Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Controversy over Marbles "Largely a Matter of Greek Politics"

Having built this new museum for the Elgin Marbles, the Greeks have managed to rustle up one or two British journalists credulous or naïve enough to write articles calling for their return. But if anyone thinks the building is ever going to house anything other than the plaster casts that are on display there
now, they are hopelessly out of touch with reality. There is virtually no chance that the director or trustees of the British Museum, now or in the future, will comply with this outlandish demand.

Thus writes the Telegraph's outspoken art critic Richard Dorment. "The Greeks should erect a statue of Lord Elgin near the Parthenon to express their nation's gratitude to him for saving the Marbles", he says "instead of whining about events that happened more than two centuries ago, perhaps the Greek ambassador should formally thank Britain for displaying the marbles in those beautiful galleries at the British Museum".

He ends predictably: "Let the new museum stand as a monument to the futility of cultural nationalism — in this case trying to claim back something that by now belongs to the whole world". [Well, the British Museum at any rate, and of course the Torygraph never expresses any nationalistic sentiments of its own does it?].

The Parthenon marbles are a case which shows that any "antiquity" can be made "portable" if you cut it into suitably sized pieces. Like all "portable antiquities", they do not make full sense when individual "displayable" bits are taken out of the context of the rest of the assemblage. The overused term "cultural nationalism" does not seem to have much sense here. In fact, one might reflect that it does not ever have much sense when applied to the removal of material from a country when it is self-evident that this is reducing to a significant degree the size and scope of the resource of such material available for study, collection and display within that country. Is trying to reduce or even reverse the process in itself "nationalism"? James Cuno and no-questions-asked collectors would prefer people to think it was, I wonder whether they could give us a more precise definition of what they mean by the use of the term. Probably not.

When on Google Earth 61

The coineys like to pretend that "archaeologist Barford knows nothing about ancient coins" which is as illogical as it is presumptuous and insulting. As it happens, it was me and not they who solved the sixtieth WOGE on Nathan Elkins' "Numismatics and Archaeology" blog, and answered the additional numismatic question related to it.

So here is WOGE 61, it is connected in a not-so roundabout way with the topic of a recent post here, so in addition to the usual stuff incorportated in the rules of this game, I'd like to hear from the winner the connection they perceive.

North is at the top, the frame here is about 350 metres across. Colurs more or less 'as is', though rendered a little more contrasty to pick out some of the features.

In this game heap-of-loose-ancient- coins-on-a-table numismatists or absolvents of the ACE program[me] can also take part ( apart from Nathan I do not recall there being numismatist or a (declared) ancient dugup coin collector among the winners , I stand to be corrected). So, Mr Tompa, Sayles, Welsh all the rest of you who pretend not to be reading this blog, let's hear from you. It should not be at all difficult for you.

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Monday, 29 June 2009

Working With and not Demonising the Market in Portable Antiquities?

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There is a remark on the Yahoo Ancient Artifacts forum that is worth a brief comment. The author of the post, a collector mentioned in these pages earlier, says that collectors of portable antiquities can all agree that an attempt should be made to stop the on-going destruction of archaeological sites by looting to supply the antiquities market.

"the question is what the effective means to achieve it are. To demonize collectors of antiquities does not work I think, even though clearly the antiquities market is part of the problem. [...] But as the antiquities market is not going to disappear any time soon the solution must be to work with the market instead of against it".
I ask why, instead of the other way round, "the market" cannot work with the preservationists, governments and museums. Why is it that collectors and dealers always expect everybody else to accept their no-questions-asked approach and compromise, when it is the compromise itself that is allowing the damage to continue? Time and time again we see from collectors the attitude that if the preservationists, if governments, want things to change in the antiquities market, then it is up to the preservationists and governments to present a solution to the collectors on a plate (like setting up recording systems and financial incentives). The proviso is that these solutions cannot involve the dealer or collector is any additional effort or resposibilities, and must allow the continuance of the current status quo in the market. Forums like Unidroit-L and Ancient Artifacts are full of such demands made by collectors. I have commented on some of them here.

The attitudes of the naysayers of the no-questions-asked advocacy need no demonisation from me, they only need to be pointed out and their loud demands and denials speak for themselves, it is they that form the public image of "collectors of portable aniquities". If other more ethical collectors are unhappy about the image they create, they need to speak out more against the naysaying troublemakers in their midst. Nobody can discuss their views if they stay silent.

Metal Detecting video

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Here is a metal detecting video from England ("Buried Treasure" by Andy and Dave Holton) which sort of sums up the ethos of looking only for buried metal items to keep and ignoring what they are buried with. It also shows what opinion some Brits have of "metal detectorists" and what they are up to (the authors of this film are obviously not metal detectorists, the sweep technique is wrong and nobody goes metal detecting in white trousers).

Coins from Water Newton Commercial "metal detecting" Rally on ebay

EBay seller mickymoor of Durham is selling nine coins which he describes as a "small hoard of 9 Roman bronze coins" -

This auction is for Small Hoard of 9 Roman Bronze Coins found at the Water Newton Metal-Detecting Rally 2 years ago and just returned/disclaimed from the British Museum, buy with confidence, just look at my Feedback
The seller is careful to note in answer to a question from a "John", that "water newton is in cambridgeshire, they were found 2 fields away from the roman town and declared".

That would be somewhere in the centre of this Google Earth frame then which covers the area which was denuded of metal finds in the 2007 commercial artefact hunting rally. The scheduled site of the Roman town of Durobrivae is marked with the placemark. The (reported) site of the famous Water Newton Hoard is just off the centre of the upper edge of the frame:
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They were declared to the British Museum under the Treasure Act, but the mere holding of a commercial artefact hunting here was in itself controversial, as was the involvement of British archaeologists in the process. Anyhow, it is interesting to note that this particular participants' attendance was not to "learn about the history" of the region as the pro-collecting propaganda of the time would have it (it is 259 km from Durham to Water Newton), but apparently to find stuff to flog off. The seller's other items are here.

They include:

3 Pieces of Viking Hack Silver/ 1 Piece Tin/ 1 Piece Bronze.
this is from my old collection and was bought many years ago at london coin sales. sorry no province.[sic] This Has Been Rcorded With The Local FLO And Disclaimed.

Which I guess is not surprising for a group of items bought in "London coin sales" and about which there is no information whatsoever concerning its origin. There are seeral other pieces on offer "from my old collection".

There are seventeen hours to go, and some of the items on sale have attracted a number of bids. Let us take note of the derisory prices some people are offering to get their hands on little bits of "dugup" history. The archaeological record is being dug up piecemeal and sold off for a song.

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Sunday, 28 June 2009

Archaeologist Urges More Transparency

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The ACCG shows signs of exasperation in their efforts to win minds and hearts and overthrow the law with their illegal coin import stunt. Readers will know that Missouri coin dealer Wayne Sayles, the unelected executive director of said lobby group, has an “Ancient Coin Collecting” blog (which has just undergone a facelift from that morbid black - maybe now we'll even have some posts on it about ancient coin collecting). On it he frequently discusses matters connected with maintaining the status quo in the no-questions-asked ancient coin market. Thus it was that this morning I woke up to find there another attack on the writer of these words - this seems to be becoming rather a tradition among US coin collectors and British "metal detectorists".

Mr Sayles' new post is called “Archaeologist defends State Department Secrecy” and it is the usual stuff. Its author justifies its tone by pointing out that “the controversial Barford paints” ancient coin collectors and dealers,”as looters and criminals”. I rather think he is simplifying my arguments somewhat. Apparently:
hot on the heels of Obama administration guidance that transparency is the new order of the day, archaeologist Paul Barford has defended DOS refusal to comply with the Freedom of Information Act.
have I? Frankly, I do not care a bit what documents the State Department show Mr Sayles and his coin collecting mates or the Belgian coin dealers’ association, or the big auction houses and petty dealers financing this FOI suit. I think their lawyers and employees are obviously having great fun leading them a merry dance for their members' misspent money. What I find ironic is what this is all ultimately about.

It is about transparency. The coin dealers do not want to have to show US customs one of two types of pieces of paper when bringing ancient coins from certain source countries into the US. They do not want to have to reveal to their customers where the objects they are selling come from. The whole global antiquities trade is built on secrecy, on the right of the dealer to withold information when a specific commodity (antiquities) is concerned. In other words on a lack of transparency. This is important as it is under such conditions that looted and smuggled material can easily enter the market and generate revenue for those involved in the looting process. Having more transparency and accountability in the antiquities trade would greatly reduce the possibilities for this to happen.

The introduction of import restrictions which requires demonstrating licit origins of selected types of artefact is obviously perceived by those opposed to these measures as threatening the introduction of transparency into the trade, and so one may deduce that this is the reason why coin dealers are particularly concerned. They presumably see this as the thin end of the wedge which could lead (together with public concern about its place in encouraging looting) to the end of the no-questions-asked buying and selling of archaeological artefacts.

ACCG Executive Director Wayne Sayles has a business selling ancient coins. It can be found by going to ACCG president Bill Puetz’s V-coins portal described as the "ethical alternative to ebay". There we see that Mr Sayles currently has several thousand items on sale. Clicking on the majority of the items being sold on V-Coins by Mr Sayles will not reveal any information whatsoever on their provenance or pedigree. Why not? Where is this transparency Mr Sayles is so concerned about? Mote and beam come to mind here. Why is he acquiring for resale ancient artefacts which he transparently cannot state frankly and openly where they come from? Why the secrecy (which one might say is similar to that attributed by him to the US State Department) over this? If we demanded "Freedom of Information" from Mr Sayles, I wonder how much information would be forthcoming about where those items came from and in what circumstances they left the source countries?

What is interesting in all this is that the ACCG and PNG are not by any means the only North American trade associations involved in the dealing in items covered by the implementation of the CPIA. There are a number of antique and antiquity dealers’ associations for example. How have their members reacted to the requirements that in importing certain types of art objects into the US [such as ethnographic objects and certain paintings like Cypriot icons], they have to show a piece of paper? Are they too trying to overturn the law? Are they too attacking people for saying it is a good thing that there is a bit of transparency in the trade of such items? Well (I am sure Mr Sayles will correct me if I am wrong), there does not seem to be a parallel move from US dealers in these types of material to the actions being taken by US coin dealers. Why not? So what makes coin dealers think they are in any way special?
Predictably, Mr Sayles applies the "Petrarch collected coins" argument in summing up what he'd like his readers to believe this is about:
Representing the views of a venerable 600-year-old hobby and its modern adherents, the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild is challenging what it sees as bias leading to arbitrary and capricious actions on the part of the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
This has nothing to do with any altruistic challenge to "arbitrary and capricious actions", it is about defending the no-questions-asked market in antiquities. It is about defending the lack of transparency in this particular segment of the market. The question is, is this whole action ultimately to the benefit of ethical collectors or merely the less-than-fastidious importers?

Mr Sayles provided a link to a Google search for "State+Department+secrecy". Here are the corresponding results for "antiquity+collecting+secrecy" and "antiquity+dealing+secrecy". The vignette shows the ACCG defending the non-transparency of the no-questions-asked antiquities trade .
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US Laws Inadequate to Protect Archaeological Heritage

In contrast to the „dig-em-up and sell-em-off” attitudes of the pro-collecting lobby, independent filmmaker Gray Warriner writes that in the United States “Current laws are inadequate to protect antiquities” (Salt Lake Tribune 26th June 2009). In a well-written essay he argues that “demand powers the antiquities market; driven by auctioneers, wealthy collectors and a global clientele”. He points out that “we are about the only civilized nation in the world that allows this unrestricted, unrepentant erasure of history. Inadequate laws have created a thriving business in backhoe archeology and looting on both public and private lands”. [It must be added that they are behind the attitude of total disregard for the erasure of the archaeological record of other regions by commercial artefact mining that we see in the words of US collectors and especially dealers]. Warriner points out that “Some may not feel archeological preservation laws are important, but like all laws it is not our personal liberty to pick and choose which we obey or ignore”, but that is exactly what collectors do.

Describing the pulic/private land loophole in the current law, Warriner asks:
Why is it consistently so hard to muster a little public backbone and say enough? We've done it before. In the early 1900s, songbirds were being slaughtered to provide colorful feathers for women's hats and feather boas. Entire species teetered on the edge of extinction. At that time, we the people said no to fashions that kill because we could see the eventual outcome. If we can save songbirds and eagles by enacting clear, unambiguous laws that just say no, we can certainly do the same thing for prehistoric artifacts. Artifacts and ruins are finite, and the story they tell is in danger of being lost and gone forever. The overarching truth is that our antiquities laws are political compromises and doomed to fail. It is time to declare artifacts off-limits for private possession, period. This century-old cat-and-mouse game (requiring expensive law enforcement, sting operations, and prosecution dollars) won't slow down until the money flow diminishes or until all of our artifacts and history are stolen. At present, the laws are almost unenforceable in the vast canyon country of Utah and the Southwest. Professional diggers systematically work this giant loophole for treasure, buying and exploiting properties and then moving on to the next ruin. Call it what it is; legalized theft. It needs to be addressed, once and for all, or we will never be able to protect our past from ourselves.
Let us hope that other voices will be found to address this problem. By all means let us also hear the collectors argue their case for their position that this kind of exploitation of the archaeological record should be totally legalised and bring the collectors' "dig-em-up-regardless-and-sell-them-to-me" attitude into public scrutiny in the US.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Harvesting the Collectables: Balancing the Interests


The libertarian Las Vegas Review-Journal on Jun. 21, 2009 published an (unsigned) editorial "Do the feds own everything?". In it we read:

"Pot hunting" is legal on private land; it is considered a crime on lands controlled by the government. But the tiny ratio of private to "government-controlled" land in the West would be considered outrageous anywhere else. No one is endorsing wanton vandalism of such sites or artifacts. But it would be useful and realistic if a cooperative, rather than an adversarial, approach allowed quick surveys of such sites, with the most archaeologically promising being set aside for near-future professional digs, with residents told "Harvest the rest if you can".[my emphasis]
"Harvest the rest"? The article is unsigned, but it is a fair assumption that its author has few sympathies for or connections to Native Americans or US archaeologists and conservationists (let us recall that the Archaeological Resources Protection Act does not onlyprotect sites on public land). But apart from the author's outrage that more state-owned land in the region is not sold off to private owners, what lies behind this suggestion? It seems the author is convinced that the justification for digging over archaeological sites in theregion is that the owners of these "bowls, stone pipes, sandals, arrowheads and pendants", the Anasazi "abandoned them, perhaps more than a thousand years ago". So it's finders keepers then. It comes down to property rights and salvage law. The author argues that if these objects are left untouched in the ground, those boring old archaeologists will not come and dig them up right away, but the evidence of past lives will remain unexplored in the ground, until it is "most likely" eroded out,"to be trampled by animals, washed away in the next rains". Obviously the writer does not regard the archaeological evidence of the site being dug through to get a few saleable collectables to sell to a no-questions-asked buyer for a few thouand dollars any kind of threat (presumably "private enterprise"). In fact it seems the writer sees the problem as consisting only of what to do with the "portable antiquities" ("bowls, stone pipes, sandals, arrowheads and pendants") rather than one of conserving ancient sites so they do not suffer unmitigated erosion and looting.

This is the sort of thing that the unthinking propagation of the Portable Aniquities Scheme approach leads to. Peter Tompa is a great fan of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, though it is clear that like many of its US promotors with no real understanding of the issues behind it. He writes:

Perhaps, federal authorities should consult with Roger Bland and the PAS to see if that program might provide some ideas for what can be done in the American Southwest [...]. There should be some way to balance the interests of Native Americans, archaeologists, pot hunters interested in local history and the Federal Government outside the purely punitive approach exemplified by the raids in the Four Corners area.
I would indeed welcome hearing what Roger Bland would recommend as a remedy here, liberalise all the heritage protection laws in the US in order tha local pot diggers can "harvest" the bits of the archaeological record that archaeologists have not scheduled to dig up this year or next year? Mr Tompa represents pot hunters as only "interested in local history" (a PAS mantra) when the Blanding "Action Cerberus" was of course aimed entirely at people that were selling their "dugups", and for no small sums of money.

I think the ACCG and the rest of us really should hear from their numismatic "friend" what the PAS position would be here. Would the PAS be for punishing illegal digging of Native American sites and graveyards for collectables, or would it urge a way to "balance the interests" of collectors and the antiquities trade in the American Southwest as Mr Tompa suggests? Since the ACCG seem to feel free to speak for the PAS to an international audience in matters like this, I think we have a right to know what position the PAS itself holds on such matters.

It is nice to look at the comments to that editorial to observe just what kind of company Mr Tompa is with thoughts like he has.

Photo: Native American (Caddo) cemetery recently "harvested" by artefact hunters. Is this what the ACCG have in mind?

A Clear and Unambiguous Statement


The American coin sellers' lobby group, the Ancient Coin Collectors' Guild is not known for issuing clear and unambiguous statements. In the long long post ('Questions and Truth') by its executive director last night complaining about something my colleague Dr David Gill wrote, we have a number. The one that caught my eye concerned the (Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC):


The truth is that CPAC did NOT restrict the import of ancient coins minted in Cyprus. CPAC voted against adding coins to the extension of the existing MOU. The U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs added coins on its own volition, disregarding the advice of its own advisory committee.
Now wait a second, that is a committee that advises the coin trade or is that a committee that advises the President or his designee? How does Mr Sayles know what they recommended? Previously the ACCG has been very ambiguous about what it believes to be the case, now we have a clear statement, the ACCG knows what the Committee advised the President. Mr Sayles is not a member of the CPAC, and even if he was, would he be authorised to reveal the results of the voting and the contents of its report? After all, according to the State Department,

Given the confidential nature of the government-to-government communications to which they are privy, members of the Committee are special employees of the Department of State, receive a security clearance, and are bound by the laws and ethical guidelines by which all Department employees abide.[my emphasis]
Let's also take a look at the The Federal Advisory Committee Act . That raises some "questions", I guess the upcoming trial resulting from the illegal coin import stunt will reveal more than one "truth" about the coin trade in the United States.

ADDENDUM 29.06.09
Mr Sayles has challenged my account, stating "Making such claims without a credible basis would certainly be enough to submarine [sic] the integrity of any genuine [sic] academic" and "As usual, Mr. Barford is way out of his league and is just shooting wildly from the hip with no concern for, or concept whatever of, truth". Apparently in the USA they don't do irony, so Mr Sayles perhaps failed to recognise it. He might have looked a bit deeper in my blog, for example at the post "leaky old CPC - mystery solved" before accusing: "Mr. Barford obviously did not read the filings in the current law suit that ACCG provided " since there was a post (blog readership in Foggy Bottom) discussing them after I did indeed read them.

Let us note however the subtle difference which obviously escaped Mr Sayles. Mr Sayles does not in the post to which I refer give the source of his unambiguous statement - which is what I was querying. In the discussed statement, Mr Kislak says he"believed" that there was a discrepancy between what his committee determined and what the State Department decreed. In his statement, Kislak urges that the documents be made available in full and compared, Sayles jumps the gun and tells us what (in his opinion) such a comparison will show. My question again, how does Mr Sayles know? Question two, under what circumstances was Mr Kislak asked to make his statement, by whom, when and on what basis? In other words, had Mr Kislak been in touch with the dealers' lobby earlier (when?) about this matter, and in what capacity?

As for Sayles' statement "the State Department took the rare and unusual step of publicly proclaiming, apologetically in a way, that it has a right to override CPAC recommendations". TheACCG's legal advisors will confirm that this is precisely what the Federal Advisory Committee Act says at the beginning, I do not think there is anything "apologetic" about that, neither does it need any of Mr Tompa's conspiracy theories to explain why. Coins are archaeological artefacts whatever the CPAC may "recommend" to the President.

As I said earlier, I too would like to see the whole report as if the differentiation of the treatment of ancient coins from any other ancient "dugup" metal artefacts is recommended to the US President, then it would seem to me that the CPAC were not doing their job properly. If this is for some reason what they decided, that in itself would be a biased ("arbitrary and capricious") opinion, and I think we have every right to ask on what basis it would have been taken, and make them answerable for it.

Photo: the CPAC in session. Manuscript collector Jay Kislak in the chair.

"The ACCG has always condemned illicit digging on archaeological sites".


The executive director of the Ancient Coin collectors' Guild Wayne Sales, criticising Dr David Gill's "ignorance and malevolence" states
The ACCG has always condemned illicit digging on archaeological sites.
In actual fact I cannot see that explicit statement on their website. Perhaps they should remedy this and at the same time issue a firm statement whether they condone their members buying coins and other artefacts which seem likely - given the current state of the no-question-asked market- to have come from such illicit digging. Recommending in no uncertain terms that the ethical collector takes all possile steps to ensure that they are not contributing to the process by being even if inadvertantly) a consumer of its products.

Sayles asks apparently rhetorically whether even if the ACCG/PNG/IAPN lawsuit against the US government "were commercially motivated, so what? Is commerce immoral or against the law?" (see also ACCG's former president Tompa on this). Well, of course the answer is that if that commerce is generally believed to be financing, aiding and abetting the destruction of an important and finite resource, the the answer is yes, it is immoral. When those involved in such commerce could well take steps to minimise their participation in the destruction of archaeological sites for merely commercial reasons, then, yes, it is immoral if it does nothing. If however an enlightened nation sets up some system to aid another country cut down on the erosion f its archaeological heritage by the market, and a grouop of dealers and selfish collectors fight it in order to overturn it, well, that would be immoral too would't it?

Mr Sayles and the ancient coin collectors of the United States and Belgium can call the preservationists all the names they want. They usually do. It does not make what they are engaged in any the more moral. Indeed it shows the world all to clearly how limited the sense of morality of ancient coin collectors is.

Friday, 26 June 2009

"Why are ancient coins from Cyprus featured in a suit against the US Department of State?"

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The destruction of archaeological sites and assemblages in the search for collectable artefacts, which is accompanied by a huge loss of knowledge is a global problem of increasing severity that few people aware of it would deny. In recent years there has been a move away from the nineteenth century collecting ethos which in effect lasted until the middle of the last century, now many public institutions like museums adopted effective ethical codes and together with them more stringent acquisitions policies. By this means they intend to reduce the role that their acquisitions of recently surfaced antiquities had been playing in this destructive process.

Unfortunately outside these circles there remain a minority (composed mainly of private collectors and especially dealers who make their money from comercialising decontextualised archaeological artefacts) who refuse to recognise the need to change the ethics of the way they handle archaeological materal. These naysayers pretend looting is not a problem and nothing to do with the antiquities trade. They assert that neither dealers or private collectors should not be held to or practice any due diligence standards. It goes without saying that this obstructive mentality is a stumbling block to any progress in reducing the damage done year in and year out by the digging for artefacts to supply the no-questions-asked market. In the maintenance of the detrimental status quo, dealers and collectors of the United States are especially vociferous, and there is clarly a massive drain of the global historical heritage to the hungry markets of that country.

In the past few years the United States has come to an agreement with a number of neighbouring countries that it will apply import controls on antiquities deriving from those countries. This means that import of such objects into the United States will only be considered lawful if they are accompanied by documentation which shows they had been legitmately exported from them.

One would have thought that collectors from that country would have welcomed such moves, after all, who would want to buy illicitly exported items? While these restrictions affected material like pre-Columbian ceramics and textiles, collected only by a minority of specialist US collectors, there was relative calm. Things changed dramatically in 2007 when one of these import restrictions affcted ancient coins. Collectors of ancient coins in the US for some reason do not regard the objects they covet as archaeological artefacts (the logic of this escapes everyone except coin dealers). They also regard themselves as some kind of cultural elite whic they represent as somehow spreading enlightenment in a world of declining standards by their altruistic collecting activities. These "benefits" are enough - they say - to counter all the arguments of the preservationists (who they accuse of ulterior motives, malevolence and incompetence).

So it is that US (and Belgian *) coin collectors decided to overturn the decision of the Bush government of the United States of America. they want a court to be caused to rule that it was "unlawful" to declare coins archaeological artefacts in the was that was done in the case of Cyprus and China.

David Gill has now produced a brief introduction to this topic which should reach a wider public than the blogs and other discussions we take part in over this issue. His post to the PR Newswire "Why are ancient coins from Cyprus featured in a suit against the US Department of State?" links to his cleverly-titled and informative blog"Looting Matters" from which the interested reader can explore the issue themselves. Of course the "coiney" lobby is unlikely to be best pleased by this. I think Dr Gill can expect some more of the name calling and unpleasantness which seems to be all that the US coin collecting lobby is capable of these days.
* who knows where they came into the equation, but how ironic it is in the light of a certain commentator's misgivings about "foreign organizations" allegedly interefering in the doings of the US no-questions-asked antiquities market.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Artefact Hunting on First Nations Sites in Canada


The problem of the destruction of archaeological information by individuals digging up archaeological sites to gain collectable artifacts for entertainment and profit is not restricted to a few continents and countries with ancient civilisations. Like the United States, Canada too has problems with artefact hunters like pot diggers acting illegally (Dustin Walker, Archeologists mum about find Daily News June 24, 2009, on the basis of which this text was compiled).

This problem is being studied by Andrew Mason, a Vancouver archeologist. He however is encountering difficulties in assessing its scale since he admits that the government doesn't always keep track of how often ancient sites are raided by artefact thieves and collectors, and without that information, it is impossible to know how much of Canada's ancient heritage is being stolen or what measures should be taken to curb it. He says that we really don't have a sense of how big the market is or how big the problem is. A better framework needs to be developed to keep track of stolen relics across Canada which will allow authorities to compare notes and see trends developing. This will help the government determine why people are taking the items and whether it's even a problem worth addressing. "It's been a bit of a struggle just finding out compared to other countries. Do we seriously have a problem, do we need to step in to curb it or is it an infrequent occurrence?" he asked.

Mason is the co-author of a 1991 paper about 'public attitudes towards archaeological resources and their management') available online which addresses the problem of site looting and vandalism which are major threats to the archaeological resource base. The authors say that "more stringent laws alone will not resolve this problem. Rather, an effective solution requires a major change in public opinion to increase awareness and understanding of our archaeological heritage".

Important changes to 'Moneta-L' archived posts and some thoughts on forums


Robert Kokotailo, one of the moderators of the Moneta-L discussion list has just made an important announcement to members of the list. The archives of the list are as of now made public, that means the reader of this blog no longer has to join the forum to see them. That is great news. The Moneta-L list was originally created in April 1999 as a closed one where only members could see the archives (this was to prevent spammers using them to harvest addresses). Eleven years have passed and as Kokotailo continues:
Unfortunately, some aspects of the world we live in have changed, making it necessary to open the archives to the general public. That change arrived as small group of bloggers who joined Moneta in order to sifts the posts for information they could use against the coin collecting community. This is
not really a problem as long as they quote people correctly, in the context of what was said. Their problem is that there is so little of actual use for them in the posts, that some have taken to misrepresenting the statements of our membership by quoting either out of context, quoting incompletely, and occasionally simply lying about what was actually said.To give an appearance of credibility they provide links to the original posts, but seem to understand that most of their target audience are not Moneta members, and probably will not join Moneta just to view a single post. Since they have no reason to believe the blog is misleading, and with a closed list they cannot view the original posts to find out, most will just assume the bloggers are correct.
Personally I never assume superficiality in my blog's readers, I provide links so anyone who wants to see the source of what I am quoting, can (whether they do or not is not my problem, but certainly there is no intention to deceive). You will find that the majority of the ACCG-collector (in particular) bloggers like Wayne Sayles, Peter Tompa, Dave Welsh and others pretty consistently fail to supply such links whatsoever if the material referred to is from the critics of no-questions-asked collecting. They are presumably afraid their reader will read more than the little bit they want to direct attention to - that dreaded "context" again.

I applaud Moneta-L for making it easier for readers of this blog and others to peek in at the numismatic world and judge the assessments presented here in their wider context for themselves. [There is a thread on Moneta-L there at this moment about this blog - though as I have stated here, rather missing the point].

I suggest that the Canadian coin dealer is presenting a totally misleading interpretation of the methods and motives of some archaeological bloggers. I can of course only speak for myself. I started this blog because I was fed up of what was happening on the various forums to which I belong whenever the topic of artefact hunting and collecting came up.

So why join forums? As I have said here before, I think discussion forums give a great insight into what collectors think and talk about and attitudes, fifteen years ago to find out what "metal detectorists" talk about and do, you'd have to go along to a club in a pub somewhere. Few people really want to do that (I naively did in northeast Essex in the 1970s - depressing experience, probably very influential in my approach to tekkies today). Today without leaving their desks, anyone with a computer can drop in on the tekkies as they discuss their latest adventures and concerns about the evil doings of "the establishment" plotting against the innocent collector (sound familiar?). People in Wisconsin and Utah can see what the Woking Wreckers Detecting Group (made-up name) has been up to in the UK this week. In Warsaw I can listen in to a conversation between a Wichita collector and an erudite Canadian coin dealer about Roman coin die production techniques. Fascinating stuff (no sarcasm there). We can look in on what French heritage campaigners are saying about British archaeologists, and what British archaeologists might say about French campaigners. So I would encourage anyone interested in heritage issues to spend time examining the contents of these forums for the insights into the mindsets of artefact collectors and artefact hunters.

Artefact hunters and collectors do not particularly like it however when their hobby (or trade) is the subject of scrutiny. Every time the issue came up, no matter on what forum, all members were barraged with a cacophony of time-wasting totally irrelevant issues (including nasty personal attacks) raised by artefact hunters as a smokescreen. In such an atmosphere, discussion easily gets out of hand (and I cannot regard myself as without fault). Predictably there were also salvos of remarks of the type: "we don't want any of your kind here mate/ not that metal detecting stuff again" any time anyone opened their mouth on these forums about their thoughts on artefact hunting and collecting, or in reaction to something another member had said. Mr Kokotailo has himself in fact made precisely that sort of comment about me (all three types if I recall correctly - I might try and attach some links later) on at least two different forums. For this reason, after nearly a decade of this (OK, slow learner) and after briefly running my own forum dedicated to artefact hunting and its problems, I have given up participating in discussions on a number of archaeological and artefact collecting forums. Hence this blog and the book. Here I react in the way I want to what I see in the news, as well as on the forums. Things which I do not necessarily want to thrust under the noses of all the members of those forums, and which I am sure not all the members of those forums (some being no-questions-askers) want thrust under their noses. Some of them come over here out of curiosity, many (most probably) studiously avoid even the mention of this blog. But basically I see this is my own little private corner where I write for myself about what angers, frustrates, puzzles me and explore some of the issues by putting them down in black on white and trying to get the words I want to use and commas in approximately the right places.

So the Monetans have shown the world they have nothing to hide. Good for them. Take the opportunity to see what they've been discussing all those eleven years, there are some fascinating - and revealing - posts in those archives. Searchable too and numbered sequentially so any deletions will show up. Now what about all those other forums about portable antiquity collecting which hide all their discourse in non-public archives hidden behind passwords and listowner approval to even read the posts? When are the UK "metal detecting" forums going to show the outside world that they too have nothing to hide? Or perhaps they feel they do.

Pillage une conséquence du Portable Antiquities Scheme?

Well I guess HAPPAH have ruined their chances of being asked along to the PAS annual conference this year at which various European people will be asked to show how wonderful it is England and Wales have a collectors’ free-for-all. HAPPAH are among the Europeans who don’t think it’s wonderful, and say so.

Happah have just produced the third issue of their newsletter full of stuff that ought to shock the pants off the complacent. It starts with an article about a demonstration of Spanish metal detectorists in Seville, they look such idiots detecting along the tramlines I am sure HAPPAH will not mind me pinching their photograph. They could do with practicing their scanning technique too.

[I wonder if yellow shirts are de rigeur 'tekking togs in Spain, instead of the military fatigues we find spread across Northern Europe from Wales to Belorussia?]

There's a bit about tombaroli and coin collecting in Italy, and the article that’ll get them banned from the PAS love-in: Nouvelle affaire de pillage transfrontalier au Portugal. Une conséquence du Portable Antiquities Scheme anglo-gallois ? (personally I do not see the connection, but it’s a view of the collector’s partner organization worth recording). Then there is a bit on the arrest of four loooters in Bulgaria, the looting of Libyan ruins and the pillaging of archaeological sites in a national park with dynamite. Good stuff, more power to them. At the top of the page is their erosion counter: "L'estimation basse du nombre d'objets prélevés illégalement depuis le décret du 19 août 1991 : 9,269,448" and the slogan...

MOBILISONS-NOUS CONTRE LE PILLAGE DU PATRIMOINE !(Unless you are a British archaeologist that is)

Photo "Les braconniers du patrimoine dans la rue" apparently stealing old tramlines in Seville (HAPPAH).

Coiney Klan Keeps up the Smokescreen: Collectors fail to Question


The misinformation process about the ACCG illegal import coin stunt is still in full swing among the US collectors of decontextualised numismata. Over on Moneta-L the ACCG position is being reiterated (again) for the benefit of those whose confidence that they were being told the whole truth about the stunt was being swayed (as well it might). Heaven forbid that collectors might question why they were being dragged into this confrontatiuon by dealers and what's in it for them.

I pointed out ten days ago that the CPIA has a handy loophole for all those people who want to import antiquities from countries with an MOU about import restrictions. It applies to those who somehow have not had the opportunity to organize their legal import with an export licence. It’s really quite simple, just a piece of paper with a statement and a signature on it. Apparently speaking on behalf of the ACCG, John Hooker however ignores that totally and announces on the Moneta-L coiney forum: “Apparently, Paul Barford really does not understand what I wrote”. Quite right, I do not understand why he insists on writing about “export licences” when its not now about export licences, I do not understand why Dave Welsh and John Hooker refuse to admit to monetan collectors that there is in fact another way around the lack of export licence embodied in the CPIA. The only reason I can see for this is that to do that would reveal that the system currently in place for the import of coins from source countries which have asked the USA to control this is not so “unreasonable” after all.

To avoid talking about that, Mr Hooker patronisingly explains to his readers what a “test case” is and ventures that “all of his [that’s mine] advice on getting the right paperwork together really misses the whole point”. Well, it is not “advice” so much. What I am saying is that the collectors whose money is being used to finance this stunt (for that IS what it is) and who are ultimately going to be affected when it fails, really ought to be aware of what is going on, who is to blame for the path of confrontation that has been forced upon them by the dealers' lobby and what alternatives there are/were.

We therefore come back to the statement that “It is about changing unreasonable and restrictive laws”. Are these laws really so unreasonable when there’s a whopping big loophole in the CCPIA just waiting to be used? Are they unreasonable to collectors? The only unreasonable thing here is the attitudes of certain 'don't-ask-me-any-questions' dealers who are intent on divisive confrontation between exploiters and conservers, who form a sort of Ku Klux Klan of collecting united in their hatred of “archaeologists” and “archaeology” and its concerns which comes through very clearly in the writings of the ACCG members.

Another rather startling fact has just come to light and I am not sure what to make of it. Not only was the strategy of this Baltimore illegal import stunt not presented to the ACCG’s own members (“collectors”) for consideration as one of a number of alternatives to be democratically discussed, Dave Welsh revealed in a private letter in answer to my questions, that not even he, a member of the ACCG Board of Directors, knows where the coins were bought, and to whom the seized package was addressed in the US. So does this mean that fundamental decisions like this were taken without even consultation within the ACCG’s Board of Directors?

If so, it would mean that this whole affair is not the doing of the estimated "50 000" ancient coin collectors in the USA, not the estimated "5000" collector-members affiliated with the ACCG, not the cabal of a dozen or so members of the Board of Directors of the ACCG itself, but the doings of [a secret core] of maybe one or two people working within and ostensibly on behalf of all those people - but without it seems asking them first whether they agree that this confrontation is necessary or the right way to go. They will all however be required to suffer any consequences of it going badly wrong. Good, serves them right for not standing up to the unreasonable bully boys that are the source of all the trouble here.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

ACCG Misleading its Members: Twenty Days Left


Coin collectors in the US should take note that there are still twenty days for the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG), Professional Numismatists Guild (PNG) and International Association of Professional Numismatists (IAPN) to call off their stunt involving using their members' money to fight a case brought on by an attempt to illegally import ancient coins without the requisite paperwork. This goes against the codes of ethics of these three organizations, a fact that all those who thought they actually meant something should note.

There has been some confusion introduced into the discussion which is failing to take place in no-questions-asked collecting circles over this. About ten days ago I made a post here in which any interested coin collectors and other observers can learn for themselves what piece of paper is missing to make this ACCG import legal and above board. It's not a particularly onerous task to get it. I even copied out the relevant paragraphs of the CPIA for them so they do not have to tire their mouse-clicking fingers overly to look at it.

Coin dealer Dave Welsh however says something different. On Moneta-L yesterday he informed members:
But to read what Barford said about this test case in his blog, you would think that this is an unethical gambit on the part of the ACCG.
[I must interrupt him here, actually, there is absolutely NO question about it, it is (even by the weasel-worded ACCG code of ethics... which is thereby shown to be worth nothing) an unethical gambit, it is also supremely mis-timed, but more of that later]

He harps upon the "piece of paper" that is all that has to be presented to secure the release of the coins, never of course mentioning that this document is not a packing list or other easily obtained bit of paperwork, but is instead an official export permit that cannot be obtained in practice.
Now that is sheer nonsense, since in my post I very clearly define what this missing piece of paper consists of. Very precisely. It is as easily obtainable from a reputable (note that word) dealer who is exporting these items, and it has nothing to do at this stage with "export licences". I find this comment on a numismatic forum from one of the officers of the main organization involved in this stunt extremely odd. Unless this is deliberate misinformation, it firstly suggests he apparently does not - as an importer of ancient coins - actually know in any detail what the laws of his own country at least say. That is shocking. Secondly the tracking widget over in the margin of this blog shows that somebody in Goleta California (which is where his Classical coins business is based) has been reading those specific posts about the ACCG illegal import stunt where I write quite clearly what this piece of paper should look like. (If its not Dave Welsh, and the person responsible is reading this now, give him a ring and tell him what you read).

But that's not the end of the misinformation, John Hooker who the ACCG is now increasingly relying on to produce "ideologies" for collecting (he's going to start up a "conservation spoof" blog soon and write some ideological bit about Jung) has joined in the effort to misinform "Monetans". He too says that I do not understand why there cannot be an "export licence". John, read the CPIA for yourself. We are not talking now about export licences.

Mr Hooker tells Monetans that the law is being broken by those involved:
to fight unreasonable U.S. import restrictions. The only way that this can be done under U.S. law is through an actual case and in the courts.
Well, first of all a detailed reading of the CPIA actually shows it gives such leeway to importers to be virtually meaningless (which was probably the intent of its authors), so I really think in the circumstances that the coineys' claim that these are "unreasonable U.S. import restrictions" is simply laughable. Secondly of course even in the US there is no need to break a law to get it repealed or rewritten. There are other mechanisms. The ACCG has however decided to flaunt the law to influence international policy.

Fine, but let them be totally honest and open with their members about what this is about. What kind of piece of paper is it Mr Welsh? Answers on Moneta-L please.

Photo: astronomical clock. Time is running out... .

"Numismatic Research is Broader than Just Archaeology "

"Numismatic research is broader than just archaeology" pronounces Cultural Property Observer ("Archaeological tail wags numismatic dog" [sic]). That is a quote that would be hard to beat, especially as it is the reaction of former ACCG president to the publication of the book "Coins in Context" discussed here earlier. What he actually says is this:
"Numismatic research is broader than just archaeology and however useful the study of coins and their context may be, there are simply far too many coins out there to be studied, preserved and displayed solely by archaeologists or museums in source countries. In other words, the archaeological tail should not be allowed to wag the numismatic dog".
So the ACCG remedy seems to be get artefact hunters to dig 'em all up to "decontextualise" them, throw away the non-coiney bits, smuggle them out of those "source countries", throw them onto some intermediate market in the EU, stick them on a plane to Baltimore and sell them all off to the numismatic dogs so eager to get their teeth into them in an ACCG benefit sale to finance the US war on the rest of the world's archaeological resource protection measures.

Now I really do not know what Tompa, a Washington lawyer, actually knows about archaeology. I wonder how he sees his "numismatics" differing in any way from the typological, iconographical, metrological and philological work which is typically done within archaeology on various other kinds of archaeological finds. For there is no doubt in anyone else's mind that ancient coins are just one type of archaeological find. Just like any other. Within archaeology there are specialists who study wall paintings, medieval iron spurs, intaglios, ecclesiastical vessels, sculpture and a whole load of other artefact types which are studied in exactly the same way as Tompa's contextless-coin-grabbing friends treat coins (the ones that actually study rather than just accumulate and fondle them). Inasmuch as the study of coins is a form of the study of the past through the material remains, it follows that the study of ancient coins is no more or less than a part of archaeology. there really seems no sense in denying it, or suggesting that it is anything else. In its current ACCG-promoted form it is a retrograde one, because its no-questions-asked adherents seem to negate the meaning of context of discovery as a source of information, but they will eventually leave the Petrarchian model of decontextualised coin accumulation and come into the nineteenth century, from which it is but a step to becoming a modern discipline with a defined methodlogy and theoretical basis to guide and act as a check on the pragmatic operations and the interpretation of the results.

Photo: Hans Memling, portrait of Peter Tompa as a young man, c. 1480 (oil on oak panel 23 x 31 cm Koninklijk Museum, Antwerp). The Roman coin Peter is holding is in fact miraculously now in the collection of every ancient coin collector in the US.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Used blue car - nothing to hide

.
Today I replaced my trusty ancient automobile with a newer used one. I know nothing about cars, do not trust used car salesmen an inch, so paid especial attention to the paperwork and asked lots of questions about where that car had actually been since it came out of the factory eight months ago. I doubt whether I would have bought anything on the sole basis of an advert like this:
Used blue saloon car
European made blue saloon car
Circa 1900 – 2009 AD
Contains five
Four wheels, one spare, windscreen, windows (as photo)
Serviced regularly
4568 X 1769 mm
From previous owners in this country
SCARCE type

But that is exactly what buyers of portable antiquities do. In the antiquities trade, descriptions of the offered items are invariably extremely laconic and seldom reveal much more than can be seen on the photos. The one above is a spoof of an actual description of an object discussed here a few days ago. I suspect this is part laziness, dealers know that there will always be a sucker who will buy it no matter what (vide the sales successes of the fake sellers on ebay). Partly however this may be deliberate, if the seller goes into details about the object itself, then the reader is going to look suspiciously about what he avoids saying, when it left the ground, and in what circumstances it came into the hands of the seller. This is an area which one gets the impression many sellers would like to keep the transaction no-questions-asked.

Even when an object is accompanied by a longer text, the additional material is most frequently not additional information about the object on offer, but "filling in the background" a ready-made narrative to make the object more attractive - they are often lifted from sources like Wikipedia.

Obviously behind laconic and secretive statements like a cuneiform tablet offered as "From a private US collection" can hide a multitude of sins. Surely the seller who has nothing to hide (for he knows the item he has on offer can be shown to be of totally legitimate origin) would have no reason to hide his light under a bushel, on the contrary. So what does it mean when they remain tight-lipped ? In fact the car I bought had an internet advert which contained two 'pages' worth of description of that specific vehicle which I went through before even contacting the dealer's showroom to examine the registration documents and service log and question the explanation of the rather strange quoted mileage. I do not see why buyers of antiquities should expect anything less from a dealer who has nothing to hide.

Photo: Swiss Tony, not an antiquities dealer.

UK Treasure Award System Promotes Best Practice?


Several times here I have raised the question to what degree the UK's Treasure Act and its reward system actually promotes best practice among metal detector using artefact hunters, and to what degree it just gives a carte blanche to dig up buried treasure anywhere and anyhow.

It seems I am not the only person asking such questions, and I find that Trevor Austin, of the National Council of Metal Deetectorists has been doing some dirt-digging on this topic and produced a helpful table of reductions due to bad practice in the period 1999-2004 to Treasure Awards [in England and Wales , I presume]. Now let us remember that in this period several hundred "Treasures" were dug up (in 2003 it was 427, in 2004, it was 506 in England wales and Northern Ireland).

The table shows however that only in a very few of these cases were there any reductions in the amount paid out. I expect we will be asked to believe that this was due to every single Treasure recovery being in full accord with the utmost in best practice. What is more interesting is the small percentages that the finder forfeits for even infringements of the law, let alone not fully complying with the Treasure Act Code of Practice.

So for taking the stuff out of the ground instead of leaving it in situ and calling an archaeologist, as the Code of Practice asks, nobody lost any Treasure dosh whatsoever. We and the public lose any chance of observing the archaeological context of the find, but the Treasure hunter gets full cash. Several people gave information about findspots which was judged to be dubious, so once again, no reliable archaeologically useful information there, how much did the Treasure hunter lose for that? Look at the table.

Failure to report gold coins within the statutory period, 25% reduction. There are even two cases of so-called "nighthawking". In one case, failure to obtain permission to detect and failure to report finds earnt a 2.5% reduction. In another case failure to get permission compounded by soldering (!) two bits together, 7.5% of the total. In no case was payment to the finder refused. I wonder what the comparable data are for the period 2005-8, what about the torc finder on a WW2 aircraft crash site who according to information obtained from the relevant agency seems not to have had the search permit, for example?

This is only England and Wales, perhaps the situation is better in Scotland?
Vignette: treasure

Coineys ignore Von Kaenel

In reference to John Hooker's rambling name-dropping reaction to a post on this blog, Californian portable antiquity dealer Dave Welsh apparently in all seriousness announces on Moneta-L:

In the detailed post below, John Hooker meticulously refutes Paul Barford (yet again ....) and then goes on to say that Barford "... just doesn't get it. It is all invisible to him.

Well, John Hooker’s post on Moneta-L is long, a bit short on the (relevant) detail, but despite his efforts to legitimate the mere dismissal of what I wrote, I do not accept that Hooker has “refuted” what I said. Neither has Welsh for that matter.

I would like to point out to the scolding and moralizing Californian coin dealer that the points I was highlighting here were made by Dr. Hans-Markus von Kaenel, of the Goethe University, Frankfurt-am-Main. I would say he merits the term “professional numismatist” more than a mere shopkeeper with - as far as I can see – few articles in proper peer-reviewed numismatic journals or monographs to his name. So Mr Welsh will forgive me if I tend more to be interested in von Kaenel's assessment of the situation in current numismatics this side of the Atlantic than his own.

What I said would however be very helpful would be if the heap-of-loose-artefacts-on-a-table “numismatists” would attempt to produce (a) a review of the book about “coins in context” and (b) a methodological treatise [let's call it "Coins OUT OF Context"] which shows how ignoring the context from which the objects they collect come can in any way advance a fuller understanding of the past.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

This equally important, although different story about ancient Athens' place, in world cultures

Hannah Bolton, the British Museum's spokesperson does not have an enviable job these days. It is bad enough that she has to speak up in favour of the Portable Antiquity Scheme's disturbing "partnership" with portable antiquity collectors in the UK. Now the poor lady even has to side with James Cuno over universalism in collecting. The opening of the Parthenon Museum in Athens of course puts the BM in extremely bad light and they are going to have to do a lot more nifty PR work now to escape increasing international condemnation (for example, listen to David Gill waxing poetical on Looting Matters). Elena Becatoros (New Acropolis Museum seeks missing frieze return, Associated Press Sat. Jun. 20th 2009) quotes Culture Minister Antonis Samaras at the opening ceremony on Friday night as saying:

"We cannot dedicate this magnificent new museum with full hearts [...] We cannot illuminate fully the artistic achievement created in 5th Century (B.C.) Athens, because almost half of the sculptures from the Parthenon were taken from here 207 years ago to reside in enforced exile 4,000 kilometers away [...] The abduction of these sculptures is not only an injustice to us Greeks but to everyone in the world [...] They were made to be seen in sequence and in total, something that cannot happen as long as half of them are held hostage in the British Museum".
In reply Ms Bolton could only lamely reply:

"I think they belong to all of us. We are all global citizens these days [...] here in the British Museum, they can tell this equally important, although different story about ancient Athens' place, in world cultures".
What nonsense. Half of the marbles tells a very fragmentary story, when instead the "global citizens" can hop on a plane, train or coach to Athens to see the whole frieze telling the story it was meant to tell, and not the one modern collectors want to impose on it. The British Museum could equally "tell that story" about fifth century Athens with other "things" it has in its huge storerooms, including other items from Periclean Athens no doubt (vases, or any bits knocked or pried off other monuments they may have knocking about in the British public collections from over two centuries of Grand Tour collecting).

In any case, the only "story" these torn off, sawn off, dragged-away, overcleaned battered fragments of marble arranged around the inside walls of a cramped London museum gallery currently tell the viewer is a sad one. Only one of the greed of a small minority of British collectors and souvenir hunters in the past. The act is one that characterises the centuries before 'last minute' flights and cheap weekend breaks in almost any capital of Europe make the new museum accessible to all (to the same group of people at least that can afford the train fare to the British capital and a night in a London hotel, which is what the "Marbles" cost most people that see the "Elgin" marbles today).

OK, so let us hear this "this equally important, although different story " the British Museum feels it can tell us "all" about "about ancient Athens' place in world cultures" which London claims can be told better in a 1930s gallery tacked onto the side of the Greek rooms in London than a new museum in Athens right by the buildings concerned. I think we'd "all" like to hear it.

We are witness to a 'decontextualisation process' on an enormous scale


Over on his Numismatics blog, Nathan Elkins has begun a series of comments on a recent book (H.-M von Kaenel and F. Kemmers (eds.) 2009, Coins in Context I: New Perspectives for the Interpretation of Coin Finds, Studien zu Fundmünzen der Antike 23 - Mainz). In the second post in what promises to be a thought-provoking series, he discusses the first essay [in the section "Methodological Overviews"] which is by one of the volume’s editors H.-M. von Kaenel ("Coins in context - a personal approach", pp. 9-24). Nathan has summarised the text for those – like me – who have not yet seen the book itself. I was struck by several of the quotes he gives. For example he reports that Von Kaenel writes:

"Never before has so much archaeological material been removed from the earth through illegal looting as it has since the 1990s. We are witness to a 'decontextualisation process' on an enormous scale which affects all archaeological objects. However, as regards sheer numbers, coins take first place."
I think this word “decontextualisation” is a useful concept to describe what is taking place and its effects; objects which have a context, are deprived of them by entry into the market of contextless “dugups” which collectors buy no-questions-asked. Von Kaenel continues:

"This is a loss of historical source material that is without comparison, and it cannot be replaced. The situation for archaeology is just as disastrous as it is for numismatics. Many colleagues are aware of this, but only a few speak out and
the authorities responsible have so far not been prepared to intervene actively and consistently."
I am not sure it is "without comparison", I'd liken it to the burning of the Alexandrine library many hundred times over. The question of why there are so many colleagues that are aware of this but few of whom speak out is an interesting one.

There is also a section of the paper called: "From 'numismatics or archaeology' to 'archaeology and numismatics'". Von Kaenel suggests that it is a younger generation of numismatists which is coming to realize that the study of ancient coins (which are after all just ONE type of archaeological artefact) cannot take part in isolation from (and to the detriment of) other branches of the study of the past. He uses an example taken from the realms of “Celtic” coinage in central Europe where the evidence from stratified coin finds overturned the traditional chronology based on typology. Von Kaenel suggests that:
"today no one seriously asks the question 'numismatics or archaeology' – the title of a paper by K. Castelin published in 1976. In fact, in Celtic numismatics today it is a matter of 'archaeology and numismatics'."
It would seem that Dr Von Kaenel has not come across (or paid attention to) the ACCG. Their spokesmen claim to be “professional numismatists”, and the dealers' lobby group does indeed proclaim that it is either archaeology OR the coin collector, as we have seen time and time again, they apparently do not see room for both unless the other side (the conservationsist) makes vast compromises to the exclusive benefit of the coin collector and dealer. The ACCG which seeks at every step to discredit the archaeological study of artefacts such as coins and all that goes with it, including those that would protect the archaeological record from exploitation for commercial purposes. I could not help a wry smile on reading the next part:
"In no other area of ancient numismatics has the discussion on coins and money been so productively stimulated and advanced by archaeologists as in Celtic numismatics".
It is in this field that the current main ideologue of the ACCG (Canadian John Hooker), claims to have his expertise, and we may note that while he is very willing to quote archaeologists when it suits him, in general he is an advocate of the autonomy and primacy of “numismatics” and typology over archaeology and context.

I look forward to the ACCG review of “Coins in Context I”, perhaps as one of the “Hooker papers” series.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Behind the Duveen Gallery


The opening of the new Parthenon Museum in Athens today poignently reminds us of the marble fragments now kept defiantly in the stark gallery in the British Museum in London. The gallery itself was built in 1937-8 and named after its founder Joseph Duveen (1st Baron Duveen of Millbank), arguably one of the most influential art dealers of all time. In the context of the subject of this blog, though not directly involved in the trade in portable antiquities per se, Duveen seems to have been to no little extent influential on the development of the attitudes that lay behind a substantial part of it. Duveen died almost exactly seventy years ago (May 25th 1939), so it seems worth paying a little attention to this gentleman.*

Born into a family involved in the import business in Hull, from 1909 onwards Duveen began to focus on the lucrative trade in paintings. Due to his good eye, skilled salesmanship and insight into human behavior he quickly became one of the world's leading art dealers. In this he was helped by his partnership (between 1912 and 1936) with Bernard Berenson and together they above all generated increased interest in the US in works of art of the Renaissance. Duveen was knighted for his philanthropy in 1919 and in 1933 he was created Baron Duveen, of Millbank (in the City of Westminster).
A large part of the market on which Duveen concentrated was in the States, he famously noted that "Europe has a great deal of art, and America has a great deal of money". He thus found a niche buying works of art from declining European aristocrats and selling them to the millionaires of the United States in which he was very successfull. See also the online review of the biography "Duveen: A Life in Art", by Meryle Secrest, New York, Knopf, 2004; by Peter Dailey ('The Dealer King').
Duveen played an important role in convincing the so-called "robber baron " industrialists and financiers that buying art was a means of social legitimation, a means of buying upper-class status and reknown. Duveen's clients included Henry Clay Frick, William Randolph Hearst, Henry E. Huntington, J.P. Morgan, Samuel H. Kress, Andrew Mellon, John D. Rockefeller, and Frank Porter Wood in Canadia. Another of his clients in his later years was J. Paul Getty. Through the donation of the collections of these individuals to public institutions, many of the works that Duveen shipped across the Atlantic now comprise the core of the collections of many of the United States' finest museums, for example the Frick collection in New York, the Frank P. Wood collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Huntington Library, and the Mellon and Kress collections now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington and elsewhere.

The marketing skills of dealers like Duveen seem to be responsible for the current attitudes of US collectors of portable antiquities such as coins. We see these collectors time and time again presenting themselves as some kind of intellectual elites, preserving for the hoi polloi around them selected elements of "classical culture" and an awareness of "other cultures" which (they argue) is being eroded by declining standards in public education in the States. They present their mission as a public one pursued through private collection, a paradox that is not peceived due to the legacy of dealers like Duveen and the "robber baron" collectors. The main difference is that the collections today are so much more widespread and down market from Duveen's day, instead of the second Ardabil Carpet, these collectors are buying "English dug ups" (bulk lots of Roman coins for "zapping"), bulk lots of broken metal artefacts stripped from Balkan Roman settlements and cemeteries, grave pots and lamps, shabti figures from Egyptian tombs and the odd mummified foot or other such grisly status-enhancing (sic) "relic".

* This text is largely compiled from Wikipedia, which is also the source of the photo used here.

Another suicide in American Indian artifacts looting case

A second defendant in the federal crackdown on archaeological looting in southern Utah has killed himself (Patty Henetz and Brandon Loomis Another suicide in American Indian artifacts looting case, The Salt Lake Tribune 19/6/09). Steven L. Shrader, 56 a single man from Santa Fe, New Mexico, faced trial on two felonies in the antiquities case. He had reportedly had gone to visit his mother, in the village of Shabbona, Ill. While there, he shot himself twice in the chest late Thursday or early Friday behind the elementary school near his mother's house, authorities said. He died on Friday morning, the day he was supposed to appear in court in Salt Lake City on charges connected with trafficking of American Indian artifacts illicitly taken from public and tribal land in southeastern Utah. Shrader was not one of those arrested in the sweep on June 10th, but
turned himself in last Friday at the FBI offices in Santa Fe and
was released after an initial appearance Monday in federal court in Albuquerque. Federal agents took him back to Santa Fe that day. His residence was not the subject of any of the search warrants executed by the FBI and Bureau of Land Management.
Shrader was indicted for allegedly being party to the trafficking of stolen artifacts -- specifically ancient sandals and a basket -- along with Carl "Vern" Crites, 74, Marie Crites, 68, and Richard Bourret, 59, all of Durango, Colo. His role though is described as "peripheral" to the main case. (Salt Lake Tribune Latest court papers reveal grisly side of artifact digging).

Friday, 19 June 2009

Spirals of Silence about Artefact Collecting

Within an hour or so of my posting a message on my blog concerning a disastrous attempt to clean an unfired Mesopotamian clay tablet by running it under the cold tap, instead of the two posts in the original thread, the following message appeared here and here in the archives of the discussion group concerned.

"Message does not exist in Ancientartifacts".
This is very interesting. An attempt has been made to push the original post "Down the Memory Hole" (as in Orwell's "1984"). The collector in question posted the information to an artefact discussion list about what happened as a warning to other collectors not to do anything like this. This was done with perfectly honourable intentions and also at the risk of attracting criticism, but hopefully eliciting discussion and information of benefit to other collectors about how to deal with such objects in future. Such a discussion will not now take place since somebody with their finger on the "delete" button obviously wants to try to hide certain aspects of collecting under the carpet. Surely instead of deleting the post from the archives and digests, a much more helpful approach would have been to draw attention to the point in the Portable Antiquities Collector's Code of Ethics which I discussed earlier here :

"(4) Recognise your role as custodian/ Do your utmost to ensure the wellbeing of the objects in your care./ Consider the condition of artifacts prior to purchase and whether you will be able to carry out any necessary conservation or repairs. Any intrusive operation should ideally be carried out by a competent professional."
There are two points here, first there should perhaps be a short guide (with references to more extensive literature) written specifically for the collector of portable antiquities which explains in simple terms what can and should not be done with artefacts of various commonly-collected kinds. It seems that while antiques of various types have a number of such guides, but there is nothing to help the collector of fresh "dug-ups".

See also here for another collector wanting to do dangerous things to the object in his stewardship, this post has not been removed yet from the archives.

The second thing is the issue of how the collecting community deals with criticism. In general the collector justifies themselves that they are "doing nothing wrong". In face of criticism some turn away and block out any criticisms as applying only to "other" collectors and not themselves. By this means they try to hush up embarrassing issues which they would prefer not to talk about (perhaps trying to shame the critic into not mentioning them). Others react more aggressively with loud protests that they are misunderstood by individuals who are themselves members of a group that are not above reproach. Thus the spiral of silence about the issues surrounding collecting of portable antiquities and the archaeological resource continues to develop.
Vignette: ammonite logo.

Do not wash, dry clean only

Apparently there are two things which are limitless, the Universe and human stupidity. That is why plastic bags have writing on them to inform people not to put them over their babies’ heads (duh!), in a US fast food chain coffee cups reputedly now tell you the contents are hot and should not be spilt on your bodily parts (duh!), cigarette packets inform the user that smoking kills (duh!) and so on.

We are constantly told by the pro-collecting lobby that portable antiquity collectors are not collecting for the sake of collecting but are educated people who want to “add to their [and thus our] knowledge of the past”. Seldom however do they demonstrate it.

Coin collectors are the noisiest and tell us that only by making collections of contextless coins can they add to “numismatic knowledge”, and that collectors are much better curators of the objects they treasure than public institutions. I really doubt that one can make such a generalisation.

Yesterday on an internet auction site however I saw a sad sight, what is left after a bulk lot of archaeological artifacts (coins) has been “zapped” by a domestic corrosion-stripping numismofanatic and then the better coins picked out. What was left (and being sold on) was a pile of utterly destroyed archaeological artifacts, stripped to the bare pitted metal, and original surface preserved in the corrosion layers now gone.

Yesterday too I came across another heart-breaking example. On the Yahoo Ancient Artifact forum, one Andrea – a collector for whom English is apparently not their native language - had a cautionary tale for other collectors which put me in mind of the story of the lady who put her pet poodle in the microwave to dry it. To it was attached a plaintive question “Can someone can explain what happen?”.

Andrea apparently bought a 4000 year old cuneiform tablet “from a very reputable seller” ( unnamed originally, now we know it was David Liebert's "The Time Machine Co." from Flushing NY, apparently sold through ACCG president Bill Puetz's V-coins [sic] portal). We are not informed where it came from or what documentation accompanied it, so it is impossible to say whether or not it was freshly looted (that word “reputation” in the collecting community means something else than what the casual observer might think). All the seller says is "From a a private US collection" (no other information offered about the collector or their acquisition policy). The tablet apparently was supposed to be an "Old Babylonian Period pottery administrative ledger tablet/ Circa 1900 - 1000 BC /Containing 7 columns /Listing foods at left and names at right on two sides/ Recomposed from fragments/2 X 4 inches”. After admiring their purchase, the delighted collector then did something… well, not to put a fine point on it, utterly stupid:
after the pleasure of touch and see it in my hand as I made very often with terracotta objects I wet it with light water spray to see restoration, to taste smell.. etc, after seeing that same sand seem to go out from the break lines I put for 4-5 seconds the tablet under powerful (but however middle) flow of water...but instead cleaning the table that seems had skin literally melt down
under my eyes.
Yes, clay tends to do that in water. The first rule of the treatment of any object is to identify the material it is made from and be aware of its properties and needs. Clearly the collector had acted on the basis of a false (diasterously false) assumption without checking. Unless the archives that contained them had been burnt down in antiquity, most cuneiform tablets as excavated are unfired clay. In the early days of excavation in Mesopotamia, they were fired after excavation in order to make them durable enough to handle, but also to allow the soluable salts to be soaked from them. This process is described in some of the earliest texts on the conservation of archaeological finds (the venerable Plenderleith and Werner for example), so really should be within the radar of any collector who cares about the proper curation and preservation of the archaeological items over which they have appointed themselves stewards.

Andrea however seems not to have come across any of the literature about Mesopotamian writing materials or archaeology containing any such information. One might ask then how that accumulator will add to our knowledge. The text goes on:
How can be happen? Does this terracotta was uncompletely fired? In meanwhile was wet I try to write upon it...and it seems clay manufactered 1 minute ago...very soft, the colour of the skin seem dark than core I hope this is a sign of fakeness...but I don't think... Now in 20 minutes seems returned hard but much of the skin wrote has cleaned for ever.
Sadly the fact that clay can be softened in water even after 4000 years underground in relatively dry conditions really is not evidence that the object was fake. The assumption that if real it would have been “terracotta” is also unfounded. This collector has just completed the destruction caused by the looter’s spade, as Andrea notes now “...however remain the photos...” only of the artifacts, their archaeological context has gone for ever.



Photos: Cuneiform tablet in a private collection shown before and after its "conservation" under a running tap (photos from Ancient Artifacts forum)

Message updated 23.06.09, thanks to Andrea for pointing out I used an illustration of the wrong side of the tablet, now rectified

Postscript 23rd June: Perhaps I was a little too hard on Andrea. Look at the seller's description. It clearly says "pottery". The dealer apart from not providing proper provenence detail in the sales offer showing it was legally exported from the source country misrepresents the material from which it is made. If I were Andrea, I'd ask for my money back on two counts.
 
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