Sunday, 14 July 2013

Guarding The Sites...

The "wouldn't it be nice" crowd reckon that instead of cleaning out any dirty dodginess in the international antiquities market, we should be looking into putting site guards (financed by an antiquities tax) on lootable sites in the source countries. As I have said on this blog, while better monitoring of sites is one thing we need to do, relying on it as the sole measure taken to solve the problem of illicit antiquities is not the way out of the problem. To be effective it would be far too expensive. So how much would it cost? Let us take just one site, the Staffordshire Hoard field, which we know is being visited by the naughty nasties of the detecting world, possibly on a relatively regular basis. I've had a chat with Nigel Swift from Heritage Action about this. He got a quote from a bloke he knows that a certain (named, so its a real quote) major British security firm that basic security would cost about fifteen quid an hour (with the security guard getting half that, £6.50 - £7.00 per hour). So this firm would protect the Staffs Hoard field extremely well for £180 a night. Or EH could hire someone to do exactly the same for £85 a night. £31K per year. Now this was for a bloke to sit in his own car by the edge of the field and do an hourly foot patrol with a flashlight.

I wanted to put them in a portacabin, that's when the problems started, I could not find an unequivocal price when I did a search for portacabin hire in and around Staffordshire. To make matters worse, one of the sites I visited must have inserted some cookie or code in my computer marking me as a bloke particularly interested in portacabins (I am not, honestly). Now whatever I search for on the internet, I get an insistent little popup by some (click on the link at your own risk) Dellboy Trotter portacabin hire firm who want to give "me a quote". I've deleted my cookies but the annoying adverts keep coming back. I cannot avoid getting the impression that Dellboy and his mates are not as good as they are cracked up to be, as then they'd not need such intrusive advertising. Anyway, I'm not going to ask these jerks for a quote - none of the firms I looked at mentioned anything about typical costs on their websites and its ages since I got one for an archaeological project in the UK. So let's leave the blokes with thermoses in their car, no portacabin, no portaloo (and you'd have to run mains electricity to the site for lighting, heating and coffee-making). Then at least you escape paying ground rent on the place where it stands.

So one site in the UK, you'd need £31000 a year to have one guy there just at nights with no facilities on site. That's £62000 for round-the-clock site security. English Heritage say (said) there were about a million archaeological sites in England alone. Not all of them need guarding from metal detector-brandishing illegal diggers. Let us say (ballpark figures) that a fifth of them do. Which sites? Obviously since we have a national Scheme busy liaising with artefact hunters who are reporting where they are hunting, we should have some sort of an idea of the patterns of this searching and what constitutes a "productive site" for artefact hunting.  So liaison with the PAS should lead to the development of an algorithm to define the (say) 200 000 sites that we should protect... But is that not going to cost an enormous amount? Even guarding a tenth of that (so 20000 sites) in the UK would cost an astronomical 1240 million pounds a year, just to cover the cost of the salaries and basic overheads. Just to put that in context, in 2010–2011, so before the recent massive cuts, English Heritage had a total income of £184.7 million... for everything.

That is just one source country. Now what would be the cost of guarding every remote lootable site in Morocco, Algeria, Tunesia, Libya, Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, the whole of SE Asia (Cambodia etc), China? Add to that Italy, Greece, Macedonia, Spain, Portugal, France, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Ukraine. That's just in the Old World, now what if you wanted to extend the scheme to the Americas and Australia?

It seems obvious to me that there is a minor flaw in the "wouldn't-it-be-nice-if" approach (and the Witschonke approach*), and that is that it totally ignores the hard reality of how much it would cost to put an effective guard on each potentially lootable site, or even a decent number of them. That is even if we allow for the fact that (at the moment) average salaries in some of the foreign source countries are at a much lower level than the salary expectations of a British security guard. We are looking at the suggested expenditure of enormous sums of money - money that has to come from somewhere - on dealing with a problem that would not arise if the market was regulated in such a way that illicit objects would not find a buyer. So how much is the trade in illicit objects worth to the "art market" that we see these suggestions emerging from it that they could foot the bill more willingly than footing the bill for cleaning up any dirty dodginess in the market?

* Witschonke Approach, a coiney argument from the ACCG stable, that - however we may abhor looting and smuggling - "we" are not going to do anything to help "them" to prevent smuggling unless "they" bend over backwards to fit "OUR" (ie Welthaupstadt America's) stipulations about how to deal with "their" heritage (on the Colonialist Welthaupstadtian principle: "what's theirs is ours").

Vignette: Guarding the sites


Cultural Property Observer said...

You should get into the 21st century. Now, surveillance technology is increasingly cheap. Your guard scenario is out of date. Perhaps, archaeology undergraduates can monitor sites remotely for credit.

Paul Barford said...

and robots to catch them red-handed? The suggestion is not mine, but comes from circles in country.

And of course the US knows all about "surveillance technology" doesn't it?

Cultural Property Observer said...

Thank you. We and the Brits are experts in it. Have your buddies at the AIA lobby the State Department Cultural Heritage Center to throw a few hundreds of millions at the issue and everyone will be made happy.

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