Thursday, 30 April 2009

Vorsicht "erdfrisch"!

I have discussed earlier in my blog several times (for example here) the parallels between different types of shopkeepers, those selling food and those selling portable antiquities dug up "like potatoes" and suggesting that if one can document the origins of the items they trade in, the other can too.

One of the arts of selling vegetables of course is making them look as if just an hour or so they were still in the sun and wind in the fields. New potatoes for example look nicest in the marketplace if they look "erdfrish" as our German neighbours would say, fresh from the earth. Antiquities on the other hand are appreciated by their collectors if they have a patina that shows they have been in the soil an appreciable time, but also in the fabled "old collection " a fair amount of time too (at least since before 1970). So "erdfrisch" antiquities are really a bit of a no-no for the responsible collector unless, of course, they have clear documentation of their legitimate and legal and properly recorded removal from their original context and source country.

Last week in the German edition of the ‘popular science’ magazine “Focus” appeared an article by Noelani Waldenmaier called “EBAY: Vorsicht, "erdfrisch"!” ["EBay: beware, fresh from the soil"] (Focus 17/2009, 50) which gives a more balanced view of the reasons behind the recent German police investigations of collectors buying items on eBay from certain sellers which have aroused such anxiety in the US ancient coin-collecting world (for example, here and here). The collecting community gets its news mainly from the uninformed (or deliberately manipulative) rants in the hobby press such as Celator or Coin World and their forums and discussion groups. It is therefore nice to be able to point out that the mainstream "popular science" media which form and inform public opinion are taking a more balanced view than what can be contrasted with them as 'the lunatic fringe'.

Certainly the message is ‘caveat emptor’. It really is difficult to believe that all those “erdfrisch” coins by the kilogramme represent the splitting up of old collections (though one coin dealer tried to assure me that that was the case with the bulk lots he was selling..., though nasty old sceptic that I am I found this a rather weak and unverified protestation).

The focus article can apparently be downloaded here by those who missed it.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Druggies Stealing State's History

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Les Smith reports ("Druggies Stealing Arkansas Artifacts") that looting of archaeological sites in Northeast Arkansas USA is seriously damaging our ability to understand the past of the region. The area has become a lucrative hunting ground for those interested in archaeological artefacts not for their value for scholarship when interpreted in context, but for black market bucks gained from looting sites in search of valuable antiquities.

Dr. Juliet Morrow, Jonesboro-based archeologist for the Arkansas Archeological Survey, says, "There are some people who collect artifacts and there's others who loot them so that they can then sell them to get money to purchase drugs. Especially, methamphetamine that's popular in this part of the state." Morrow explains that on the no-questions-asked US collectors’ market, the artefacts these people hunt, "can bring very high dollar figures upwards of 50 thousand dollars for a single pottery vessel, if it's the right time period, the right style. There are spear points that can go for hundreds of thousands of dollars. It's what the buyers are willing to pay. This is a market that's been escalating over the last couple of decades."

The report uses as an example of the effects of this looting what AAS archaeologists found at one farm located about an hour east of Jonesboro, where earlier this month they learnt of the looting of an old Native American cemetery. The artefact hunters dug into the grave to extract artefacts for sale to portable antiquity collectors and in the process, left scattered around their holes a number of the artefacts they had dug out of the archaeological record but were not deemed ‘saleable’, as well as human skeletal remains. This is just one case of many reported year after year all over the United States.

Arkansas already has laws against this kind of thing, including increased criminal penalties against desecrating burial grounds for profit. Through a seminar scheduled for next week at A-S-U, Dr. Morrow hopes to secure help from surrounding local law enforcement agencies to more aggressively enforce the law. She says that, "If we fight the looting problem, we'll also be putting a damper on the drug trafficking that's going on because it's […] intricately connected."

Watch a video of the original news report here.

This report illustrates a number of things.

1) Firstly there is no difference between portable antiquity collectors in the USA buying an object (say a pot “of the right right time period and style” to fill a gap in their personal collection) and portable antiquity collectors in the USA buying objects looted from ancient sites abroad (say an ancient Greek coin “of the right right time period and style” to fill a gap in their personal collection). It’s exactly the same phenomenon, and to treat them as separate cases is simply self-delusion.

2) The United States has laws protecting the archaeological heritage (which they call a “Resource” – which it is, a fragile and finite one). Artefact diggers and no-questions-asked collectors are ignoring it in the same way as the foreign artefact diggers ignore theirs because collectors outside their country’s borders will pay (no-questions-asked) dollars for what they dig up.

3) Not all artefact diggers are doing it to get money for “starving families” as collectors claim – it seems to be an emerging pattern that the antiquities market is increasingly seen a source of easy cash financing a number of iunsavoury and illegal activities. The no-questions-asked collector is directly responsible for the cash flow which sustains these activities.

4) The numbers of artefacts on the market at the ‘buyer’ end are disproportionate to the amount of destruction done in “mining” them. Dozens or hundreds of archaeological features and layers will be destroyed in the search for the one pot that sells for 50000 bucks. Thousands of other pieces of pottery will be dug out of their archaeological context (destroying the latter) only to be discarded on the site – they never make it to the market for collectors to “preserve” in their personal collections.

5) It is notable that the US advocates of collectors rights (such as ACCG Executive Director Wayne Sayles who lives just across the state line 160 km from Jonesboro) do not apply their stock arguments about the alleged social benefits of the no-questions-asked market in portable antiquities to the artefact hunting and collecting occurring on their own doorstep. Isn’t that a little inconsistent of them? The arguments about portable antiquity collecting as a source of personal “knowledge” about culture, tolerance between nations, preserving the artefacts from having to lie in the ground (giving them a better home), the “free enterprise” benefits of disregarding “restrictive laws” imposed by an authoritarian government for the benefit of ivory tower elitist archaeologists (to a man, compliant “nationalists” to boot) and all the rest simply do not apply here. So why on earth would anyone want us to believe they apply to the collection of portable antiquities from anywhere else?

As I have said earlier, before urging other countries to liberalise their archaeological resource protection legislation to facilitate the stigma-free collection in the USA of portable antiquities taken from sites in their territory, let these US collectors campaign loudly and publicly for the repeal of the comparable laws that protect the archaeological heritage of their country. After all, they can hardly expect other nations to follow where the USA and its law-abiding citizen refuses to be an example, can they?

Here is an interesting web page about Arkansas pot hunting and artefact collecting (Sam Dellinger and much more) which has a venerable tradition (sound familiar?)

The web page of the Arkansas state archaeologist (They produce teaching resources for schools, including a 'discovery box' - sounds like a handling collection to me. I bet, unlike the Ancient Coins For Education programme, the aim is not to produce young collectors by giving them potentially stolen archaeological items from foreign lands to take home and keep.)
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"Barford in particular is way off base"

Peter Tompa discusses the attention which bloggers of the archaeological resource preservation lobby have given the ACCG attempt to question the doings of the Bush administration over the Cyprus and China MOU about import controls of certain categories of portable antiquities into the USA. He writes (though without giving a link to this blog where he found the comments he is discussing, so is relying on hearsay to make his point - not for the first time):
Certainly, Barford in particular is way off base when he claims that the only relevant criteria under the CPIA is whether or not coins are "archaeological objects." Additionally, he also shows little, if any, understanding about the practical effect of import restrictions on those trying to legally import large numbers of ancient coins.


Now, frankly I'm personally not terribly concerned about the "practical effect" of import restrictions [by the way all that is required is that the items have a valid export licence from the source country] on those importing "large numbers of ancient coins". I am more interested in the practical effect for those now and in the future trying to interpret assemblages, sites and historic landscapes when all the diagnostic artefacts (which include coins) have been dug up, dug out displaced and removed totally at random and unrecorded by artefact hunters making money from destroying bits of the archaeological record to supply the commercial market - the other end of which is the dealer Mr Tompa speaks of making his money by "importing large numbers of ancient coins". Those "coins" imply "large numbers of holes" in various bits of the archaeological record. Let us not lose sight of that.

I assume that decent reputable coin dealers will be carrying out their trade legally and ethically not just because there is an MOU, so they will already in setting up and expanding their businesses have worked their way through the "practical difficulties" in doing so. If they are unable to do so, then perhaps it would be as well if they went out of business, there presumably is no place for the unethical and illegal in (for example) the IAPN and PNG.

I do not claim that the "only relevant criteria under the CPIA is (sic) whether or not coins are "archaeological objects". What is at issue in the ACCG/IAPN?PNG case against the US government (as Peter Tompa himself tells us) is whether coins were "added" to the list when the original request "only" specified archaeological artefacts (China) and the CPAC might have suggested they not be treated as archaeological artefacts (Cyprus). But then if most normal people accept as a matter of course that ancient coins are indeed as much an archaeological artefact as an ancient buckle, brooch, lead seal, inscribed gravestone, currency bar, hacksilver, coin weight et cetera, then nothing has been "added" by naming coins among other such items.

The ACCG/IAPN/PNG "case" is indeed entirely about "whether coins are archaeological artefacts", which is why several ACCG officers are currently bending over backwards but in total disregard of the actual evidence to "demonstrate" that coins do not come from archaeological sites - in other words are not found "in a direct physical relationship with archaeological resources". Mr Tompa as a US lawyer will know why that is.

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Coin Dealers Spends Thousands of Dollars of Collectors' Money to Catch the Bush Administration Out


Peter Tompa discusses the publicity which bloggers of the archaeological resource preservation lobby have given the ACCG attempt to question the doings of the Bush administration over the Cyprus and China MOU about import controls of certain categories of portable antiquities into the USA. He reckons the bloggers ("Barford" in particular) have got it all wrong. He says we do not understand what the struggle of the Ancient Coin 'Collectors' Guild, the International Association of Professional Numismatists (IAPN) and the Professional Numismatists Guild (PNG) with the US government is all about. Well, as far as I am concerned at least, this is only too true, since it is clear what the fuss is actually about, it is difficult to see what all the fuss is about. In particular it is difficult to see why the ACCG think it is worth throwing so much of its members (collectors') money away chasing it.

First of all, it is not a collector's issue. Collectors do not "import" "large numbers of ancient coins" from Cyprus or China. This is a dealer's problem, why is the ACCG (composed mainly of coin dealers) and the IAPN and the PNG making collectors pay for their tilting at the US government windmill?

But secondly, what actually is the problem? Well, forgive me for saying so, but if an organization has just spent $45800 of its members money and is now announcing its intention of getting more ("lifting the benchmark" as ACCG Executive Director put it), surely it behoves them to say precisely what the money is being spent on, and how much of it has gone where (and to whom). So far the fruits of the expenditure of 45800 dollars are only evidenced by a series of more or less imaginative and personal conspiracy theories (concerning 'cronyism') on Peter Tompa's blog and some ranting ACCG-centred posts on the Unidroit-L discussion list. That is hardly a convincing result from the expenditure of 45000 dollars which could have otherwise been spent on more heritage-conscious projects by ancient coin collectors. Mind you, I am not an ACCG member, perhaps in the mind of US coin collectors, these conspiracy theories are just what the money's-worth product they are looking for. I could not possibly comment.

More to the point - and I would have thought of importance to the collectors asked to pick up the tab of this action, we have been told how much collectors have footed this bill, what we have not learnt is whether this has been matched by funding of similar magnitude by the IAPN and the PNG. I am sure collectors would appreciate a bit of 'transparency' here too. Before they try to get more money out of collectors to fight a dealers' battle, let the ACCG, IAPN and PNG be fully open about how much of whose money has already gone where and on what.

But that is a collectors' problem. Let us look at the nuts-and-bolts of the case.

The US Cultural Property Advisory Committee is a governmental advisory committee which has the task of advising on a matter which - like it or not - is connected with foreign policy. It is understandable that communications between the US government and foreign governments and details of negotiations affecting foreign governments are not going to be splashed all over the US tabloids. Like many government advisory committees the world over, neither are individual members at liberty outside official channels to reveal details to all and sundry, the press or other interested parties. Certain texts and documents on the ACCG website and contributed to various collecting forums, however, hint very strongly that some details of CPAC deliberations and recommendations in certain cases are already known outside the CPAC and this information is in the hands of the coin dealers' lobby.

It seems, furthermore, that this is the key to the ACCG/IAPN/PNG case. Let me indulge in a little conspiracy theorising of my own. It looks very much as if what the coin dealers have learnt is that the CPAC recommended imposing import restrictions on (among other things) "archaeological artefacts" but for some reason recommended (perhaps) that this should not apply to the items which US ancient coin dealers want to get their hands on. Now, since ancient coins self evidently are archaeological artefacts and come from the looting of sites, this is a very odd recommendation indeed. I for one - as I have said before - look very much forward to seeing the full text of whatever recommendation the CPAC made and the justification given for it. This would make very interesting and revealing reading.

Let us just assume for the moment that the CPAC really did recommend a lack of import controls on ancient coins as opposed to other ancient artefacts.

So what is the problem that when the MOU was published, that coins were included in both the Cyprus and then the China one? After all, the President of the United States and the State Department operating in this regard with his authority do not have to be bound by the recommendations of CPAC. It is after all an advisory committee; this is rather like the situation regarding the recommendations of English Heritage and the British government. In any case, members of the US administration are surely not totally stupid, most of them probably went on to some form of higher education before being appointed; anyone can see that ancient coins are archaeological artefacts - to say they should not be treated as such goes against common sense, it seems uncharitable to assume that the President and his people could not see that. According to the “Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act” [CPIA], Section 303 (f) “the President shall-[…] (3) consider, in taking action on the request or proposal, the views and recommendations contained in any Committee report”. The Act furthermore specifically notes that he can take a contrary action. The decision is taken and authorised by the President, in both the Cyprus and China cases, the last President, George W. Bush.

The whole ACCG/IAPN/PNG case in fact boils down to one little detail. For the dealers in ancient coins kicking up this fuss, it is a huge giant of a windmill of an issue. The CPIA, Section 303 (g) states that if the President in taking his decision does not do so in full accord with the CPAC recommendations, there should be documentation and justification of that fact in the document establishing the MOU.

Well, anyone can see that the State Department did not include this piece of text in the officially published document.

It is this documentation that the ACCG/IAPN/PNG accuses the former President of not having provided. It seems to me that the Bush administration kept quite a lot of "documentation" of a lot of things under wraps. Probably with good reason.

But here is the 45800 dollar question. IF the CPAC recommended something other that what was published (I say "if"), the official publication does not acknowledge that fact as required by Section 303(g) of the CPIA. But if that is the case, it does not take a 45800$ investigation to determine this. Anyone can see it! (Can I have 45000 dollars from the ACCG if I say I can see it? I can see it guys, there is absolutely no mention of a contrary CPAC recommendation in the Cyprus or China MOUs as required by Section 303(g) of the CPIA. But it's OK, I'll settle for a 45000$ donation to SAFE from the coin collectors guild.)

But then again, let us recall that the problems only start for importers who have not got the correct export licences for the objects they want to trade in. Whatever the MOU says, or does not say, traders who already respect the archaeological heritage, the law and maintain the highest standards of good practice are not affected one way or another by the MOU. So why are collectors being asked to fork out YET MORE money to support the ACCG dealers in their questioning of the pragmatics of the creation of this document?

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Hans Brinker, Horatius and the US ancient coin market

We saw earlier that in the view of the Executive Director of the US ancient coin dealers' lobby:

The Ancient Coin Collectors Guild might be compared to the legendary Dutch Boy with his finger in the dike (sic).
Well, it might be, but the story itself is not a part of the Dutch heritage but a purely American invention imposed by them on the Dutch. It was a literary invention by the New York born writer Mary Elizabeth Mapes Dodge (1831-1905), for by her children’s novel 'Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates', dating from 1865. There is no trace of it earlier than that. Hans Brinker is an American conception of the völkisch virtues of the forebears of the Dutch settlers more than it is associated with attributes the Dutch assign to themselves.

We have heard ad nauseam from portable antiquity collectors (and the myth-making ACCG in particular) that no-questions-asked collecting of ancient artefacts is allegedly "a good thing" for society because it allegedly spreads knowledge of Classical values in an otherwise poorly educated public. So one might ask why, instead of a fictional Dutch boy made up by a New York writer, does Sayles not liken himself and his fellows to Horatius Cocles on the Pons Sublicius holding off the forces of Lars Porsena?

I, with two more to help me, will hold the foe in play.
In yon strait path, a thousand may well be stopped by three:
Now, who will stand on either hand and keep the bridge with me?
Then out spake Spurius Lartius; a Ramnian proud was he:
"Lo, I will stand at thy right hand and keep the bridge with thee."
And out spake strong Herminius; of Titian blood was he:
"I will abide on thy left side, and keep the bridge with thee." *


Of course the bridge was totally destroyed and Horatius was then left stranded standing alone on the wrong side of the river...

I suppose it is quite symptomatic that ACCG's Sayles and his coin gathering fellows envisage themselves reinforcing an impenetrable wall between them and the changing context of portable antiquity collecting in the twenty-first century, while a number of years ago other collectors urged the construction of a bridge - leading to the formation of the PAS and the attitudes that go with it. While I may have issues with the latter, it is obvious which type of strategy is likely to be most effective and workable for collectors in the long run. It is not the "cold dead hands/numbed finger in the dyke" one.

*Thomas Babbington, Lord Macaulay "Horatius" (http://www.tom.womack.net/epic/horatius.html)
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Per Lucem ad Veritatem, sed nemo surdior est quam is qui non audiet.

In his comments to David Gill’s Looting matters, Wayne Sayles quotes Latin to the blog’s author:

You and others in the archaeological community may take the efforts of the ACCG lightly, but I can assure you that the State Department is not taking them lightly, nor will they take lightly the issues presented in further litigation. The motto of the ACCG, Per Lucem ad Veritatem, will in the end be prophetic as the truth is enlightened in court.
I bet the State Department, Maria Kouroupas, and Nicholas Burns are in actual fact taking the clownish conspiracy theories of the coin-collectors very lightly. I do not think we should. I think we should give them every encouragement. The ACCG with their very public posing, denial and insistence on a no-questions-asked status quo are putting a lot of effort into making a total laughing stock of the US numismatic community.

Let us remember that under the new regulations, there actually is no problem whatsoever in importing Cypriot or pre-Tang Chinese ancient coins into the USA if they have the proper export licence required by the law of the exporting source country.

Let us remember there is absolutely no problem with the buying, selling and collecting of ancient Cypriot and pre-Tang Chinese coins already in the USA before the relevant MOUs came into force (they are in any case only temporary) or those that entered it legitimately, as long as that can be documented if questioned.

What is behind all this is the distaste of US dealers in ancient artifacts (especially those making a living from selling old coins) for keeping proper records of where their goods come from, as importers and dealers in other goods automatically do.

As an archaeologist, what interests me more is that at the core of this issue and upcoming court case is the implicit denial that ancient coins (and by implication any coins I guess) can be regarded as archaeological artifacts. In other words they insist that if Ruritania requests the US to regulate the movement of archaeological artifacts coming from archaeological sites on Ruritanian territory, that this should for some reason automatically exclude coins. What is in question in this whole upcoming court case is the implicit assumption that coins should be included in the category of archaeological artefacts from Cyprus and China.

I must say I am particularly looking forward to the court case which will inevitably hinge on whether in the understanding of the normal non-collecting member of society (such as a civil servant) they are understood as such or are not. I suppose it will also consider whether the ones in question in this case are found in the source countries "in a direct physical relationship with archaeological resources" in the understanding of US law (how can they not be?). It seems to me that there will be no end of potential expert witnesses that can be called from US academic institutions suich as the universities and the AIA which will help the judge resolve this non-question in no uncertain terms. Where, then, will that (and the attendent publicity) leave US collectors of ancient coins?

Vignette: an ACCG representative of the US ancient coin collecting community rushing to court to show the judge that ancient coins are not ancient artefacts. He has a copy of an old book of numismatic fairy tales under his arm which he will use to demonstrate the basis for his belief that ancient coins in fact were not deposited in the soil in the past, but are given to US coin dealers by the jolly old elves under the hill. Will he be so happy after the judge tells him what HE has determined?

Monday, 27 April 2009

"ACCG Presses Claims to Hidden Information"


Dear oh dear. What is the problem? It seems the coin dealers' lobby group the ACCG (together with the International Association of Professional Numismatists and the Professional Numismatists Guild) did not in their Freedom of Information request get enough documents the first time to support their conspiracy theory about the Executive Director of the State Department’s Cultural Heritage Centre Maria Kouroupas, and former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, Nicholas Burns being allegedly agents of "foreign governments" with their nefarious nationalistic agendas. Despite this, ACCG officer Dave Welsh assures his readers "State Department Misconduct Evidence [is] Emerging". This is real tinfoil hat /they've-put-a-chip-inside-my head stuff, and rather modest "achievements" for the $45 800 raised by the ACCG "benefit auction" (funny, I thought they originally claimed to have made more...). Anyhow, in order to get the conclusive "proof" they need, they are going to hold another "benefit auction" in August/September this year. Why? Well, it turns out that in the view of its Executive Director:

The Ancient Coin Collectors Guild might be compared to the legendary Dutch Boy with his finger in the dike. The antiquities trade has all but abandoned the cultural property battlefield, the museum industry has withered under constant attack from cultural property nationalists and ancient coin collecting faces a torrent of opposition. If the guild were to disappear, there would be no serious resistance to a virulent nationalist monopoly on everything ancient. Opponents of ancient coin collecting have the considerable weight of academic institutions and nationalist governments on their side. However, private collectors have inherited a 600-year-old tradition and a very long track record of contributions to society. The Ancient Coin Collectors Guild will not concede our right to preserve, maintain, and enrich this tradition.

Real "cold dead hands" fighting talk that. Well, it seems to me that the global non-numismatic antiquities trade and the museums world ("industry"?) have to a greater degree than a small group of loud no-questions-asked US coin dealers recognised that the manner in which they collect does have a damaging effect on the archaeological record. They rather than ignoring it like the coin collectors - are now facing up to the problem by trying to mitigate that by more responsible collecting. Both groups now have codes of ethics which go well beyond the rather transparently weasel-worded ones adopted by the numismatic trade and its lobbyists. The argument that "Petrarch did it like that 600 years ago, so there is no need to change now" (which is in effect what the coin collectors are saying) really is such a self-serving one that it needs no comment. A lot of things have changed since Petrarch's day and to argue that coin collecting need not be one of them is pure comedy. It is not to the Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke that no-questions-asked antiquity collectors should be compared, but Stig of the Dump.

It is only right and proper that this sort of atavistic and selfish behaviour should provoke a "torrent of opposition" from all who really care about the long-term survival of the archaeological record and what it can tell us all about our common past. This is information which is put at severe risk by the commercial concerns of a small but damaging minority. US no-questions-asked coin collectors are determined to be the bird egg collectors, the ivory poachers, the real looters even in the twenty first century.

If the deniers and naysayers of the Ancient Coin Dealers Guild ACCG "were to disappear" from what Sayles terms with some exagerration "the cultural property battlefield", it would indeed be a step towards a new era of co-operation between the interests of responsible collectors and those of the groups concerned with the long term protection of the archaeological record against unregulated exploitation for commercial aims.

Leaky old CPAC - mystery solved?


Eight months ago there was talk of the ACCG "having reason to believe" that President Bush's Cultural Property Advisory Commitee (CPAC) did not believe ancient coins to be archaeological artefacts. We were speculating on the source of the leak of this information. The mystery seems to be solved by the publication on the ACCG website of a statement by former CPAC Chairman, Jay Kislak. This suggests that the CPAC in assessing the Cyprus request for more stringent checks by US border officials that imported ancient items from that country had actually been exported legally actually DID say this should exclude coins. This is a pretty astounding revelation for two reasons.

The first is that a government advisory committee is exactly that. It advises government. By what right is Mr Kislak making public what he says are the results of deliberations of this committee if the report has been witheld?

Secondly IF this committee did indeed for some reason conclude that ancient coins are not archaeological artefacts, it certainly calls into question the competence of the people appointed by George Bush Jnr to be his advisors in this area of foreign policy too.

Yes, by all means let us all see these CPAC reports, let us also see the documentation of the CPAC's deliberations and voting and the contribution of the collector-chairman. Let us all have a good laugh. Are ancient coins archaeological artefacts? Let's not bother asking collectors, what do the US universities say?

[If ancient coins are not archaeological artefacts, why does the "Ancient Coins for Education" programme use them as if they were in their pathetic "archaeological simulations"? Maybe they should take their lead from the ACCG and Bush's CPAC.]

Photo: Jay Kislak, collector and former chairman of CPAC

“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.

'Looter fine is a letdown'

Icklingham landowner John Browning said the legal system had 'let down' the British public and after a metal detector using looter who stole ancient artefacts from a site designated as an ancient monument site in his fields left court with only a £60 fine (Kirsty Marais 'Looter fine is a letdown', Bury Free Press 24 April 2009).

Browning sat in Bury St Edmunds Magistrates' Court on Tuesday to see Andrew Chamberlain plead guilty to the offence, but afterwards said "The courts have let down English Heritage very badly […] If the hearing had been half an hour later I would have exceeded my time in the car park and would have been fined more than a man who travelled 70 miles for the purpose to steal."

Fining Chamberlain £60 and ordering him to pay £60 costs and a £15 victim surcharge, District Judge Andrew Campbell said: "This is an unusual case and one can look at it very seriously. Firstly, this is theft from the Crown, there is also the case of disturbing the site and taking things that have prominence found in that particular context."
The problem is that Judge Campbell is wrong thinking this is an “unusual” case. It is happening all the time.

Britain has just spent a lot of money producing a strategic report on illegal artefact hunting – and one of the principal conclusions was that the judiciary and law enforcement authorities are at a total loss when faced with this kind of crime. A “fine” that is less than a parking ticket is absolutely no deterrent. If Mr Chamberlain admitted going to Mr Browning’s field equipped to steal, why was his metal detector not confiscated? If a burglar was apprehended having broken into Judge Andrew Campbell’s house at four thirty in the morning, would he get off with a sixty quid fine and be allowed to keep all the lock-picking tools found on him?

Iraqi Defense Minister Abd al-Qadir - Antiquity Smuggling "Finances Terrorism"

Iraqi commandos recently smashed a smuggling ring and arrested a gang of seven men who were preparing to smuggle the objects out of Iraq. The authorities were tipped off by Iraqi citizens, residents in the southern Iraqi towns of Abu al-Kahsib, Bab al-Tawael and al-Amir who obviously have had enough of the plunder of their cultural heritage for the entertainment and profit of foreigners. (Caroline Alexander "Iraq Troops Bust Smuggling Ring, Recover 235 Looted Artifacts", April 24 Bloomberg).

The objects 235 looted Babylonian and Sumerian artifacts recovered in the raids were turned over to the Tourism and Antiquities Ministry, they included gold jewellery, ceramics and stone figurines. They were not marked with museum serial numbers, suggesting they were illegally dug up from one of Iraq’s estimated 40,000 archeological sites. Hopefully the questioning of the smugglers might lead the authorities back to the actual looters and those who mediate with them. Iraqi Defense Minister Abd al-Qadir said in a statement.“The Iraqi Army is putting extraordinary pressure on smuggling gangs that steal Iraq’s history to finance terrorist operations.”


US dealers and collectors involved in the no-questions-asked market of portable antiquities from Europe, the near East and North Africa dismiss the information coming from Iraq that the sale of antiquities is being used to purchase weapons and explosives for use in furthering the civil unrest in that country which has been initiated by the 2003 US-led invasion. I suggest though if they wish to contradict the Iraqi Minister of Defence's assessment of the siutuation in his own country, they might like to demonstrate to us what other kind of activities the money raised by the illegal sale of Iraqi antiquities on the foreign markets is being used to finance.


Caroline Alexander, 'Iraq Troops Bust Smuggling Ring, Recover 235 Looted Artifacts', Bloomberg April 24, 2009.

"Found in potato fields by poor peasants"?


The dealers in portable antiquities from the Balkan region are fond of claiming various things about where these items are came from, that they all come from mythical hoards buried on the "edges of battlefields" by war-bound soldiers who never made it home, that they are found by peasants in potato fields… These fairy stories however have little connection with the reality of the situation.
In the “Crime” section of the Sofia News Agency Novinite we read of the apprehending of some artefact hunters from the area of Veliko Tarnovo last Friday. The group included four individuals, ages 35 to 55, some of them with criminal records, related to illegal treasure-hunting. The group dealt with illegal archaeological excavations and trade of objects with cultural and historical value. Let us be clear about this, many antiquities of southeaastern European origin are reaching the international no-questions-asked markets through the hands of law-breakers, some already with a criminal record. Current evidence from the region suggests that much of the trade is in the hands of organized crime groups. Who would buy any antiquities of any description from the dealers and middlemen who cannot prove that they are not dealing with such types of people?


Friday, 24 April 2009

Antiquity Collectors Helping Finance the Taliban Revival?


ABC News correspondent Gretchen Peters based in Pakistan and Afghanistan has a book coming out soon, the “Seeds of Terror” (pub May 12 2009) which looks at the resurgence of the Taliban and in particular its financing by illegal activities such as involvement in the illicit drugs trade. The pre-publication blurb says that the book was written on the basis of hundreds of interviews with Taliban fighters, smugglers, and law enforcement and intelligence agents, as well as utilizing intelligence reports. In it she traces the illicit activities of the taliban "from vast poppy fields in southern Afghanistan to heroin labs run by Taliban commanders, from drug convoys armed with Stinger missiles to the money launderers of Karachi and Dubai”. Seeds of Terror makes the case that if the western world ever hopes to beat them, it must make every effort to cut terrorists off from their illicit means of financing their activities. Peters argues that the failure to halt this money flow to terrorist networks is "the single greatest failure in the war on terror," and argues that staunching the flood of money from illicit activities into terrorist coffers is essential. She contends that the "union of narco-traffickers, terrorist groups, and the international criminal underworld is the new axis of evil."

On Gretchen Peters’ blog there is a parallel article about “The criminals running the Af-Pak border” which is worth reading. Among other things, she writes:
In the last eight years, the Afghan Taliban have greatly expanded their illicit activities, morphing into a force more violent and ruthless than when they were in power from 1996 to 2001 and building up an economic empire worth almost half a billion dollars. Their activities are diverse: In some parts of the south, they collaborate with drug traffickers to dictate poppy output. They provide armed protection for opium convoys leaving Afghanistan's farm areas and protect heroin labs along the Pakistan border. In addition, they work with kidnapping rings that have snared diplomats, journalists, U.S. contractors, and wealthy local businessmen. They cooperate with gunrunners, human traffickers, and the smuggling gangs that illegally export millions of dollars worth of Afghan antiquities.
Readers will remember that the ACCG has been very free with its "Friends of Numismatics" award to US congressmen who recently opposed the proposed introduction (HR 915) of stricter controls over the import of antiquities from Afghanistan into the US. Now a few years on, there is emerging information that it is precisely the trafficking of these antiquities to the no-questions-asked markets of the west which is contributing to the financing of the enemies of America, that is buying them weapons and explosive. Let us remember their names, these "Friends of numismatists", the text “ACCG has friends in Congress” names them as Mark Green, Tom Petri, Paul Ryan and adds "The ACCG is proud to count them as "Friends"." I am sure they were not alone in opposing the introduction of stricter regulation of the market in antiquities from Afghanistan. I hope the publication of Ms Peters' book is accompanied by the publication of a full list of US lawmakers who opposed HR 915. Who were these people that put the self-interest of a minority group of traders and collectors over the need to stem the flow of dollars to lawbreakers?

On ACCG President Bill Puetz’s Vcoins online coin store at the moment, the search engine reveals that there are about 180 coins from “Bactria” (an ancient polity, most of the central urbanised area of which falls into modern Afghanistan). They are collectively worth more than $10 000. Very few of them however have any kind of documented provenance capable of demonstrating they left the region before the rise of the Taliban. Ebay has 29 at the moment, and the same comments apply. The total value of the latter is some $20 000. So where do they come from? How do potential customers of these stores know they are not putting money into the pockets of the Taliban and other illegal groups (for example in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan)? The collector may wish to persuade themselves that this "cannot be" the case, but to what extent is that simply short-sighted wishful thinking?

Photo: The fruits of the seeds of terror - financed in part by no-questions-asked portable antiquities collectors? How can they be sure?

Thursday, 23 April 2009

When on Google Earth 23

Here is the next When on Google Earth. I only won the last one because Chuck Jones chose as his site one which looked like the one on the cover of a book I have here, and while it was not that site, it gave an idea of where to look, and I found it in the neighbouring country.

With reference to the title of my blog, this one is not so much a "portable antiquity issue" though there are indeed "heritage issues" connected with it. This photo is part of a complex of monuments which extends over many kilkometres square, though part of it is damaged by modern activity. There has recently been some discussion over the best means to preserve it. This complex is not only well known for its exceptional archaeology, but also the various speculative pseudo-scientific notions part of it attracts.

[Since it is a complex of features which may have accrued over many centuries, and not all of them have been properly dated by investigation yet, the date can be expressed vaguely as a general period or periods].

The area in the photo is about 1.3 km across.

One other thing, although the site can be determined without, to get the view seen here, you do need to use one of the newer features of Google Earth...

Sorry the photo is a bit dull and lacking contrast, that's how it came out. I'll try and put a better version up a bit later, though I am expecting it to be solved quite quickly.





The Rules of When on Google Earth are as follows:
Q: What is When on Google Earth?
A: It’s a game for archaeologists, or anybody else willing to have a go!

Q: How do you play it?
A: Simple, you try to identify the site in the picture.

Q: Who wins?
A: The first person to correctly identify the site, including its major period of occupation, wins the game.

Q: What does the winner get?
A: The winner gets bragging rights and the chance to host the next When on Google Earth on his/her own blog!


Previous winners are given on the table on WOGE 21... Being blog-illiterate, I could not copy it here.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Mr Browning catches another one

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Landowner John Browning in Icklingham Suffolk has caught many metal detector users seeking for collectable (and saleable) artefacts on his land illegally. His farm contains the Icklingham Roman settlement which has in the past produced a whole series of amazing finds (including the Icklingham bronzes now owned by Shelby White). It is of course a scheduled ancient monument and any "metal detecting" there without a permit is illegal.

On April 5th, Andrew Chamberlain, a 25-year old unemployed man from King's Lynn (50 km to the north) was artefact hunting with a metal detector on the site at about 4.30am. He was spotted by Mr Brown, who now patrols his land precisely to catch such heritage thieves at work. Mr Browning has been warned by the local police not to tackle these metal detector wielding intruders as they have been known in the past to be dangerous, so he called the police who sent a patrol car and Mr Chamberlain was apprehended as he returned to his van to return home with what he had found (stolen from the archaeological resource on Mr Brown's land). He was charged with stealing three Roman coins from a site of crucial archaeological importance.

Yesterday he pleaded guilty to theft in court at Bury St Edmunds and was fined £60, ordered to pay costs of £60 and a 'victim surcharge' of £15.

The court was told that Chamberlain, who had no previous convictions, was unaware that the former Roman settlement in the Suffolk village was now a scheduled monument site of archaeological interest. He was said to have a strong interest
in history, particularly medieval Roman times.
As do all "metal detectorists". It really beats me how any "metal detectorist" living locally could not know this particular site was a scheduled site (see the comments of one of them here). There is a resource however that one can check (magic map). So if he did not know it was scheduled, what was he doing there at four-thirty in the morning? He can hardly claim (as some night-time detectorists do) that they "work shifts". Also its a bit odd he claims he did not know the site was "now" scheduled. It was scheduled well before Mr Chamberlain bought his first metal detector.

Also the site must now be in a poor state if now (at the beginning of the artefact hunting season) all he could find on this immensely rich site was a measly three Roman coins. Presumably by now- despite it being a site protected by the law, all the rest of the finds have been taken away and are scattered in many ephemeral personal artefact collections of many no-questions-asked coin and artefact collectors in the UK and beyond its shores - wherever the unregulated internet market takes them.

Britain has archaeological resource protection laws, portable antiquities collectors say these laws are the "best in the world" (that's because they are among the weakest in the world). Nevertheless, even that does not stop people like Mr Chamberlain going onto protected sites and taking stuff away, despite the fact that there are tens, hundreds of thousands of other places where archaeological finds can be sought legally. Obviously the current system is not protecting the significant archaeological heritage from being trashed. What would stop it however if the posession of archaeological material which cannot be shown to have a licit provenance was in some way restricted - either by social pressure or by law - or preferably the one and the other.
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Photo: John Browning (from East Anglian Daily Times)

Monday, 20 April 2009

America helps Britain pay for its heritage

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On this blog on Sunday I suggested that US collectors might help out a small local authority museum in England trying to raise the cash to purchase a hoard of nine Late Roman coins from Nailsworth, near Stroud, Gloucestershire recently declared Treasure. Half of the 450 quid needed is for the landowner who allowed a metal detector using artefact hunter on his land, and half for the finder. The next day this anonymous news message appeared on the ACCG website (of course omitting any mention of this blog and my suggestion). The ACCG makes it look as if it is its own unprompted initiative for North American collectors to donate to this appeal:

As collectors and dealers we all benefit from the sensible laws in England governing coin finds and we support the voluntary reporting of metal detector finds. [...] This is an ideal opportunity for us to support these laws and the good practice of voluntary reporting by giving something back.

So get your checkbooks out please guys and help out. Just think what good publicity it will be.

The actual total costs of the payments given to artefact hunters all over the UK for complying with the law and handing over government-claimed finds to the state for inclusion in public collections is currently unknown. We should not forget that administering the process is not without its own costs. This system must cost the citizens of Britain in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland a hefty number of hundreds of thousands of pounds a year for them to buy back from metal detector using artefact seekers pieces of their own heritage. In some years, the overall annual costs must top a million pounds, surely. These are the hidden costs of the "British system" that US portable antiquity collectors (like those in the ACCG) want other nations to adopt because it allegedly works so well in the UK. So while it is nice to see the ACCG chipping in to help Stroud Museum find 450 UKP, one wonders how much they will be willing to donate to the purchase of the Harrogate Hoard (probably somewhere in the region of 1,082,800 UKP) and other such shiny goodies.

I suspect the argument might be raised that such items will be going in most cases to the larger museums where the issue for the pro-collecting lobby is that there such items may not be on permanent display and "would undoubtedly be stored away from view and perhaps never seen again". Nevertheless if they are to find their way into the public collections, somebody must pay for them.

I was also interested by the ACCG's remark: "The museum has an annual budget of only about £100 for the purchase of all finds! Most private collectors could hardly imagine such a small amount to devote to their collection each year". The ACCG's estimated 50 000 US collectors of ancient coins alone spending more than 100UKP on coins a year is putting at least 5 000 000 pounds a year into the market. Just think how much artefact hunting that can finance.

Now, the only problem is if countries like Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and all the others from which a steady flow of portable antiquities currently on the US market come from were to adopt the "British system", who would help THEM foot the bill? Many of them are countries which do not have the resources of the United Kingdom and what they do have is clearly better spent elsewhere. Even if each of them "only" has to find something like the equivalent of Britain's (estimated) million pounds per annum, that's a lot of funds got to come from elsewhere. All the citizens of those countries would have to foot the bill, all so a small minority of collectors do not have to "say no to tainted and undocumented artefacts". Why?

UPDATE: No sooner had I spoken than Peter Dearing posted to the Moneta-L list an appeal from the "Friends of the British Museum" (which he calls an "English museum" sic) for help aquiring the "Vale of York [aka Harrogate] Hoard". They only need a cool quarter of a million quid. But that is just one Treasure find, there's many more out there the Brits would appreciate help with securing for public benefit instead of them disappearing on the open market. I think museums from all over the British Isles might like to send requests for financial help to the US coin collectors lobby organization - The address of the secretary Wayne Sayles is on the ACCG website.

Citizens’ Archaeological Protection Patrols – where are the British ones?

British archaeologist “Jake’s” typical defeatist approach ”Metal Detectorists are here now and we are stuck with em
is put to shame by the story over on SAFEcorner (Monday, April 20, 2009 Organizing local people can save knowledge ) about the proper archaeological investigation of a tomb that would otherwise have fallen prey to looters. The reason it did not is that it was in an area where local archaeologists have organized villagers to protect the local archaeological sites. It is “a really clear example of how organizing local people can save knowledge". Roger Atwood in his seminal Stealing History, page 230, describes the efforts of this type of 'archaeological protection group'. “They scout the land, chase away bands of looters, or they surround them and tie their wrists with rope until the police arrive, and they seize their tools -- shovels, poles, buckets. ...”.

It’s a shame that we can only read about the activities of such patrols among, for example, the villagers of southern America, or southern and eastern Asia. British archaeologists cannot manage to organize similar citizens’ initiative among the heritage conscious public of their own country, simply collectively shrug their shoulders and say that “Metal Detectorists are here now and we are stuck with em”, and decide that if they "cannot" (really?) beat them, they might as well join them as "partners".

Sunday, 19 April 2009

CPAC Resignations 18th April 2003

Six years ago, on 18th April 2003, three cultural advisers to the White House resigned in protest at the failure of US forces to prevent the looting a few days earlier of Iraq's national museum during the US-led invasion .
The three resigned from the Cultural Property Advisory Committee, an 11-member advisory committee composed of experts and professionals from the art world. They were Martin Sullivan - who had chaired the CPAC for eight years. The other two members to resign were Richard S Lanier (director of a New York foundation) and Gary Vikan (director of Baltimore's Walters Art Museum). According to the Associated Press, Mr Lanier criticised the Bush administration's "total lack of sensitivity and forethought regarding the Iraq invasion and loss of cultural treasures".

After the resignation of Martin Sullivan over this matter the chair of the CPAC was filled by Jay Kislak (2003-2008).

Get your genu-whine Crucifiction relics 'ere, get your wallets out and come over here, gents!


Over on the Moneta-L forum they are still huffing and puffing about me making a comment on some people’s (mis)use of written sources to “authenticate” a piece of stained linen many claim to be the shroud in which Jesus was laid in the Tomb. The thread of the argument though has long been lost. I was struck by the comments of a man of the cloth, the Rev. Mr. Rob Page “a former teacher of history and an ordained deacon” remonstrating with coin collectors on the true meaning of “relics” as a focus for contemplation rather than worship. He adds that if an individual believes they are the actual object that it purports to be, “that individual gains a more personalized experience”. He continues:
When I hold a coin that I think is authentic, I experience a closer union with that time period. I have taken coins of Caesar and Brutus and have shown them to my students who remember that experience and appreciate what we are studying. Likewise, I have taken a Roman crucifixtion nail and shown it to members of my parish. While it is not the nail, it does make an impression that the people don't easily forget.
Now the first part is the conventional “pieces of the past in the hand” (emotion versus intellect) argument which suggests that a great help in the cutting down of personal artefact collecting might be if US (and not only) museums and educational institutions could develop more effective programmes of circulating handling collections of artifacts around schools like we had in England when I was a kid. Then teachers would not themselves have to buy artifacts for their show-and-tell which is then used to promote no-questions-asked portable antiquity collecting as an “educational” tool.

More disturbing however is the vision of a robed churchman somewhere out west each Easter solemnly taking from a case a cruddy black or brown corroded spike and holding it up reverently (or maybe triumphantly) and intoning in a voice full of dark significance “and this…is a real Roman crucifixtion (sic) nail, just like the one they used to crucify Our Lord, just imagine, come, touch it - feel how sharp it still is”. At this point, the old ladies cross themselves and the more fragile members of the congregation start to weep quietly with emotion.

But what is a “Roman crucifixion nail”? Leaving behind the debate on how frequently victims of this punishment were nailed to a cross or tied there, how can one tell what a Roman nail was used for or intended to be used for? The Romans had a well-developed iron production industry in most provinces. They made lots of nails. Their buildings were full of them. Their sites are littered with them. They made huge nails for joining big bits of wood (roof and floor joists, ships), middle sized ones for joining middle sized bits of wood (roof laths, floorboards, carts, doors and shutters) and little ones for small pieces of wood (caskets, hobnails). The Roman military was a large consumer of these nails, we have a pit full of them (about a million in fact) for example from the fort at Inchtuthill. Here’s some of them. A detachment off to do a morning’s crucifixion duty would drop off at the fort canteen to get their cheese and ham sandwiches and at the fort's blacksmith’s workshop for a bag of stout long carpentry nails.

So actually if the Reverend has been sold a “genu-whine real nail used by the Romans to crucify Christians – who knows “who” might have hung from it?” on eBay or by any other smooth-talking “don’t-ask-me-questions-I’ll-tell-no-lies” dealer in authentick artifacts, he’s been taken for a ride.

More to the point, in not determining the basis of the assertion that a particular spiky piece of rusty iron is both Roman and a “crucifixion” (and not roofing) nail - so basically the provenance again - and apparently representing it to his congregation as such, he is plainly abusing their trust and misleading them. (Note that interesting "the people" in the quote.)

Anyway what were claimed by their seller to be the "real nails" from the (a?) crucifixion were on offer on eBay last year.

Lots-of-nails:
L. Pitts and S. Frere, 1985, Inchtuthill: the Roman legionary fortress excavations 1952–65. London: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies.

Diggin' in Virginia



In the past couple of decades, US archaeologists have developed a methodology of examining extensive topsoil sites such as battlefields and military encampments in a manner that helps reconstruct the flow of a historic fight, give insight into military strategy or, at a campsite, illuminate the living conditions of the soldiers there in a way that documentary evidence alone cannot. This approach was pioneered in the US. The work done at the site of Battle of Little Bighorn, Custer's Last Stand (1876), in Montana for example is a classic of this methodological approach in which metal detector users were involved. It also shows how easily the evidence held in the top few inches of topsoil can be destroyed if part of it is taken away by artefact hunters and collectors.

From Virginia, Brigid Schulte reports ('Unearthed War Relics See Battle Again Archaeologists Decry History Buffs' Digs ', Washington Post April 16, 2006) on a three-day commercial "safari" relic hunt called Diggin' in Virginia one weekend this spring, which was anything but the careful systematic work needed to investigate such a site. More than 200 relic hunters (interestingly dressed mainly in camouflage as in the UK) swept the fields of Brandy Rock Farm in Culpeper County with their metal detectors. To take part they'd paid a couple of hundred dollars each.
Obviousl some thought it was worth it. One metal detectorist is stated to have found a Confederate ‘Mississippi belt plate” apparently worth $12000, while others are quoted as getting excited about finding a Minié shot as “about as close as you can get to stepping back in time."

The site of this metal detecting rally – a form of exploitation of the archaeological resource which she reports is becoming increasingly popular in parts of the USA - was an 1863 Civil War campsite. While the “dig” was perfectly legal, the site was stripped of a large amount of any evidence of past activity it may have contained. Since no recording of findspots seems to have taken place here and all the finds have anyway been scattered into 200 personal collections and on eBay, that is now one more site of this period that can no longer be studied by more sophisticated investigation techniques to understand the past.


The same weekend as Diggin' in Virginia, 200 relic hunters roamed Fort Powhatan on the James River during the Texas-based North South Hunt, jockeying to see who could mine the most Revolutionary and Civil War goodies. (The same group holds the Grand National Relic Shootout and the Git R Dun hunts in Virginia.)
Again, it appears no recording of findspots was done and information was lost and the site irreparably damaged by the selective and unrecorded removal of part of the evidence.

US archaeologists are not slow to point out that such metal detecting rallies represent the wholesale destruction of evidence of the past. Kathleen Kilpatrick, director of the state's Department of Historic Resources says: "These digs are like ripping the pages out of a book as you read and setting them on fire […]"It's an outrage."

The metal detectorists counter such concerns with the same time-worn old excuses that we see in the UK . The relic hunters deny any connection with “the bad guys -- the ones who use night-vision goggles and sneak into protected sites at night to dig things up, or the ones who sell what they find on eBay”. “Metal detectorists” “have such a passion for the past”, “they write books on what they find” (references please). Some "pinpoint what they dug up”. Others have "donated hundreds of hours to help archaeologists”. “many of the places they dig have been ploughed for 140 years and that artifacts have been scattered, there is no context" (not true- see above). "This stuff's just rotting in the ground," “If these sites are so important, why haven't archaeologists staked their claim?” (heard of conservation guys?). We’ve heard it all before, it cuts no mustard when the overall effect is erosive and destructive.


Members of the Council of Virginia Archaeologists have begun protesting to state legislators and other officials and are enlisting the aid of local historic preservation groups. They've also contacted landowners to get them to stop the digs. Last year in the state's General Assembly, lawmakers considered a measure that would have required relic hunters to get written permission from landowners before digging, and to catalogue and report what they found. The bill also would have established that relics belonged to the state, not any individual. It was resoundingly crushed in committee. Del. Kenneth R. Plum (D-Fairfax) said he got hundreds of angry e-mails and letters for sponsoring the bill. "I was not prepared for what happened to me," he said. "The floodgates opened."
Oh, we can imagine. On a safari you are told never to get between a hippopotamus and water, it will attack you. Equally anyone suggesting that like some other finite resources artefacts in archaeological context should be under some form of state protection is asking for trouble from US collectors. Still, I do not expect Democratic delegates do much hanging around on US collectors’ forums and listen to the anti-establishment “cold dead hands’ pose-striking there.

What is more interesting is the anger that seems to have been directed at a proposal that it is reported “would have required relic hunters to get written permission from landowners before digging”, what on earth is so devastating about that? What actually is wrong in obliging those who dig up an historical site and take away artifacts from it to “catalogue and report what they found”?

We have all been witness to the constant barrage of calls from the artefact collecting community, and the US artefact collecting community in particular, for all those “source nations” (with their “restrictive laws” which stand between them and the ancient geegaws they want to decorate their collections with) to adopt “the British system”. By this they mean hefty rewards for reporting state-acquired finds, archaeologists working as “partners” of the artefact hunters to record as much as possible of the findspot information, but teh artefact hunter talking away (for example to sell to US collectors) as much as they want. So why is it so difficult for them to apply a system based on similar principles in their own country? Why are US relic hunters against the recording of finds? Why have US detectorists not even set up something like the UKDFD, let alone lobbied strenuously for the US government to set aside the funds required to set up an archaeological outreach programme like the PAS which would record finds made by members of the public in the course of their everyday and recreational activities? It seems to me that before calling for other nations to change their whole system of heritage management to suit the US collector, US advocates of collectors' "rights" should be applying it consistently to their own land. Before they can convert foreign governments, civil society and artefact hunters to the British system, let them convince their own. So what about it ACCG, when do you start?

Photo: "History Buff" looking for pieces of the past to take home. Photo Lucian Perkins.

A taste of things to come or just a load of gas?


I’ve been unable to find out more about an anecdote which recently appeared on the ancient artifacts forum here and here.

Apparently a collector in north western USA (Idaho) “just this past week” had two local customs-FBI gentlemen visit her and they “told her they noted she was actively buying artifacts on ebay”, they apparently examined all the items in her collection and collected the names of sellers. The items concerned were apparently Maya objects, import of which is restricted in the USA depending on what country they come from.

Now, if true, and not just a one-off fluke, it suggests that US authorities might be beginning to observe internet sales more carefully in the same way as in Germany. We all recall the fuss about that from US collectors a few weeks back. This is one to watch.

Metal detecting is purely about love of history: "computer says no!"

In a thought provoking post ("Metal detecting is purely about love of history: computer says no!") the British grassroots conservation advocacy group Heritage Action discusses this story which they suggest gives a vivid insight into the artefact hunters' mentality.

A hoard of nine silver Roman coins was found near Nailsworth by detectorist Wayne Jacobs in 2004. Now, Stroud Museum in the Park (annual budget to buy finds, £100) has launched an appeal to raise £450 to buy them for the benefit of the people of the area [...] The reaction to this story by detectorists on minelabowners.com, the detecting forum where it appeared is revealing, to say the least…. .
Read more here.

Since the whole point of putting them in a public collection is to allow the assemblage to be kept together allowing future study (including numismatic study), perhaps our US coin-collecting frinds who are so keen to see the "British model" applied in other - often poorer - countries would like to chip in and help this small local authority museum fund this purchase (To make a donation, send a cheque payable to ‘SDC Coin Appeal’ to Museum in the Park, Stratford Park, Stroud, GL5 4AF, I wonder if they take Paypal?).

[Foreign readers might be puzzled by the joke in the HA title. It is a reference to one of the recurring sketches in the 'cult' comedy series "Little Britain", a character called Carol Beer].

Thursday, 16 April 2009

The artefact collector-friendly archaeological "Federation": debate quashed

The British Archaeology Jobs Resource (a sort of a online job seeking service for British archaeologists) is apparently trying to set up some kind of a "Federation" to "save" British archaeology from something or other. Sadly though it is not from the damaging public perception of archaeology fostered by current treatment of the artefact hunting and collecting issue in that country. Archaeologist David Connolly the spiritus movens of BAJR is very publicly pro-collecting, pro-"metal detectorist" up to his ears, so it is not surprising that he has gathered much support in the pro-collecting milieu.

Recently on "Britarch", the discussion list of the Council for British Archaeology (so in some ways perhaps a rival for the task of representing archaeology and archaeologists to other bodies) a discussion started up on the topic of the federation, gathering members' thoughts. Some doubts certain individuals had were expressed about the apparently less than democratic means by which is was being set up, and whether it was ultimately a good or bad idea to have yet another body (alongside the CBA, the IFA, ALGAO, PAS and various other organizations acting as the public face of the discipline, and trades unions protecting the rights of its members). Especially one with the - to some - somewhat controversial David Connolly as self-appointed leader.

What was interesting about the discussion was that among the first of a rapid flurry of posters who leapt to defend the new organization on Britarch, three were "metal detectorists" chastising archaeologists for not supporting the new initiative (including one defending BAJR by provocatively accusing some British archaeologists of being "heritage brownshirts", thinking it was a surefire way to gather support in the milieu no doubt). It would seem that at least some British "metal detectorists" see it as very much in their interests that Mr Connolly should, by means of this Federation, achieve some "clout" in British archaeology. That alone might lead some of us to question what the grounds for that might be.

Part of the British archaeological community will face a problem finding out about and expressing opinions on the creation of a body which aims to represent them. Much of the organization of the new federation is currently going on over on a closed section of the BAJR forum. As is well-known, Mr Connolly does not let all and sundry on his forum. For example, I have found to my cost that one is not allowed to call artefact hunting there "artefact hunting" or disagree with what Mr Connolly says, both appear to be (I was told) offences against his forum's "Accepted Use Policy". Since I do disagree with David Connolly over a number of things (in particular what seems to me a fundamental issue of whether portable antiquity collecting really is in any shape or form "archaeology for all" as Connolly insists), it's not worth the effort of trying to register there to have him block and manipulate my posts. Though if I took up metal detecting and artefact collecting I might have more of a chance I guess.

Readers of this blog will now not be able to see in turn what members of Britarch said over the past couple of days about the new "Federation" and the questioning of certain methods being applied to create it. On Friday, Mr Connolly contacted CBA asking them to remove certain members' posts, and apparently when they (rightly) refused, Connolly (and possibly one other person - unconfirmed) contacted the CBA's service provider (JISC) who today obligingly removed the whole of two threads on the BAJR "Federation" from the Britarch list ! Free speech no longer rules in Great Britain it seems. This is ironic, as it is precisely this type of behaviour on Mr Connolly's part (hidering free discussion of his proposals in an OPEN forum) that was being questioned in that thread. The would-be leader seems to have shown his hand and how how he would treat those in British archaeology who have a different perception than his own. If the "Federation" had any guts (which it would need to face the problems archaeology in Britain faces today), it would reply to the comments and doubts expressed on a public forum and not simply brush them aside by having two whole threads of comment and discussion deleted by a third party. These are, however, the same tactics we have seen David Connolly apply consistently whenever his approach to artefact collecting is questioned. I have observed that he will not face or tolerate criticism, nor justify his views or actions, simply dismiss the question. While this is what we have come to expect from the no-questions-asked portable antiquities collector (who simply have no real justification and much to hide), it is disturbing to see this inability to articulate a coherent answer to legitimate concerns about the heritage in a professional archaeologist.

Once he'd removed two threads from an independent forum, he then set up an open thread on the forum he controls "for the benefit of Britarch members" (!). But is is hardly a conducive environment for the Britarch member since most of the first three pages of the thread consists of jokes about Britarch, and personal comments at the expense of the Britarch members who had earlier questioned the Federation in the now-missing posts (suddenly it seems the AUP is less stringently applied than when talking about Connolly's views on "metal detecting" and its role in archaeological policy). Not surprisingly Britarch members have not been flooding to BAJR to discuss the topic of this new federation there.

I will not be supporting a "metal detectorist" friendly "Federation" run by David Connolly to represent British archaeology, especially one that uses such methods to quash alternate opinions. Neither do I personally think, until certain issues are cleared up, would it be wise for anyone else to do so. In any case as far as I can see, a lot of attention has been paid to who is eligible for membership of what kind, but there is no overall statement of the actual aims, nor manner in which those aims will be achieved.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Nomadi del Tempo


A short film on archaeology today, 'La collina e la Luna', by the Swiss-based Nomadi del Tempo talks of the passion of the archaeologist and its situation in a modern society: see http://www.lacollinedesceltes.ch/, [chapter Au Cinema]. More information on http://www.nomadideltempo.ch./(seen first on BAJR) where in the comments on this film, the point was made about today's developer-funded field archaeology being "essentially the stormtropers of the construction industry". Thought provoking.
 
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