Wednesday, 5 November 2008

"Stupid archaeologists": why don't they join the looters?

From time to time we hear of various ideas to prevent the looting of archaeological sites for collectables for the antiquities market. Those from the pro-collecting lobby usually have the same suggestions on the way "we" (that is the archaeological Other) can stop looting, which is to sell them (private collectors) the artefacts which they want and which (they say) the archaeologists do not. We've examined one of these here on this blog.

Now Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeological Review has the same sort of idea. According to him, "the archaeological establishment’s principal suggestion that will supposedly stop the looting is—well, not to put too fine a point on it—stupid. “Don’t buy looted antiquities” is the strategy". Why is it "stupid"? Because "the only effect of this policy is to send the looted objects to buyers who will put the loot in their living rooms instead of in museums". Well, I rather thought that private collectors were not being excluded from any of the archaeological finger-wagging. Collectors certainly do not see themselves as not being under the scrutiny of those they label "radical archaeologists". Furthermore, Shanks describes the editorial policies of some journals not to enhance the value of looted items in the market by allowing their publication in those journals as "even stupider" and labels it an "the avert-the-eyes strategy". He seems not to regognise that it is a policy which has its eyes firmly on the legitimising effects of scholarly interest in a looted item.
So what is Shanks' idea of how to deal with the pronblem? Well, somewhat incongruously, it is not only legitimising the market, but taking part in it.
Compete with the looters. Professional archaeologists should
professionally excavate areas subject to looting—and fund their excavations by selling the “loot.”
Wow. There is more, he goes on to surmise:

much of this professionally excavated loot will end up in museums. Indeed, museums will be some of the prime purchasers—with money provided by their benefactors.

That's it. The Grand Plan. So let me get this right, archaeologists dig unthreatened sites in order to sell off bits of the excavation archive, so they can dig more sites to sell off their excvation archives? Heard of Preservation of Archaeological Remains in Situ, Mr Shanks? In what way is digging everything up now going to save anything for future generations to find their own past?

So do these archaeo-loot peddlars make a paper photographic and digital record of the stratigraphical record, or just collect finds? In the Shanks Model does the paper and digital archive get sold off too? So what use are the paper records without the finds that accompany them as the excavation archive? In what away is the "knowledge" generated by such excavations curated, in what way are its results made available for review and re-assessment? What about the soil samples, animal bones, slag samples? Do they get sold or are they left in the museum?

Then the nice complete pots and coins and metal goodies are put up for sale (where, how?), but the museums can "buy them back" to complete the archive... so this means the next excavations are being done for money the archaeologists got from museums. So in that case, why cannot the museums and their benefactors finance proper excavations in the first place and retain the whole archive from the dismantling of an archaeological site in the search for knowledge? Or does Shanks imagine that the best stuff will go to wealthier foreign museums and the more affordable grot stays in the source country?

I wonder just what kind of archaeology this "Biblical Archaeology" is, what is it trying to find and how? It seems to me that Mr Shanks sees archaeology as basically fulfilling the same "museum filling" role as in the days of Botta, Layard and Belzoni. Who are the archaeologists Mr Shanks imagines will be doing this work, putting current dealers with their unprovenanced stock out of work, and to which codes of ethics will they be adhering? That of the ADA?


David Gill said...

See my comments on the "Intellectual Consequences for Biblical Archaeology?".

Paul Barford said...

and indeed I noted also your own comments on the same article.

Jim said...

Shanks is right.

The current practice of many archaeologists does not work where the rubber hits the road. It makes many archaeologists feel good if not righteous but it does not solve the problem of looting. It fails the basic test of where the rubber hits the road.

The UK has a rational approach, not perfect but still rational as it acknowledges basic human nature. While the world does have it's occasional Mother Theresa it has far more Donald Trumps (to use a grotesque example). Humans are acquisitive by nature, many people collect something. There is a reason we have private property laws in free countries but not in totalitarian ones. In totalitarian societies, the powerful control the government and rob the people (some like to call it redistribution of wealth) as a matter of law. In free countries the people have their private property protected as a matter of law - but I digress.

When I took philosophy our prof put the old saw of a question to us, "If a tree falls in the woods and there is no one there, does it make any sound?" I said of course it does, there is just nobody nearby to hear it. A friend of mine who had bought into Frege, Kant, Wittgenstein, et al (skeptical philosophers) said the tree did not make any sound because there was no one there to hear it. This is precisely what archaeologists who support the status quo are doing. They are taking a see-no-evil (don't acknowledge), speak-no-evil (don't publish), hear-no-evil (don't read about) approach to unprovenanced antiquities. Now I don't know if to be an archaeologist these days you must be a practitioner of 'The Secret' but I must say the archaeological community is certainly exercising what my old anthropology profs used to call 'magical thinking' - don't acknowledge it and it will go away.

I think legalizing and regulating antiquity sales would be far more preferable . . .

But it might not give the archaeologists that warm, fuzzy feeling inside.


Paul Barford said...

Jim, you seem not to have understood a word I wrote. You insist “Shanks is right” and surmise that archaeologists strive for the conservation of the archaeological resource to give themselves a “warm fuzzy feeling”. You then merely repeat most of what Shanks says – without saying independently why you agree.

You conclude as did Shanks “The current practice (sic) of many archaeologists does not work” . A major reason why its not working Jim is that greedy self-centred private collectors refuse to do anything that would stop their hobby from being the motor of the smuggling of illegally and clandestinely produced archaeological artefacts. They claim, as you do here, it is their “right” to put money into the pockets of law-breakers. What kind of hobby is that?

I really do not see the relationship between this “rational approach” of the UK (which part Jim?) and what Shanks is saying. I really do not. This is chalk and cheese.

“Humans are acquisitive by nature, many people collect something”.
”Many” maybe, but in fact the majority do not. In addition, the majority of people who take an interest in the past read books or indulge their interest in other ways, they do not buy looted artefacts. Portable antiquity collectors are an anachronous and erosive minority, taking for their own personal entertainment and profit that which modern archaeology says should form the basis of knowledge available to all. It is as simple as that, it is a matter of conservation of a finite resource and not any “property laws” .

I really do not see where archaeology as a whole is taking a “see-no-evil (don't acknowledge), speak-no-evil (don't publish), hear-no-evil (don't read about) approach to unprovenanced antiquities”. This is just repeating what Shanks said again, it does not show it is true. But like Shanks, you ignore the reasoning behind the publication policies which I assume are what you are referring to. Why don’t collectors like yourself address the arguments independently, rather than just repeating what somebody else said as some kind of mantra?

There is a LOT of scrutiny in archaeology today of the market in unprovenanced antiquities. There is a lot of opposition in the archaeological milieu to the peddling of the unprovenanced portable antiquities which drives the looting. One of the reactions was to set up the Portable Antiquities Scheme in England and Wales. There is a lot written about it, and a lot being read about it and people are coming round to the idea that the trade in undocumented antiquities cannot go on like this. While there is a long way to go, we have seen legislation changes in places like the UK and Switzerland to try and curb it. I welcome that, I don't know about you.

I think legalizing and regulating antiquity sales would be far more preferable.
I think if collectors self-regulated the market by refusing to buy material which cannot be proven to have been of legal origin, it would do far more good than any ill-informed claptrap about how the archaeologists have "got it wrong". Whose side are you on Jim, the conservers or the eroders? No need to answer that – we saw your Wisconsin collectors’ rights resolution.

What I find most astounding is that you do not even mention the core of Hershel Shanks’ concept, to which the other material was merely the context, the pretext. He suggests that excavations should be conducted by “archaeologists” to produce portable artefacts for sale to museums and collectors. That is what he was writing about, that is what I was discussing. You seem more interested in repeating what somebody else said than discussing what I wrote about the “solution” Shanks was proposing.

Paul Barford said...

I note now the same text appears verbatim on Jim McGarigle's blog under the title "Shanks is Still Right ... And Barford is Wrong"
Well, since all "Polymath Numismatics" has done is repeat what Hershel Shanks wrote without addressing the core of my criticism of the proposed solution, I really do not understand the logic behind the claim that McGargle has proven me "wrong".

Jim said...

Gee, as usual Paul you said so much I hardly know where to begin but let me take a stab.

OK - for one thing, you just simply don't want a legal outlet for antiquity sales, you said,

"Furthermore, Shanks describes the editorial policies of some journals not to enhance the value of looted items in the market by allowing their publication in those journals as "even stupider" and labels it an "the avert-the-eyes strategy". He seems not to regognise that it is a policy which has its eyes firmly on the legitimising effects of scholarly interest in a looted item.
So what is Shanks' idea of how to deal with the pronblem? Well, somewhat incongruously, it is not only legitimising the market, but taking part in it.

Compete with the looters. Professional archaeologists should
professionally excavate areas subject to looting—and fund their excavations by selling the “loot.” "

So it is safe to say you do not want a legitimate, legal market. You want to maintain the status quo which only feeds looting. I have proposed a solution to the problem of looting and your colleague Nathan Elkins liked my idea as contained in these 2 posts:

While Shanks did not outline his position in detail, he is aiming in the same direction as I am which is to have a rational, legal & regulated antiquities market which includes professional archaeological training. I can think of numerous reasons why I'd prefer to get ancient coins from an archaeologist or a trained amateur as opposed to a mere looter:

1) Following the law - self explanatory, I already do that but not everyone does.

2) Care taken with the object[s]

I once got some copper coins from India that were cleaned in gasoline. It ruined the surfaces of many of the coins. I'd rather have a person with good conservation skills handling coins (and other objects).

3) Provenance - coins with provenance will command a better price.

I'm going to ignore all the false words you put into my mouth and all the ideas you say I subscribe to. You are talking out of your ideology as usual. I'm just not going to respond to all that claptrap.

About Shanks opinion, good opinions (articles) are worth sharing and repeating. I expanded on what Shanks said that appealed to me and left the rest to stand as is because I did not think I had to add to it. Well stated ideas stand on their own.

I think one thing you really fail to address is the status quo of existing prohibitive, statist laws and how they just don't seem to work. This is where people who hold to your point of view on this topic really have blinders on, haveyour head in the sand and remind me of the 3 monkeys see-no-evil, hear-no-evil & speak-no-evil.

Finally, when Shanks said,

"I call this the avert-the-eyes strategy. Don’t look at it. Needless to say, this strategy has had absolutely no effect on looting, although it makes a major contribution to the self-righteous feeling of those who adopt it."

I think there he hit the nail on the head. The current status quo of archaeology DOES NOTHING but give a warm, fuzzy feeling of righteousness and self-satisfaction to it's subscribers.


Paul Barford said...

Well Jim, this is my blog, so I guess I can be as wordy as I want.
As for “you just simply don't want a legal outlet for antiquity sales” that is sheer nonsense. What I am querying here is the idea now being touted in collecting circles that archaeological excavations should be conducted in order to produce collectables. That is simply a return to the nineteenth century, and raises doubts about just what Hershel Shanks understands by the word “archaeology”. I asked specific questions about this model, none of which have you answered, skating for the second time round the central issue.

You claim: “I think one thing you really fail to address is the status quo of existing prohibitive, statist laws and how they just don't seem to work”.
The reason why they “don’t seem to work” is because collectors simply ignore them and buy unprovenanced and undocumented antiquities. Here it is necessary to change the attitudes of a few thousand self-centred collectors rather than restructure the whole way the cultural heritage is preserved and studied globally just to accommodate them. It is collectors who buy antiquities no-questions-asked who are not only failing to address the looting problem, but actively contributing to it.

It seems to me a recurring pattern that we see played out time and time again on forums like Unidroit-L and other collectors’ forums. No-questions-asked portable antiquity collectors try to deflect criticism by coming out with some demand like “this is the only solution: this is what the archaeologists should do”, and then using the fact that the archaeologists are – for a number of good reasons – unable to comply with these demands, use this as an excuse for not accepting any of the responsibility themselves for the effects of their own actions.

Paul Barford said...

Well, Jim McGarigle sent yet another long, wordy and even more off-topic reply. I think I'll give it a rest, he cannot seem to focus on the issue of the actual proposal which is the subject of my post. I expect his reply (like all the rest here) will appear as duplicate posts on his own blog, so those anxious to see how he wrote can seek it there.

Jim wrote just now on Moneta-L
( to add his two cents' worth to the current batch of ad personam arguments over there of the type that US coin collectors ("numismatists") and other antiquitists seem to find such an enjoyable diversion from discussing real issues.

He adds:
I also don't think it serves us well to continually beat him up.
Aww, that’s mighty Christian of you Jim, thanks !! But then he spoils the effect by adding:
It only gives him more cannon fodder for his poisonous little blog.
And I thought he was going to say something like 'because it is not becoming behaviour for gentlemen and scholars like wot we are'.

Poisonous eh? After I let him use it as a letter box for his varied thoughts. Won't happen again.

Paul Barford said...

Delane Hewett of Realms coins (located in Bellevue, Washington State) has been purchasing “coins for resale on a large scale from many international sources” since the 1990s. He is excited by Shanks’ proposition: “ This idea is absolute beauty in simplicity. I would pay a premium for proper archeologically excavated material. Good for the "Archeological Environment". Perhaps we can call this "Green" Archeology. Not a concept that has not been discussed before but what possible rational argument can be made against it?
Hmmm. “Green archaeology”?

rob said...

Addressing issues:

Issue one, context of archaeological data cannot be lost or we risk a return to the 19th century treasure hunting. This is a really good and important point that should be made clear by legislation and or professional guidelines. On the otherhand, when doing real archaeology there most often winds up being so much context no one can do anything with it, especially not after it has been published. And who would want to. I haven't seen the Smithsonian's basement collections, but can you imagine? By now it would take several careers just to dig through the sherds and floatation samples. In my small school lab there are buckets of 1000 year old pottery sherds, that will not see the light of day for another 100 years, or more, or may never be studied again due to lack of interest or importance. Or take for example sites in the middle east where you cannot walk across the ground with out stepping on pottery sherds, they are only being destroyed by being exposed, but it is not useful or profitable to study them, so there they lie, being broken and weathered. So to address that first issue, there must be rules and documentation that indicate how and where and when certain types of artifacts could possibly be sold. For example, complete, pristine artifacts would not qualify for sale due to their relative importance to the archaeological story and public/scholarly interest. This might have the affect of tempting some archaeologists, but hopefully, through academic accountability that wouldn't happen much. If it did, they would be no better than the looters are now. I suggest selling only well documented, published artifacts, which would be deemed archaeology surplus due to large quantities or other circumstances etc...

Issue 2: dig sites

The point is to excavate threatened sites which would otherwise not be addressed due to lack of funds. so not "unthreatened sites" as you put it.

The goal is not to "dig up everything" which we both know is not possible. The goal would be to get to danger sites first. How we know which sites are endangered I don't know, but assuming we could figure that out, excavation could be focused on those sites since money would be available. Preserving archaeological remains in situ would still be valuable, since those types of sites could be excluded by the legislation that would be necessary for this sort of model. Where in situ context is not necessary or threatened by looters or construction, then everything would have to be excavated scientifically and only after all publication and documentation was completed and perhaps even sufficent time for other scientists interested in the artifacts to do thier own study would any be even considered for selling. Perhaps even a system, like a waiting list could be set up where archaeologist could sign up for time with the artifacts before they were considered for private collections.

Issue three: where and how to sell artifacts. This would be a bit a return to older days, in that the local or sending institutions would proably have first pick of artifacts. Who knows, all that would have to be worked out by politians and professionals.

Issue 4:
Who are the archaeologists doing the work? I suppose any professional archaeologist, and their crews, it would be very similar to the CRM workers, but now funded from within rather than on tax payer monies.

Issue 5:
non-publishing policy - its not that this policy is not well intended, we can be sure that it is. Academia does not want to legitimize in anyway the looting and destruction of academic information. However, I believe waht Shanks is saying is that the effect is different from the intention. The effect of the policy is that we lose that information, which as it turns out is the opposite of what the policy set out to do. I think its pretty safe to call that situation stupid, since it accomplishes the opposite of what it was hoping to do. Really the stupid part is that we continue to blindly follow it, despite its obvious impotence.

What are the other issues?

Paul Barford said...

Thank you Mr “Rob (profile not available)” for your comments.

I am not sure what of the above you are replying to.

I must say your comment > when doing real archaeology there most often winds up being so much context no one can do anything with it< does not really tally with my own experience.

I suspect you really have not much idea what I wrote of when I referred to an “excavation archive” or the primacy of “preservation in situ”.

I rather think that the collectors would rather get the ‘duplicate’ complete objects in pristine condition rather than the “buckets of sherds in your “school lab”…”.

You seem to be confused, state of preservation is by no means the sole (or even most important) criterion of “relative importance to the archaeological story and scholarly interest”.

Neither am I at all sure what it is you are accusing my colleagues of when you say something “have the affect (sic) of tempting some archaeologists”.

Your comments on what you label a “non-publishing policy” seem not to take into account what the policy is about. Like Mr Shanks. You will forgive me for saying that it’s not the policy that is “stupid” but trying to challenge them without taking the trouble to find out what they are and what they are for.

In any case, if through illicit excavation and loss of provenance, the only information about the object is what is carried on the object, while the object is extant, then no information is “lost” by not publishing it in an archaeological journal. Let us distinguish what is archaeological from that which is merely artefactological. Collecting costume Barbie dolls does not make one an “ethnologist”.

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