Friday, 14 September 2012

"Personal Property Rights and the Free Market" versus Archaeological Preservation

Over on Professor David Gill's "Looting Matters" blog some American guy styling himself "Cincinnatus R[ecidivus?]" adds his comments to the note on the inclusion of the Crosby Garrett helmet in a temporary exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. Although he hides his real identity behind an invented name and an avatar picture of an "Illyrian" helmet, it is worth noting that this dictatorial-wannabe has among his profile 'friends' a familar name, Michael Malter. Cincinnatus writes:
Fantastic. The piece is now on display in the country where it was found, the finder and land owner have been compensated, the object has been professionally conserved, all at no cost to the public. An excellent example of the principles of personal property rights and free market working to everyone's benefit. Of course Mr. Gill would have preferred that the helmet be left in corroded fragments, the finder been put in jail, the landowner lose a parcel of his land, a museum be built on the spot at public expense, and the data on the piece be published in the distant future by an archaeologist. 
Well, in the 27 months the object has now been above ground, it has so far only been "on display"  a few days, and the first time was in a showroom, and the second in a temporary ART exhibition, rather than an archaeological one, so I do not see anything so "fantastic" about that, but it seems some Americans are easily pleased.

For what does "Cincinnatus" consider that the landowner and finder have been "compensated"? They simply sold an archaeological object like so many dugup potatoes from the farm. That is commerce, not any form of "compensation". It is commerce in a decontextualised piece of potential archaeological evidence, hardly therefore anything to be happy or complacent about.

In reply to the next point, the object has been restored, which is a totally different thing from being conserved. As for the qualities of that work, has "Cincinnatus" actually seen the "report" resulting from it? It seems to me that those who have and who know anything about archaeological conservation and the way it should be documented are curiously loathe to use the term which the US commentator sees fit to bandy about in defence of UK artefact hunting. What actually was done to that object under the arches? What analyses were made, and what record of its state before restoration does that report contain? What documentation does that report contain of the state before and effects of the reshaping (sic) of each individual component of the object, and what checks were made of the way it was fitted together (griffin, extra bits)? Let us see that report published and submitted to peer review before we judge the quality of the work just by the shinyness of the finished composite that it gave rise to.  

As for the work being done to tart the object up for sale "all at no cost to the public", let us note that the British public was willing to pay well over the (oddly-lowered) Christie's estimate to secure that object for a public collection; they raised over a million pounds in just a few weeks to do exactly that. What is more, we now know that the sellers (the farmer and two metal detectorists) were approached to do a deal to ensure that the object ended in a public collection. They were not interested and went on with the auction, where they found a collector with deeper pockets who wanted it all for himself. I am not sure how that is any kind of triumph except for selfishness on both sides - but that is probably what the American understands by "private property rights and the free market". In this sort of case I see very little virtue in that. I also do not see why the American thinks that having the helmet locked away most of the time in some anonymous collector's trophy room or wherever is "to everyone's benefit" when it deprives the real stakeholders in the common archaeological heritage, the British public, of the opportunity to benefit from the excavation of this object from an otherwise unthreatened archaeological context. Is "Cincinnatus"able to explain his reasoning? I doubt it.

I cannot speak for Professor Gill, but certainly I myself would have preferred the pieces of the helmet to still be resting as stacked fragments in the unthreatened deposit where they have lain safely for the last two thousand years or so. I would have preferreed them, and that whole deposit, to be excavated properly ("professionally") should it have been accidentally discovered. That is preferable to having it  hoiked out wholesale by Treasure hunters with metal detectors deliberately searching near (as the PAS says) ancient earthworks, with perhaps anything that might have been found with it thrown back in the hole, and the remaining bits on a train to London within a few hours. While I do not think the "the finder [should have] been put in jail", I do think we cannot go on treating the archaeological resource like this.

I cannot fathom where the Cincinnatus wannabe gets the idea that in some way a northern English landowner would "lose a parcel of his land" if an archaeological find is made on it. I think he's been listening to too much ACCG claptrapping myth about what Wiley Oriental Brown-skinned-Gentleman archaeologists get up to. I suggest if he intends writing critically of UK antiquities policy, he first finds out what it actually is, otherwise he just comes over looking like a buffoon.

Does David Gill think "a museum [should] be built on the spot at public expense"? He might. Perhaps with this item as a centrepiece and the loan of a few choice items and the proper marketing, it might do the local economy a bit of good to have such an attraction down in one of the villages near the findspot. I think though it would be far better for the object to go to a permanent home in a public collection in a more central location where it could be placed in the context of a larger body of related material from the region (and where the state of the gap-filling constantly monitored by a team of conservators).

But I bet David Gill would, like me, concur with the last point: "and the data on the piece be published in the distant future by an archaeologist". But the object has been out of the ground now for over two years. It has been studied by the PAS and experts from the BM, it has been conserved (which would have involved analyses). The findspot was shown to the PAS before the sale, the PAS promised to do an excavation of the findspot, I am sure that is now complete and the results ready for publication. So what are they waiting for?  Where are the data on the "piece" and its context published in full by the archaeologists involved in this "partnership" (which Cincinnatus judges to be so "beneficial to all")? Where is this publication? Can it be purchased in the Royal Academy bookshop accompanying the "Bronzes" exhibition?

What does "Cincinnatus" have against the preservation of the archaeological record, and those that argue for its better preservation?

Vignette: Cochran Boiler

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