Thursday, 1 January 2015

2015: The Year Ahead in Portable Antiquities

The beginning of a new year is a time for looking forward to what we can hope for and expect in the coming twelve months.

I thing the horrific destruction of cultural heritage we saw in Syria and Northern Iraq in the latter half of 2014 will continue (even if ISIL is removed from the political scene). If this continues it hopefully will still rouse public debate and concern. This is not certain, because while huge problems continue to threaten the Egyptian archaeological heritage as they did in the period 2011/12-2014, the public and social media discussion of it has quietened as the international community becomes inured to it or attracted by new topics. Also there is a danger that the debate about Syrian heritage has become part of the US-led battle to destroy ISIL.

I hope debate about the role of the no-questions-asked global markets in the commodification and disposal of the products of collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological resource in the Middle east will continue both in the media - informing public opinion and in professional circles. It is essential that antiquities dealers, instead of denying everything and dismissing the issue, start to take this more seriously and debate it properly, rather than simply sniping at those of different opinions. Collectors also have a part to play, refusing to buy anything which a dealer cannot produce verification of wholly kosher origins.

Do I think we'll see this happening in 2015? Past experience suggests this is very unlikely. This is why this blog is about collectors and dealers and not addressed to them. Attitudes in these milieus remain immature and self-centred and they are not going to reform themselves or the market. They need to be compelled (to do the things they all already claim to be doing but in fact are not) by outside factors - above all public opinion, and regulation. The Germans are intending to impose the sort of legislation we can all see is needed - but this is being opposed by the German dealers (and dealers outside Germany who see it as the thin end of a wedge that will threaten them). I envisage a harsh battle developing over this in the coming months, and predict that the dealers may well win, and force the introduction of a watered-down version of the proposed laws (as they always do) which will emasculate the laws and win the no-questions-asked trade a respite. Likewise the US bill aiming to sort out the Syrian conflict antiquities issue is doomed to founder in the House. This is why I think we need to work harder on public opinion. The time when cultural property abuses attract strong and widespread public condemnation and increased awareness is when we will have a better chance to get more effective laws passed. 

This is where the archaeologists come in. If they want to protect sites from damage and destruction due to collection-driven exploitation (and it has to be admitted many heads-down archaeologists seem from what they say not really to even care) then archaeologists must speak out, and speak clearly. No mumbling. To do that, they need to find the will to confront the trade and collectors, and it seems to me many archaeologists are simply intimidated by them (or just apathetic).

Museums have a role to play in informing public opinion, above all leading by example. David Gill's paper about the Ka Nefer Nefer mask has given SLAM some questions to answer in 2015. Cleveland also has questions to answer about the solder analyses which were supposed to be the 'proof' that the Leutwitz Apollo was out of the ground a century ago. When can we see the report of these isotope analyses and what did the original one actually say? This year should also see the publication of the first of the Green papyri with their promised "full collecting histories", that should be enlightening. Will the rest of the objects stolen from Cairo Museum in 2011 be 'found' in 2015? Where are they now? The BM will continue to apportion out the Parthenon Marbles in provocative loans but I think 2015 will see them steadily losing ground to those urging their return to Athens.

Also on the repatriation front, I hope that continued disapproval of the sale of disputed Native American items might lead to the US as a major market country rethinking how they 'implement' the 1970 UNESCO Convention not only with regard to cultural property originating from the territory of the USA but also that coming to it from abroad.

The debate on the handling of newly-surfaced material falling into the category of addressed sources (coins, inscriptions, documents, cuneiform tablets) will continue. Professional scholars working on this sort of material need to debate the ethical issues concerning the relationship between their own interests and the wider issues raised by the no-questions-asked trade.

As for artefact hunting in the UK, I hope that there will be more informed and honest discussion about good and bad practice, and about the issue of non-recording and the targeting of known sites. In his prediction David Gill says: "I suspect that there will be limited engagement with the debate from the senior staff of the Portable Antiquities Scheme". I think there will continue to be none. But I also suspect that their time is running out. It always was an ad hoc construction engendered by political expedience, its faltering survival was based on political conjuncturalism, but it is now abandoning its original mission and shifting over to the dubious tactic of reliance on volunteer recording. We may also see more discussion of the issue of  precisely how UK artefact hunters document obtaining title to the items they add to their personal collections and sell.

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