

Paul Barford said...

It certainly does, and your october 2007 'SAFECorner' text raises some very important points. Thanks.

 
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