Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Scrap ARPA and set up a Portable Antiquities Scheme for the USA?

Over in the US collectors and dealers somewhat repetitively assert some such nonsense as the Witschonke premise which is the US should do nothing to help nations whose archaeological heritage (I think he means "coins") is threatened by looting until they adopt measures to protect that heritage approved by the USA. In his opinion, that is the adoption of the "British system" of a Treasure Act and a voluntary 'portable antiquities scheme'. Yesterday we saw the same proposal again being put out by an ACCG coin dealer:
The Treasure Act and Portable Antiquities Scheme which prevail in the United Kingdom are the best (and almost the only) existing example of intelligently devised, successful antiquities laws, and in my view something resembling this should be universally adopted. Although the existing political climate does not favor such a sensible and practically motivated resolution of differences, I believe that the adoption of a global Treasure Act and Portable Antiquities Scheme, with appropriate adjustments for the individual concerns of States presently restricting private ownership of and export of archaeological antiquities, would do far more to control looting of archaeological sites than any possible combination of repressive and punitive measures.
It is really quite tiresome to have these Americans attempting to dictate to the whole world how they 'should' run their affairs, or they will not get the Uncle-Sam-Seal-of-Approval. Instead of telling everybody else what to do and expecting them to jump when ordered to jump, maybe they could lead the way by example. Set the moral lead. Quite obviously before dictating what others 'should' do, they should first set up such a system in their own country before encouraging others to do the same. The USA has considerable problems with looting of archaeological sites by artefact collectors. The undocumented exploitation of otherwise unthreatened archaeological sites by lithics collectors and pot diggers is a source of damage to the archaeological record in the USA. While it is restricted by law on public and 'Indian' lands which vests control of archaeological material there to the state (just as much as in Egypt, Greece or any other source countries), this does not stop the looting, and the losses to the archaeological record due to site exploitation on private land to serve the expanding collector market are also considerable. I read an account of a US archaeologist who said that in many regions of the USA there is not a single ancient site within walking distance of a means of access which had not been visited and searched by arrowhead hunters. According to him, they are being collected away just as surely as the sites in the Sahara. So US legislation is not protecting the archaeological record there from undocumented damage by collectors and looters.

Perhaps then US antiquity dealers would like to draft a proposal to change US legislation to take into account the proposal that state ownership of archaeological remains is not stopping looting in places like the Four Corners area and does nothing to stop the destruction of sites on land not owned or administered by the state. Let them propose a system like the British one which they insist is the "only intelligent way forward" for OTHER countries. Let them first apply it at home. Why don't they?

How would 'Treasure' be defined in terms of native American and Early Colonial artefacts? In order to make sense and selectively get archaeologically significant items vested in the state it would have to cover archaeologically significant artefacts and assemblages of all the ancient cultures of the country, from Archaic campsites, western pueblos and caves, Woodland and Moundbuilder sites of the east, as well as artefacts from early colonial forts, settlement and trade routes. Once a list of such items has been drawn up and agreed, all that is needed is for the dealers and collectors force the scrapping of scrap the Archaeological Resources Protection Act and related measures and institute their new National Treasures Act which defines state ownership of the designated artefact types, and lays down the process of an inquest and museum acquisition, with the full market value being split between finder and landowner (where the latter is the state, the finder only getting his due share). Just like the British model they want OTHER countries to adopt.

Then to set up a US Portable antiquities Scheme state-wide to cover all the thousands of non-Treasure items found annually by artefact hunters and members of the public, arrowheads, baskets, potsherds, colonial artefacts. How would that be organized to give equivalent coverage to that in the UK? How many Finds Liaison Officers would there have to be to cover the entire USA? What is the optimum distance between them, where would they be based (museums, academic institutions, parks services)? Who would finance it and co-ordinate its activities, and how much would it actually cost?

It seems to me that unless US collectors and dealers are willing to take steps to introduce such a system into the administrative system of their own country and iron out all the problems that would arise from doing this (making the "appropriate adjustments for the individual concerns of States" in the case of their own), then they really should refrain from making comments about what they think other ('source') nations should be doing to accommodate the US market in dugup antiquities. The Witschonke Premise is a bankrupt premise while US dealers and collectors steadfastly refuse to even consider putting it into action in the case of their own country. It is just the epitome of US hypocrisy.

The US antiquities market has a turnover of millions of dollars annually, their lobbyists have access to considerable resources. If they really believe in the Witschonke Premise, let them commission a feasibility study from the Cultural Property Research Institute, or a real academic institution such as the Capitol Archaeological Institute (CAI) at George Washington University, or maybe the Getty Institute to scrap the ARPA and replace it by a system modelled on the 'exemplary' and 'intelligent' British legislation and then submit it to public consultation. Let us see some honest and transparent debate developing in place of the hypocrisy and glibness that characterises the position of the US no-questions-asked-marketeers.


heritageaction said...

I fear this gent may find some difficulty in showing evidence that the British PAS has controlled looting. Or in explaining by what possible mechanism it could do so.

In addition, he ought to bear in mind that apart from Britain there are 194 countries and so far 194 of them have declined to set up their own PAS. This might give him a clue as to whether people are going to be easily persuaded that laissez faire and voluntary recording is actually the conservation boon he seems to think it is. Beyond the sloganising and the propoganda lie the statistics. Is he hoping (like PAS) to avoid people seeing them?

Paul Barford said...

Well, Mr Heritage, the telling point here is that this is not the first time I have challenged these people to actually put their money where their hypocritical mouths are and actually initiate measures to persuade the US administration and US citizens to approve the move they want the US administration and US citizens to thrust on other nations.

From the reaction to the last (perhaps) dozen or so times I have done this, I think we may comfortably predict that they will ignore the proposal because they know as well as you or I what a load of bollocks what they are saying really is.

If they really believed what they say about the "superiority" of a PAS-based system of heritage "protection", they'd already be engaged in producing a feasibility study to apply it to the problem of looting and assuring "collectors' rights" in the US. The truth is they do not believe it themselves and the Witschonke premise (like much else that passes as 'debate' in US and other antiquitist circles) is just an excuse for inaction. Shame on the lot of them.

And you would think the PAS would join in and say to them 'look here chaps, I think you really should understand that...' as they are just damaging the reputation of the PAS with their nonsenses.

heritageaction said...

The lack of action towards a feasibility study is certainly the definitive measure of how sincere the pro-PAS sentiment is. Plus the repeated evidence of ignorance of how PAS and the Treasure Act work. How can you be pro something you are profoundly misinformed about?

But the most concrete sign of insincerity is the fact these pro-PAS dealers refuse to attach PAS reference numbers onto recent British dugups that they sell. What clearer nudge and wink about the possible dodgy or criminal origins of some of their stock could there possibly be? So I think we can take it as read that if they got their world-wide PAS they'd refuse to use reference numbers from that as well - for exactly the same reasons.

So no, it's no more than a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Not worth the time spent on hearing it. The US retail equivalent of the British suppliers' mantra "We all report what we find, honest". Two ends of the same ruthless, selfish money making process shrouded in disguises and falsehoods. A pox upon all who tell such lies both for what they do and for their bare faced hypocrisy.

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