Tuesday, 23 March 2010

US Antiquity Collectors' "Rights" in Ozarks

Artefact collectors in the United States are getting some very bad press these days aren't they? There is the ongoing Four Corners saga, and numerous rather hostile articles about collectors interested in obtaining ancient artefacts from ancient sites in their homeland, land of the Free, where however the freedom of the artifact digger is limited. One of the latest of these hostile articles, is by Nicholas Phillips ("Tweakers 'N Diggers: Looters are pillaging Native American burial grounds to finance their meth habits", The Riverfront Times March 24, 2010). In it we read about a group of people who live in the region of the Ozark mountains and collect ancient artefacts.

These people we learn from the article have an objection to federal laws which nationalise the buried heritage of their homeland which they no doubt regard as "restrictive and retentionist". This heritage they feel - in the spirit of free enterprise - should be liberated. They want to make these items available for private ownership, so that all may have the opportunity to have their own 'pieces of the past' to study, preserve and appreciate. Obviously these people, people like artefact hunter Leslie Jones (photo) need some kind of leadership, some kind of organization to help them achieve their aims.

So far there seems to have been only limited lobbying on behalf of these collectors. But help is at hand. Within a few hours' drive of the area covered by Nicholas Phillips' article which is so unsympathetic to the collectors' cause, is the House of Angels in which Wayne Sayles, collectors' rights champion holds court, it is the base of a US collectors' rights organization, the ACCG.

This is Wayne Sayles, he sells antiquities to collectors and lives in the Ozark mountains. Not far from collector Leslie Jones.

Mr Sayles has for many years been strenuously fighting the US gubn'mint over "collectors' rights" and fighting the preservationists and archaeologists who would curb indiscriminate collecting. It seems to me that US collectors of ancient artefacts could well take a leaf from the Ancient Coin Collectors' book. Let us see how it would look:

The ALCCG of the USA
For many years collectors and dealers have been responsible for much of the research into Native American artifacts. The efforts of generations of collectors have led to the discovery and conservation of untold numbers of ancient artifacts as well as a better public understanding of the ancient cultures that created them. What ancient American artefact collectors obviously now need is (in the terminology of the movement) an "internationalising" collectors' rights organization. It might be called the "Arrowheads, Lithics and Ceramics Collectables Group" (ALCCG) which would gather all those interested in collecting ancient American artefacts. The ALCCG would be committed to promoting the free and independent collecting of ancient objects from US soil which would concentrate collectors and professional dealers who care passionately about preserving, studying and displaying ancient objects from all American cultures. It would aim to foster an environment in which the general public can confidently and legally acquire and hold any ancient American item of historical interest regardless of date or place of origin. This organization would strive to achieve its goals through education, political action, and consumer protection.
The ALCCG would provide a voice for collectors of ancient American artefacts on issues that threaten the hobby. Given a widespread disinformation campaign about the extent of damage caused by "looting" in US territories, collectors are justified in their fears that ideologues within the archaeological establishment have subverted laudable efforts to protect public collections and archaeological sites into a crusade to suppress the public's longstanding right to preserve, study and display antiquities, including ones as common as arrowheads, lithics, baskets and native pots. Unless collectors provide decision makers in the legislative and administrative branches of government with their own views on the complex issues surrounding preservation of historical sites, they face the prospect that their right to collect ancient artifacts will be legislated out of existence by ill-informed decision makers who have been told that anything "old" should belong to the government of the country where it is found, and that only academic elites should have a right to study and preserve the artifacts of the past.
That seems likely to do the trick. A bit of lobbying of government, maybe an act or two of civil disobedience. Some provocative illegal activity to force a showdown courtcase maybe (ACCG can give the ALCG contact details to lawyers specialising in such activities). It seems that the ACG would be open to establishing some kind of rapport between American collectors of antiquities and the archaeological establishment. ACCG board member, with reference to the Newcastle Portable Antiquities Conference in England, Peter Tompa asks "why can't something like that happen here?" Indeed, perhaps the ACCG could lead the way by involving arrowhead collectors and pot diggers in their lobbying campaigns and attempts to aproach the archaeological community and assure them of their good intentions. Obviously the ACCG should be lobying for something exactly like the Portable Antiquities Scheme to be set up in the US to combat the problem with looting and the black market. A first step though must be to win over public opinion to allow a liberalisation of the heritage laws. They might try to fight some "popular misconceptions" by means of media outreach, and trying to answer questions people might have about artifact collecting.

Some frequently asked questions about ancient artefacts:
The questions that may be asked about the collecting of ancient American artifacts are the same as may be asked about any other, such as ancient coins:

Are ancient artefacts rare? Ancient artifacts are very common. There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of such artefacts extant today buried all about the country waiting to be dug up.

Aren't archaeologists good custodians of ancient artifacts? While a few dedicated archaeologists do care about artefacts and have used them to make important contributions to the study of the past, many, if not most, archaeologists view artefacts as just one means to date archaeological sites. Most well preserved specimens that collectors prize do not even originate from archaeological sites. That is because most objects of certain types rarely come to light at archaeological sites, arrowheads for example. Not every lithic item was looted from archaeological sites. Archaeologists tend not to treat artefacts such as lithic tools and ceramics as important historical objects in themselves. Instead, after they serve a limited purpose as but one means to date archaeological sites, they are all too often dumped into plastic bags and left to deteriorate in storage that usually lacks proper environmental controls.

Does Collecting of Ancient American Artifacts Damage Ancient American Archaeological Sites?

No, that is a silly idea.

What can be done to encourage protection of archaeological sites? Looting of archaeological sites is the worst in countries like the USA that have unfair laws that treat all ancient objects from certain areas as the sole property of the state. Such laws only discourage otherwise law abiding citizens from reporting their finds and encourage public corruption — often at the highest levels. There is little incentive for finders of ancient artifacts to report their finds to the authorities; they will not receive fair compensation, and in fact they may instead receive unwelcome attention from abusive government authorities. Rather than face such ill treatment, local diggers with deep distrust in their own governments will instead sell what they find secretly to middlemen, who often are working under the protection of corrupt government officials. In contrast, in countries with fair laws and transparent government procedures, like Great Britain, finders must report most ancient finds, but can expect to receive fair compensation for whatever important items government associated museums decide to retain. The results are predictable. While official British Government reports herald important discoveries made by common people, restrictive and despotic governments in source countries like the USA with harsh laws and their allies in the archaeological establishment complain about the loss of important historical information to looting. To encourage protection of archaeological sites, we must encourage the peoples' respect for a nation's past. This can only occur if people are treated fairly and are educated about the importance of preservation efforts. Rather than having confiscatory laws, the United States should treat their citizens fairly by enacting fair and effective laws akin to the United Kingdom's Treasure Act.

What can collectors themselves do to encourage protection of archaeological sites? Collectors can help protect archaeological sites by refusing to purchase any ancient artefact known to be removed from a scheduled US archaeological site or stolen from a US private or public collection and by complying with all cultural property laws in their own country. Collectors can also encourage protection of archaeological sites by sharing their knowledge of ancient civilizations with members of the public and by lobbying government officials to encourage the government to treat their citizens fairly and educate them about the importance of preservation efforts. Finally, collectors can help encourage protection of archaeological sites by visiting sites in remote areas of the USA as tourists and specifically visiting these sites for educational purposes. The prospect of tourism will encourage the US government to value these sites and to spend the funds necessary to preserve and protect them.

What government action would the ALCCG support and what government action would it oppose? the ALCCG would support government efforts to recover artefacts illegally taken from scheduled US archaeological sites or stolen from US private or public collections when clear proof of such is evident. It would however oppose government efforts to place the burden of proof on collectors, dealers and museums to show that a particular artefact did not come from an area of the country covered by restrictive cultural property laws. This is an impossible burden to meet because there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of historical artefacts in the trade or in public and private collections with no known “provenance.” Ancient artefacts are so common that even archaeologists often fail to properly record the circumstances of their discovery. It is unfair to assume that collectors, dealers and museums can show the provenance of their artefacts when they have been widely traded for several centuries without any requirement to show their chain of ownership.

Are you all meth addicts? This is typical of the Black Propaganda of ideologues and radical archaeologists. This is of course untrue. Many collectors of ancient America antiquities are respected members of the community, doctors, businessmen, householders and property owners. Recently a High Court judge said collecting artifacts was acceptable.

And so on. As the links in the section headings show, the above texts were compiled on the basis of material taken from the Ancient Coin Collectors' Guild website which needed only slight modification to make them into a manifesto for pot-diggers. What I was trying to show was that the arguments used by US collectors to justify collecting dugup ancient coins really take on a different complexion when applied to dugup artefacts of other types. If they are to be regarded as at all valid however, then surely they should be applicable to all archaeological material everywhere. After all there is just one archaeological record. Special pleading arguments that "coins are somehow different" really are just so much self-serving nonsense, they are archaeological evidence as much as polished axeheads (also exchanged, some would say in some cases as a form of currency), pots and baskets. Or bones, charcoal and snail shells.

If US collectors of artefacts like ancient coins wish to encourage foreign governments to change their legislation to allow free-for-all digging up of archaeological sites as a source of collectables, then they must first show it is feasible, by forcing US government to adopt the same measures. Logically, they should be fighting to have the "retentive" Archaeological Resources Protection Act repealed (they'd probably find support among developers and oil men). Logically (strength in numbers after all) they should be fighting together with the pot-diggers and grave riflers to get artefact collecting more widely recognised by the American public as a socially acceptable activity. Logically they would all be fighting together against the notion of an archaeological resource which is depleted by erosve digging and collecting, they should logically be fighting against "retentive" legislation which nationalises the archaeological finds in its territory. They logically should be fighting against laws which oppose the finders-keepers ownership principles on which many artefact collections in the US are built. Obviously if coin collectors are fighting any attempts to make them accountable for the origins of the objects they collect, then pot-diggers too should be exempt.

So why are the ACCG not joining forces with the various other US artefact hunting groups and throwing their lot in with them? Could it be that any attempt to apply the ACCG ideology to the destruction of the archaeological integrity of Native American sites at home rather than contributing to the destruction of foreign sites shows the arguments for the sham they are?

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