Sunday, 31 July 2011

Debate the Issues? Not Us M8

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Rather than entering any kind of informed dialogue with anyone (too much trouble), ACCG employee John Hooker lets coineys know the means by which the issues which preservationists raise about no-questions-asked collecting should be dealt with. Citing "that con-man Paul Barford" and "yellow journalist" Dr David Gill as examples he says:
While I do not recommend the average person to attempt this - it requires a thick skin and some training, it is quite easy to bait them into launching a scathing response, which, bit by bit, becomes more outrageous over time and allows more people to identify their fanatical and one-sided views. In dealing with their "second generation" followers who start their own blogs, I have been able to effectively silence them on two occasions. The trick is to catch them before they descend into the morass of their heroes. I have as yet, though, been unable to actually turn them. If and when I do, I will celebrate!
So basically the coiney understanding of the method of debate is "baiting" and "silencing". I guess we've seen the baiter from Moneta-L on here over the past week or so. Linda and Norman Kennedy and a bloke from Central Searchers are others. Metal detectorist Steve Taylor is trying to silence this blog now by legal threats, and promises to "come and see" me next week. Its the same tactic metal detectorists used with the PAS forum.

Anyway, it is nice to see an admission in black and white that the ACCG approach is no different from that of UK "metal detectorists", to try and shut down any venues where there is even the mildest criticism of the no-questions-asked antiquity trade. I will leave it up to the reader to decide which "two" blogs the ACCG claim to have shut down and to what degree trained black propaganda specialist John Hooker was in fact personally responsible.
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Saturday, 30 July 2011

Mexican Artefact Bound for Canada Seized

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April 12, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officers at Chicago's O'Hare Airport examined a small shipment manifested as containing an artefact and found it contained a Pre-Columbian artefact (a figurine of Nayarit type from West Mexico dating to the early first millennium A.D.) being sent to a Canadian buyer (unnamed) in British Columbia by an Indiana dealer (unnamed). It had been sold at an auction for $550 at an auction, but there was no record of its legal export from Mexico, and so it was seized as illegally obtained cultural property. According to Customs spokeswoman Cherise Miles, "the case is considered an active investigation".

Source: Customs agents retrieve Mexican artifact being shipped from Indiana, Northwest Indiana Times, July 28, 2011

“This is a very unpleasant world so watch where you’re going”

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On the ARCA blog, Catherine Schofield Sezgin briefly summarises a talk by Peter Watson (“The Medici Conspiracy” and “Sotheby’s the Inside Story”), about “some unpublished and unpublishable” details about recent culture (art and antiquity) crimes, in a world where "museums lie about provenance and experts are not experts". He touched on the usual subjects of art theft, forgery, the relationship with drug trafficking - adding a few tales of arson, coercion, murder all "underlining the idea that we are not dealing with nice people”. Watson said that the art trade "is a very unpleasant world so watch where you’re going”.

ACCG members indicted on customs charges

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Wayne G. Sayles had initially said (July 15th) that they would not be removing certain of their benefactors' names (coin dealers) from their website. Now he has written a text reversing this statement ('ACCG members indicted on customs charges' ACCG website July 27, 2011). It refers to "two members of the ACCG" who have "been indicted by a Federal Grand Jury in New York on criminal charges of customs violations involving the importation of Egyptian antiquities from Dubai". Note that he carefully does does not mention that among the items seized from the dealers were ancient coins.
"In response to this indictment, the ACCG Board of Directors has temporarily suspended the memberships of Alshdaifat and Khouli pending resolution of these charges. This action was taken by vote of the board in concert with paragraph IIIA of the guild bylaws. The board is hopeful that Mr. Alshdaifat and Mr. Khouli will be found innocent of these charges".
Now wait a second, what happened to innocent until proven guilty? Why is the ACCG not rushing to support their fellow dealers? Offering them help with legal fees? The time to suspend them is between a verdict (if unfavourable) and the appeal. Or does it mean that the ACCG in fact has no confidence in ("the board is hopeful...") the innocence of the dealers that have supported the ACCG since (I am sure Sayles will correct me if I am wrong) it began?Apparently the ACCG is aware that "It has been fairly common practice in years past to avoid describing coins in detail...". That seems to me to be the "collector's right" that the ACCG is intent on preserving in the case of coins imported from Cyprus, China, Italy and Greece. There should be more transparency in the coin trade.

Another Defendant Sentenced in the Four Corners Looting Case

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This is getting boringly repetitive. Of 26 defendants arrested in an investigation and sting in 2009, most have accepted plea deals. I think we are coming almost to the end of the series aren't we?

The next one up before the Judge (U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart) was Tad Kreth (32) who was initially charged with 16 felonies in federal court. He however pleaded guilty to one count of trafficking in stolen artefacts, and in exchange for that, the remaining charges against him were dismissed. Kreth reportedly "apologized for his actions" which does not of course render the sites involved in those 17 individual actions whole again, it does not assuage the damage looting does. He got 24 months probation.

Melinda Rogers, 'Another defendant sentenced in Four Corners artifact-trafficking case', Salt Lake Tribune 29th July 2011.

Turkey Ramps up the Fight Against Antiquity Smuggling

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A recent article in the Southeast European Times suggests that Turkey is embarking on an energetic looted cultural property restitution campaign which reflects a changing attitude, and a renewed appreciation within the country of the vast wealth of Anatolia's cultural heritage. Turkey's rise as a political and economic force on the world stage partly explains the campaign. With the shift in balance of power, Turkey now sees itself as a major regional power which increases their confidence in their ability to ask for things which perhaps they didn't have the confidence to ask for before.

The long-running dispute about the "Weary Herakles" has finally been brought to a resolution, but only after Turkey stepped up its attempts to get the looted half of the statue back a few years ago. Ankara is also targeting museums in Serbia, Germany, France, and half a dozen other countries, and has started playing tough.
In May, Germany's Pergamon Museum reluctantly agreed to return a 3,500 year-old Hittite sphinx after Turkish Culture Minister Ertugrul Gunay threatened to ban German teams from several archaeological digs in the country. Late last year, Ankara took the unprecedented step of revoking excavation licenses for three French and German teams that had been digging in Turkey for decades, in a move widely seen as a warning shot in the antiquities battle."This is a revolution," Gunay was quoted as saying in the New York Times following the sphinx agreement.
Nora Seni, director of the French Institute of Anatolian Studies, believes that a new mindset is emerging regarding Turkey's wealth of historic sites and artefacts.
"The Turkish state was created by differentiating itself from the Ottoman Empire and all that came before it -- there was a taboo about discussing Byzantine culture," she said. But the Justice and Development Party government that came to power in 2002 brought with it a neo-Ottomanism that opened the door both to Anatolia's pre-Islamic, as well as its Islamic past, she argues. "Turkey is taking hold of its heritage," she said.


Alexander Christie-Miller, 'Turkey ramps up fight against antiquities smuggling' Southeast European Times, 28/07/2011

Thursday, 28 July 2011

More on the "Grey Metal Detectorists" in Britain

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I found in Blogger's Spam Folder that a metal detectorist had sent this as a comment to my post on the three, not two, main groups of British artefact hunters:
"The greys will always be with us Paul, just take a look at the gray squirrel love them or hate them they are here to stay. The reds (or the archies) are being forced into little communities where they can frolic and play with there (sic) nuts all day. The problem is the majority of people love the greys, because they fill the museums with such wonderful things. If it wasn’t for the detecting community, the shelves would be bare, and just think the museums are paying peanuts for our finds, so it’s back to the squirrel theme again."
Well, there in all its naivity, we have it. I wrote of whites, blacks and greys, and here we have confirmation that for some members of the detecting community, it is the "greys" that are the core of the detecting community. Which is what I said. The problem is of course that "filling the shelves with wonderful things" is a short-term aim, having nothing to do with the sustainable management of the finite and fragile archaeological resource. This is an environmental issue, not one of "rights". The lumberjack does not have the "rights" to every and any tree in the land that takes his fancy, even if he makes the "shelves" to put the Treasures on.

The archaeologist is rendered in this vision of the study of the past into isolated groups of petitioners, ignored by a treasure-hungry public. It's worth thinking about that a moment, is that not exactly where the brand of outreach of the PAS is taking archaeology?

Metal detector users can plunder their way across the countryside, dealing with archaeological sites and finds which cross their path as they like, keep it, sell it, throw it away EXCEPT if they come across certain kinds of object or groups of object which the nation would like to look after. Despite their considerable freedoms to do what they do, not enjoyed by the majority of their fellows in the civilized world, even then their "rights" to the nation's archaeological heritage are not restricted. The state (and that means the British public) forks out for the privilege of getting back from the metal detectorist that which an inquest has determined belongs to the state. it is therefore the height of impudence for the metal detectorist to protest that they are getting "peanuts" as compensation for reporting giving up what does not legally belong to them.

And then they have the blatant impudence to say its "not about the money", and "we don't sell finds" when the Treasure process is nothing but selling finds back to the stakeholders on a massive scale. Certainly the cost to the British public of current policies on artefact hunting - even if we just look at the direct and indirect costs of the treasure process alone, certainly not "peanuts".

Added to that, its all done in secret, and heaven forbid that anyone should start discussing artefact hunting in more depth than merely patting the practitioners on the head and saying "carry on chaps, you are doing a wonderful job". They are not, they are depleting Britain's archaeological record, and are part of a global process of destruction of the archaeological record as a source of collectables and other commodities for personal entertainment and profit. The PAS will not tell the public that, they never have and under the present leadership they almost certainly never will. The other British archaeological bodies mumble in the background about their mild criticisms not referring to the "responsible detectorists [who are doing a grand job]". When a few heads appear above a parapet and say "yes, but..." what happens? Well over in Wales is an archaeologist who says such people are - what was the professional terminology he is reported to have used? Oh yes, "mouthy twat". The PAS pretends they've never actually read a word I've written, so like the House of Cards they are, they use the Francis Urquhart ploy: "You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment". No, no they cannot, it's not difficult to see why, but then, what in blazes are they paid for if not to foster public debate about portable antiquity issues?

So what is Britain going to do? Carry on ignoring the problems, pretend they do not exist? Well, there certainly seems no inkling that at the moment anyone is going to start discussing them in any adequate manner. We saw David Gill's forum piece in a London academic journal a few months ago. He raised the fundamental issue of the effect of current policies and "mitigation" strategies on the preservation of the archaeological record. What happened? One archaeologist said there was "no problem" (Moshenska), one metal detectorist (Austin) told archaeologists in effect to "bog off and leave us alone", but most telling of all, the PAS refused to take part in the debate. The PAS are happy to talk to the press: "ooo, ahh, wotta-lotta-nice-stuff" but if they are ever required to go a step beyond that, consistently fall strangely and uncomfortably silent. When the issue is pressed (for example on discussion forums or in blogs like this one), the tekkies start their disruptive tactics, trying to shout down the 'opposition' (conservationists), like getting the forums and blogs closed down, and attempting to deflect discussion onto other side-topics. Then the sensitive bunny hugging professional archaeologists (like on the CBA's Britarch archaeological discussion list) get frightened that tekkies are raising their voices and being badly-behaved and urge critics to stop and "leave them alone" (thus precisely echoing Austin's admonitions). There is no robustly frank, open and wide-ranging public debate between the two main sides of these issues in Britain, even though the PAS has been in operation, doing "outreach" in "portable antiquity matters" for thirteen years now.

That basically seems to me to be the current state of the "metal Detecting Debate" in Britain today. Archaeology and resource conservation find themselves in a weak position, unable to stand up for or even decide (bah! even debate) what should be done to resolve these issues. The first step is to recognise (or perhaps more accurately, admit) that these issues exist. Just getting that far - for some reason - seems to involves a major intellectual effort on the part of the British archaeological community and heritage professionals.

Vignette: British archaeologist trying to avoid discussing "metal detecting". Stand up, man!

Fighting Illicit Traffic of Cultural Property in South-East Europe

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"This 15 minutes video, realized by the UNESCO Office in Venice, aims at raising public awareness on the fight against the illicit traffic of cultural property in South-East Europe. While all the countries from the region have ratified the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, many archaeological sites, including underwater sites, museums, galleries or places of worship, continue nowadays to be exposed to theft and illicit trade. Mobilizing public opinion, sharing information and good practices through regional and international cooperation, is now of necessity".



A lot here though about "setting wrongs right" by repatriation, while only below the surface was the theme of fighting the wrong itself, which is the no-questions-asked antiquities market and the criminal activities that it shields and feeds from and the attitudes that lay behind and support it. Nice to see some of the cases and things discussed in this blog appearing in the film.

UPDATE Jan 2012:
They seem to have moved the original film. It is currently here
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v0k5MqzvtZc&feature=player_embedded#!:


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Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Archaeological Looters Go Free, Drilling Protester Gets Two Years

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In Utah, climate-change activist Tim DeChristopher a 29-year-old former University of Utah (called Bidder 70 by his supporters), is on his way to prison. He was convicted in March by a Salt Lake City jury of illegally bidding on oil and gas leases during a December 2008 federal auction when he had no intention of paying for them. He said that he felt he had to do something to focus attention on the frenzy during the last days of the Bush administration to sell off public lands for energy development that never should have been on the auction block and to stop expanded drilling on public lands.
DeChristopher said he did not have a clear plan when he turned up at the auction in Salt Lake City in December 2008. "At the time I went in with a very direct action kind of mindset thinking that if I can cause enough delay, stop this action and keep oil in the ground, then that would be worth it," he said. He had come straight from writing one of his finals, unshaven and in an old down jacket. "I certainly didn't look like anyone who was there," he said. "I didn't pretend to be an oil executive or anything." Officials from the federal Bureau of Land Management asked if he wanted to bid. DeChristopher said yes, still thinking at that point that he just wanted to shout something or cause a disruption. But by the time the auction was over, DeChristopher had driven up prices on some parcels and made winning bids on 14 pieces of land – some of it near national parks. He knew he had no money to pay for it.
Quite clearly, what DeChristopher did was illegal. While there may be many differences in opinion about anthropogenic climate change and access to federal lands, it is clear that the protester did no great harm to anyone and is no threat. In his trial, U.S. District Judge Dee Benson refused to allow DeChristopher to argue that he was invoking civil disobedience to change what he sees as government negligence. Today he was sentenced to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine. This seems vindictive given that:
Some of the leases he won included lands around Utah’s national parks that were later ruled in federal court to be inappropriate for oil and gas drilling. The court ruled the sale hijacked by DeChristopher was illegal and many of the parcels were withdrawn from future auctions.

On the other side of the federal land-use issue, San Juan County officials illegally removed BLM signs limiting federal land, Rep. Mike Noel encouraged 300 ATV riders to tear up southern Utah’s off-limits Paria River, and pot hunters who looted ancient relic sites and sold priceless artifacts for profit received probation for numerous felony convictions.
So it seems that in Utah, if you break the laws protecting the archaeological resource and loot archaeological sites and violate ancient burial grounds, you get to walk free. The judicial system over there apparently sees little reason to uphold the legislation protecting the historic environment. If you try to do something to stop the degradation of the natural environment, you go to prison.

Suzanne Goldenberg,'US eco-activist jailed for two years', The Guardian, 27 July 2011.

Opinion, 'A Just Sentence' Salt Lake Tribune Jul 27th 2011.

Opinion, 'Justice Denied', Salt Lake Tribune Jul 27th 2011.

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When Should we STOP? Another Tekkie Finds More Old Coins in a Pot - Whoopee.

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More than 3,000 copper alloy Roman coins dating from the 3rd Century have been discovered in a pot buried in a field in Montgomery, Powys a few miles away from the Roman fort of Fforden. Nine hundred coins were pulled out of the ground by Adrian Simmons, a member of Welshpool's "Oldford Force Team metal detecting club" in June before he thought of reporting it. The Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust (CPAT) "helped unearth the coins" according to the news report. That was nice of them.

The archaeologists read from their usual prepared text used on such occasions: Chris Martin, regional archaeologist at the trust, said: "We are very excited about this discovery and are very grateful to Mr Simmons for acting so responsibly". The Trust stuck for the usual patronising news titbit added that the discovery "had the potential to reveal more about Roman life in mid Wales in the late 3rd Century". More likely it will tell us more about the potential for CPAT to publish a coin hoard with all the details required by coiney researchers, like die link information and so on. This is apparently another of those complexes of finds ripped out of a barely-seen context from below plough level on an otherwise unthreatened site (tell me I am wrong CPAT). So what was the archaeological context of the burial of this hoard then? How can it begin to tell anyone anything about "life in the third century" without knowing that? Do we really need yet another Roman hoard of this type dug out from below ploughsoil? What are we going to do with them all? How many more groups of third century coins stuffed in pots in western Britain do we need and what for? When does the "information" obtained begin to repeat itself with every hoard we reward someone to take out of the archaeological record now? When are we going to see full publication of the thousands (literally) of such hoards we already have, courtesy of PAS' "partners" digging them all out of their burial contexts left right and centre without being asked? When will we be able to take stock of all the information the treasure Act has produced on Roman coins in the province in the third century, so we know when to stop? When will we decide it is time to leave some in the ground for future generations of scholars who may have entirely different questions from us that need to be addressed at the time of their extraction? When are we going to make the transition between "let them dig it all up now as fast as we can" and sustainable management of this resource, and what part will PAS play in that?

As for the detectorist, pictured by the BBC for some reason with his dad Reg, that is presumably the proprietor of Adrian Simmons Coins & Antiques, Verlon Close, Montgomery, Powys ("Antiques, bricks, coins, construction products, furniture, tiles and more"). If the hoard is disclaimed, collectors might consider getting in touch with him, buying their batch and "documenting" bits of the hoard for the archies, or whatever they do with the coins they buy.

Source: '3,000 Roman 3rd Century coins found in Montgomery field', BBC News, 27 July 2011

hat tip to David Gill.
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UPDATE 28 Jul 2011: More information here: Kathryn Williams, 'Hoard of Roman coins found in Powys field', Western Mail, Jul 28 2011.



PAS Partnership: Mysterious Welshman Comments on Montgomery Hoard

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Comments on: "Another Tekkie Finds More Old Coins in a Pot - Whoopee"

The comments below were sent to the post above on the Montgomery Hoard. I've moved the post itself (because I got fed up with seeing it stuck at the top of the 'popular posts' sidebar), but the comment seems worth keeping. Who is this person, writing so authoritatively on the find? Why does he not wish to reveal his identity? Read the comments and think about it.


Rick St Hilaire on the "Windsor Antiquities Bust"

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David Gill noticed it first, but I thought I'd mention it here too. Rick St Hilaire (one of the few web-active US cultural property lawyers who is not cheerleading for the Dark Side) has on his excellent blog a series of posts this month on the "Windsor Antiquities Bust" in the US. These posts provide a lot of interesting details:

Saturday, July 16, 2011, 'Antiquities Conspirators Charged';

Monday, July 18, 2011, 'A Closer Look at the Case Against Moussa “Morris” Khouli and the Greco-Roman Coffin'

Saturday, July 23, 2011, 'Bail Set, Lawyers File Appearances in Khouli Antiquities Smuggling Case' (it is also worth looking up Khouli's lawyer Gerald Shargel, who also has a Wikipedia page);

Wednesday, July 27, 2011, 'Salem Alshdaifat and his company, Holyland Numismatics'.

It now turns out that Morris Khouli was arrested back in 2009 charged with smuggling cultural property into the United States.
But federal prosecutors wanted Khouli as an informant. A previously sealed prosecution letter to the court dated October 19, 2009 explains: “Khouli has expressed an interest in cooperating proactively against others who deal in stolen cultural property . . . These crimes are difficult to detect and prove because they are committed by falsifying importation documents and provenances. Khouli’s cooperation is therefore of great value to the government and will not only contribute to the investigation of others who smuggle and deal in stolen cultural property, but will enable the United States government to seize and repatriate stolen cultural property to the countries that own the property under applicable treaties and patrimony laws.”
So, can we expect more arrests to result from this investigation, apart from the politically useful repatriations? It is interesting to note that among the items seized from Khouli's store included "thousands of ancient coins valued at $1 million". Where did these coins come from, and what was their intended destination? Did he only supply individual collectors, or did he supply US dealers with coins for example? Has HSI managed to gather useful intelligence on dodgy activity of US coineys from Khouli? Time will tell. :>)

Vignette: A Manhattan Art & Antique Center vendor booth believed to belong to Mousa Khouli, who has recently been charged with smuggling Egyptian antiquities (Rob Bennett for The Wall Street Journal).

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A Coiney's "Way Forward"

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A few days ago I was being berated in the comments to my blog because I do not speak in awed terms about the intellectual ability of those that can only understand the past by building huge collections of decontextualised ancient artefacts. Then I found the collector who'd come here ostensibly to engage in "dialogue" subsequently made a post over on Moneta-L further demonstrating the same lack of capacity for independent thought on the wider context of the issues connected with the collecting of portable antiquities. Awkward though scattering the discussion may be, I cannot answer over there as my views are excluded from that forum. So I’ll have to cover what he said there here. I’ll do it in three more shorter posts so as not to overload the attention span of anybody from over there that may care to try and read it.

Let’s start at the end, after giving a very object-centred account of what he believes, Chris Rose (Chris Exx) ends up by saying that collectors may “put ACCG in our wills”. The ACCG is currently doing nothing other than fighting US government regulation of the antiquities market. Frankly I do not think they will be able to keep it up long enough to benefit in anybody’s will. Certainly these people are doing nothing good for the trade, collecting and most of all efforts to preserve the archaeological record from commercial looting.

More to the point the writer suggests somewhat simplistically that since “the enemy” is clearly those dastardly ivory tower “radical archaeologists”:
no university can expect a bequest from me if it has a department that stands against our hobby. Maybe we can endow chairs of Numismatics at prestigious universities and engage archeology on its own ground”.
Excellent idea. But first, let us consider where in the structure of the average prestigious university this chair would be situated. In the Department of Anthropology, like archaeology often is? I cannot see much in current coineyism that is particularly asociated with an anthropological approach. Maybe in the department of humanities, perhaps as part of Classical philology? Or should it be in the science department? Would it be numismatics in general, or is Mr Exx thinking of some kind of dugup numismatology? Obviously the study of European Thaler and other milled coinage is somewhat different from the problems involved in the conflict between ancient coins as collectable geegaws and a component of archaeological information.

Secondly, in order to engage archaeology "on its own ground", this academic discipline of dugup numismatology would have to show an independent methodology and body of theory which seems on the whole to still be lacking and what there is is derivative. So in order to counter (or work with) archaeology as an independent discipline, it would have to develop one, but of course that is in part the function of academic institutions. It would have to produce textbooks for teaching applied numismatics. I think given the current attitudes within the academic milieu, very soon questions of professional ethics of this discipline will begin to arise, as we have seen for example in archaeology and ethnography. This can only be a good thing, with numismatic scholars (real ones) advocating more ethical means of obtaining the raw material for their research – which hopefully will eventually come round to realising that context, pattern and associations of deposition are sources of information about many aspects of the past which is lost by heap-of-coins-on-a-table typological approaches.

More to the point, maybe Chris Exx/Rose can actually point to a single university department (can be anywhere in the world, not just the USA) that actually „stands against our hobby”. The problem is surely NOT “the hobby” but the way hobbyists currently do it. While there may be many that advocate change and bringing the collecting of certain categories of coins (and dugup artefacts generally) out of the nineteenth century, I am not sure who among them are producing material advocating complete abolition of coin collecting. But maybe Mr Exx knows differently.

I'd also like to ask whether it is just criticism of the current form of the dugup coin trade which can be countered by founding chairs of dugup numismatology. Maybe we need chairs of Shabtiology and Scarabology? Those collecting Roman brooches from the dealers with Balkan artefacts might like to endow a chair of Classical Fibulology. Why not?

(More on Moneta-L # 100262 to follow)

On the "Social Usefulness" of Collecting Dug-Up Artefacts Plundered from the Foreign Archaeological Record

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Dugup collector Steve Exx (Steve Rose, a computer software engineer from over the US Northwest coast) has a few things to say about the context of collecting. One gem of coiney wisdom he imparts to his coiney pals making a post over on Moneta-L is:
I think collecting is the most socially useful destination for most ancient coins. Museums and public collections are fine but they don't have the money or the focus to catalog and make available more than a small fraction of the coins we document and preserve. Protecting the world by not touching it and not learning from it at all is a strangely anti-intellectual and anti-science.
How about protecting it so it can be used as a resource for learning from? Trashing archaeological sites just to get a few collectable geegaws out of them is not a particularly "scientific" and certainly not sustainable way of using a fragile and finite and increasingly scarce resource. Yet this is precisely what these object-fetishist collectors are advocating. We see here the consequences of the coiney once again seeing the world purely in terms of "coins" (material objects), which does seem an exceptionally blinkered way to look at the past and the way we can find out about it. So he talks of the "most socially useful destination" for archaeological artefacts, without recognising that the most socially useful place for them is where they can be used for the benefit of all of society through proper archaeological investigation and holistic documentation of the site that contains them and dissemination of the results, rather than crudely mining it for collectable geegaws so a few selfish individuals can pore over what is left from the destruction of that site by looters.

The anti-museum stance is surprising, because of course what these collectors are trying to do in effect is to create a museum in the place where they keep their collection. But look at the reason given. Museums "don't have the money or the focus to catalog and make available more than a small fraction of the coins we document and preserve". I've asked before but did not get an answer; what is meant here by "making available" and to whom which of these coins? I've seen it myself, what the average member of the public does when faced with a showcase with serried rows of hundreds and hundreds of Roman coins ordered by emperor and denomination with a representative range of obverses and reverses... and all with findspots given. He hurries past to the lead coffins. That is how they were displayed in the museum of my childhood. A long row of cases that hardly anyone spent more than ten seconds peering into.

The display of part of the huge numismatic collection of the Alpha Bank in Athens looks pretty palatable from this photo.


There are some selected coins in their cases at a level where you can really get your nose against the glass. And instead of just rows and rows of tiny grubby metal discs with pictures and writing on them, there are information boards telling the viewer what each individual one means. How many of them can the average visitor look at in an average visit? In which case, what more than that number doubled for the real enthusiast, should be being "made accessible' to the average visitor? What more do they need? I do not accept the validity of mr Exx's statement that just because every museum in the country has on display every single coin in its collection, it is doing a bad job. I would agree that if its accession registers are not as detailed as they should be, that there is room for improvement. I do not accept even then that the only answer (or even one of the answers) is to scrap those collections and let the whole lot rest in private hands.

Turning that sentence around, what Exx is saying is that private collectors have the money and focus to "catalog and make available" a considerably greater number of coins than museums. So where are in fact these catalogues? Do we have a catalogue of, just to take a random example or two, the Peter Tompa collection of Greek coins and Hungarian denarii, the Steve Exx collection-of-whatever-it-is-he-collects? No. (And the only way I am aware of that Peter Tompa makes his coins "available' is donating them to the ACCG benefit auction). Some collectors have websites (but not all of them can be considered as any form of publication)- dealers do too. Some collectors have published a group of coins they have. Some have published monographs of a specific type or series, or specific mints, or whatever. But the ACCG claims there are 50 000 collectors of dugup ancient coins in the US alone, the Germans estimated they had 250 000 of them. So where are all these tens of thousands of studies of the decontextualised coins these people have collected over the years? How many actual proper studies (ones still considered to be of value today) have been generated by the present generation of collectors? Let us say over the past thirty years (1981-2011)? And how many coins have passed through the no-questions-asked US and German markets in that period?

Where is the actual evidence that no-questions-asked collectors actually ARE "documenting and preserving" their coins on a standard on a par with the average museum in the US and Germany? I am thinking here particularly of the Fundmunzen project, we have something similar for Poland (both Roman and Early Medieval coin finds). Collectors participate, but are not the initiators of these projects. But of course these catalogues are catalogues of coins with findspots, not the decontextualised "another coin of Maxentius with a xxx reverse, Fortescue and Scroggins 917" of the stamp-collector type of "numismatist".

How "socially useful" is it making personal and ephemeral collections of objects gained from the trashing of archaeological sites and clandestinely removed from the country of origin? (collectors always put the word STOLEN in inverted commas, but I do not see why; the law is the law whether they like it or not.) Is not the process itself, or the blinkered object-fetishist nineteenth century way in which most collectors of ancient dugups do it is in itself clearly an activity which is less "socially useful" than antisocial, selfish and "anti-science". In the way it is done today it is exactly the equivalent of the no-questions-asked collectors of geegaws made of freshly-'harvested' elephant ivory of an earlier post here, and poses exactly the same conservationist problem. Let the collectors of freshly "surfaced" dugup artefacts show it is otherwise.

I wonder whether Mr Exx feels that pot-digging on ancient Native American settlement sites and burial grounds in his home area or down in the Four Corners area is an equally "socially useful destination" of the plundered artefacts and "injun" skulls? Or is that somehow "different" from buying the proceeds of other people's diggings on V-Coins or eBay?
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Coineys and Archaeologists: one View

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Coiney Chris Exx wanted "dialogue" about [dugup coin] collecting and how to stop it being denigrated by conservationists. In the recognition that "cultural artifacts are a common resource and should not be gathered en masse without consideration of all interested parties" he says in a post made over on Moneta-L that he would be willing to:
pay a surcharge for an export license for coins I buy assuming that this could be done efficiently and with minimal corruption. I would pay a surcharge to support archeology if they would stop calling for the destruction of our hobby. Certain limited archaeologically rich areas should be set aside and protected in the same way as we preserve natural parks
Yipes. He seems to be suggesting he quite happily buys coins without receiving an export licence now. So where do these coins come from? Surely that is the issue the responsible (thinking) collector of such things should be concerned about. It is odd that he seems to think that archaeology might be bribed into not saying anything about the manner in which the no-questions-asked market works to the detriment of the archaeological record and the cultural heritage. As I have said before (most recently two posts above this but on a number of cases earlier), I really think this "calling for the destruction of our hobby" trope is a collector's myth, an identity-forming mantra. So, keep your money Mr Exx, just collect responsibly.

What does it mean when he suggests that "Certain limited archaeologically rich areas should be set aside and protected in the same way as we preserve natural parks"? First of all, "we" preserve national parks? Leaving aside the question of how well the US protects the archaeological resources in their national parks and on public land in general, is Mr Exx actually suggesting that only the US is enlightened enough to have come up with such an idea as protecting land in this form? Whether or not that is the case, certainly there are "Certain limited archaeologically rich areas" which already ARE set aside and protected. The problem is that looters get in there too. When collectors like Mr Exx are buying coins with no paperwork saying where they are from, then there is a good chance that some of the coins mixed in the stocks of many dealers come in part from just such commercial "enterprise". Of course that is totally against the codes of practice and ethics of the coin dealers (see the ACCG Code of ethics, or the V-coins one), but if there is no real documentation of where ANY of the coins they sell comes from to speak of, how on earth is anyone to know? Basically it is a postulate not worth the paper its written on, isn't it?

Mr Exx goes on:
But, based on what I read on the ACCG site, it seems that American archeology (at least) demands the complete destruction of our hobby.
Well, it was Mr Exx who was castigating me the other day for making robust comments about the ability of collectors of dugup artefacts like coins to do any real exploration of any of the issues. Why on earth would he form a judgement based on what the ACCG presents without going to any of the material produced by those American archaeologists? Did Mr Exx even make the effort to look? Now, I admit it is a fact that the Archaeological Institute of America webpage actually has absolutely nothing which I could see on that topic. That is a serious omission which I admit I find hard to understand in the circumstances. I also wrote two or three days days ago to Sebastian Heath asking where I can see an up to date policy statement of the AIA on this matter, but so far I have received no reply. Nevertheless before coming out with a statement like that, it behoves the writer to at least make the effort and go a little further than one coiney webpage in formulating an opinion. It is this superficiality of the coiney milieu as a whole which I find so annoying.

Certainly, whatever its policies are/were/will be, it would be very interesting indeed to see a debate between US and UK archaeologists on this topic, hardline anti-collectors in the US (if such really exist) and hardline pro-metal detectorists from the PAS. When Roger Bland was in the States twice, I think I am right in saying that he only gave a presentation to the coineys, not the archaeological establishment, which is a shame.

UPDATE 30th July:
Sebastian Heath has not deigned to reply, from which I think we can take it that the AIA currently has no prepared statement on this issue. But that is their problem, not mine.

One US Coiney on the Politics of Dugup Coin Collecting

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Over on Moneta-L dialogue about coin collecting took a political turn the other day with collector Chris Exx (a former commentator on this blog) holding forth about US foreign policy. Observing in general, "the US regularly "ignores the concerns" of countries all over the world" (he said it, not me), he suggests that "it is inconsistent for the US to suddenly gain an extreme anti-colonial conscience concerning coins that is diametrically opposed to its everyday actions". Antiquity collectors of all types love playing the victim, and so he asks plaintively of his homeland: "Why is it that we are being used to expatiate its sins?" Well, as I have noted here many times, the United States does not exactly bust a gut to honour its commitments under the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Cultural Property. In fact the efforts made are pretty minimal compared to the scale of the US trade in archaeological artefacts. The CCPIA sees to that. But its nice to see that a collector is aware that the attitude to which dealers and collectors subscribe is nothing more nor less than a colonialist one.

Mr Exx adds: "I thought collecting ancient coins was the hobby of kings. Where are the rich and powerful ancient collectors to protect our interests as so many other interests are protected?" I suspect the answer to that is that rich and powerful collectors do not have to worry so much about minor things like import restrictions. They have their ways around them no doubt, and if they do not work, their lawyers. The people who are obviously doing a lot to "protect interests" are rich and powerful US antiquity dealers with their political lobbying and other activities.

Then, diappointingly, Mr Exx comes out with the US coineys' "dirty brown untrustworthy un-American foreigners" trope:
Furthermore, it is extremely unlikely that anybody would benefit in most source countries [from curbing illegal exports of antiquities - PMB] outside of a corrupt cabal. And would the antiquities actually be safe? For example: Send antiquities back to the Egyptian government? WHAT Egyptian government? It is totally in flux. And what happens when an extremist party takes control and decides that these objects are the work of the devil and destroys them? Wonderful gigantic Buddhist statues were destroyed in Afghanistan through the same logic. This is not to say that Egypt or Afghanistan or any other country should not have any antiquities. But they are safest distributed throughout the world where they are not totally subject to local conditions. These antiquities represent the patrimony of all of us and should be available to everyone, not solely to the random modern government that happens to currently control an area that they MAY have come from.
Well, we seem to have heard that lot somewhere before. Let's just take ONE step backwards. There are laws about these things. The US collector may not like Egypt having its own laws, but it does. The international community respects the right of sovereign states to declare what material culture it likes its cultural property (1970 UNESCO Convention Article 1) and agrees in that Convention (to which the US is also a state party, though you'd never believe it) to respect those laws.

There are of course no corrupt cabals in the United States, are there? But we "all know" that almost every other country, all those source countries of antiquities the American collectors imagine they have "collectors' rights" over in South and Central America, Africa, Asia and the warmer bits of Europe, well they all do don't they? It must be true, ACCG's Peter Tompa's blog is full of "evidence" of that.

For Mr Exx, far more important than the rights and wrongs of buying stolen and smuggled artefacts (and the archaeological destruction and cultural depletion these acts represent) would seem to be that if they were elsewhere than in his personal ephemeral antiquity collection in his home: "would the antiquities actually be safe?" Again an expression of object fetishisation. This is a distortion of the the Universal Museum argument isn't it? (It was Phillipe de Montebello who popularised the "they are safest distributed throughout the world where they are not totally subject to local conditions" argument.) But that refers to the protection offered by institutions, and not private collectors.

Exx of course jumps on the extempore opportunity to mention Egypt. Are artefacts in Egypt safe? I'd say in general they are a good deal safer than in a cupboard in Mr Exx's back bedroom. Of course a few months ago when Egypt's government and military were being backed up by lots and lots of US aid, Mr Exx probably he'd have chosen a different example. He seems to have an inordinate faith that the USA will always be the same as today, a transatlantic Thousand Year Empire. But it's his own coiney advocates, ACCG's Dave Welsh for example who are pugnaciously proclaiming that come the Glorious People's Revolution, bureaucrats of the current ruling regime ought to be "strung up on the lamposts down Constitution Avenue". (Religious fundamentalism is not so far to seek in his own country too; the Bible forbids the making of graven images for Christians and Jews alike, just as the tenets of Islam; how long are Americans going to continue to ignore that?)

These antiquities represent the patrimony of all of us and should be available to everyone, not solely to the random modern government that happens to currently control an area that they MAY have come from.
Whoah, which antiquities? Those brought back from the Grand Tour in deep yesteryear, or freshly "surfaced" items bought on the no-questions-asked market in the past few years? There is a vast difference here.

In any case, they are not "available" to anyone locked in a cupboard in Chris Exx's back bedroom, are they? Frankly, I think if he has the disposable income to buy antiquities at all, Mr Exx is probably far better placed financially and socially to hop on a plane to Cairo to have all sorts of antiquities "available" to him in collections there, than the average inhabitant of Fustat to get a visa to the USA, hop on a plane, and see some antiquity taken away clandestinely from Egypt and stuck in a showcase in the Museum of Antiquities in Mr Exx's home town, or in Mr Exx's back bedroom cupboard.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Another US 'Antique' Smuggling Case: Hardly "A museum by any other name"

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There is another upcoming case now before a New York court which has very close, and telling, analogies with the smuggling and no-questions-asked trade in antiquities. This one involves not dugup artefacts, but the import of ethnographic artefacts from Africa as "tribal art". Let us start by looking at Julian Baggini's photostream on Flickr. There you will find a photo taken 17th January 2011 of the interior of a Philadelphia shop which he titles "A museum by any other name". Behind a crumbling store-front and advertised by its owner as "the most unusual shop in Philadelphia", Victor Gordon Enterprises is full of ethnographic-type material recently imported from (among other places maybe) western and central Africa. Here's what Bagini writes there about it:
It's mostly an extraordinary collection of genuine, old African art, with a sideline in vintage clock sales and repair. Wandering around its packed space, I thought of how the same artifacts, in a museum setting, would have people queuing and paying to see them. [...] in fact, the owner tells me the gems of the collection are going to become a museum collection soon.
This is the typical story isn't it? This is a shop, but its owner claims he's some kind of scholarly philanthropist "protecting the objects" in his "collection" and "making them available to the public". So how "old" are these items, and under what circumstances were they exported? Many of the states on the west coast of Africa have export regulations covering "old" artworks and ethnographic material (though not so-called 'airport art', made for the tourist market).

Victor Gordon Enterprises is in the news today as the art dealer is alleged to have been involved in an ivory smuggling enterprise which has been under Federal investigation for five years. The ivory was reportedly smuggled from or through Cameroon, Gabon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda, US officials said.



Nathan Gorenstein and Drew Singer, 'Philadelphia business imported illegal ivory carvings, prosecutors say', The Philadelphia Inquirer, Jul. 26, 2011.

Maryclaire Dale (Associated Press), 'Staggering amount of ivory smuggled into US', 3news.co.nz, 27 Jul 2011. (similar by same author: Feds: Pa. shop-owner smuggled ton of banned ivory)

Michael Hinkelman, 'Philadelphia man charged in major ivory trafficking probe', Philadelphia Daily News, Jul. 26, 2011.

The art dealer, Victor Gordon (68), was arrested Tuesday 26th July by federal agents and charged with the illegal importation and sale of African elephant ivory. Authorities said the alleged illegal smuggling took place from May 2006 to April 2009. In the course of the investigation, approximately one ton of ivory objects was seized, apparently one of the largest such seizures on record. Altogether, nearly 460 tusks and carvings of ivory from the endangered African elephant were seized in the Philadelphia area in 2009 and 2010, the indictment said. "The amount of elephant ivory allegedly plundered in this case is staggering and highlights the seriousness of the charged crimes," Loretta E. Lynch, the U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn is quoted as saying. US officials could not immediately estimate how many elephants allegedly had been slaughtered allegedly at art dealer Gordon's instigation. The art dealer was arraigned in federal magistrate court in Brooklyn and charged with conspiracy, smuggling and illegally importing ivory. Gordon pleaded not guilty and was released on $1 million bond secured by two properties he owns.
Authorities said Gordon paid an unidentified co-conspirator thousands of dollars to travel to Africa to purchase raw elephant ivory and have it carved to his specifications. He allegedly provided the co-conspirator with photographs and other depictions of ivory carvings to serve as templates for ivory carvers in Africa and directed the co-conspirator to stain or dye the ivory so the specimens would appear old. Gordon then planned and financed the illegal importation of the ivory from Africa to the U.S. through New York's JFK International Airport and sold the carvings to customers at his Philadelphia store, authorities maintain.
Trade in elephant ivory is forbidden by U.S. law and international convention, so most of the carvings seized from Gordon and his customers were passed off as century-old antiques from "old collections", which the current law allows to be sold legally in the US.
The carvings on display Tuesday in Philadelphia ranged from intricate designs incised on 4-foot-long tusks to small figurines a few inches high. They were laid out by Fish and Wildlife agents just as Gordon surrendered to federal agents in New York City. The carvings will be permanently confiscated by the government if Gordon is convicted. The carvings imitate traditional African art, said Edward Grace, deputy chief of the agency's Office of Law Enforcement. Many of the items on display were sophisticated, expressive art, while other items were more kitschy.


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent Salvatore Amato told reporters that the carvings had been smuggled into the United States by misrepresenting them as something else to avoid customs officers examining the shipments too closely. The ivory had been disguised by coating the objects with material to make them appear to be made of wood or clay, giving the investigation the code name "Operation Scratch Off". The current investigation was launched by the discovery of one such shipment by federal agents in 2006. Since then, eight people in New York have pleaded guilty or been convicted in the case.
During two raids in 2009, 428 ivory tusks and carvings were seized in Philadelphia. Other items were taken from customers of Gordon's shop. Carvings were seized outside New York City, in Bryn Mawr, and in Missouri, Kansas and Florida, among other locations.
Gordon's lawyer, Daniel-Paul Alva is reported as having said that "Gordon is a legitimate collector and dealer of ivory tusks who has documentation to show he was collecting them in the hopes of leaving them to a museum and who had no knowledge that any of them came from illegal poaching".

This, apart from the fact that it follows within a few weeks from the "Windsor Antiquities Bust" court case in the same jurisdiction, is an interesting case. Like the other one, it involves the stopping of a shipment of objects into the USA under what is reported to be an incorrect and misleading description, the passing of restricted goods off as something else. Like the "Windsor" case, it seems the Federal authorities went after the customers who bought the items no-questions-asked (buyers of 'unpapered' imported antiquities and coins beware, it could be you next). It is interesting that an attempt is being made to see the customer as in some way guilty of aiding and abetting, and while no mention is made (here, yet) of any of the customers being arrested and charged, at least it seems they had their collectables investigated and seized. Good for the investigating authorities, keep it up and collectors will think twice before buying things from dodgy dealers who do not offer proper paperwork with the purchased item. Mr Gordon says he has paperwork for his goods, and it will be interesting to see what kind when he brings it before the court. I wonder how many US dugup artefact dealers could match it?

Finally I sincerley hope that when Mr Gordon appears in court - whatever the verdict - there is a substantial picket of noisy animal welfare campaigners and conservationists outside the courtroom drawing attention to the horrors of ivory poaching and the ivory trade.

See in a separate post below: "Why it Matters"


Vignette: ivory "art" like that sold by Victor Gordon Enterprises, Philadelphia USA. It really angers me that an elephant, living breathing sentient being, is slaughtered cruelly by poachers just so some jerk can make make the worst possible kind of kitsch from its teeth, so another jerk (after he's paid off the poachers and smugglers) can make money convincing more jerks that this is some form of legitimate art.

Top photo, carved and painted kitsch pseudo-art made by slaughtering endangered elephants for could-not-care-less US collectors to decorate their pathetic homes with (Bill Butcher/AP)

Bottom photo: Just look at this crap , who would buy anything like this no-questions-asked? What kind of people would buy anything like this at all, even if it was properly 'papered'? (United States Attorney’s Office)

Another US 'Antique' Smuggling Case: Why Import Restrictions Are Needed

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I doubt whether there is an Artistic Ivory Collectors' Guild, a "non-profit organization committed to promoting the free and independent collecting of artistic products of ivory regardless of date or place of origin, a group of collectors and professionals who care passionately about preserving, studying and displaying ivory objects". If there were, in the face of the enforcement of import restrictions on the type of object collected, it would probably employ much the same arguments as the coineys and dugup antiquity collectors. Coineys and dugup antiquity collectors argue that they should be above any laws and restrictions because they are "researchers", interested in "cultural internationalism" and fighting for "free enterprise" of those that, like them oppose "retentionist laws" which lead to import restrictions. These people however are blinkered in their view, focussing only on the OBJECTS, the ones they want to collect and trade in. they ignore the context, the destruction that is caused in extracting these OBJECTS from a wider reality. In the case of dugup antiquities that is archaeological sites and the archaeological record (common archaeological heritage) in a far-off country. A fragile, finite and threatened resource. In the case of elephant ivory, it is herds and the ecological habitat (the common natural heritage) in a far off country. A fragile, finite and threatened resource. Frankly, it does not matter what other arguments are offered to support the no-questions-asked trade in either commodity, the fundamental one is that of the sustainable preservation of the resource from which they come.

It seems to be a great mental effort for collectors of dugup antiquities to get into their blinkered brains that the preservationist case over artefacts is a conservation issue like any other. Or maybe they just don't want to think of it in that way, seeing any measures taken to clean up the market as gubn'mint interference in their hobby, at the instigation of a group of evil elitist academics, and all these laws and restrictions just so much verbiage which does not apply to them and anyway, just downright "unfair". Let's have a look at why this matters. First the elephant conservation issue, then the archaeological one.

Trade in elephant ivory is forbidden by U.S. law and international convention for good reason. As their habitat shrinks, species such as the African elephant are increasingly endangered, and active steps have to be (and to some extent are) being taken to help offset this threat. This is the same as the case of archaeological sites all over the world threatened by development and land use (eg agriculture). In both the case of archaeological sites and endangered species there is however also a quite separate threat, the commercial value placed by unscrupulous dealers on elements of both archaeological sites and African elements. in one case dugup artefacts, in the other the ivory of their teeth. In both cases the people that obtain these commodities are totally uninterested in the rest of the thing they destroy. Elephant poachers do not eat the carcass, artefact hunters dig through and discard the main body of the archaeological evidence from which they extract a few sealeable and collectable geegaws.
Victim of poaching: elephant carcass in Zakouma National Park, Chad (Mike Fey, National Geographic).


Victim of artefact hunting: Wanborough temple site during excavation after the site had been well and truly 'done over' by metal detectorists and other artefact hunters (David Graham
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Elephants now live in relatively restricted areas of Africa in two main habitats, on the savanna and in the forests. The ivory from the latter is particularly sought after as a raw material for "art", as it is denser than that of the grassland animals. The number of forest elephants killed for their tusks has jumped in recent years, said the expert, Richard Ruggerio, who runs the agency's conservation programs in Africa. "We're seeing the last battle for the survival of the forest elephant [...] The elephant population has fallen sharply in the past 20 to 30 years". He attributes this to the no-questions-asked nature of the "art" market: "The market goes up, so the killing goes up". Much of it is driven by demand from a newly affluent Asian market where ivory figures are treasured. James Deutsch, who runs the African conservation program at the Wildlife Conservation Society, estimated there were about 100,000 forest elephants left in central Africa and said forest elephants in Central Africa "could go extinct in 10 to 20 years". Herds have already gone from a large part of their original range.

Forest elephants can live to more than 50 years. They live in herds, but these are now being broken up by the activity of the poachers not just by the killing of individual elephants, but also by the damage done to the group structure when a lead elephant has been eliminated. Poachers first seek out the largest males in the group, then mid-size males, then the largest females, typically the matriarchs. With their deaths, the social structure of the group disintegrates, the rest of the animals of the group "act like displaced persons from a war", as one naturalist put it.

Illegal trade in freshly slaughtered African elephant ivory is therefore a major threat to elephant populations in Africa, particularly in the hardest hit poaching regions of West and Central Africa. Controls on the market which provides the demand for the raw material are necessary to supplement the measures taken to stop poaching in the field, but the effectiveness of the latter varies, Gabon is an example of a country with progressive leadership putting resources into fighting elephant poaching, other countries lack the resources or will to do so.

African elephants are protected under an international treaty that dates back to 1975 to prevent the species from becoming endangered or extinct due to international trade. The African elephant also is listed as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Ivory over 100 years old can be imported as an antique. Newer ivory has been banned since the 1980s under an international conservation treaty. Sadly the conventions and laws governing this trade are ignored by many of those engaged in a no-questions-asked trade, arguing that if other nations don't apply these rules (China for example), then dealers and collectors in countries like the USA are not going to take the lead and give up their "rights" to buy and sell what they want. Such self-centred 'two-wrongs-make-a-right' arguments however are not going to help save the African elephant population.

Archaeological sites are accessible to looters in many areas of the ancient world, and certain types of artefacts are particularly sought after as a form of "ancient art". the number of archaeological sites that have been eroded, severely damaged or destroyed by artefact hunting (plundered as a source of collectables) has jumped in recent years with the rise of a plethora of internet dealers selling "pieces of the past" no-questions-asked to an expanding number of could-not-care-;less collectors all over the world, including expanding markets in Asia. In many regions of the world, we are seeing the last battle for the survival of the archaeological record. The dataset of intact sites in the landscape of many regions has fallen sharply in the past 20 to 30 years. This may be attributable directly to the no-questions-asked "art" market: "The market goes up, so the digging goes up". The Monuments at Risk survey in Britain estimated that there were about 1000,000 archaeological sites left in England and Wales, and with 8 000 artefact hunters looking for sites to extract collectable finds from, it is clear that very soon, there will not be any sites at all that have not been emptied of collectable archaeological finds by artefact hunters with no way of knowing what was destroyed and discarded, what was taken and what happened to it. Some archaeologists have been heard suggesting that much of the surface evidence forming the archaeological record "could have gone in the next 10 to 20 years". Sites have already been "hammered" in some regions meaning artefact hunters already have to go further and further away from their homes to find "productive" sites.

The patterns of sites in the landscape is being distorted and broken up by this activity, not just by the destruction of individual sites but by the damage done to the group structure when a leading ones in the area have been eliminated by being used as a source of collectables. Artefact hunters first seek out the largest and most 'productive' sites in the complex, then sites of lesser productivity when they are exhausted, or they may strip finds from the inter-site areas between which give clues as to land use and the articulation of the settlement network. With the selective removal of this material, the structure of the group disintegrates, the rest of the sites in the group can no longer be interpreted as part of a coherent landscape pattern.

The unregulated trade in artefacts freshly plundered from sites for entertainment and profit is therefore a major threat to our knowledge of the past across vast areas of the ancient world, particularly in the hardest hit artefact poaching regions of Europe and the Near East. Obviously controls on the market which provides the demand for the commodity are necessary to supplement the measures taken to stop poaching in the field, but the effectiveness of the latter varies, some countries lack the resources or will to do so, a situation which collectors and dealers currently exploit.

The trade in archaeological artefacts is covered by a number of international treaties going back to the 1950s, and these are intended to prevent the endangerment or destruction of the archaeological record due to international trade. Sadly the conventions and laws governing this trade are ignored by many of those engaged in a no-questions-asked trade, arguing that if other nations don't apply these rules (China for example), then dealers and collectors in countries like the USA are not going to take the lead and give up their "rights" to buy and sell what they want. Such self-centred 'two-wrongs-make-a-right' arguments however are not going to help save the archaeological record from destruction.

Now, with the upcoming trial of a Pennsylvania art dealer and a clampdown on the application of import restriction laws, will we be seeing the emergence in the United States of collectors' interest groups like this?
The Artistic Ivory Collectors' Guild (AICG) was formed to provide a voice for collectors of ivory art on issues that threaten the hobby. Given a widespread disinformation campaign about the extent of ivory poaching in Africa, we fear that ideologues within the environmental protection establishment have subverted laudable efforts to protect endangered species into a crusade to suppress the public's longstanding right to preserve, study and display artefacts made of ivory, including ones as common as ornaments and jewellery. Unless we provide decision makers in the legislative and administrative branches of government with our own views on the complex issues surrounding preservation of animal populations, we face the prospect that our right to collect artefacts made of ivory will be legislated out of existence by ill-informed decision makers who have been told that anything of ivory should stay on the elephant in the country where it is found, and that only academic elites in public collections should have a right to study and preserve the artifacts of this material.
See:
Nathan Gorenstein and Drew Singer, 'Philadelphia business imported illegal ivory carvings, prosecutors say', The Philadelphia Inquirer, Jul. 26, 2011.

Maryclaire Dale (Associated Press), 'Staggering amount of ivory smuggled into US', 3news.co.nz, 27 Jul 2011. (similar by same author: Feds: Pa. shop-owner smuggled ton of banned ivory)

Michael Hinkelman, 'Philadelphia man charged in major ivory trafficking probe', Philadelphia Daily News, Jul. 26, 2011.


Vignette: ivory "art" like that sold by Victor Gordon Enterprises, Philadelphia USA. It really angers me that an elephant, living breathing sentient being, is slaughtered cruelly by poachers just so some jerk can make make the worst possible kind of kitsch from its teeth, so another jerk (after he's paid off the poachers and smugglers) can make money convincing more jerks that this is some form of legitimate art.

"A Slur on the Egyptian People"

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Commenting on a story about Zahi Hawass in the National (Youssef Hamza, 'Egypt's own 'Indiana Jones', Zahi Hawas, is pushed from power', National [Abu Dhabi Media company] Jul 25, 2011), Nigel Hetherington (Past Preservers) commented on the bit which says:
"Looters also bedevilled Mr Hawass. On the night of January 28, looters ran free in Cairo after a day of deadly clashes between anti-regime protesters and Mr Mubarak's security forces. The Egyptian Museum, on the edge of Tahrir Square, was broken into and ransacked just hours after army troops were deployed. The soldiers did nothing to stop the criminals"
This appears to have annoyed him. He ignores the fact that, by all accounts, the vandalism and looting of the museum took place before the soldiers took up posts in and around the Museum. He is more concerned with the other part of that passage. He says:
I really wish journalists would do their homework, this is old news now discredited and a slur on the Egyptian people!
He then got irritated that I questioned that statement and explained somewhat touchily:
Cut the tone down a level Paul, [...] its well accepted by most sane folk that the museum was not "ransacked" and that the Egyptian people stopped any further damage by agents of the old regime!
Now in my opinion, it is wrong to say that the story was "discredited". Call me "insane" if you like, but the Museum was indeed ransacked, that is what I would call the smashing of the showcase glass, the ripping out and removal of objects from those cases and their scattering across the floor of the Museum, including those mummy heads. The carrying off of some of the objects into the darkness from which some were recovered, some in the garden, some in the area outside the museum, some others in unexplained circumstances falls within what I think most of us would call "ransacking" and "looting". Is Mr Hetherington now saying this never happened? That this version of events has now been "discredited" (by whom, and where is this reported)? Or does he think it did not happen on the 28th January?

That it was "agents of the old regime" who had done all this (in the Egyptian Museum) has been a theme of my discussion of the whole affair from the moment I went to the Museum and was able to see for myself the traces they had left. What is notable is that there has not been a post-revolutionary peep of reaction from the Museum "professionals" about this, not a hint that we will ever learn from them what happened that night. Instead, those of us who try to piece together the information, such as it is, that emerges from our fellow heritage "professionals" over there in Egypt are criticised for doing so.

What is meant as a "slur on the Egyptian people"? Who does Dr Hetherington count in that group, and more to the point who does he exclude? It probably was not aliens from Alpha Centuri taking advantage of the riots to come back to earth, teleport themselves into the Museum to get their clobber back that had been left aeons ago when they helped build the pyramids. Neither do I think it very likely that these were Argentinian or Mexican agents in the employment of Mubarak's Interior Ministry. Surely the dastardly deed(s) was/were done by Egyptian nationals, who may or may not have (supposed to have) been working for somebody in the Mubarak regime. Are they therefore not counted as "the Egyptian people"? Whoever they were were they not the product of the same socio-political and cultural development of the past few decades of Egyptian history as the people outside in the Square?

I think it is very dangerous thinking to treat political alignment as some kind of ethnic divider. I saw the same thing in Poland in 1989 when we had our revolution, the tendency to blame everything on "the Communists", rather than take a step back and identify broader national characteristics which were responsible for the (many) faults in a society trying to reconstruct itself after political collapse. Poland did it, but Poland had a huge head start in many ways on the Egyptians. This is why it is important that the latter should not be allowed to fall into the traps of schematic thinking about society and the way it is heading. I'd say archaeology (that which is more anthropological-orientated rather than the object typology-art/culture-history brand) has a place in exploring cultural variety and identity and the way we look at them, so it would be nice to see archaeologists working in Egypt having a slightly more nuanced approach to these issues. Also, in passing, I personally would not be so sure that it is not premature speaking of "the old regime"...

As for the "Egyptian people stopped any further damage by these agents", we are on to that story about the "human chain". If the agents were inside the Museum, and "the Egyptian people" outside, how according to Dr Hetherington did they stop the damage in the Museum? What actually did happen that night? Will we ever break through the fog of myth and misdirection? When will the Egyptian Museum staff find its voice?
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Burgling Metal Detectorist Offers Relic to Pay Back Damage Debt

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I thought I'd written about this before, but it seems not (Portsmouth News,'Burglar offers relic to pay back damage debt', Saturday 23 July 2011):

Drunken burglar William Wilson, who caused thousands of pounds of damage by trashing a pub, will pay off his debts with a valuable piece of medieval jewellery he found on the beach. The 29-year-old smashed up Lily Sugars pub in Creek Road, Hayling Island, after spending an evening there drinking and then deciding to go back and burgle it after it had closed. During his sentencing hearing at Portsmouth Crown Court, Wilson offered a bronze and gold Anglo-Saxon bracelet he found while metal detecting on a beach as compensation for the damage caused. The piece has been valued at £3,000 by an expert.

I presume (hope) this means it has been the subject of an inquest and disclaimed as Treasure and now he'll be flogging it off to some collector legally. Over on at least one metal detecting forum I saw today that fellow detectorists are under the impression it was not. The damage to the pub was valued at £6,931, but since he was a history-loving metal detectorist, the judge let him off paying back the rest.

Vignette: I bet having a few beers with Mr Watson at a metal detecting rally is a bundle of laughs.

Launch of Mortimer Website

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Jul 25, 2011

"The Natural Environment and the Historic Environment is one thing, Our Environment".

Launch of Mortimer Website
"Mortimer" is proud to announce the launch of the new Mortimer Petition website. Mortimer is named in honour of the great pioneer of popular, public archaeology, and TV Personality of the Year two years running, Sir Mortimer Wheeler. Mortimer is not affiliated to any political party, commercial company or existing archaeological organisation. It is membership led and volunteer driven and has three simple principles...

1) People of the past shaped our environment of today and are shaping the environment of the future. Therefore we all have a duty to preserve and enhance the quality of our environment because, once our natural and historic treasures are lost, they are lost to everyone and lost forever.

2) We best preserve and enhance our environment by working in an inclusive, sustainable partnership with all members of our communities, to value our past histories, heritage and the environment within which they are found and by promoting the study of the science, history, natural history and archaeology which help us explore, understand and enjoy them.

3) We also believe that everyone who takes part in this journey of shared discovery and who is passionate about it, deserves a single clear voice which isn’t afraid to tell those in power how important Our Past is to Our Future.

Mortimer is that voice".


[only one problem I see, the first news reports include a UK metal detector 'Treasure' find, how does Mortimer define that public involvement, does it include people going out with metal detectors ripping out little pieces of the past for entertainmemnt and profit, imagining it is in some way "community archaeology" - because, the way it is generally done, it is NOT. I note the phrase "historical treasures" in principle one and think we ought to ask what they mean by that, and whether it is not misleading in the English-language concept. Preserving cuddly pandas is easy, but what about the rare slugs?].
 
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