Sunday, 11 September 2011

When is Artefact Looting not Artefact Looting?

A 59-year-old man has been arrested in Tenerife for illegal possession of firearms and endangering life and property but also retaining cultural property for his own use (having at home "pre-Hispanic relics"). The affair started with a fire in a house in Tacoronte, and the fire services evacuated the inhabitants in serious condition to the University Hospital. In the burnt house were found many skulls and other human remains which however turned out not to be of recent origin, and authorities from the Historical Heritage Museum of Tenerife were called in. Meanwhile it was determined that the fire may have been started deliberately, and after he had recovered from his wounds the man was taken into custody under suspicion of having started it himself.

The antiquities collection included a ceramic "decorated anthropomorphic object" some complete and reconstructed vessels, as well as many rim fragments and handles. Lithic material was also found, a complete quern and fragments, basalt and obsidian manufacturing waste and tools. The bones had been placed on a shelf and all bore a number, other small items had been mounted on panels and hung on the wall with labels indicating the origin so that each of the panels corresponds to a different site. The objects were all in an excellent
condition. A number of firearms without proper paperwork were recovered from the ruins of the house, these too were of "old" type, presumably collectors' pieces.

The details here are not very clear, and the man is not named so it may be difficult to follow this one up. Leaving aside the circumstances of the fire, whether it was arson or an accident, it seems we have here a clear case of a collector falling foul of the law.

He is for example facing arms charges for having old weapons and ammunition in the house. But instead of antiquities preservation laws, he seems to be liable for facing charges under firearms legislation. Although I do not know about this specific case I know of similar cases in Poland. Metal detectorists here do not as a rule go out trashing archaeological sites, the vast majority of them use the machines to search for militaria of the World Wars period. Leaving aside the question of how legal that it (the law is ambiguous, I personally favour a liberal interpretation of the term "zabytek archeologiczny" here), these collectors run into problems when they find firearms and ammunition. Turning the latter into a collectable is a problem for them, hardly a year goes by without two or three Polish metal detectorists losing limbs or life attempting to disarm shells or whatever (of course the law stipulates reporting them, but then the sappers destroy them so there's nothing left to collect). The guns are a separate problem. Polish law does not distinguish between a rare find of a WW2 gun found where it had been hidden in 1941 by partisans in a swamp still wrapped in oilcloth and sometimes restorable to working order and a gun-shaped mass of corrosion products which is what is normally found on the battlefields which cover the country. There is no way these things can ever be used to injure anyone, but by Polish law, a gun is a gun. And to have one at home you have to have special papers, and all sorts of restrictions. Most collectors of gun-shaped rust clods don't bother getting (or for one reason or another are not eligible for) papers. The problem is however if they are investigated as a customer of a metal detectorist in one of the anti-looting 'stings' we sometimes have over here, the police seeing an "arsenal" of gun-shaped rust clods not infrequently says "a gun is a gun" and another collector loses his collection. Other policemen see "rust" and after checking that there is nothing actually usable, leave the collector alone. At the moment lobbying is going on to amend the law to remove the ambiguity.

A particularly stupid situation is on internet sales. If a finder puts up a complete gunshaped rust lump on an internet auction in Poland, it will get taken down. You can't sell complete army surplus WW2 mauser rifles for re-enacters on them either. But you can sell the parts - and the manuals telling you how to put them together. OK, the firing pin is filed off and the barrel blocked (or a solid replica) but a gun is not a gun when its in pieces.

Coming back to Tenerife, the newspaper seems to be suggesting we are dealing with not so much a "heap of artefacts on a table" collection, but a collection that has been ordered more along the lines of a private museum. If the bones were numbered, it suggests there was a catalogue somewhere. The finds were labelled with their exact provenance (to site at least) - though whether sticking them on boards was for decorative effect or a space-saver is unclear. It seems a reasonable assumption that this gentleman had gathered these finds himself. To what extent we are dealing here with a mere collector and to what extent an amateur archaeologist is not clear either. But if he should be considered among the latter, here we have the downside of national archaeological protection legislation. In some cases (and I am not saying that IS the case here) we may well have cases where somebody doing the type of fieldwalking and earthmoving-site-observation which is a perfectly legitimate activity in one part of the EU getting locked up for it in another. I am unfamiliar with the legislative situation in Tenerife, perhaps there was an ability to gain a permit to do such work in collaboration with the museum, perhaps not. I think however one possible interpretation of the sketchy facts about this case might lead us to discuss some of these issues in a wider forum. In Poland for example an amateur fieldwalker cannot get a permit to do archaeological fieldwork, because of the way the legislation governing their issue is written. I think this needs changing, because if fieldwork is going on and the fieldwalker is unable to legally inform the heritage services of this, there is no possibility for the latter to benefit from it or influence what is done how.

Anon (, 'Detenido en Tenerife un hombre que guardaba en su domicilio múltiples restos prehispánicos', Agencia Europa Press Islas Canarias, September 11, 2011

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