Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Craig Childs on the Obsession with "the Oldness of Things"

On looking up the links for the text (below) on the recent arrests made in Utah of pot-digger/sellers in which Craig Childs (photo) is quoted, I came across a nicely-written text of an essay of his posted a few days ago which is in a way a bit of promotion for his forthcoming (June 2010) book "Finders keepers". The essay presented an interesting and thought-provoking viewpoint on the collection and study of portable antiquities which seemed worth sharing and discussing. It is called "Obsessed with the Oldness of Things...".

The oldness of things can become infectious. Some take to the sciences and become archaeologists, while others delve into the precarious underworld of dealing and collecting....
What makes this text interesting is that its author is as hard on the archaeologist as he is on collectors and dealers. He says "stacks of books have been published on the ethics of archaeology attempting to answer the ever-elusive question of who has the right to own antiquity. But that is a dead-end question. If someone tells you they have an answer, you can bet they are with one side or another". Childs presents himself as in the middle, it seems he is of the view that nobody owns the past. He apparently believes that artefacts should not be dug up for collection or study, but the integrity of their context in the earth should be respected and artefacts should be allowed to rest where they have lain for centuries. Presumably here we may discern some elements of beliefs deriving from Native American circles.

Childs describes how he began writing his forthcoming book on global issues surrounding artifacts in which presumably he will argue this case. He explains: "I have set out to find if any common ground exists that might lead to greater understanding of why we are so drawn to old things. It is a common ground I hope might ease the destruction and removal of archaeology from the land". He quotes one of my old lecturers Kathryn Walker Tubb of University College of London, when she writes, "Ultimately the hope, currently so forlorn, must be that some form of reconciliation can be discovered before the archaeological resource is exploited to the point of extinction". Childs declarees that he has been "trying to write that reconciliation. I have found that the various players in antiquities, though often at each other's throats, are mirrors for each other. They are each driven by the same fundamental desire to create a link in the contemporary mind to those who lived in the distant past. Beyond that, they choose slightly different paths which throws them into far corners of the fight". He describes how difficult it has been to maintain the 'middle way' between these two corners of the fight over cultural property:

My journey proved much more difficult and revelatory than I expected as I immersed myself in a world of scholars, thieves, and would-be saviors. [...] Discourse among scientists, curators, dealers, and collectors tends to be polarized at best, vitriolic at worst. The cast of characters involved in ancient things gets along like a pen of angry dogs. Some are even willing to kill. At one point I interviewed an antiquities broker - he seemed like a nice enough fellow - and a few days later heard that he put a price on the head of a troublesome foreign journalist. Another man, an amateur archaeologists cum pothunter now in prison, explained to an undercover agent that you have to go into the field well armed, and if law enforcement pays a visit to your digging operation, you "drop 'em... and never come back." [...] You don't get this kind of talk from geologists or stamp collectors. It is a phenomenon of archaeology.

[I do wonder though about Mr Childs' precise definition of the words "archaeologist" and "archaeology"]. He writes:

I met an elderly pothunter who took off his bracelet and handed it to me, an inlay of silver and turquoise probably a century and a half old. "You know where I got that?" he asked. "Off a dead Navajo." He was a grave-digger with a mischievous grin on his face and the bracelet in my hands suddenly felt like ice. Though I had to swallow my sudden discomfort, I listened to him whimsically explain his love for the past, saying an artifact like this is holy, physically embodying stories that take him back in time. In his mind, he was honoring the bracelet by giving it another go around, but I remained stuck on the fact that he had driven a shovel through a nest of human bones to get it.

Childs asks what it is that draws people to artefacts in the first place. He suggests that we need to consider the motivation and emotion of artefact hunters and collectors, and I am sure he is right there. He says that these are the factors that are "missing from the stacks of books. What is at the core of our attraction to ancient objects? What is so damned important about a clay seal lying in the desert for 2,000 years? Why will we kill for it?".

I was struck by this passage:

Where did this journey ultimately lead? To the side of a road in New Mexico last week. I was walking along a gravelly shoulder when I strayed to look down a dry arroyo. On the ground before me, I spotted a small red arrowhead. It was made of Jasper stone, for which I named my first son. I picked it up, held it against the sky, a perfect little bird-point. I instantly wanted it. Having it for my own would mark this day and this place on the side of the road. I have seen plenty of arrowheads, and they all cry out with their small voices to be pocketed, this one especially. For the name of my son, for the turquoise sky overhead, for the silent buttes in the distance, and for the long spans of time that fall between. But there was an older, deeper voice that came through. It had to do with respect for the object, and for the place, reminding me of the brevity of my own life while this arrowhead has been here for centuries. It was the gut feeling I grew up with. I flicked the arrowhead away with my thumb and it landed back in the dirt. I left it there wishing the earth to be populated with memory, a stone on the ground bright as blood.

Photos: Craig Childs (Bruce Hucko; difficult to put down but this one is a wonderful freshly knapped jasper arrowhead


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link to the Childs essay. It is indeed well-written and thought-provoking. We don't generally take Childs very seriously out here; he's basically a travel/adventure writer, and while I haven't read House of Rain myself I've heard that it's very exaggerated and sensationalized. Still, he's published some good op-eds on this and related topics, and I think I'm more or less in the middle with him on these issues.

Paul Barford said...

Well, thank you in turn for the link which leads to your own interesting blog (Gambler’s House
Chaco Canyon, Its World, and Ours - with its superb photos. What amazing landscapes and places.

Anonymous said...

I don't feel comfortable with his idea that the truth of the tussle between collectors and archaeologists is that the past belongs to no-one.

It would only belong to no-one if humans, whose past it is, no longer existed. In addition, we all know what is the effect of an asset belonging to no-one is - it becomes fair game for anyone to help themselves to it - which is of course precisely the justification of many who do just that.

No, it belongs to neither collectors nor archaeologists but to the public as a whole and it follows that what happens to it should be an expression of the public's will. I rather think archaeologists have greater claim to be acting in the public interest than others who, by definition, collect things unto themselves!

We have tried to express these ideas in a recent article titled A Portable Antiquities Charter. A mixed bag of Roman dugups said to have come from a ploughed field near Leicester to anyone that can find it logically defective.

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