Monday, 27 April 2009

“ANCIENT COINS FOR EDUCATION”, or schoolchildren used as pawns in heritage debate?

Over in the Ozark Mountains, the Executive Director of the US Ancient coin dealers’ lobbying group ACCG, collector and coin dealer is fulminating over a post made here. That's the one discussing the findings of a US journalist on the ground in Pakistan and Afghanistan where it turns out that among its other sins, the no-questions-asked market in portable antiquities is partly responsible for financing America’s enemy, the Taliban. Mr Sayles evidently regards it as “defamation” that I draw attention to this (Look at the URL to his blog post). On his blog over the weekend, Sayles wrote:

An insightful contrast presents itself in two "news" items that appeared recently online. I'll simply post the two links and let the reader decide which rings true and determine where the high road is.
One of the links is to a piece of text on my blog, while the other is a link to an article (Eleanor Chute, ‘Ancient coins enthrall, educate pupils’ April 25, 2009) from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about ACCG poster-girl (and member of their “Education and Youth Programs Task Force”), Zee Ann Poerio of the St. Louise de Marillac School in Upper St. Clair, Pittsburgh and her involvement in the Ancient Coins for Education (ACE) programme.

Sayles calls his own blog post “Where is the High Road?” and it is between the two points of view, that of a CNN journalist on the ground in the Middle East observing the illegal artefact trade at one end of the chain and a local Pittsburgh journalist at the other looking at the use of the effects of this trade. So where is the high road?

Well, it seems to me the reader of Sayles'blog is urged to agree with him that this "High road" is the route taken by the advocates of commercial destruction of the archaeological record of various source countries. This involves the illegal removal of material from their original contexts , and then from the country of origin necessitated by the need to obviate local laws (ancient coins are not found on any soil which is the territory of the United States of America, for example). These tainted artefacts are then split up amalgamated with others (including, yes, some from dismembered old personal collections) and sold off like potatoes by dealers who are only interested in protecting the status quo to protect their profits. These dealers and collectors are in denial about - and keep their customers and the rest of us in ignorance of - where these items come from and what damage to our ability to interpret the archaeological records is caused by their commodification.

Now they wish to bring innocent schoolchildren into the argument, staging the classroom use of these items in order to use their “educational” use as a pawn in the argument over the destruction of the archaeological heritage due to the no-questions-asked market (That’s what we hear from the UK "metal detectorists" too - “It’s OK, it educational innit?”).

Many of us (the author of this blog included) have experience of classroom outreach propagating knowledge of the past. Oddly enough, most of us manage to do it successfully without the students being involved in unethical and unsustainable practices. No archaeological sites were trashed without record so that our students get a "feel for the past". This seems not however to be a concern of the ACE. There is a revealing text available for its advocates: "Mark Lehman's guide to answering questions about the ethics of collecting ancient coins. Prepare yourself for these questions by reading this guide". Symptomatically the text is entitled: "How to address the collector/scholar vs. AIA "no one but the 'experts' should have access to antiquities" viewpoints…." and of course when we look into its contents, its the usual old stereotypical collection of glib mantras of this collecting milieu. The real issue about the unsustainable and irreversible damage done to a finite and fragile resource is not addressed. At all. In fact, the author of the text begins: "My first, and most important advice is to you is to avoid these discussions like the very plague - I cannot possibly stress this strongly enough". Well, I guess if they have not any kind of answer to questions about the central issue, the collecting advocate would be unwise to tangle with those who ask them.

Why do the lesson plans of the ACE contain no reference to the need for conservation of the archaeological resource - one of the central concerns in global archaeology today? There is not a word about this in the "resources" they provide teachers. What is interesting though is that, although the ACCG and its supporters are adamant that "ancient coins are not archaeological artefacts and should not be treated as such by international law", the ACE uses coins as archaeological artefacts in its archaeological simulations.

It seems to me that the people involved in the ACE are being used by the pro-collecting lobby as pawns in the heritage debate in the US. The pro-collecting lobby gains from it a series of photos of cute kids holding ancient coins (a tactic also over-employed in the UK by the PAS) , an assurance that ancient coin collectors (in reality largely dealers) are a bastion resisting falling standards of education in the US, and that - surely - advocates of collecting argue must be a good thing.

There are many ways in which students can have a "piece of the past in their hand" which does not involve the student in the process of the destruction of the historic environment of some far-off country. Many small bronze coins with fully documented provenance exactly like those used by the ACE come onto the market from the treatment of hoards under the British Treasure Act. These coins furthermore are associated with stories of law-abiding citizens doing the right thing for the sake of our joint knowledge about the common past - a far more salubrious tale to involve US students in than clandestine site-trashing artefact hunters and organized criminal gangs and the pillaging of the archaeological record merely for commercial gain. So why are they not used in the ACE programme? I guess when it comes down to it, the ones mixed with those stolen from the Balkan archaeological record are cheaper for the ACE propaganada purposes than those legitimately obtained from another.

The ACE has of course another aim. Mark Lehman says: "We profoundly hope these coins will serve, as intended, as a sort of "dragons' teeth" seed, sown in the hope and expectation of raising a whole new generation of collectors [...]" (the dragons' teeth of the myth as we remember were to give rise to an invincible army). It is quite clear that the ACE is intended to propagate no-questions-asked ancient coin collecting among the young and impressionable by giving the students participating the first object which the dealers supporting the scheme hope will encourage the kids to buy more, bulking out the ranks of no-questions-asked collectors (already estimated by the ACCG as comprising 50 000 people) in order to oppose the conservationists. Let us promote a desire to find out about the past, fine. Let us even promote responsible and sustainable portable artefact collecting as part of that, fine. But why in the twenty first century are otherwise responsible teachers engaging their students in a programme that simply refuses to address the central issue which is that irresponsible (no-questions-asked) collecting is compounding the existing problems we face regarding the protection of the archaeological record?

An additional point is that the average collector reading around the subject will come across information about the origin of the coins in their collections. they may choose to ignore the fact that by buying items of totally unknown provenance they are surely running the risk of buying items looted (stolen) from archaeological sites and smuggled out of their source countries (stolen) by organized criminal gangs and networks of various types. They may comfort themselves by thinking there are differences between one kind of "stealing" and another - and that ancient coins are not really stolen from the archaeological record because they "were made to circulate" and as heritage they "belong to everybody - so that means me". They take the deliberate choice to ignore the fact that through their buying practices, they may be keeping potentially stolen items in their houses. The kids who get unprovenenced ACE coins, which their FAQ indicates come mostly from the Balkan looting fields, are most likely uninformed that their nice teacher and that nice fat man from the coin collectors' club who knows so much about the emperors on the coins are giving them things to take home which are stolen property. Some of these kids (especially Zee Ann Poerio's students at the St. Louise de Marillac School in Upper St. Clair, Pittsburgh) will come from good families, maybe highly religious ones, to whom such a thing would be an anathema if committed deliberately. There is perhaps a very good reason why the participants in this propaganda exercise are kept in the dark about how those coins really came to the USA. Come on ACE, let's have some real truthful education about how the world works, less stuff-and-nonsense about "potato fields" and more about the criminal gangs through whose hands many portable antiquities on the market today are inevitably passing.


Marcus Preen said...

I love the concept that there are two roads from Eastern soil to Western display cabinet, a high one and a low one! Where is the evidence? Where is the logic? In a box labelled "self-justification", clearly.

In truth, there is only one, although it is a dirty little track at its Eastern end and a smart highway at the Western end. The best educational experience that could be offered to children would be a free bus trip along its whole length.

Like you, I have a great distaste for the idea of encouraging the next generation to acquire acquisitive habits. Of course, the next generation of collectors is the next generation of customers so we shouldn't be surprised where the most enthusiasm for the idea comes from.

But there is something deeply disturbing about the concept of not only doing something which only the most obtuse of collectors or dealers wouldn't suspect, deep down, involved damage but making an effort to ensure the damage carries on after one passes on. What a bequest to the future! Is it not enough to do harm in one's lifetime without setting up a Harm Foundation to carry on one's work in perpetuity? Evidently not.

Nathan T. Elkins said...

Stay tuned for a forthcoming, peer-reviewed article detailing the motives behind the ACCG's partnership with and support of ACE and how the program is exploited to further an agenda of the lobby and certain individuals:

N.T. Elkins, "Treasure Hunting 101 in America's Classrooms," Journal of Field Archaeology (later 2009/early 2010 - forthcoming).

Paul Barford said...

I look forward to seeing it. Can you ask JFA to send an offprint to the board of governors of Zee Ann Poerio's school?

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