Thursday, 22 January 2009

"Things that go on at the commercial level": Closed Discussion on Looting and Collecting

One of the common portable antiquities collectors' mantras (and in particular in the USA) goes something like this:
"The only problem that I have been convinced of is that countries with restrictive ownership laws end up with undocumented excavation by a variety of people". That was Jorg Lueke, but in fact the same motif occurs in the discussion of portable antiquity collecting and illicit commercial exploitation of the archaeological record for collectables time and time again. In this self-serving model, the fault for illegal digging and destruction of the archaeological record is not with the people who sell and buy the stuff making the digging profitable, its "bad laws" which do not let people profit from the digging legally (eh?).

To judge what one can read on portable antiquity collecting forums from those parts, the American collector seems to see almost anyone living to the east of them, especially if of a different skin colour as corrupt, lazy, strange, unworthy and uncultured (orientalism). So Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Croatia, Egypt, Libya, Iran and Iraq, the Middle east in general, all those "eastern" peoples. The Asiatics to the West in China and Southeast Asia equally so, and the Latinos to the south also it seems. So in their world-view apparently all these foreign governments have "bad laws" which "repress the people" (because it stops them digging up archaeological sites just for personal profit) and as such the US collector apparently feels he's doing the right thing to strike a blow for free enterprise and reward people (the ones we'd call "looters") for breaking them. The remedy for looting, they say, is to force all these strange foreigners to change their laws to be more collector-friendly (US collector friendly that is).

There was a discussion on Moneta-L a few days ago about the trade in looted ancient artefacts (for example from the Balkans) in the US [actually specifically coins] and the role of the collector in this trade. This was prompted by a discussion of Elkins' several writings on the scale of the North American market for looted coins from the Balkans and middle east (already referred to here) and possibly Witschonke's recent contribution to the Celator magazine which I mentioned here too.

In the course of this discussion, which went on for a few days before being stopped by the moderators (below), once again the same old arguments came out: the coins that are collected by coin collectors don't "really" come from looted archaeological sites because "coins are not archaeological artefacts" and they "come from hoards buried by soldiers before battle" [this is on a numismatics forum !!], that if collectors did not buy them all the corroded metalwork in archaeological sites would be dug up anyway for melting down. The stupid foreigner anyway does not know how to value the items dug up and taken away (for why else would they be dug up and taken away?), only the erudite American collector can do that and provide these objects with a "good home" in which they can be properly appreciated.

Once again the argument was trundled out... the problem is that these "eastern" countries have restrictive (ie "bad") laws. These laws, the collectors insist need changing. These countries have "corrupt governments" (not like the USA eh?) which make but perversely enforce these laws. Basically they are saying that the American collectors are doing everyone a favour buying all the looted objects by the bucketload from the people smuggling them. What a load of nonsense - but then this is what passes for "discussion" in these "erudite" circles. Anybody who knows anything about where ancient coins come from would be very saddened by going through the archives.

I incautiously made a post in this discussion which attempted to take a slightly wider view, to put these "its the bad foreign laws at fault" views into a wider perspective. The USA has an archaeological record too. The USA also has a problem with citizens that want to dig into it for the artefacts it contains which can be collected and bought and sold. Let us try and see what US coin collectors are saying about the looting of Bulgaria (for example) in the context of their own homeland and its archaeological record.

I asked US coin collectors:
is the United States a country with "restrictive laws", or of the type you would like to see adopted by the whole world? Can you just take a spade and go and dig up ancient relics wherever you want as in the case of England? For example theArcheological Resources Protection Act of 1979 (PL 96-95; 16 U.S.C. 470aa-11). Why does the US have these laws restricting what for example you, a citizen, can legally do on Federal land (2.63 million square kilometers) - nearly 30% of the country's total territory, when all that happens is all those nice history-seeking pot diggers are rendered illegal there? To take your arguments to their logical conclusion, why not repeal all the US archaeological resources protection laws, why not just let anyone who wants to take a spade to a kiva, cave or burial ground just get on with it? Just as long as they turn in any coins and othe treasures found (for which of course you'd give them full market value), and what the museums don't want can go on eBay. That is what is being suggested here and by the ACCG that the rest of the world should adopt, isn't it?

Then you could have the whole Pocola Mining Company episode all over again, countrywide. Jack Lee Harelson needn't have gone to jail. There'd be a stop to the looting in Utah ("Experts estimate that more than 80 percent of American Indian archaeological sites, some dating back 17 centuries, have been looted") and Northern Texas, Citrus County ("Looters of artifact sites raked: 'Like spitting on history'") or Arizona. I expect we could go on... but I am sure we all get the idea. The "looting" would stop when you change the law to give the same thing a new name.

These laws exist for a purpose. Law breakers are law breakers, criminals. The diggers have no respect for what they destroy, and breaking the law is lucrative while there are people in your country who will buy the proceeds. People who buy - whether through the internet, from dealers or however - the proceeds of this looting are just putting money into the pockets of the criminal looters, the spitters on history. Now I wonder whether as an artefact collector ("interested in history") your sympathies might extend to these collectors ("interested in history")? Nevertheless here we see the destruction caused by their digging into archaeological sites to exploit them as a source of collectables (and I am sure you'll be able to find many more examples from the media of this in your country).

I think (hope) most normal people in the US would deplore this kind of destruction. Is this right? Is this the way these sites should be treated? Are you collectors happy with this? Should the laws protecting such sites be repealed to allow collectors "only interested in history" to get their hands on ancient pots, baskets, personal ornament and other "ancient art" produced in this way? And maybe you think the government should pay the looters for their work as has been suggested should happen in the "source countries"?

I think if US collectors are going to convince the whole world to adopt new archaeological resource protection legislation to stop looting by legalising it (sic), you obviously have to first get the US laws changed in line with what you suggest. Lead, and maybe you'll have a better chance of convincing people to follow. In other words, encourage the looting of the archaeological sites of your own country before you encourage the looting of another's.

Perfectly valid points one would have thought in the context of a discussion on the interelationship between collecting and looting. Of course it does not take into account the underlying fallacy with which US (but not UK or European) coin collectors delude themselves that "coins are not archaeological artefacts" (or maybe "coins are not at all like any other kind of archaeological artefact"). Jim Mc Garigle probably spoke for many US coin collectors on the list when he replied:
Paul sets up a straw man and tosses out a red herring too. This is a ancient coin collecting list, not an Native American pottery list or an arrowhead list, etc. This is comparing apples to oranges. I'm not going to be drawn into arguing about pottery or arrowheads or dinosaur bones - I don't collect them or sell
them and they are NOT the focus of this list. I think most people who are U.S. citizens on this list (and others as well) do not want Native American graves violated for pottery or arrowheads and as a Midwesterner who lives a stones throw or a quick drive from a number of Indian mounds, I would never even consider looking for coins at one. It's like going to Chinese restaurant and looking for Pizza on the menu. The only Native American places that you will find coins at are the casinos!
This suggests then that the removal of ancient coins for sale from the archaeological record of other countries is not in any way comparable to the removal of archaeological artefacts in the USA. It shows that some (many/most?) US coin collectors are perfectly happy buying artefacts dug out of archaeological sites in somebody else's country, but wince at the thought of other US collectors buying artefacts dug out of archaeological sites in their own. That coin collectors can propose that foreign governments should "adopt measures" for (just?) coins to allow the commercial exploitation of archaeological sites that they would not like to see imposed by outside collectors for elements of their own archaeological record (even if they do not collect these things themselves). These collectors want to impose upon citizens of other countries anti-resource-conservation measures which they know citizens of the USA would not accept. Sauce for the foreign goose not sauce for the US gander I guess. It would have been interesting discussing these issues further, to see if all coin collectors on the list saw this as a "apples and oranges" situation like Jim McGarigle. Of cours it is not, it is comparing like with like. Too alike it would seem for some in the portable antiquities collecting community.

Putting the commercial looting of somebody else's archaeological record into the perspective of commercial looting of the US archaeological record was a bit uncomfortable for the dealers who are among the moderators of the Moneta-L list. Canadian coin dealer Robert Kokotailo is one of them. In a special "Message from a moderator about Elkins Discussion..." he wrote:
Since this particular discussion has evolved into things that go on at the dealer (this commercial) level, it is in fact off topic and it has been allowed to continue far too long. As moderator I choose to declare this subject line closed. Once I send this post, any further posts on the topic will be stopped at the moderator level. Any non-moderated person slipping through a post will be placed on moderated status for a while. But I make one exception to this. Mr. Barford will be allowed one more post on the subject, but the content of that post can only be links to other discussion groups he may know of where this type of discussion is on topic. Any members who wish to continue it can then do so on those venues. But not on Moneta. But after that, the subject is totally closed on Moneta.
The discussion may be forcibly closed by commercial interests, but the issues will not go away so easily. The refusal of North American collectors to discuss these issues, the refusal to do so openly and honestly is simply alienating them more and more from those who care about the historic environment. Either they will have to face up to their responsibilities, or face the social consequences of not doing so.


Drastic Plastic said...

"... the American collector seems to see almost anyone living to the east of them, especially if of a different skin colour as corrupt, lazy, strange, unworthy and uncultured (orientalism)."

This use of Orientalism seems a little odd. Orientalists are the people who **don't** see all these orientals as just an undifferentiated bunch of wogs. Surely? That's why they study their literature and learn their languages.

Paul Barford said...

I am sorry, I should have clarified; in my use of the term here I had in mind Edward Saïd’s remarks in his “Orientalism” (1978, Polish translation 1991). The attitudes of many of US collectors which you can meet in the forums and blogs revealingly treat all those “others” of the source countries in the dismissive way described by Saïd.

Drastic Plastic said...

Fair enough.

I get this impression that the word "Orientalism" is used as a scare-word by some Middle-Eastern writers. But we need to resist this. Fundamentally what they seek to do is to remove our own tradition of interest in, and understanding of the Orient, and replace it with their own definition of themselves. Such nationalism is understandable, but we are more likely to get a balanced picture by not adopting their apologetic as representative of earlier attitudes, I think.

Paul Barford said...

Living as I do in "eastern" Europe (actually geographically its entirely central) I am very much aware of these western prejudices. I think that there is as much misunderstanding of "the Other" to the east (south, north, west too) as understanding - especially when other interests (political or commercial) get in the way, and there is nothing wrong with trying to find out these people's
"own definition of themselves". Of course the heritage of the past of the lands they inhabit is part of that, but the US collectors want to have ripped-out bits of it as their own. Literally.

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