Monday, 25 June 2012

Revisiting Stealing the Past

ARCA on their blog have a link to and brief discussion of a 2011 video "Stealing the Past"   co-produced by; One Planet Pictures; and the Swiss Confederation.
 This English language documentary is intended to create public awareness about the illicit trafficking of cultural property worldwide. This program spotlights Italy, Colombia and the United Kingdom to see ‘what police, museums and auction houses are doing to tackle’ looting of heritage. 
Sadly the video starts with Gihane Zaki (Director General for International Cooperation at the Supreme Council of Antiquities) "talking about how people 'rallied' to protect the collection of the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo during the Arab Spring Uprising in early 2011". As I have pointed out earlier, this story is most likely apocryphal, what actually happened that night is still wholly unclear (and it seems unlikely that there will be a proper parliamentary investigation to sort out fact from fiction soon). Also how can the video claim "the Museum reported only 18 items stolen" when the number of those know to be missing was higher at the time the video was made?

It gets worse though. At the end the video goes on and on about "amateur treasure hunting" in the UK and the wonderful PAS. Andrew Richardson (Canterbury Archaeological Trust) tells the cameras that the reports of big Treasure finds get people into artefact hunting "for the wrong reasons" - without explaining what the "right reasons" are for stripping an archaeological site of metallic artefacts to add to a personal collection.  Chief Superintendent Mark Harrison, Kent Police talks about fighting blatant examples of "nighthawks", while Maurice Worsley (Kent Amateur Metal Detecting Support Unit) says archaeologists "appreciate what we are doing".  Richardson admits that Britain has the most relaxed (that's putting it mildly) laws on artefact hunting and collecting, "but we have gained an awful lotta infermation from that which other countries have not got" he says. He says that the PAS database was a resource of knowledge he would "be very loathe to see us lose". Then the old trope:
What is really annoying and frustrating is this tiny minority of illegal detectorists are actually hugely damaging to the hobby that they purport (sic) to be part of..."

... the professional echoing the comments of the guffawing bloke with the headphones. This ignores totally the fact that what is being damaged with inadequate records (in both cases) are the pieces of the finite and fragile  archaeological record which are being treated as mines for collectables for personal entertainment and profit by both illegal and 'legal' artefact hunting. That is what is damaging. As the commentator (Sara Powell) points out:
One big challenge for the Alliance to Reduce Crime Against Heritage is to convince the justice system (sic) and the public at large to take a harder line...
against what and for what reason? Persuade them that archaeologically speaking it's OK to trash the archaeological record if the farmer agrees - perhaps for a split of the profit, but not heritage-wise OK only if the farmer says 'no'? How are you going to justify that?  I must admit I have not yet located the bit of the PAS website explaining (as part of their archaeological outreach to the public) how a farmer's "yes, all right, but fifty-fifty on anyfink you flog off" makes a piece of the nation's archaeological heritage, information about the past, a bit of non-heritage. Can someone point us to it?

Dr Richardson says its just "some nighthawks" who portray their activity as: "not hurtin' anybody, nobody else to find it". That is not true, the same thing is said by all who use metal detectors to search productive sites for objects to add to their personal collections. So by extension the next bit of what he says applies equally to similar claims made by those stripping artefacts out of sites legally:
they are totally wrong, actually the victims are everybody, you know, because it is part of our collective, global  heritage. 
Yes and some in the global community really have enormous difficulty understanding why archaeologists see the issue of artefact hunting wearing such blinkers. In terms of archaeological heritage preservation, the problem is not those that do it illegally, but that archaeologists in countries like  Britain seem less than bothered that they have a legal system which utterly fails to prevent the trashing of hundreds of thousands of sites by artefact hunters day after day. 

The film ends with  Irena Bokova, UNESCO Director General, going on about there being "political will" in the governments of countries to fight the problems of the antiquities trade and its damaging effects on the archaeological record and cultural heritage of the world... not in the UK there ain't.

Catherine Schofield Sezgin, 'UNESCO promotes public awareness of illicit trafficking of cultural property with 2011 Documentary "Stealing the Past"...', ARCA Blog June 20, 2012

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