Sunday, 2 August 2015

Collector Cares not a Whit...

Daryl Davis comments on my post "Out of Place Antiquities on the British Market":
"I must admit that I am just such a "blind" collector"
"I care not a whit about antiquities or looting"
This sounds like Sam Hardy's correspondent. The problem is that while others labour on under the misapprehension that if things are explained to them in a way they'll understand, collectors will "come round" to doing what they do in a responsible manner, the sad truth is that there are those that are wilfully blind and really do not care.

UPDATE 5th August 2015:
"I'd venture to say that "the overwhelming majority of people", in fact, who have the means and the desire to purchase antiquities, great or small, would prefer that no restrictions stood in their way, no matter the potential losses to the historical record".

Vignette: the self-centred approach to our heritage 


Daryl Davis said...

Thank you for publishing my work. I'm curious though: Have you yourself assiduously tracked the provenance of all that you own -- antiquities, art, antiques -- and all that might age enough someday to become a century old or older? Do you keep all of your store receipts then -- of that bathroom art or the belt buckle you purchased last weekend? Perhaps these pre-antiquities will in the future reveal important facts about how life was once lived -- or at least how pants were once kept up. And you ought to take better care of those pruning shears too, as they belong to all of us and might reside in a grand museum a thousand years from now. How much do you care?

Paul Barford said...


Daryl Davis said...

Yes, I consider it an important part of my life's work to raise awareness, wherever possible, that continued progress for the human race will come only when we have eschewed materialism of any sort and learned instead to value more conscientiously not only one another but all life. So, though I haven't liked to see irreplaceable artwork destroyed, as IS has, I rest assured that all we really need to know now or will need to learn in the future may be found in ourselves. To seek answers from antiquity is to mock ourselves.

David Knell said...


You seem to be fixated on the notion that only things which materially aid the "continued progress for the human race" are of any value, with the corresponding corollary that things which do not do that are of no value or very little. However, it might be argued that the simple human trait of curiosity is in itself of great value, whether it directly advances material "progress" or not. Some people gain pleasure from looking at a Rembrandt, collecting postage stamps, knowing how many vertebrae a velociraptor had, studying how ants gather food, or discovering the human past by examining archaeological remains. None of those interests may obviously advance "progress" - that is not necessarily their point - and you have every right to hold a personal view that they are of no real value. In itself, your philosophy is merely passive and harms no one.

But the moment you take part in those interests, your philosophy ceases to be merely passive; it becomes active. You collect antiquities and your cavalier attitude to their source poses a threat to archaeological remains. That potential damage may not bother you in the slightest - I gather you regard archaeology or indeed history as of little value - but it has a clear impact on the pleasure gained by other people.

That forms a direct contradiction to your stance that "continued progress for the human race will come only when we have [...] learned [...] to value [...] one another".

Do you really hold so little regard for other people that you are happy to encourage the destruction of something they hold dear? Do you think that is learning to value one another?

Daryl Davis said...

It's a fair question, David. My answer is this: We may of course pursue whatever interests capture our imaginations, so long as our endeavors cause no demonstrable harm to others. But when such pursuits, or the "quarries" thereof, so gain in importance to our pursuers that they become not a means by which to further positively connect with others, those who share in this interest, but instead a pretense by which to condemn, to condescend, to ban -- even to propose battling militarily to protect the latest "prized quarry" -- then it has shifted "materially" from just another harmless pastime to a misanthropic, materialistic self indulgence.

I would happily hand over all of the small, ancient trinkets I have collected just to make another person smile -- and I would hope that they could and would do the same in turn. The artifacts themselves mean nothing. But the pleasure derived from sharing an interest -- and further -- from confirming that my interest in the well-being of the other person is more important than any material object -- this is true virtue. This would be progress.

David Knell said...


So, collectors, even though they can easily avoid conflict, should only respect the overwhelming majority of people who value archaeological remains as long as those people are happy to allow its destruction and do not object or try to prevent it?

Daryl Davis said...


Let's be clear: When you say "...the overwhelming majority of people who value archaeological remains...", you're really referring in large part to archaeologists, are you not? In other words, you're asking: Ought collectors of antiquities respect the needs and wishes of archaeologists by refusing to purchase antiquities without having first established provenance to the satisfaction of the latter party? (I interpret your question this way both in light of the German legislation under consideration and because the average collector, though he may well value archaeological remains in theory, will have little motivation to impose extra-legal restrictions upon his own acquisitions in practice.)

Today, as you're no doubt aware, we only ban or strongly regulate the private sale of a very few "used" items. Even so, just look how poorly the copyright laws for music CDs and DVD movies are respected. I'd venture to say that "the overwhelming majority of people", in fact, who have the means and the desire to purchase antiquities, great or small, would prefer that no restrictions stood in their way, no matter the potential losses to the historical record.

Therefore archaeologists must make the case as to why the current zeitgeist of "share and share alike" ought not extend to their own field. Why should the average modern consumer not purchase a very average bronze Roman brooch once worn by a very average Roman -- with or without provenance? What undiscovered knowledge could be so novel and compelling to archaeologists and, more importantly, to humanity, that it necessitates strongly regulating the private sale of all antiquities?

Naturally we're witnessing a loss of the finite; yet there's still a question of priorities and therefore of values. In a world where every day tensions escalate, banks falter, children starve, oceans die, and ice melts, why should the world take more seriously the erosion of the historical record than they do the advance of these events? Isn't it a bit farcical to conduct an exhaustive study of the ancients in order to more completely understand how their inattentiveness to world events led to their own demise?

That archaeologists take the preservation of our historical record seriously is laudable -- to a point. But when their pursuit of progress comes at the cost of higher virtues -- a cost to civility, to property rights, to national sovereignty, and to the presumption of innocence -- the case for preserving our historical record suffers justifiably.

Our time on this planet is finite too, David -- and we won't discover it again in an attic or at an estate sale. We have our chance to advance humanity in some meaningful way -- to make history. If archaeologists want to gain the higher ground with respect to the preservation of antiquities, they ought to seek a loftier and a deeper perch -- one untainted by common acids -- else "the overwhelming majority of people" will judge theirs to be the better homes for antiquities.

Paul Barford said...

" I consider it an important part of my life's work to raise awareness, wherever possible, that continued progress for the human race will come only when we have eschewed materialism of any sort"

Like Roman brooches you mean?

Paul Barford said...

I do not think one can say that it is only "archaeologists " who value archaeological remains, as any open day on an excavation shows. Surely in what you are saying is embedded the principle primum non nocere. If on group states the reasons why no-questions-buying is damaging, then collectors trampling on that principle are acting only selfishly. I think your rhetorical questions indicate that you have not really thought through the issue, or made a real effort to find out why an alternative to no-questions-asked antiquities commerce is proposed - as you said earlier a "blind collector". If you are going to argue an issue then at least please have the courtesy to study it first.

Archaeology is not aiming for "preservation of the antiquities", and you re mistaken (or manipulating) describing the issue as one of where "they" would be better off. What this is about is the trashing of the archaeological  record to supply the market for those antiquities which you blindly collect with not a thought for where they come from (shielding yourself by superficially quoting "presumption of innocence" as having a priority over the critical thought and searching questions of pro-actively responsible collecting). 

You suggest 'civility' is a value higher than urging preservation and combating the dissemination of the blasé and blinkered attitudes of the wilful and selfish destroyers. I disagree, the time for polite discussion over tea and muffins is over. We need action to stop the crisis, and the stubbornness of the dealers and collectors which David Knell discusses here is simply blocking progress.

No US collector has individual "property rights" to a piece of the common heritage if the latter has been clandestinely hoiked from the archaeological record and smuggled out of the source country to a dealer who carefully avoids leaving a paper trail. It is precisely this sort of neo-colonial treatment of the Other by these dealers (with all sorts of xenophobic Two-Wrongs pseudo-justifications for their actions) that is a blatant disregard of the "national sovereignity" of the victim country and its citizens - citizens often at a disadvantage in many ways to those of the "market countries" that exploit them and deprive them even of their heritage. Just what kind of an exploitive social process are collectors involved in? One that gives priority to the object ("art") over the rights of their fellow citizens. One which cites the "starving children" of such exploited source countries (as you do) to justify continuing their uncontrolled exploitation. Note the manner in which antiquity (including coin) dealers are exploiting the human misery of the Syrian and Iraq conflict in the same way (to justify buying the artefacts that other evidence suggests might play a part in financing part of the conflict). Who is putting artefacts above people there?

David Knell said...


No, by "the overwhelming majority of people who value archaeological remains", I was NOT just referring "in large part to archaeologists". That it is mainly only archaeologists who value the needs and fruits of archaeology is just a duplicitous myth spread by some in the antiquities trade who cunningly use it as part of their 'academics vs. common man' propaganda in an attempt to garner support. I was hoping you had readily seen how self-evidently ridiculous that myth is but, sadly, you seem to have fallen for it hook, line and sinker.

I am not an archaeologist - nor are most of the countless millions of people who avidly read books about archaeology or the history derived from it, who gladly watch TV documentaries based on it, who eagerly visit famous sites and museums enriched by it.

Nor - close to my own passion - are most of the half a million visitors to the new Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth alone, an attraction which would not even exist without archaeology. I have overheard visitors there thanking God that only a few looters got to the ship first before the site was protected. Do you really think most of those visitors are archaeologists?

If you seriously think that it is mainly only archaeologists who value the needs and fruits of archaeology, you are living in Cloud Cuckoo Land. It may mean nothing to you but it means a lot to literally many millions of other people all over the world - an astronomically larger number of people than those who buy antquities "blindly" without caring who it affects.

That "very average bronze Roman brooch once worn by a very average Roman" was once part of a context, one piece of evidence that may have been invaluable in interpreting a whole site. Encourage the looting of enough brooches like it and very soon sites will have no evidence left. Seeing sites with nothing left to interpret them distresses people - far more people than you seem to realise.

Only a few extremists seek to ban collecting antiquities altogether. Most people would just like it to be done more thoughtfully and they naturally object when it isn't. It seems to me that respecting those people is part of "learning to value one another".

Daryl Davis said...

Mr. Barford,

The issues involved are not so complex as to require an exhaustive study; and I can assure you that I have given the matter its due attention. I was self-evidently aware that the preservation of the archaeological record and not the "preservation of antiquities" concerns you and other archaeologists, as is apparent throughout the comment you've cited; I simply took license with the final metaphor.

As must be clear to you now, I do not accept your premise that the archaeological record is of such pressing importance to us that its preservation necessitates incivility and extremes of civil action. Archaeology is predominately an academic pursuit. The man who collects refuse from the curbside contributes more toward bettering our human condition than the archaeologist.

Your concern for the exploited and the underprivileged is exemplary. But if these admittedly West-exacerbated global problems were indeed principal concerns of yours, and not simply a public "shield" designed to cover an anti-collecting agenda, one could imagine dozens more effective means to ameliorate them than waging a crusade against looting.

So what of the financial benefits that accrue to locals? Ought they instead starve than be so "selfish" as to exploit their own environments? And what of your respecting their national sovereignty by allowing them either to protect their own sites or leave them to the locals? Ought our "common heritage" supersede not just their national sovereignty but even their survival? Of all the resources plundered in third world countries by America and the World Bank, the archaeological records of the former are among the least consequential and the least harmed.

You've arrogated to yourself and to your cause a significance to humanity so extraordinary as to justify proposing restrictions that authorities within these countries have not seen fit to impose themselves. That you and your colleagues judge your actions aimed toward our higher common good does not make them, ipso facto, unselfish or even worthwhile.

If I state that every human is unique and irreplaceable, would your same principle, primum non nocere, allow me to impose conduct restrictions upon you, let alone the world, once given my reasons why? I do in fact contend that the only endeavor of such singular, pressing and universal importance to mankind that it must encounter no borders and no bounds is the improvement of self and by extension humanity. Yet I largely leave you and others to learn your own life lessons, resorting only to gentle persuasion.

(As for your other question: As I've stated, I could give up the few artifacts I own in an instant, including a bronze Roman brooch: they mean nothing to me. I took more pleasure in learning about them, finding an authentic one and acquiring it a good price than any now in keeping it. I shall try, however, to think at times about the many starving children in Britain where the brooch was found.)

Daryl Davis said...


Of course I'm aware that millions of non-archaeologists value the field and its undiscovered record. Does it logically follow then that these millions of enthusiasts should dictate to the many hundreds of millions who either do or would find little to no compelling reason to preserve the record at the cost of available artifacts?

I read your question several times in fact before beginning a response to it, as the wording, which may have been quite clear to you, was not so for me. Eventually I had no choice logically but to conclude that your use of the phrase "overwhelming majority of people", given the minority of scrupulous enthusiasts as compared to either all collectors or the public at large, could only be referring to a majority of archaeologists. If you believe that an overwhelming majority of collectors do so scrupulously, I think perhaps this may reflect more your own careful collecting experiences and the scrupulous company you keep. What in fact would you estimate to be the difference in volume of sales between your properly provenanced pieces and those not so?

Just look at the state of collecting now, David. How many enthusiasts have actually done their due diligence, according to your standards? And if they have not -- once, twice -- are they no longer part of your overwhelming majority? These people, in your eyes, don't "value archaeological remains", their finances notwithstanding?

Your anecdotal evidence at the museum and Paul's open excavations still beg the question: What percentage of these same enraptured enthusiasts, if they were to stumble alone upon their own fresh, undiscovered sites, or were left alone at an excavation site, would gather up a very modest piece before resolving to leave the rest to the proper authorities? How solid is this overwhelming majority of yours?

In any case, I've done the best I can to convey that I don't find the pursuit of material items, or the pursuit of the knowledge thereof, to be a compelling reason to prevent average people from access to them, particularly not modest affordable artifacts on eBay, on the off chance that they might originally have been looted. Nor do I value much the archaeological record; though it's admittedly quite interesting.

Life belongs to the living; the material means nothing. And if some of us living today don't yet understand these things, this gives them less right to dictate to others not more.

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