Thursday, 2 April 2009

Keeping Evidence of the Past SAFE for Everyone

In a somewhat spiteful text which is presumably meant to be [I'd say a somewhat puerile] April Fool’s “joke”, coin-collecting Washington lawyer Peter Tompa once again pokes fun at what he terms “the archaeological advocacy group” Saving Antiquities for Everyone (SAFE). Except he renames it “Saving Antiquities from Everyone ("SAFrE')” which allegedly (oh, ha ha) “has announced a new initiative in conjunction with source countries to "recontextualize" artifacts repatriated from collectors and museums. According to SAFrE's spokesman, Gill Barmore, the idea to rebury artifacts is meant to give them a new life for archaeologists.”

Well, I guess if one is a coin collector, the concept of archaeological context might be hard to get your head around. Most other people however do not have too much trouble understanding that this is not "just" about objects and where they are kept and by whom, but about when an archaeological site or any other part of the archaeological record - a fragile and finite resource - is destroyed, the potential information it contained about the past has gone and can no longer be realized. That is why there is archaeological resource protection legislation in most civilized countries. Why, even the District of Columbia where Mr Tompa lives and collects his portable antiquities has some.

Are organizations such as SAFE and the cultural heritage protection laws as Mr Tompa and his fellow collectors claiming really concerned to keep archaeological evidence from “everyone”? From the context of what Tompa says and the general tone of the rest of his blog (and US collector lore in general), we may take the “everyone” as meaning no-questions-asked collectors of portable antiquities who would like to get their hands on as many decontextualised little collectable bits of it as they want. There are reputedly at least 50 000 collectors of archaeological artifacts (ancient coins) in the USA (as estimated by the ACCG - Ancient Coin Dealers’ Guild ). Nobody has counted, but perhaps we can assume that the overall number of no-questions-asked collectors of portable antiquities in the United States (so lets include purchasers of looted archaeological material from the classical civilisations of the Old World, central and Southern America, and collectors of Native American pots, baskets and other artifacts dug out of settlements and graves across the USA) might be perhaps two even three times that number. Against a population of 306 million people, the number of collectors of portable antiquities as a whole is clearly a very tiny minority. Hardly “everyone”. (50 000 collectors is 0.0163% of the overall US population).

Just for comparison, the Family Watchdog resource on the location of registered sexual offenders in the USA shows that in three separate US states (California, Florida, Texas), there are as many or more registered sexual offenders as the ACCG claims there are ancient coin collectors in the whole US. Obviously the total figures for the whole country would far exceed the numbers of portable antiquity collectors which Peter Tompa would claim is “everyone”. Obviously there is something wrong with the type of logic that Mr Tompa uses that would make “everyone” in the USA a pervert.

Perhaps if Mr Tompa really believed that archaeological resource protection legislation is depriving “everyone” of the opportunity to access the past, his firm (Bailey & Ehrenberg, PLLC where Mr Tompa offers "advice and lobbying services related to the trade in cultural artifacts") might like to spearhead lobbying Congress to get the US 1979 Archaeological Resource Protection Act repealed on behalf of several tens of (?) thousand pot-diggers, basket hunters who would like to collect pieces of that resource for themselves for entertainment and profit. There is also that Native American Graves and Repatriation Act which I am sure all USD citizens "passionately interested in the past" must feel is discriminatory against would be private collectors (“everyone”) of the artifacts and remains of past inhabitants of their land.

US portable antiquity dealers and collectors oppose export controls for archaeological artefacts (including coins) and in their lobbying say that foreign nations should stop exercising their right to try to protect their cultural heritage, the historic resources of the soil of theuir territory and allow a free-for-all unregulated market bring antiquities to wherever there is a demand. It is obvious they should propose scrapping the US own legislation before demanding that other nations too stop protecting their cultural heritage from looting. Let us see just how much support from “everyone” in the United States of America unregulated destruction and looting of archaeological evidence has. Tompa and his mates suggest that nobody cares, and it is the collectors’ interest which should be paramount (placing themselves as some sort of elite above the interests of the rest of society). If Mr Tompa really believes that any such legislation is against the interests of “everyone”, then let him put his money where his mouth is. This would be an acid test of public opinion. I dare him.

Paul "Barmore"?

PS. I asked the same sort of question of Jorg Lueke on the Heritage Action blog (his own blog seems to be blocking my attempts to make comments there – no doubt some software glitch he has not sorted out). Not surprisingly he has not replied.

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