Monday, 30 June 2014

What Can St Louis Archaeologist do to Preserve Context?

Archaeologically damaging
urban encroachment in Missouri
Enormous amounts of archaeological evidence is being lost in the St Louis Region through ill-planned redevelopment, private landowners not looking after sites on their property, and looting. What can St Louis archaeologists do to protect this information. Why, it's easy says Peter Tompa, US expert on archaeological site preservation (Another Lost Opportunity):
[we] should also consider what archaeologists can themselves do to protect context.  At a minimum, why not hire site guards or at least monitor sites remotely during the long periods they are not being worked?  Or more importantly, why not promote programs akin to the Treasure Act and Portable Antiquities Scheme?  This program [...] encourages the public to report what they find.  It also gives state museums a right of first refusal as long as the finder receives fair market value for their coins.  As CPO has said before, it should be about conservation not control. 
Absolutely. So why are St Louis and Missouri state not doing this? After all, how can the US expect places like Egypt to sign up to bilateral cultural property agreements with it, and allow the US to presume to stand judgement over Egyptian efforts, if the US  cannot take such basic steps to preserve its own heritage from encroachment and looting? How? Put site guards on each of the sites threatened in the vicinity of St Louis and set up a Portable Antiquities Scheme. Mr Tompa makes it sound so simple, so why are the US authorities not doing what Mr Tompa suggests?

These US collectors, dealers and lobbyists who are constantly belly-aching  about what the foreigners "should do" very rarely look at their own backyard. US cultural property observers from the ACCG stable are all too eager to complain that the brown-skinned folk have not done this, that or the other - and therefore deserve to have their cultural property colonialistically nicked by US dealers. Yet, if we look at the list of "conditions" the US dealers' lobby wish to impose on the brown-skinned folk of the source countries whose stuff they covet, it seems they have been less than assiduous about introducing them. In the US there are no inventories of the movable cultural property from sites on private land and now scattered (let alone "online"), there is no legislation to speak of for protecting sites on private land from redevelopment, metal detecting or other looting, there is nothing comparable to the Portable Antiquities Scheme, neither on a state or Federal level, nothing.

Really, is it not a bit pathetic that US advocates of change in the way foreigners do things in their own country point to models from the UK and not their own? Perhaps US "cultural property" (collectors' rights)  lobbyists would be better employed effecting change in their own country, gaining better heritage protection there, before they start attempting to dictate to others what they "should" be doing? Their inability to point to suitable models from the USA instead considerably weakens their case. It is strikingly ironic that this problem should be highlighted precisely in St Louis, infamous for holding on to cultural property withheld contemptuously from the brown-skinned folk, but unable to protect that belonging to the darker-skinned indigenous folk of their own hinterland.    

Ryan Schuessler, 'Suburban expansion threatens prehistoric sites near St. Louis', Al Jazeera June 28, 2014 ("As development continues westward, a new batch of artifact-rich sites lies at risk")

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