Sunday, 25 September 2011

The Future of RECORDING the Past in England, Scotland, Ireland and the USA

The American Bar Association International Law Section and its Art and Cultural Heritage Law Committee will be attending an autumn meeting in October in Dublin. As part of this, it has been announced that it will be sponsoring a panel for ABA members "about the law of finds in England and Wales, Ireland, Scotland and the United States" called: The Future of Recording the Past in England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and the United States.

It will be chaired by US lawyers Patty Gerstenblith (DePaul University College of Law) and ACCG board member and paid dealers' lobbyist Peter K. Tompa (Bailey & Ehrenberg PLLC).
Gerstenblith will (presumably) be speaking about the law of finds in the United States and the future of Recording the Past there. England and Wales will be represented at the session by Roger Bland (British Museum), Scotland by Stuart Campbell (Treasure Trove Unit, Scottish National Heritage) and The republic of Ireland by Eamonn Kelly (Irish National Heritage).
The panel will bring together these experts to consider the benefits and disadvantages of the systems in each of these countries, the policy goals fostered by each, and the effect the current economic crisis on the implementation of these different systems.
It is odd then that the US is represented in the discussions not by an archaeologist or heritage professional, but a lawyer. The US of course unlike most of the rest of the world does not have a state-run national heritage institution (as per article 10 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention).

It is also notable that the theme is "recording the past", ie what to do with stuff already dug up, and not preventing it being dug up by artefact hunters in the first place. Why is it not being called "The Future of Preserving the past in..."? We recall that Roger Bland (and we know exactly what well-worn paths his presentation will follow) never addressed the questions posed in the PIA Forum piece, and nobody is holding their breath that he will do so behind closed doors in conference with the Americans in Dublin either.

I think a serious problem arises with defining the topic of discussion. In the US there are arrowhead hunters, pot diggers and others out there seeking ancient finds, but also dugup bygones. There is basically no national system in place to ensure that their findspots get properly recorded. Obviously setting up one would be very beneficial to everyone, even at this late stage when many lithic sites have been seriously compromised by collecting. Perhaps that is what this meeting will discuss, how to create such a system for the US as a model for other nations to follow? I have long been urging that if groups like the ACCG propose that the source countries of the artefacts they collect should adopt this allegedly 'ideal' system, then they should above all be promoting it in their own country. It seemed to me that whenever the question was raised, it was ignored. Could it be that this is a first step in initiating such a national programme in the US? Who will run it (the Smithsonian? Parks Service?) how much would it cost, and who will meet the bill and how?

The problem is however that one of the US party, Tompa represents three bodies (ACCG, the coin dealers' professional bodies, and the Cultural Property research Institute) which are involved in a wholly different area of the way "finds" are handled in the US, through the trade. The interest for the groups he represents of the legal systems in these other countries is how they allow artefacts to enter the market. The English system is the "ideal one" for US collectors and dealers because it allows large numbers of archaeological artefacts to go straight from the ground onto open sale with no restrictions (and the only constraints are entirely voluntary so easily ignored by large numbers of 'grey artefact hunters'). Patty Gerstenblith is now CPAC chair and it is from this point of view one suspects that she will be listening to the presentation of the so-called "ideal" model of the PAS from the individual with the most interest in present it as an ideal and cost effective system.

As for the future of the PAS, if England really believes it is doing its bit to protect the archaeological heritage, then it needs to be given an established place within the legislation and fixed funding of heritage protection and not as an ad hoc organization lurching from one financial handout to another. If its position was more secure it could afford to take a stronger line with artefact hunters who are not toeing the line.

Finally, I am reminded that it was from the hands of Peter Tompa as President of the ACCG that four long years ago that the British Museum's Dr Bland received his ACCG "Friends" award. Bearing in mind who else has received one and what for and what the ACCG stands for, it seems to me that this panel meeting would be a good occasion for him to give it back.

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