Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Living comfortably off the tax-dollars?

Guy Rothwell is a portable antiquities collector who according to the website is the moderator of the antiquities section of the Specialist - Moderated Specialist and Collectors Online Auctions". The antiquities section of this auction website seems to be composed mainly of freshly-dug up pieces, including some from the Balkans and "eastern Europe". Despite this, in his self-presentation as moderator, Rothwll writes comfortingly that "hundreds of thousands of individual artefacts have reached private collections over the last three hundred years and the break up of these collections forms the bulk of the material circulating on the market today" (my emphasis).

On the Yahoo Ancient Artefacts forum over the past few days there has been a discussion of these claims that the BULK of the unprovenanced artefacts on the market are from old collections. If this were true, there would be no need for the looting of archaeological sites and the shipment of many kilogrammes of metal artefacts out of the Balkans for example. In this discussion I pointed out that the number of people collecting antiquities 99 years ago (for example) was nowhere near like the number now doing it today (in the post-metal detector and post-internet auction site period of the development of "public involvement in the past"). Many of these former collectors donated their objects to museums when they died and only a proportion of their objects finds came onto the market, and some of those that are still on the market have retained their provenance to these old collections which gives them added cachet as collectables. In other words, it is very unlikely that the bulk of the artefacts on the market today could have originated in these old collections as there were simply not enough of them to produce this quantity of material. In my opinion, the "old collections" argument has been severely abused to explain away the vast numbers of unprovenanced artefacts on the market. Mr Rothwell of course does not agree. He now writes:
I, for one, get rather tired of archaeologists (most of whose salaries are probably paid in some way through our tax dollars) exaggerating something that really is of very very minor importance in the affairs of mankind. I really wish they would devote their energies to something worthwhile, such as campaigning against world poverty or something similiar. They have rather comfortable lives compared to most - but all we hear from them is misrepresentation and exaggeration and they seem to be bent on destroying a respectable and legitimate hobby that has existed for centuries.
I find it ironic that collectors always play the "there are more important issues" card. Obviously though, those involving those who produce and transport the artefacts they crave are not among them.

One side of the collecting lobby sees archaeologists as "agents for foreign governments" involved in some nefarious conspiracy to undermine their constitutional right to trample all over somebody else's. Another bunch sees archaeologists as living "comfortably" off other people's tax dollars. Why actually can portable antiquity collectors not see archaeologists as archaeologists?

If collectors regard preserving the archaeological record of millennia of human history (which can be read no other way) is "of very minor importance in the affairs of mankind", then it is interesting to note how much energy they expend trying to argue that it is "important" that they (and they alone) should be able to have bits of it regardless of what is destroyed and damaged in the process. Important or not?

Mr Rothwell, nobody is trying to destroy a respectable and legitimate hobby, what the archaeological resource protection lobby want is for portable antiquity collecting to leave the nineteenth century and become a respectable (respectworthy) and legitimate hobby by cutting out the opacity of the no-questions-asked approach which facilitates the penetration of so many looted and illegally exported items onto the market. It is not just archaeologists who want this.

I think though that before collectors start criticising archaeology about its sources of funding and what it actually does, it might be useful if they found out a little more about both.


Marcus Preen said...

I do wish collectors such as Mr Rothwell wouldn't constantly archaeologise those who oppose no-questions-asked collecting. Many of them (including me) are neither archaeologists nor agents of nationalist foreign governments. We're just folks. It's pretty clear why they do it though. An archaeologist can be criticised personally - he is biassed, blinkered, jealous, political, out-dated, agenda driven, socialist, doctrinaire and stupid. Whereas "Folks who oppose no-questions-asked collecting" (FONQACs) have no identifiable characteristics and so oblige collectors to face up to what they say not who they are.

And what exactly DO we FONQACS say and are there ANY grounds for saying we are wrong?

Well, my great uncle was a collector and had one Roman coin that Mr Rothwell would eat his heart out for as I understand there are only five others known to exist. What I say is that I could sell it for an awful lot of money. I presume Mr Rothwell would agree. Perhaps he himself would be the lucky bidder.

But here's the rub: he would say it was a legitimate, legal, ethical purchase. So would I.

But is it? Did I actually dig it up from a depth of two feet on a scheduled Roman site in Cambridgeshire last Tuesday at 2.00am ?

We FONQACS have a point Mr Rothwell. Demonising countries and archaeologists is no answer to it.

Paul Barford said...

Marcus, I think your FONQACS is awfully cumbersome.

I think we are all Folks Against Unprincipled Portable Antiquities Robbers and Seekers FAUPARS. That's better isn't it? Less of a mouthful for "metal detectorists" collectors who wear hats indoors and the "coineys" to deal with.

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