Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Abu Sayyaf a Metal Detectorist?

Opinions for sale
Context is everything. We have a loose collection of objects seized in a hurried night-time raid that had gone wrong, which made its way first to a US base in Iraq where it was only crudely sorted to be deposited in an Iraqi museum. Let us note that no documentation of the context of discovery of this stash has been made available, no photos of it, for example in situ. Neither do we have any information whether the May 15th snatch squad took a sample of the more portable material which they found in Abu Sayyaf's compound or the whole of it. This (context) is of vital importance in interpreting the significance of the decontextualised objects.

In particular there is a lack of clarity about the nature of this stash. As I have said in this blog, I am of the opinion that this was part of a private stash of artefacts which Abu Sayyaf had created for his own personal future use, taking objects from stockpiles which exist elsewhere (and probably mainly in Iraq still). We cannot know whether he did this in his official capacity (in his reported function in the structures of ISIL funding), or whether this was an unofficial action which would have brought him into conflict with other ISIL officers. The latter is important in assessing whether he had other stuff hidden more carefully around his compound, out of sight of the US snatch squad.

Indeed, did the snatch squad take all they found? For example if they'd found a 200 kg head of a lamassu of Ashurnasirpal II in the garage behind Abu Sayyaf's jeep, would they have got it onto their escape helicopter in time?

This does not bother the apologists for the US collectors-slow-of-brain, who are working overtime trying to discredit the information value of the Abu Sayyaf stash. They are typically not interested in doing any of the footwork of attempting to analyse the available information for themselves, their writing is typically narrow and derivative, aimed only at discrediting anything that might relate to the activities of US dealers and collectors. Thus Peter Tompa writes of "Syrian Treasure Houses: Hype vs. Reality" (July 21, 2015). He seems not really to have done much thinking about the artefact stash and its context(s) itself, so for example reads more into the carefully phrased Department of State phrase than is warranted. What is actually said is that officials believe that it represents "the stockpiling of these spoils for likely sale on the international market".

Tompa interprets that to mean that Abu Sayyaf was allowing the use of his house as the storeroom of looted artefacts from Iraq and Syria going back to 2003 (or that he's moved to such a storeroom when his house in Raqqa was bombed maybe). I do not think there is anything in the information we have available that would support such an interpretation. In the same way as Abu Sayyaf is supposed to have been in the ISIL oil business, yet the snatch squad came back with not a cupful of oil. Tompa asks us to consider that ISIL only sells what Abu Sayyaf had in his own home before it was invaded by the US army (home, Mr Tompa), so where is the oil? What is Mr Tompa thinking?

His purpose is plain, by making us believe that somebody else had said Abu Sayyaf was living in an established looted antiquity cold store, he can then claim that the stash is evidence that such cold stores do not and cannot exist: "the actual quantity, quality and value of what was found falls so far short of what we were led to expect". The logic of that is totally lacking. "Led to expect" in what circumstances? Mr Tompa says the stash disappoints him:
instead of the contents of a "Swiss freeport" we appear to have the equivalent of the small stock of a none too prosperous Middle Eastern antiquities dealer.
Well, he is dead now, killed by US home invaders and his wife kidnapped and some of his possessions stolen, so how well he personally did or could have done from selling antiquities is rather immaterial. The antiquities in the stash came from somewhere, Mr Tompa would perhaps like to propose that Abu Sayyaf himself dug them up, wrote the museum accession numbers on them for himself for fun and was then dealing with them, not too "prosperously"? I do not know, perhaps he'd like to tell us his view - based on the factual evidence - what he thinks the interpretation of this find should be.

Now, the financial value of these items seems to figure highly in Tompa's reasoning. But we note that he's not done the footwork, just builds on what Sam Hardy did a few days back. 
Hardy makes much of the number of coins (236 by his count) in the group, but is that number really that surprising?  Other than pottery shards, coins are the most common artifacts to come down to us from antiquity.  So, the fact there are more coins than anything else in the group should not be deemed significant.

Of course the problem is Tompa is paid to represent the interests of coin dealers. Now, it simply is not true that "coins are the most common artefacts to come down to us from antiquity". Even in such a rich city as Washington DC, it may be observed that the main component of street litter apart from McDonalds wrappers is not one-cent coins strewn liberally among the bushes and plants at the side of the road. People generally - not even rich Republicans - do not throw money away (and if they do, "the 99%" don't leave dropped coins just lying there for them to get into the archaeological record). I really would like to know, since he is so fond of telling us all what archaeological sites "look like", if Peter Tompa has ever been on an archaeological excavation and seen at first hand what artefact types are the more common on ancient sites. As somebody who has worked on many sites (including a stint as a finds assistant on two urban sites and one other), it certainly is not coins. The paid lobbyist is apparently being paid to spread false information.

The real reason why the prevalence of coins in this stash is not "surprising" is that there is a huge market out there full of people who will buy no-questions-asked and it would seem a lot of dealers only too happy to supply them, once they've unburdened them of any proof of where they come from.

Tompa says there were  236 Umayyad dirhems, the DoS gallery shows 103. Tompa suggests "Common Islamic silver sells in the $30-$75 range", yet a few minutes on eBay shows that this is a manipulation, the Buy now prices of comparable coins cluster between 100 and 200 dollars each (whilst some can be bought for the lower range Tompa quotes). I suggest Mr Tompa updates his numismatic knowledge. There were, according to the DoS gallery, at least 44 dinars. Tompa says "common Islamic gold coins typically retail here in the US for $300-$600 depending on condition". But then ones which are not common sell for much more. Mr Tompa assumes that all the coins gathered by Abu Sayyaf are "common" ones; it helps deflect the criticism, but how do we know this is the truth? Anyway, just to take a median value 100x150 dollars is 15000 dollars, plus 44x450= 19800. That'd be something like some 34000 dollars worth of coins there. Then there are cylinder seals, beads stone rings, 36 bracelets, etc etc. Note that Mr Tompa does not take the whole assemblage over to the Tim Haines' Ancient Artifact discussion list and ask the dealers there for a breakdown of the current market value of all the little bits sold individually. I'd do it myself, except like most dealers, Mr Haines is more than a little thin-skinned about who uses his discussion list for information-gathering about the true face of the antiquities trade.

Anyway, that is beside the point, if this is a private stash, it has no bearing on the "amount of rocket launchers" (because at least some of the guns came from the US) ISIL can buy by selling antiquities.

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