Saturday, 15 May 2010

Smashing Pots in Anti-Collector Spite

I thought I'd discussed this collectors' anti-archaeological scare story on this blog earlier, but it seems not. The story goes that some archaeologists are so anti-collecting that when for some reason they cannot collect artefacts for long-term curation, they smash them "so they do not get into the hands of collectors". Therefore, the collectors' anti-archaeological league suggest, all archaeologists are evil and destructive people and must be fought by all possible means fair or foul. That is the story. It serves as part of the "selling collectors 'duplicate finds' so we dont have to buy looted finds" mantra.

Now, I have heard lots of this. All from the same two people on the same forums in the same context. On the other hand, I have worked in archaeology in several countries for more than 35 years, have spoken to many many archaeologists, museums staff, unit directors, and have never heard anything like this happening from them. Not in fact a whisper. The only people repeating these scare stories are coin collectors and coin dealers. Let us have a look at the evidence for archaeologists being evil.

Story 1

When I was in University, one of my professors (the course was on classics but he was an archeologist) told me that during the early 1970's they use[d] to destroy artifacts after excavating and recording then. The excavations were at Corinth in Greece, and reasoning was that the Greek Government lacked the facilities to store them store them, the archeologists were not allowed to keep them, and they were concerned that if they re-buried them they might be dug up later by someone who might sell them to a collector who would look after them . The story is 100% true and I got this first hand from the archeologist who destroyed the pots. To be honest, he personally was against doing this, but had not choice as he was ordered to so by the Greek government and to no do so would mean he would not be allowed on the site the following year. This I don't see his own behavior as unethical, but rather the behavior of the Greek archeologists in charge of the dig as unethical.
Right. An unnamed professor at an unnamed (Canadian?) university had heard something about unspecified "they" digging in Corinth in the 1970s under some unamed "Greek archaeologist" which he repeated to his students. The Corinth excavations have for over a century been carried out by the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. The American Mission built extensive storerooms there in the 1930s, in which the finds are housed. There is also an extensive publication series. Is this a piece of anti-American academic slander by a Canadian academic? Is there a Canadian mission at Corinth? What in archaeological terms is unethical here is not so much the solution to the problem adopted if this is true, but the fact it arose in the first place, a foreign mission engages in a research project of an otherwise unthreatened site without first ascertaining the ability to maintain a proper archive of the results. I think we need to know the name of this archaeologist. Mr Kokotailo?

Note the manipulative phrase inserted into the story with regard to the intended audience: "might sell them to a collector who would look after them"
Story 2 John Hooker, who lives just down the road from Kokotailo writes:
An archaeologist told me that at a dig she was on in Tuscany, bucchero ware pots were sorted for those with decoration and those without, and the latter were smashed with hammers -- the stores were overflowing with the stuff.
An unnamed archaeologist who at an unspecified time was on an unnamed excavation saw pot-smashing [in nasty old Italy who ("coincidentally") have the nerve to ask US collectors to stop buying illegally exported artefacts]. I have heard Mr Hooker repeat this story so many times, sometimes adding details not mentioned earlier. We did eventually hear from him the name of the informant, who turned out to be some Canadian lass he'd met online on a Celtic mythology forum and otherwise seems to be untraceable (I tried, but if she's reading this, I'd be glad to hear from you Michelle). The same comment applies about a Canadian taking part in a mission which had not ascertained that they have the resources to archive the results of their project adequately.

By the way the "Greek" story he'd heard which is mentioned several times by Hooker seems to be Kokotailo's discussed above.

So at the moment we have heard two anecdotal reports at second hand from two Canadian archaeologists taking part in two separate foreign expeditions. Missions that, if what is said is true (and of course we have no reason to doubt), no archaeologist should be participating anyway. I have no doubt there are more such anecdotes out there, each more scandalous than the last, the question is whether these are the norm.

In an effort to suggest they are, Mr Hooker
(who though Canadian seems now to envisage himself as a spokesman for the Missouri-based ACCG) produced another piece of "damning" evidence from the CBA's Britarch list. Apparently this kind of destruction "is called "binning" in England (no need to break pots to prevent them from being collected)". See: [ tiny URL link to this ] Follow the thread -- I like the last recommendation to use proper landfill sites!". In the Britarch message Chris Cumberpatch asks a question about a working group on a 'framework for archaeological selection strategies' (issues relating to the retention, selection and discard of archaeological archives). The word collector nowhere appears in this text - this is in any case well after British archaeology started its PAS "partnership" with collectors.

Hooker's use of this material in this context is a total and probably deliberate manipulation (again the lack of respect for the intelligence of his readers) because it is talking about something else entirely. The question of what should be included in an excavation archive and how it should be stored (and for how long) is part of a debate that has been going on in British (and not only British) archaeology since the large rescue projects of the 1960s. The debate is ongoing, I do not know if they have similar debates yet in Canadian archaeology. Perhaps they'd like to ask Mr Hooker to join in. An update on the British working party itself can be found here and probably elsewhere.

Excavations often produce huge quantities of very diverse material and samples. Much of it is not the sort of stuff that any collector would be keen to have in their collections, slag and fired clay lumps tend to be rather unlovely to those who do not actually study the things. Even most pottery bodysherds are much of a muchness once they've been counted weighed and classified. Somehow they do not seem to be coming across in any quantity from Bulgaria in the shippings of "pieces of the past" on sale by ebay sellers, so I think one can assume that this is one type of artefact (along with Roman tile and featureless wallplaster bits) that are not regarded as very collectable by collectors of and dealers in portable antiquities.

"Smashing Pots" in Anti-Collector Spite UPDATE: 16th May 2010:

It seems collectors are rather foggy (among other things, that is) about the difference between "smashing complete pots so collectors don't get them" and a selection of material to form the excavation archive. The story was being propagated in collecting circles that evil archaeologists are so set against collecting that they will stop at nothing to prevent collectors coming any near a real ancient artefact. That is the stereotype that the "collectors' rights" advocates so strenuously wish to inculate into the minds of collectors, to provoke the siege mentality that fosters extremist viewpoints. There are some collectors bravely holding out and actually questioning them (on Moneta-L now Ross Glanville added his voice to that of Reid Goldsborough). Note however these are isolated cases. Most of the other collectors apparently believe the mantras.

I'd pass the following uninformed comment up if it were not for the fact that its author (Scott Uhrick of "Ancient Coins for Educashun") appended the challenge "are you listening Mr Barford?". I would not like him to point out to collectors that I was ignoring a fact allegedly because I found it inconvenient, so I'm putting up here what he wrote:
Folks, I just finished a recent book on the fall of Rome. In the introduction the author (an archaeologist and historian with Trinity College, Oxford) speaks of working with his archaeologist father in Rome. His task was to destroy that day's pottery. I quote; "I remember well as a child, sometime around 1960, helping to dump into a river (so that the current would scatter and lose them) boxes and boxes of Roman pottery recovered in a field survey north of Rome, which had simply outgrown the available storage space." [The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, Bryan Ward-Perkins, Oxford University Press, 2005 (page 90, paperback version, 2006)]. Are you listening, Mr Barford?
I find it amusing that Ulhrick thinks it is necessary to explain to his ancient-coin-collecting audience who Brian Ward-Perkins is. I know the book, the passage he quotes is concerned with hammering home to his readers the "consumerism" of Roman society and the text is intended to give the reader an idea of the masses of goods produced and used in Roman society. Somewhere in the vicinity of this reference as I recall, Ward-Perkins also discusses Monte Testuccio, now I do not know how much of that Uhrick would like to transfer to a museum and why. What is being described is the process of selection of material which will be permanently curated from a project from that which will not. What is described is the disposal of sherd material (see above) not the "smashing of complete pots so collectors cannot have them" (is tipping sherds into the river the same as "destroying" them for example by smashing them with hammers?).

We see here another symptom of the short attention span and inability of the collector to follow the logic of a argument containing more than eight words. This is all the more remarkable because it is the argument promoted by their "own side". An imagined "challenge" has been presented to the views of those of opposing views, intended to bolster the view being put out by the lollard agitators in their midst. Ward-Perkins' story is nothing of the kind. Astounding.

Update 17th May:
Coin collecting archaeologist John Rieske adds on Moneta-L:
Actually, it is not that uncommon of a thing. A professor from Colorado broke any pot that was found in his surveys and excavations for three reasons: ease of transport, discourage robbers, and finally to give his students experience piecing together broken pots in the lab.
Once again name and time active not given. The motive to "discourage robbers" makes it sound like transports of artefacts back to the mission's laboratories could have been held up by highwaymen who might not want to steal the broken pottery, wow, real Indiana Jones stuff. I bet he dug in mechanical 'spits' as well.

Vingnette: It is a well known fact among collectors that archaeologists are evil people who go to bed with the enemies of George W. Bush grrrrr.


Paul Barford said...

Now my feeling is if anyone was asked as a member of a foreign mission by an official in a host country to take a hammer to complete pots, the first reaction should be that it was some kind of political provocation (without going into details, such cases are known). Before even contemplating doing such a thing, the wise foreign mission would get it in writing. Also one would assume that if there were fears that items would be sold illegally, the mission would get an official document claiming that the material had been disposed of in the manner required. So there should be at least two pieces of paper to document the destruction the accusing collectors claim. I bet they cannot produce them.

Damien Huffer said...

I have only heard of one definite case of a serious lapse of ethics by a group of archaeologists, and it had nothing to do with deliberately smashing finds to keep them off the market due to lack of storage. Contracts, and tight budget and time constraints were involved, and other archaeologists had to then come clean up the mess. I would be incredibly hard pressed to imagine anything like what they talk about as actually happening anywhere.

John Muccigrosso said...

This sounds like what George Dennis described in a scene in "Cities and Cemeteries" in which pots which were expected to be less valuable on the market were smashed to keep prices for the "good" ones high.

That was of course in the first half of the 19th c., and the collectors market was the cause of the destruction.

ellie rose elliott said...

Having only just read this, and comments, after picking up Peter Tompa's discussion in LinkedIn Ancient History, linked to his own blog post which you commented on here: . . .

here's the details from:
George Dennis 'Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria' vol.I p.431-2 in the Everyman edition, Chapter XXI Vulci. Currently the full text on Bill Thayer's site is down so I have copied this by hand from my own copy of Dennis and I hope it helps . . .

Dennis describes [on p.431] the 'excavators' in the employ of the Princess of Canino, the widow of Lucien Bonaparte - organised gangs headed and controlled by an armed 'capo' - and watching them dig into a collapsed tomb and then smash to fragments the unsaleable items they found:

'. . . it was seen by the first objects brought to light that nothing of value was to be expected - hoc miserae plebi stabat sepulcrum. Coarse pottery of unfigured, and even of unvarnished ware, and a variety of small articles in black clay, were its only produce; but our astonishment was only equalled by our indignation when we saw the labourers dash them to the ground as they drew them forth, and crush them beneath their feet as things 'cheaper than seaweed'. In vain I pleaded to save some from destruction; for, though of no marketable worth, they were often of curious and elegant forms, and valuable as relics of the olden time, not to be replaced; but no, it was all roba di sciocchezza - foolish stuff - the capo was inexorable; his orders were to destroy immediately whatever was of no pecuniary value, and he could not allow me to carry away one of these relics which he so despised.'

It is lamentable, Dennis adds, that excavation should be carried on in such a spirit, with the sole view of gain, and with no regard to the advancement of science.

Your 'archaeologists smashing pots', so puzzling when applied to professional archaeologists, makes perfect sense in context, but that context is 1848 and the uncontrolled-by-decency actions of an arrogant and greedy Frenchwoman, Lucien Bonaparte's second wife . . .
Ellie Rose Elliott

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